Genesis 29:15-28; Romans 8:26-39
As you’ve seen in the Messenger and in the bulletin this morning, Kansas City’s most recent 100-year rain brought water into the building again. You’ll be happy to know the problem wasn’t with the recent fixes to the drainage at the doorways below ground level. Those fixes held, which is great. Unfortunately, the water found a new way in, as the 7 inches of rain overwhelmed the drains on two of our flat roofs, causing water to pool and then spill down interior walls. We’ve been greatly blessed by the quick work of junior warden Morgan Olander, our operations manager Michael Robinette, and our friends from Haren Laughlin construction, who were here anyway for the bathroom project. We’re also blessed by the decision the Facilities Commission made, after the last water incursion, not to put carpet back in the undercroft. So, the damage is being fixed, and we’re exploring how to solve the drainage challenge on the flat roofs before the next 100-year rain comes next month. Just call me Noah.
In the midst of it all, you can’t help but ask the question, “What’s up with all this?” We’ve wondered if maybe the church is sitting on some ancient burial site, and the spirits of the dead are rebelling against us. But seriously, when you’re afflicted – whatever the affliction – you look for answers. Whenever and however hard times come, you can’t help but ask, “Where is God in all this?”
So – rewind a couple of months to our mission trip to Haiti. We tried something we’d never tried before, taking youth and their parents to Haiti. Now, youth mission trips always bring the possibility that things will go south, kids being kids. But add to that the uncertainties and challenges of being in Haiti, no matter your age, and your mission trip becomes a grand exercise in trust. Jean Long, our youth formation coordinator, did a stunning job planning and executing the trip – but it’s Haiti. There’s only so much control you can exercise. In a place with little infrastructure, where government is presumed to fail, where they’ve had centuries of tension between social classes and precious little opportunity for a better life, where simply disposing of the trash seems to be an obstacle too great to overcome – in a context like that, you’re going to find challenges even when you’re trying to do the right thing, even when you’re sent by God to help build this holy relationship we share with our partners there.
So, driving through Port-au-Prince in the late afternoon, we had a flat tire. Or, I should say, we had a flat tire on one of our vehicles – a contraption that looked like something from a Mad Max movie, a vehicle we ended up christening “the Adventure Van.” And dealing with a flat tire in Port-au-Prince doesn’t look like calling AAA. Instead, four kids and I waited near the Adventure Van while a guy on the sidewalk fixed the flat with some repurposed rubber and a blow torch. Remarkably, the patch held.
There were other dubious moments, too … such as the food poisoning many of us got from the high-end resort where we went swimming. And our truck got stuck in the river at Maniche, a river swirling not just with mud but with the bacterium causing cholera. Wading is not advised. Put it all together, and it’s enough to make you ask, “Where is God in all this?”
Listening to our reading this morning from Genesis, I imagine Jacob might have been asking the same question about his situation. As we heard last Sunday, Jacob has traveled to Haran, in present-day Turkey, going back to his family’s land to receive a wife from his kinsman, Laban. Jacob strikes a deal with Laban for one of his daughters – that Jacob will work for Laban seven years in exchange for Laban’s pretty daughter, Rachel, the one Jacob loves. So Jacob fulfills his obligation, and the time comes for the marriage. But Laban tricks Jacob and gives him his older daughter, Leah, instead. Nothing against Leah, but it’s a dirty trick – in fact, the same kind of dirty trick that Jacob played on his older brother, Esau, to steal his birthright and his father’s blessing. So Jacob the trickster gets the poetic justice that’s coming to him, having to work for Laban another seven years in order to get the girl he loves, as well as Leah, which must have been interesting. And Jacob is not exactly pleased. I can imagine a few shouting matches between Jacob and the Lord who had promised, “I am with you and will keep you wherever you go” (Genesis 28:15). “Oh yeah?” says Jacob. “Where were you when Laban cheated me out of seven years of my life?”
Well, it turns out God finds a way to use Jacob’s situation to bring new life out of manipulation and deceit. In a culture where children, especially sons, meant wealth for the family as well as divine blessing, God gives Jacob 12 of them. And those 12 sons become the leaders of the 12 tribes of Israel. And the last of them, Joseph, becomes the right-hand man to Pharaoh, saving all of Egypt and the surrounding lands from famine. Now, was God a fan of Laban’s deceitful behavior? For that matter, was God a fan of Jacob’s deceit of his brother, Esau? I don’t think so. But I do see God looking at those situations, like a long-suffering parent watching headstrong children making bad choices; and I imagine God saying, “Well, OK. We can work with this.”
You know, you can find Bible verses that might lead you to think God scripts situations like this. We have one of those verses in our reading from Romans this morning. In the translation we heard, the New Revised Standard Version, it reads, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (8:28). Well, if “all things work together for good,” many people would make the leap to say God must be setting things up that way. But I have to tell you, I don’t think that’s what this verse is saying. I don’t think God is a cosmic puppeteer, pulling the strings to get Jacob to cheat Esau and Laban to cheat Jacob in order to get to the outcome God wants. I don’t believe God causes deceit or manipulation or suffering or pain. But I can tell you firsthand that God finds ways to use them, like an artist piecing a mosaic together from bits of broken glass.
On our trip to Haiti, plenty of things went wrong … which meant there were plenty of opportunities for God to use them for good. We found ourselves in the Adventure Van with a flat tire in a poor section of Port-au-Prince as evening was approaching – not exactly the situation I would have chosen. And yet, the flat happened literally right next to a guy on the sidewalk whose microbusiness is fixing flat tires. That’s why he was there. Later, we found ourselves stuck in the middle of a river full of bacteria, with the van unable to get traction to get to the other side. And yet, people living around the school came out of nowhere to push and pull the van onto dry land. Our youth dealt with food poisoning and seasickness and heat, to say nothing of inconvenience like they’d never known. And yet, they came away from the trip grateful for God’s abundance in their lives, and blessed by the opportunity to play with kids at our partner school, and deeply aware that they are part of a relationship much bigger than themselves, and able to take their trust in God to a whole new level.
And that’s not all. The reality they saw on the ground in Maniche only underscored the blessing our youth experienced: Our school has grown from about 180 students with mediocre test scores to more than 300 students with the top scores in the area. The church in Maniche used to have a priest come every couple of months for Eucharist; they’ll soon be receiving their own priest who will live and serve in that community – the church is growing that much. So where is God? God is there, bringing healing from brokenness, hope from despair.
Deep in the muck and mire of life, in all the unfairness and tragedy and sorrow – we can count on God to be there. Think again about that verse from Romans I mentioned. Romans 8:28 is one of the defining, truly converting passages of Scripture for me, particularly if you dig into the language a bit. In the translation we heard, it says that “all things work together for good for those who love God.” But if you go back to the Revised Standard Version, the translation many say is closer to the original Greek than the version we use, you find the verse given this way: “In everything, God works for good for those who love him….” It’s not just closer to the Greek; it’s closer to God’s mysterious truth. In everything, God works for good. Everything. God isn’t necessarily causing those things, especially not the things that bring us suffering and pain. But God excels at working through them, even the things that cause us suffering and pain.
From division comes healing; from darkness comes light; from death comes life. That’s our story because that’s God’s story. Whether it’s a flat tire in Port-au-Prince, or food poisoning, or getting stuck in a river … or whether it’s receiving your own challenging diagnosis, or having to leave the home you’ve loved for decades, or feeling under assault by the water running through the church’s hallways – no matter what, God is there. And when God is there, God acts for good. God can do nothing else, because God is love lived in relationship. God can’t help but bring healing out of brokenness, life out of death. Even when, like Jacob, we shoot ourselves in the foot and help bring on our own suffering, God looks at us like a loving parent and says, “Ok … I can work with this.”
When we remember that in everything God is working for good, we can rest in that promise even when we can’t yet see it realized. For whether it’s a flat tire in Haiti, or a frightening diagnosis, or water pouring in where it’s not supposed to be, or “hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword … [nothing] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” (Romans 8:35,39) Nothing.