Sunday, September 15, 1996

God Had Other Plans

Lessons for Pentecost  16 in Year A
Genesis 50:15-21
Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13
Romans 14:1-12
Matthew 18:21-35

It was a quiet evening in the beginning of June, at the end of his sophomore year. He had just come back from spending a month in Europe with the choir, and would only be home for a week before heading back up to the university for a Summer job.

It was a quiet evening in the beginning of June…until his father came home…then it started…another one of those arguments. No one remembers what triggered it, or what the argument was about, but as usual, it got ugly fast, and sides were drawn. On one side you had him, his mother, and his sister. On the other was his father.

As the arguing continued, his father said one thing, he said another, and then it came…that dreaded line that his father had used on him so many times before…

“Well, if that’s the way you’re going to be, then I won’t pay for college.”

That was it. He had had it. He was tired of being controlled and threatened with that line, and he decided to put an end to it right then and there, and he responded, “Then don’t!”

With those two words, his father’s power over him had been forever lifted, but as he returned to the university for his Summer job, he had no idea what he was going to do about the Fall.
Even though you meant to do harm to me, God intended it for good.
Joseph said this to his brothers. The brothers who had originally planned to kill him, and instead managed to get him sold into slavery in Egypt. The very brothers who plotted, one way or another, to destroy his life.

He said, “You meant to ruin me, but God used your actions and my new situation for good.”

If you know the story, then you know that it was because Joseph had been sold into slavery that he ended up in Potiphar’s household, and then in prison as a result of false accusations made by Potiphar’s wife. It was because he was in prison that his ability to interpret dreams came to the attention of Pharaoh. And it was because he was able to interpret Pharaoh’s dream that he was able to plan for the coming famine, and have enough food in storage not only for Egypt, but for others, including the very brothers who wanted to kill him.

God used the mean spirited actions of Joseph’s brothers (and come to think of it, Potiphar’s wife) for a good purpose, and as a result Joseph forgives them and doesn’t hold it against them, because he sees the good that has happened as a result.

Can you forgive like that? Can I? For the answers to these questions, let’s get back to our friend here who’s just left home after that huge bloody argument with his father.

Had that heated exchange in June of 1976 never happened, our friend probably would’ve graduated with the rest of his class in 1978, and who knows where he’d be now. But because that exchange did happen, we do know where he is now. We know this because I’m that person.

You see, because of that evening in June, I ended up spending the next six years working full time at the SU Library and going to school part time. Had I not spent those extra four years at SU, I would never have had many experiences which I treasure to this day. I never would’ve traveled with the choir as much as I did, and I never would’ve become the musical director for SU’s annual Goon Show. I would never have met the people who led me to Lutheran Campus Ministry, and had I never joined Lutheran Campus Ministry, I never would’ve met two of my closest friends, Roxi Kringle and Cheryl Kutscher. And of course, had I not met Cheryl Kutscher, none of us would’ve met Devra. I also wouldn’t be here at King of Kings…as a choir member who for five years got to fulfill his dream of directing a choir, as a Sunday School teacher, and as a deacon sharing this with you now. And this is the short list.

I look back at all the wonderful things in my life over the past 20 years, and I’m able to see that God used that ugly night in 1976 to make them happen.

And knowing this, I can say to my father, as Joseph said to his brothers, “You meant this for evil, but God had other things in mind. God had better things in mind. Things that might not have happened were it not for what you did. And therefore, I forgive you.”

Make no mistake, it’s not easy to forgive like this, especially if you’re still busy spending time dwelling on the bad things that others have done to you. It’s not easy if you can’t or won’t see any good that God has allowed to come into your life as a direct result of how others have tried to work against you. It’s especially hard if you’re just at the beginning of your story. But if you can see the good, if you will look for it, then it can become easier to forgive like this, and I’m asking you to look.

Instead of continuing to dwell as an adult on how your parents’ divorce hurt you as a kid, ask yourself if God has used that experience to make you a better spouse to your mate and a better parent to your children.

Instead of continuing to dwell on the person higher up in the food chain at your old job who forced you out while protecting someone who was incompetent, ask yourself if God has used that experience to lead you to a more satisfying career that was better suited to the gifts he gave you.

God used the evil that was done in Joseph’s life, and in mine for a greater good, and we know how he used the evil done in the life of his own son, Jesus, for the greatest good. Surely these aren’t isolated incidents. Surely these aren’t the only three lives in which God has turned evil to good. Look for those situations in your own lives, so that you too are able to say…

You meant it for evil, but God had other plans. I forgive you.

Sunday, April 28, 1996

Taking Care of Our Own

Lessons for the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Year A
Acts 2:42-47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19-25
John 10:1-10

I spent four of my eight years as an undergrad at SU delivering pizzas for Domino’s…and this was on top of my regular full-time job at the SU li­brary. In spite of what you might have heard about some of the horrors of pizza delivery, I ac­tually enjoyed this job.

First of all, there was the free food…anytime we slightly burned a pie or it came back to the store for some reason, we got to eat it. Then there was the fact that as a pizza driver, you really got to learn your way around the area.

Then, of course, there were the tips. On a good night you could make ten dollars from a four hour shift. You got to the point where you knew which neighborhoods had good tippers and which ones had people who would actually wait for the 4¢ change from their $3.96 pizza (this was back in the 80s). As a result, when Cheryl’s sister and her husband were buying the house that we live in now, I could say to them, “It’s a good neighbor­hood…they tip.”

But aside from the tips and the free food was the fact that on any given night, if you were driv­ing in the University area, you were bound to run into a few people you knew. So I wasn’t at all sur­prised when I took a pizza to a certain room in Shaw Hall and found that I was delivering it to Don and Lisa, two people I knew from Lutheran Campus Ministry.

I don’t remember what kind of pizza they or­dered. I don’t remember whether or not they had Pepsi with it. I don’t remember how much the pizza came to. But I do remember the tip.

Don gave me a two dollar tip, which was a lot in student money, and said, “We Lutherans take care of our own.”

All who believed were together and had all things in common. They would sell their possessions and goods and dis­tribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.

That’s what Luke wrote about the early Church. If Don were to paraphrase it, he’d probably just say, “We Christians take care of our own.”

Taking care of our own is a phrase that we can very easily become uncomfortable with because it can bring up images of exclusion. How many times have you heard someone say, “We have to take care of our own before we worry about anyone else’s needs”? And yet, I don’t think this is the way that Don meant it. When Don said “We Lu­therans take care of our own” he was being inclu­sive. He was including me, up to that point still a card carrying Episcopalian, with the sheep in the Lutheran flock.

Do we take care of our own? Do we Lutherans, do we Christians,  really take care of each other like the members of the early church did? I think it’s safe to say that we don’t come anywhere close. Lots of things conspire against us to prevent this.

Part of the problem is that we’re all so scat­tered. How many of us live in the same neighbor­hoods or even on the same block? How many of us only see each other once or twice a week here? It’s hard to know the needs and take care of people you only see once a week.

Another part of the problem is the American obsession with not wanting to give up independ­ence or control. We don’t want to let people know that we may have a need that they can help us with. We don’t want to let people know that we can’t do it all ourselves. We don’t want to owe anyone anything back in return.

There’s a saying in our house that comes from watching too many families play the “You should know what I want” or “You should know why I’m upset” games. The saying is, “We are not Kreskin,” after the famous mind reader. How many of us are angry at the church for not taking care of some need of ours…some need that we haven’t told anyone about? How many of us just expect the church to know when there’s a problem that we need help with? The church, though it is the body of Christ, is not Kreskin.

Ironically, one of the things that may conspire against us taking care of each other is how much we try to take care of the rest of the world. If you’re my age you may remember a song by Three Dog Night called Easy To Be Hard. It says:
Especially people who care about strangers 
Who care about evil and social injustice 
Do you only care about the bleeding crowd 
How about a needing friend
 For some reason it seems so much easier to mount a campaign to take care of the problems of people in some far off land than to help those who are among us. Perhaps, like the crud that gets on my eyeglasses all the time, the problems of the people next to us in the pews are too close to see. Maybe we think we’d be being too intrusive if we offered to help without being asked. Maybe we’re afraid of looking like a failure if we ask for help.

And yet, if we worry about appearing too intru­sive, aren’t we more concerned about ourselves? Where is the care we’re supposed to show for the other members of the body of Christ? If we don’t ask for help when we need it because of our own pride or need for independence, aren’t we depriving someone else of a chance of Christlike service?

There are many reasons why we don’t look like that picture Luke painted of the early Church. But we don’t have to just sit around and beat ourselves up about it. We don’t need to look at their example as law, as “Do it this way or you’ve blown it and you’re not worthy of the name Chris­tian.” Let’s consider why they did it this way, why they shared everything.

I’d like to think that it was a response to the love God had already showed them through Je­sus, a response to a gift already given, rather than an attempt to earn salvation by making some sort of business deal with God.

I remembered the example that Don set and try to take that as a challenge. An ideal to aspire to. Let’s look at the example that Luke wrote about in the same way, an ideal to aspire to, even though we’ll certainly fall on our faces from time to time.

Let’s start trying to take care of our own as well as “the bleeding crowd”. Try actually letting people know that you’re having problems that they might be able to help out with.

And while you’re at it, the next time you order a pizza, give the delivery person a good tip. After all, I’d like to think that we Lutherans take care of all pizza deliverers.