Sunday, August 9, 2020

Sermon: “Make a Joyful Noise: Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (“Get Off the Fence”), Genesis 37:17b-30 (August 9, 2020)


I want to begin today’s sermon with a story. There once was a little girl named Ruby. Ruby loved cookies. I mean LOVED them. Like, Cookie Monster had nothing on her. Her mother couldn't even keep cookies in the house, because as soon as Ruby discovered them, they were as good as gone. She seemed to have the metabolism of a teenage boy; otherwise, there was no way to explain how so many cookies could fit into such a tiny body.

Anyway, one day Ruby's mother came home with a special treat for herself: Girl Scout cookies. She debated not telling Ruby about them, hoping that they'd somehow remain undiscovered, but she quickly realized that the odds were not on her side. So, she called Ruby into the kitchen, showed her the box and said, “Ruby, I know how much you love cookies, but these are a special treat for Mommy, okay? So I need you not to eat them.” Ruby looked up at her mother with big eyes and solemnly nodded. It was clear to all parties involved that those cookies were off-limits. Mom put the box away in the cabinet, satisfied that she'd made her expectations clear.

The next day was a tough one for Ruby's mom. She hadn't slept well the night before, the dog got loose after lunch, and Ruby's baby brother was teething. By the end of the day, she was really looking forward to the comfort that only Thin Mints could provide. But when she opened the box, all she found was a single, lonely, broken cookie at the bottom.

Disappointed and frustrated, Mom called Ruby into the kitchen and demanded an explanation. Defiantly, little Ruby looked up at her mother with her hands on her hips and said, “But I didn’t eat ALL of them, Mom! I left one for you!”

In her eagerness to justify her actions, Ruby seemed to miss an important point: just because a particular action is technically *less bad* than the alternative doesn’t make said action *good*. Sure, you could argue that eating all but one cookie was objectively disobeying her mother to a lesser degree than if she’d eaten them all, but the fact remains that her mother still didn’t have enough cookies to meet her psychological needs, and Ruby had still disobeyed her mother. Worst of all, Ruby didn’t seem to have any idea that her mitigated misbehavior was just as unacceptable as if she HAD eaten that last cookie.

We may laugh and chalk this up to childhood logic, but this way of thinking isn’t exclusive to kids. And unfortunately, the stakes tend to get higher when adults engage in these sorts of mental gymnastics. Consider Joseph’s brother Reuben. He knew that the brothers’ plan to kill Joseph was wrong (the story of Cain and Abel probably echoing in his head), but he chose a truly bizarre way to intervene. He didn’t try to convince his brothers to do what’s right (i.e., to not commit fratricide); instead, he tried to convince them to do something “less wrong”. “No, no; we can’t kill him! Throw him in this pit of despair instead!”

Sure, his intention was ultimately to save Joseph, but, uh, that didn’t work out. Because he tried to mitigate the “bad” done to Joseph rather than opposing it directly, the situation wound up entirely out of hand. He knew what the faithful response was that God wanted from him, but rather than just DOING it, he tried to figure out a way he could approximate faithfulness while also avoiding conflict with his other brothers. He tried to hedge his bets, sitting on the fence of faithfulness, instead of taking a stand.

He must have had lots of company on that fence, because too many of us regularly take up permanent residence on it. Too many of us know what God wants from us but choose a version of it that’s more palatable to us and to those around us. God says, “Do justice!” and we say, “Yes, justice! I’m on board!”…unless it requires us to give up some of our societal privileges. God says, “Love kindness!” and we say, “Kindness, got it!”…until a business asks us to wear a mask. God says, “Walk humbly with me!” and we say, “Right there with you, Lord!”…as long as we never have to listen to understandings of scripture that are different from ours.

Lord knows I’ve spent some quality time up on that fence. My own faithfulness has been (*cough*) less than stellar at times. I’ve fallen short of God’s expectations again and again, only to reassure myself that it’s not THAT bad; I could have done something way worse. And I was right; I could have. But that doesn’t cancel out the bad that still was, and it certainly doesn’t magically transform it into good. I may not actively support unjust legislation, but I haven’t called my representatives to stand against it. Reuben may not have committed fratricide, but he didn’t stop his brothers’ abuse. Ruby may not have eaten ALL the cookies, but she ate plenty. In one way or another, we all spend some time on that faithfulness fence.

Now, this is bad enough taken on its own, but our mediocre faithfulness towards God becomes downright deplorable when we view it in light of God’s faithfulness towards us. “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” is a beautiful, reassuring hymn…until we realize just how short we’ve fallen of God’s standards. “God, you never turn from me! (I may have turned from you once or twice…or maybe more…) You give us the seasons and the passage of time as witnesses to your steadfast and trustworthy nature! (I come to Sunday morning worship when I manage to wake up in time…) You forgive me, guide me, and uphold me with your many blessings! (I give you reasons that I need forgiveness, wander away from the path you’ve set before me, and give up when things get difficult…) Great is thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me! (Let’s just not talk about mine, okay?)”

God deserves so much more than the half-hearted, fence-dwelling faithfulness that humanity tends to offer. If we’re being honest with ourselves, our tendency is to do what’s easiest and then reverse-engineer it to justify our actions as faithful. But scripture is clear: it’s not enough for us to just AGREE with the values that Jesus teaches us; we must STAND UP for them at every opportunity. Every single aspect of our lives should reflect God’s will, from where we shop to who we vote for to how we spend our free time to what we allow others to say in our presence without consequence. It’s a big ask, yes; but then again, faithfulness would be meaningless if it were easy.

The good news is that God doesn’t hold our lukewarm faithfulness against us. In fact, God’s faithfulness is great enough, wide enough, strong enough, to overcome all our fence-sitting. We all know how the story of Joseph ends—he rises to the second most powerful position in Egypt, which sets the stage for the most important story about God’s faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible: God’s deliverance of the Israelites out of slavery. Reuben’s spectacularly disappointing faithfulness couldn’t stop God’s faithfulness from having the final word. And the next time the brothers had the opportunity to stand up and do the faithful thing, they didn’t disappoint: they’d learned from their previous fence-sitting and stood up for their youngest brother.

We, too, have the chance to do what’s right. No matter how many times we choose mediocre faithfulness, God’s faithfulness always gives us another opportunity, and another, and another, to get off of the fence. The Kingdom of God requires *transformative* action, not *mitigating* action, and God is our best model of this kind of faithfulness. Jesus practiced justice, kindness, mercy, and love openly without concern for how others would react. We ought to do the same.

When we see something wrong in the world, whether it’s racism, discrimination, greed, dishonesty, cruelty, or anything else, its not enough for us to refrain from taking part. It’s not enough for us to try and mitigate the damage that such sins can cause to others. No, we need to stand firm against these evils, naming and confronting them, and practice a faith that mirrors God’s own faithfulness: steadfast, strong, and uncompromising. No matter how long we’ve been sitting on the fence, it’s never too late to climb down and finally stand up in faithfulness.

Speaking of that fence, you might be wondering what happened to little Ruby…well, thanks to her mother’s patience and faithful parenting, Ruby learned about the differences between wrong, less wrong, and right. And when her baby brother got old enough to reach the Girl Scout Cookies himself, she stopped him and said, “No! Those are Mommy’s cookies! It’s not okay to eat them.” She stood up for what she’d learned was the right thing to do, even though her brother wouldn’t speak to her for a week.

May we have the strength, and the true faithfulness, to do the same. Amen.

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