Seventh Sunday in Ordinary Time

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39

"God uses all things for good."

This has become a popular (and we feel sometimes overused) phrase in our culture today. In the face of suffering and tragedy and difficulty and senseless obstacles, it seems there is always someone near that attempts to salve the situation a bit with this phrase. The problem though is that often this phrase is used to wash away the pain of the current moment and get past the problems / difficulties of the present.

"Yes, it is horrible that your father died of a heart attack as such a young man, but you know...God uses all things for good."

"I am so sorry you were in the car accident and will not be able to walk on your own ever again, but you know...God uses all things for good."

"I am sure things are hard since you just lost your job and your mortgage jumped up $1000 a month and your daughter needs braces and your husband is traveling 15 days a month, but you know....God uses all things for good."

Now there is no way to get around the fact that the folks sharing this are attempting to offer some comfort. And there is no question that folks are offering comfort by quoting scripture...this bit comes from Romans 8:28 "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose."

But the two-sided difficulty of this is that, yes, often in the long run our current difficulties (through the help of the Spirit of God) help us change and develop in to different and stronger and more colorful products.

However, in the moment, being told "God uses all things for good" does not help a new cancer diagnosis. In fact, using this phrase without acknowledging the darkness of what has happened can be insulting to the grieving / injured party. When Paul shares this with us we can assume (from what else we know of Paul’s life experience) he was well aware that “bad” things happen and God does not prevent those “bad” things from transpiring.

This week's lectionary readings are prime examples of "God using all things for good". Our two primary stories both point to the difficulty of current circumstances and to the creative ways those circumstances are re-framed and overcome and used to create things that could have not been imagined in the moment by the people involved. In Genesis, Sarah is faced with a sticky situation. In spite of God’s earlier promise to provide a line of heirs, Sarai has instructed Abraham to “lay with” her Egyptian slave girl, Hagar, who then conceives Ishmael. In this ancient world, a woman’s value and a family’s well-being hinged on the birth of a male heir. God comes through on his covenant and Sarah and Abraham conceive Isaac at a mature age. In this week’s reading, Sarah is overcome with insecurity about there being two heirs, and demands that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away into the desert. But wait…didn’t she bring some of this on herself? And how can she turn this mother and child out into the desert where they will surely die? Why didn’t Sarah have faith in God’s promises to she and Abraham? Why didn’t she empathize with Hagar and Ishmael? And how is it that God uses this to establish another great nation (the nation of Islam through Ishmael’s descendents)? Notice…in spite of (and because of) Abraham’s and Sarah’s actions, “God used all things for good.”

The Psalm is a plea for intercession in times of need, as well as a assertion of faith in how God will be present when called upon. Hagar cries out in her distress in the desert. She weeps and cries for her son Ishmael. She even tries to give up and allow him to die rather than continue his suffering. Her weeping is heard and an angel assures her that God will provide. The psalmist captures this sort of call and answer in a time of need. It makes us kind of wonder why Sarah didn’t cry out in her anxiety and need. Because of, and in spite of, Hagar’s and Ishmael’s and Sarah’s and Abraham’s actions, “God used all things for good.”

In Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, he draws heavily on images of Jesus’ death and resurrection. When we give up our old ways, our old lives, our old convictions to follow Jesus’ teachings, it is as if we too have died. But sometimes, it is hard to let go of things and sometimes that letting go seems catastrophic. Can we know that our sacrifices – our radical changes – our personal earthquakes are for good? Or is it beyond us to see and understand that? Can we trust that even though life will involve pain and suffering, “God will use all things for good” in our own lives?

The reading from Matthew describes the situation of a true disciple. It doesn’t exactly read like an employment opportunity that people flock toward. Instead, it describes a reality that is turned upside down…son against father, daughter against mother (unless, of course, you are talking about adolescent daughters and mothers) and foes dwelling in the house of their enemy. But there is also in these words a reassurance of God’s love and desire to be in relationship with every human being. Laying this scary description beside an assurance of God’s unending love might be reassuring, right?

You, as an individual, have value and are completely loved by God. AND, by extension, that means that everyone else (your father, mother, son, daughter, slave woman, slave woman's son, etc) are individuals that are also completely loved by God....numbered hairs and all. It is not up to any of us as individuals to make the whole story come out just right....it is up to each of us to diligently obey the parts that we have control over and can obey.

These scriptures remind us about the importance of obedience; and they remind us about the importance of operating within ourselves and not having a need to control the entire story or make everything come out well for everyone involved.

Somewhere and at sometime, each of us faces (faced, will face) unimaginably difficult choices. Each of us takes steps (hopefully in faith) that others simply cannot comprehend from the seat of their own life circumstances. Our decisions and choices individually are not the definitive action – instead we play a part in a constantly unfolding creation that we, in our human finitude, simply cannot fully comprehend. And so, we follow. Faithfully. Obediently. Patiently. With open hands. (Really?)

  • ­ How does the world “obedient” make you feel? Is obedient a word you use to describe yourself? Your relationship to God?
  • ­ Is God present for you daily? How do you know? If not, do you know why not?
  • ­ Think about a time when you did what you knew (deeply knew) you had to do, but no one seemed to understand. How do you describe that experience to others? How were you shaped by that experience? How does that experience continue to affect your life today?
  • ­ How does it feel to know and name that you (we) do not have control over how our stories turn out?

“I need your sense of time.
Always I have an underlying anxiety about things.
Sometimes I am in a hurry to achieve my ends
And am completely without patience.
It is hard for me to realize that some growth is slow,
That all processes are not swift. I cannot always discriminate
Between what takes time to develop and what can be rushed,
Because my sense of time is dulled.
I measure things in terms of happenings.
O to understand the meaning of perspective
That I may do all things with a profound sense of leisure
--of time.

--Howard Thurman

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