Finding Meaning in Disaster
August 16, 2020*
By Pastor John Partridge
Genesis 45:1-15 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15:21-28
Can any good come from the chaos and loss of life caused by the Coronavirus? Yes.
But, how does a disaster that destroys lives, end up saving lives?
Before we think about today, let’s go back a hundred years or so. When the HMS Titanic sank on April 15th, 1912, 1500 lives were lost and newspapers around the world carried stories about it under gigantic, bold print headlines that filled most of the space above the fold of the paper. It was a terrible tragedy and one of the greatest maritime disasters in all of history. But as bad as it was, that disaster has saved the lives of a great number of people in the hundred years since it happened.
So, how does a disaster save lives?
In the case of the Titanic, the news was so big, and so bold, that many things changed quickly and many more over a longer period. First, while radio was only an experiment at the time of the Titanic sinking, and only a few ships were equipped with them. And, while the USS Californian, which was the closest ship to the Titanic at only 20 miles away, had one of the new wireless transmitters, they only had one radio operator who had gone off-duty and to bed before the Titanic sank.
Because of the sinking of the Titanic, radio use was regulated so that all ships would have radios and that they would have trained operators around the clock. Further, the radio act of 1912 required that any ships receiving, or observing, a distress call, immediate attempt to render aid. The Titanic sinking also led to requirements that life jackets be available for every passenger, that every passenger receive training in what to do and where to go in the event of an emergency, that crews be trained in the use of emergency lifeboats, and that each ship should carry enough lifeboats to carry every passenger and crew. And those were just the things that happened quickly. Over the long-term, the designs ships everywhere were changed to make them safer, particularly considering the things that failed to save the Titanic.
And with the story of the Titanic in our minds, rewind history even farther to the story of Joseph in the Old Testament that we find in Genesis 45:1-15. Although the entire story of Joseph is an incredible tale, and although I am enormously frustrated that our lectionary has skipped from the beginning of the story that we read last week to the very end of the story this week, there is still much to be learned. To catch us up, after Joseph was sold to Midianite merchants by his brothers, he was taken to Egypt, sold as a slave, falsely accused, imprisoned by that false accusation, and then rose a position second only to the Pharaoh of Egypt when God allowed him to interpret the nightmares that had been sent by God to plague the sleep of the Pharaoh for nights on end. That dream told of a coming famine that would devastate the land, and Joseph’s interpretation, and his administration, allowed Egypt to store enough food to survive. And then, during the famine, Joseph own brothers, the same ones who had sold him into slavery, travelled to Egypt to beg for food. But when they stood in front of the administrator to beg for food, they unknowingly stood in front of their brother Joseph who had been so changed by the passage of time and the culture of Egypt, that none of them recognized him. And then, after torturing them enough to make them bring his brother Benjamin on a second visit, Joseph reveals himself to them.
45:1 Then Joseph could no longer control himself before all his attendants, and he cried out, “Have everyone leave my presence!” So, there was no one with Joseph when he made himself known to his brothers. 2 And he wept so loudly that the Egyptians heard him, and Pharaoh’s household heard about it.
3 Joseph said to his brothers, “I am Joseph! Is my father still living?” But his brothers were not able to answer him, because they were terrified at his presence.
4 Then Joseph said to his brothers, “Come close to me.” When they had done so, he said, “I am your brother Joseph, the one you sold into Egypt! 5 And now, do not be distressed and do not be angry with yourselves for selling me here, because it was to save lives that God sent me ahead of you. 6 For two years now there has been famine in the land, and for the next five years there will be no plowing and reaping. 7 But God sent me ahead of you to preserve for you a remnant on earth and to save your lives by a great deliverance.
8 “So then, it was not you who sent me here, but God. He made me father to Pharaoh, lord of his entire household and ruler of all Egypt. 9 Now hurry back to my father and say to him, ‘This is what your son Joseph says: God has made me lord of all Egypt. Come down to me; don’t delay. 10 You shall live in the region of Goshen and be near me—you, your children and grandchildren, your flocks, and herds, and all you have. 11 I will provide for you there, because five years of famine are still to come. Otherwise you and your household and all who belong to you will become destitute.’
12 “You can see for yourselves, and so can my brother Benjamin, that it is really I who am speaking to you. 13 Tell my father about all the honor accorded me in Egypt and about everything you have seen. And bring my father down here quickly.”
14 Then he threw his arms around his brother Benjamin and wept, and Benjamin embraced him, weeping. 15 And he kissed all his brothers and wept over them. Afterward his brothers talked with him.
Considering our present situation, I want to point out that despite the betrayal of his brothers and many years of slavery, abuse, and imprisonment, Joseph doesn’t hold a grudge. His brothers are understandably terrified that, because Joseph is now the second most powerful person in Egypt, that he will take his revenge upon them. But he doesn’t. But despite the terrible things that happened to him, Joseph learned from his experiences. Second, Joseph’s closeness with God was the one thing that made it possible for him to see what the Egyptians could not. It was Joseph’s relationship with God that allowed him to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams and that, in turn, led to Joseph’s appointment as the overseer of all Egypt, their food production, storage, preparations for, and management of the nation to navigate through seven years of prosperity and seven years of famine.
In an entirely different story found in Matthew 15:21-28, we see a similar vision of the world as Jesus meets a Canaanite woman with a terrible problem.
21 Leaving that place, Jesus withdrew to the region of Tyre and Sidon. 22 A Canaanite woman from that vicinity came to him, crying out, “Lord, Son of David, have mercy on me! My daughter is demon-possessed and suffering terribly.”
23 Jesus did not answer a word. So, his disciples came to him and urged him, “Send her away, for she keeps crying out after us.”
24 He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”
25 The woman came and knelt before him. “Lord, help me!” she said.
26 He replied, “It is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
27 “Yes, it is, Lord,” she said. “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”
28 Then Jesus said to her, “Woman, you have great faith! Your request is granted.” And her daughter was healed at that moment.
This story is unusual because while we often think of Jesus, as we saw in the feeding of the five thousand (or fifteen thousand), as being always being ready and willing to help people, in this story, Jesus tries really hard, three times, to make this woman go away. At first, Jesus completely ignores her, but the disciples urge him to send her away because she is being a nuisance. And so, with their encouragement, Jesus tells the woman that he was sent to care for the Jews who had been lost to God and that taking care of foreigners was not his job. But even that did not dissuade her, and so Jesus tells her, quite clearly, that she is not his priority because it wouldn’t be right to take something away from God’s people and throw it to the dogs.
But this is where the woman demonstrates that she sees the world differently than most other people. Rather than thinking of God, and God’s power, as a finite and limited resource, the Canaanite woman sees God as infinite and that the healing for which she asks is of no more value to God than the crumbs that fall from a rich man’s table. And it is this understanding, and this faith in God, that leads Jesus to heal give the Canaanite woman what she wanted, and he heals her daughter, from a distance, without ever meeting her.
Both Joseph and the Canaanite woman were blessed by God because they saw the world through a lens of faith in the power of God. It was the Canaanite woman’s vision and faith that allowed her to see God’s power, and see Jesus, in a different way and that vision, and that faith, was rewarded. It was Joseph’s vision and faith that allowed him to see what the Egyptians and all their wise men could not. And it was that vision and faith elevated him to one of the most powerful positions in the ancient world, allowed him to guide Egypt, one of the world’s greatest super powers, through a time of great crisis and, at the same time, rescue family, and God’s promises to Abraham, Isaac, and his father Jacob, and lay the groundwork for the protection of the future nation of Israel until it had grown enough, eight hundred years later, to survive on its own.
Watching her daughter suffer from an incurable demon possession year in, and year out, must have been incredibly difficult for the Canaanite woman. Obviously, being betrayed by his own brothers, and enduring years of imprisonment and slavery had to be agonizing. But it was their vision and faith in God, through those difficult circumstances, that allowed them to receive the blessings of God and overcome those circumstances.
And that brings us to our present, twenty-first century crisis during this global Coronavirus pandemic. As we are enduring these difficult circumstances, these stories from scripture call us to examine ourselves. We should be asking ourselves, at least these two questions: 1) Do we have the kind of vision and faith in God that Joseph and the Canaanite woman had? And, 2) What is God what is God showing us in our present circumstances, what is God calling us to see in the world around us, that the world is missing? How should we see the world, our community, our neighbors, our friends, and the people around us, that we can only see through the lens of faith in the power of God?
Let us pray that we will see the vision that God is revealing before it is too late.
Have a great week everybody.
You can find the video of this worship service here:https://youtu.be/vJmCWUfz4TQ
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.