(Genesis 45:1-15 Psalm 133 Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32 Matthew 15:21-28)
When Frederick Buechner, the prolific writer and Presbyterian pastor, was ten years old, his father committed suicide. It was Saturday morning, the year was 1936, the older Buechner was a recent graduate of Princeton University with honors, yet because of the Great Depression, was not able to get the type of job he had hoped for. He turned to alcohol as a way of covering his disappointment, which only made the problem worse. In his mind there was no other way.
For many years later, when people would ask Frederick how his father died, he would always say, “He died of heart trouble.” That was all he could reveal.
>>>Most often it is easier to keep secrets in our lives than it is to take the risk, to confront the pain, to touch that which is most human in our lives. It took Buechner 25 books, two of them autobiographical, and 44 years before he was finally able to write honestly about his father’s death. He was 55 years old when he finally completed a third memoir, and he titled it, Telling Secrets.
He titled this final memoir Telling Secrets because he also says that, by and large, he feels the human family all has the same secret, which is the hunger to be known in our full humanness, yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. He says that, “. . . to not be honest with our life is to run the risk of losing track of who we truly are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find this edited version more acceptable than the real thing.”1
And so this weekend as we conclude our summer preaching on the texts from Genesis, for eight weeks we have heard readings and sermons focusing on some of the men and women from the very beginnings of the faith story handed down by the Jewish people. Beginning with Abraham, back on June 26, and moving through stories of Isaac, Jacob, Rebekkah, Rachel, Leah, and Joseph, we’ve heard these magnificent stories of faith where God was present, sometimes more visibly than others.
In every one of these stories there was always a secret, always some information initially being withheld by someone, even sometimes God; but more than anything else, we heard stories of real people, sinful and manipulative people, at the same time people of great faith, sometimes faith that waivered, and in the end, the secret was always revealed, the information told.
And today, in this text from Genesis 45, one of the unparalleled secrets is revealed when Joseph finally makes known his true identity to his brothers, after they thought him dead for so many years
I know when we read stories such as Abraham being asked to kill his son Isaac; or when we see Jacob lying to his brother and deceiving his father, it’s always so easy to ask how God can be involved in such dishonesty? And we want to know why God isn’t the magician making all things happen the way we expect, where no one gets hurt, and everyone lives happily after.
Maybe more than anything else, as people of faith, these stories challenge us to be our most authentic selves. What I mean is: we believe in God—such as it is, we have faith—even as certain things happen to us once and often go on happening. We work and we goof off, we love and we dream, we have wonderful times and awful times; we are cruelly hurt and hurt others cruelly; we get mad and bored and scared stiff and ache with desire; we do all such human things as these, and if our faith is not mainly just window dressing or a rabbit’s foot or fire insurance, it is because faith grows out of precisely this kind of rich and messy human compost, the kind we have been hearing about these past eight weeks.
The God of biblical faith is the God who meets us at those moments in which for better or worse we are being most human, most ourselves, and if we lose touch with those moments, if we don’t stop from time to time to notice what is happening to us and around us and inside us, we run the tragic risk of losing touch with God.
Might I suggest that in a most profound way, this is what these past eight weeks have been speaking to us because we have been listening to stories of our own lives, only with different names.
On Friday night, I saw the movie The Help, the story of black maids in Mississippi in the 1960’s and a young white girl, recently graduated from college, who wants to cross the line of segregation at a time when it was dangerous to do so, and tell the story of these real human beings, African American women. As the film ends, we watch, as a black maid, who learned courage from a sermon at church, has been unjustly fired from her job. The little white girl she has been raising in this white home stands at the window crying and calling out as the maid is forced to leave. The story ends as we watch the woman walking down a street, seemingly not knowing where her life will now move, yet with a confidence that she has spoken the truth and God walks with her. As the credits began to roll on this final scene, I realized I have witnessed, not a performer God, but the God we have been encountering these past eight weeks.
Earlier that same day, I sat with a person, realizing the acute pain that accompanies a deepening sensitivity to the tragic events in the news each day. I also attended the graduation of six CPE (Clinical Pastoral Education) seminary students and heard their stories of vulnerability and pain from recent months of learning. And in these and many more, there is the deeper realization that, although we most often hope for a God with magical powers to take away our pain, we more often get a God who walks with us and suffers with us, and gives us the strength to go on.
To believe in such a God is to walk the fathomless mystery of the life of faith!
So as I conclude, I might raise two more questions that are really the same question: “is God truly present in the headlines of a weary world, and, is God really present in my life at the most difficult of times?”
Many of us have believed in God for a long time. Many of us have hungered to believe in God with part of ourselves when we sometimes couldn’t believe in much of anything.
In the midst of a suffering world and of our own small sufferings, may we never stop believing in a God of power and love!
This side of Paradise we have the greatest secret told and revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ: that he is one of us now and we will share life with him to come. It is only a Promise, but a most magnificent promise it is! Amen.
1 Telling Secrets. Frederick Buechner. Harper & Row. 1991. p.35.