Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Matthew 14:22-33
“Everything happens for a reason!” You’re probably familiar with that phrase. Maybe you’ve even said it. It is a familiar phrase in the Christian faith and tradition. “Everything happens for a reason!”
There might be Biblical justification for such a view. We have stories like the two that we heard this morning, the story of Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers, and the story of a stormy sea, calmed by Jesus who walked on water. Joseph’s story, as it unfolded through the following chapters, seems to endorse the view that “everything happens for a reason,” that is, God directs and controls all things. When he revealed himself to his brothers he said, “I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.”
“God sent me before you.” His brothers’ actions, therefore, were part of God’s plan. They were unknowing participants.
The storm in Matthew’s gospel must have been a violent one. After all, those in the boat were experienced fishermen. They would have been used to storms. But this one seemed to threaten them. So, we look back and see it as God’s plan. The storm was the means for God’s glory to be revealed through Jesus who could walk on the water, who invited Peter to walk on the water– and who could still the violent wind. Therefore, God sent the storm. There was a reason for it.
So, with this understanding that “everything happens for a reason” we look at the world, we experience its horrors and its pains, and declare that God is the author of all those things. There’s a reason for them.
That leads to simplistic theology. Natural disasters are proclaimed as God’s judgment. You’ve heard it. I’ve heard it. Particular people or groups of people are blamed for the terrors because of their sin, because of God’s displeasure. “Everything happens for a reason!” Of course, we might ask, “But, what of those who weren’t participants in the evil-doing? Why would God make bad things happen to them?” And there is no good answer.
But the “everything happens for a reason” assertion is applied to our own lives. The perennial question is, “Why did this happen to me/us?” “What did I do to deserve this?” “If everything happens for a reason, what could the reason possibly be?” We look at our world as a system of cause and effect. When we experience difficult – or evil—things, we assume a cause. And, if we think of God as the One who is in control of all things, we attribute the cause to God. “God did this.” “God is angry.” “God is judging me/you/the world.” “Everything happens for a reason!”
Sandlin wrote: “Implied in this is a very specific understanding of how God interacts with the world. Specifically, it says God directs all things. So, mass murders? God had a reason for that senseless act of violence. Stubbing your toe on the door frame? I guess God wanted to smite your toe.”
If we push that understanding of God, God seems at times to be capricious – and uncaring. If God, in some disaster, is responding to human sin and punishing the evil doers, why are the innocent included? Why do they suffer because of others’ misdoings? If we proclaim, “everything happens for a reason” as the answer to all human pain and suffering, it is no wonder that many in our world have no use for God!
Sandlin went on: This way of seeing God turns us all into puppets. God’s little play things who really have no freewill. Do you truly think a god needs toys? If so, do you really think we’re the best toys God could make to play with?"
If we are merely puppets, then we are excused from having any responsibility for the world’s ills. Why are the sea levels rising and the ice caps melting? It’s God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. Why was that child beaten by his/her parents? It’s God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. Why did my loved one get hurt, or die? It’s God’s plan. Everything happens for a reason. We live, then, as those who are powerless in this world, as those who have no control or say or impact. God has determined all.
“God sent me before you,” Joseph said to his brothers. The storm was a means by which the disciples glimpsed who Jesus was. Therefore, it must have been God-sent.
Some of the Reformation tradition has emphasized this idea of God fully in control. Calvin’s theology was presented in such a way that its interpreters decided that God had foreordained all things – including who was and who wasn’t saved. An all powerful God must be directing all things. Therefore, everything happens for a reason. We are God’s puppets, living out what God had ordained for us. So, everything happens for a reason!
There might be, however, a different way to hear and interpret the story of Joseph who told his brothers that God had sent him, implying that their evil intent was part of God’s plan. We can – and should – name what the brothers did as human sin, that is, human action that denies God and God’s good intent for the world and all its inhabitants. If we say that God intended for the brothers to sin, how are they then responsible for their actions? They aren’t really. They are merely puppets in God’s plan. But, if we acknowledge their responsibility, then we see that the consequence of their sin was that Joseph was separated from his family and sold into slavery. He suffered because of their conduct.
An initial “sin” started the cracks that became a web of brokenness that affected Joseph, his brothers, and his father. The pain was far reaching. The suffering was great. The cause was human sin, not God’s anger.
Instead of seeing the brokenness, the pain and suffering as God’s plan, as God’s intent, we might begin to see God, instead, as the One who responds to our sin and offers redemption and healing. The brothers had done something unspeakable to Joseph. But God, in response, provided a way forward that would eventually bring healing and wholeness to those involved.
There was a great storm. Was the storm God’s doing? Or was the storm merely a part of this natural world – the consequence of air currents moving over a wide expanse of water? Today, science has taught us a lot about how the world works, about its intricacies. The butterfly in Africa can affect weather patterns in the United States. A volcano erupting in one part of the world affects the growing season in another. These are the intricacies of the natural world. And there are the new patterns that scientists can trace back to human choices – some good and some bad. It is not helpful if we see every natural event as God intended and something over which we have no power. It is also not helpful if natural disasters are perceived to be God’s judgment on the sins of some.
Yet, God acted in the midst of the storm to speak to the terror that had gripped those caught in its chaos and to reveal who Jesus was. God responded with grace, with possibility, with hope to the realities of a world that knows limits, brokenness and sin. God responded. Joseph saw that God had been with him. So, he offered the grace and healing that he had received to the very ones who had harmed him. Jesus invited Peter to step out in faith and trust that God could and would be with him even in the chaos of a violent storm.
I was working on this sermon yesterday as the violence erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia. Would it not be an insult to everyone to declare all that happened there to be God’s will? Is it God’s will that one group of people sets themselves above all others? Is it God’s will that we be so focused on the past we can’t move forward? Is it God’s will that anger feed violence, continuing enmity? Is it God’s will that people and groups of people continue to bear the burden of hate? How dare we, in the face of such violence, declare that everything happens for a reason? How dare we even consider that God would be the reason?
The choice is not either God is present or God is absent. That is, in some ways, the assumption of the statement “everything happens for a reason.” It seems to indicate that if God was not the author of events, then God wasn’t there. Beyond the either/or we could begin to embrace the God who sees our sin, who knows and acknowledges our pain, and says, “I will not leave you comfortless.” We embrace the God who answered the cross, that ultimate symbol of human sin, with hope, with life, with redemption. It is not the absent God, but the God who dwells with us in the midst of our brokenness and invites us to see, to seek, to follow another way – one that leads toward the healing of divisions and attitudes, the reconciliation of enemies and nations, and the restoration of the creation itself.
Let us be careful in our proclamations so that the world does not hear from us that God intentionally hurts, that God inflicts pain, that God severely punishes evil doers with no regard for those who might be caught up in that punishment. We need, instead, to speak of the God who knows our pain, who knows what it is like to be human, struggling with the limitations of our own humanity and the limitations of the creation. God responds – with hope, possibility and love. God responds with opportunity for us to work for reconciliation, for peace, and for healing. The violence in Charlottesville yesterday is not one of those occasions when we wring our hands and declare, “Everything happens for a reason.” Instead, it calls us to reach out to our God who is always reaching out to us. We reach out. We seek God’s promise of hope, of healing, of reconciliation. And, then, with God’s help, we work for it.