WAS IT GOD: CHARLOTTESVILLE VS. EGYPT

 

Genesis 45:1-15, Psalm 133, Matthew 15:10-28

Nate Hosler

Though the white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and counter protest—which included many clergy, including some Brethren pastors—happened over a week ago it remains on our minds. In part, this is because of the responses, lack of responses, and responses to responses that have happened this week. While Jenn and I were visiting her family in Toronto this week I attempted to stay focused on the visit but also needed to determine with colleagues what we should do. Do we simply issue a new statement every time there is racialized violence? (This doesn’t even account for issues like heightened tensions with North Korea). While some statement is appropriate and necessary and the ongoing effort to act rightly in the face of such situations is critical, it is also a time to dig deeper theologically. We must read our scriptures together as a community seeking the leading of the Spirit. This might not generate a quick answer but is crucial for us as a community gathered to worship God and serve our neighbors. I am going to focus on the Matthew and Genesis passages today. Within these there are essentially three different stories which appear to be not obviously related.

Recap to why Joseph is second to the king of Egypt: Abraham and Sara are promised a child even though they are old—the idea is that they will be a great nation. They, at around 100, have a child, Isaac. Isaac and Rebekah (remember the “watering the camels”) produce Jacob and Esau. After exemplary trickery himself, Jacob works 7 years to marry Rachel and is tricked by her father and given her older sister (by “tricked by her father” I mean that since the bride is veiled he switched out the sisters and Jacob only found out in the morning). Works another 7 years and marries Rachel (a strategy certain to create a “complex state of affairs”). Most siblings get into rivalries over foot races or maybe dessert portions but in this case, it was a sort of competition in child bearing and sex. In chapter 30, for example, a son of Leah (the older sister) found mandrakes in the field. On his return, Rachel, the younger sister, asked for them. Leah says, is it not enough that you took my husband but now you want my mandrakes? I’ll give them to you if I can sleep with Jacob tonight. She then says to him “I have bought you with mandrakes”). Of all the children produced by this competitive sex, Joseph, a child of Rachel (the one that Jacob wanted to marry in the first place) is the favorite. Our passage starts with Joseph meeting his brothers in their quest for food during a famine and his being a high up in the government of Egypt.

Joseph’s theological interpretation is that his ending up in command of Egypt is so that he can store up enough food to save both Egypt and his family and that this was God’s doing. The longer and more painful version is that as a young fellow Joseph lacked tact and was a favorite of his father because he was the son of the wife (Rachel) that his father loved most. He lacked tact in that he shared freely of his dream that he would rule over his brothers. This, either lack of tact or straight up arrogance (ah, younger brothers) contributed to enough animosity for his brothers to want to kill him but then settle for selling him into slavery (ah, big brothers).

This passage makes sense as part of the narrative but Joseph’s comment that it was God’s doing that he was sent to Egypt so he could save his family likely sparks the question: If God acted in history in this manner, that is that, God directly engages and changes things or makes them turn out in a certain way, then why didn’t God do something that was less painful for the entire family or just stop the famine? One might also ask this of much of the narrative up to this point—God wants to create a nation but surely there is a less “colorful” and seemingly risky way to do it. This is, however, not the question that is being posed or answered in this text. This text, as a commentator writes, is the “Primary resolution of the entire Joseph narrative” (Brueggemann, Genesis, 343). Joseph’s dreams pointed to this. The Biblical narrative shows an intricate interplay between God’s action and human action.

Joseph says, all this bad stuff was God for the good purpose of saving you from famine.

On Wednesday in Toronto I met up with a colleague. We were discussing what happened Charlottesville and generally the rise of the visibility of white supremacy groups and she noted that perhaps one good result of this notably bad trend is that what was present all along but not as visible has become visible. It’s not as though this is springing from nowhere or wasn’t already present, it is just that the environment is such that such groups feel freer to act in public. Now of course this freedom is damaging, painful, destructive, dividing….it is sinful, it is not a “neutral expression of political preferences,” it is not okay, it is not Christian, and it is not “just part of a political spectrum.” (I am emphasizing how much this is not fine because I realize the question “was it God” is risky and may imply an acceptance where there is in fact none).

Joseph essentially says the string of bad things that happen to him were from God—being sold into slavery by his family, being wrongfully accused and jailed by his master, and being forgotten and left for an additional several years by an employee of the king whom he helped—Joseph says that God planned for him to make it to Egypt for the purpose of saving his family. While I will not assert that we should read Charlottesville theologically in this manner and that we should attribute the events to God (a key theological principle being-don’t blame God for human’s mess), I believe that we can say that we can read this theologically and say that the more explicit and public exposure of white supremacy may help the church and society to see and more definitively commit to working for racial justice.

Was it God? I recognize that my statement is less definitive than Joseph but then again, I’m not that Bible. We do know that we are called to work against racism and for the wellbeing (read shalom) of all. We do know and trust that God continues to work and is present with us. So, the question “was it God?” is not the most pressing nor particularly appropriate. What is pressing is that we more fully follow God in the present urgent moment. The church had better step up. “The church” is not out there-it is us.

What is pressing is that we more fully follow God in the present urgent moment. Charlottesville is not Egypt but God is still calling and empowering us to act in the present urgent moment. Was it God? is not the question—but God is present.

In Matthew 15:10-28 Jesus makes a comment that feels very –pragmatic and modern? He says these ritual ways of doing things are not what matters but what comes from our mouths matters. What we produce matters because it is an indication of our hearts.

10 Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.” 12  17 Do you not see that whatever goes into the mouth enters the stomach, and goes out into the sewer? 18 But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles. 19 For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. 20 These are what defile a person, but to eat with unwashed hands does not defile.”

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

We can just repeat this several times without commentary and we’re set.

In the text, the next thing is Jesus responding to a woman in a way that creates some discomfort. Jesus seems to try to ignore the woman in need because of who she is. He then uses a dismissive slur.  While we see Jesus as welcoming, healing, and feeding all, this doesn’t fit. So, then we wonder, is Jesus still fully recognizing the implications of his teaching about “cleanness” or is he doing it simply to test his disciples and/or the woman. This sounds a bit speculative and may be unnecessary but certainly feels relevant. The end point is that Jesus ends up accepting and healing someone from out his religious/ethnic/political group. While the end is good I would still like to think that Jesus was simply testing his disciples to see if they got his teaching on ritual cleanness. That Jesus intentionally went through a region where he would come into contact with this “other” group and that he had already interacted with a non-Jewish Centurion in Matt 8:5-13 would lend weight to this “Jesus was just testing them” interpretation.

 Not only does Jesus heal outside his group but the woman who was supposed to lack proper theological insight has the vision to see Jesus for who he is. Notably, the spiritual insight is not limited to Jesus—who is literally the revelation of God. The revelation of the healing and boundary transgressing power of God might just show up anywhere. As much as I am sure you were hoping that this insight was limited to preachers or pastor-folk, we all must watch, wait, and listen.

Jesus demonstrates transgressing a barrier that was established to protect him. The question is not “was it God?” in Charlottesville. The question is how do we as a church respond? Better yet, how do we as Washington City Church of the Brethren at meeting at 337 N. Carolina Ave, SE Washington, DC respond? How do we or do we not define ourselves by what we say or do not say?

What we do and say is an indication of what is in our hearts.

We follow Jesus in transgressing boundaries to engage in acts of healing.

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