Rev. Debra M. Whitten
Minister of Congregational Care
Quagmires & Quicksand: Why, God?
Sunday, August 14, 2005
Genesis 45: 1-15
Matthew 15: 10-28
Rev. Debra M. Whitten
The original title for my sermon was: “Cesspools, Quagmires, Swamps and God.” However, I did not think that was going to fit on the sign, so I changed it a little bit, just for the benefit of the sign.
In my daily devotions, I read Guideposts. I ran across an entry by a woman named Libby while I was preparing for this sermon. She was talking about how she reads this little newspaper that does an interview with some celebrity or other all of the time. She said that there is a standard set of questions. You know what the questions are every week. She likes to read that section. One day she took the test for herself. She noticed was, whenever a person got to the question that said: “Describe yourself,” everyone always had three words of description, all of them positive. She took the test, and she wrote three words of description – all of them positive.
One day she was reading and Jerry Lewis had filled out the questionnaire. When he got to that question, he wrote: “Room for improvement.” Sounds like Jerry Lewis, doesn’t it? Well, she had to give some thought to that. She looked at the words she put down and then she thought about it. She said, “You know I don’t always do things perfectly. Things don’t always go as well as they might. But I think what I might put down for myself are the words: ‘Willing to learn.’”
In our story today, our Genesis story, we hear about Joseph – he is reunited with his brothers. But I wanted to go back in the story and remind us a little bit about what is going on with Joseph, to see what had happened with Joseph in his life. You remember it starts off by letting us know that he is Jacob’s favorite son. Oh, he is the favorite. There are many who say he was taught the family business. While his brothers were sent out in the field to sweat and toil, he was in the tent with his father learning all the figuring and reading and all that good stuff. He was so favored that he got a beautiful coat, every other stripe purple, and then some other colors were thrown in there for good measure. He was the favorite son. His brothers knew it.
Well, then Joseph had to go on and have some dreams. Remember one of his dreams had the exact same number of stars as he had brothers, kneeling down, bowing down and paying him homage. He told it, I imagine, with such enthusiasm, that they really did appreciate him sharing that dream.
The second dream (he hadn’t gotten any more mature) had the sun and the moon bowing down to him. His father had to speak up at that point, because we can imagine who the sun and the moon were in that particular dream. It did, however, foretell his life.
sibling rivalry reached its pinnacle. Dad sent him out to this distant place
to find his brothers, or, if we want to put it a little more accurately, to
figure out what they were doing and report on them. They saw him coming,
unfortunately. They weren’t happy to see Joseph coming down the lane. So,
they came up with a scheme and threw him in a well. They went to pull him out
at some point and I imagine the leap in Joseph’s heart as he said: “They’re
freeing me! I can go home to my father.” And then they sold him into slavery
and he ended up in
Unfortunately, Potiphar’s wife liked him. Something I was reading described Potiphar as somebody not as desirable in physique as Joseph was. So, she wanted him. She commanded him to her, and he would not go. He wanted to be faithful. Actually, by the words he said, he really liked the job he had and he wanted to keep it. He didn’t want to touch her. Well, she lied on him and got him thrown in jail.
In jail, he is finding himself there a long time. While he’s there, he works himself so hard that the jailer trusts him to run things in the prison. He rises again to the top because he is diligent. When two servants come from the king, the cupbearer and the baker, they have dreams. He interprets their dreams. One is a bit on the sad side; the other one is on the happy side. He says: “You’re going to return to your job. When you go there, remember me. Remember I am here. Remember what I have done for you.”
Eventually, the cupbearer decides to remember, after forgetting him for years. Joseph is then interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and rises to second in command of the kingdom. In the Egyptians’ eyes, he is second to god. When his brothers show up the first time, he decides he wants to know where their hearts are, and he tests them. He sends them back and the only way they can come again is to bring his own brother, Benjamin, with them. They eventually come back and we find ourselves in the story that was read for us today.
The important part of our scripture today is this that he says to his brothers: “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves because you sold me here. For God sent me before you to preserve life.”
Cesspools are wet and smelly places that hold liquid waste or household sewage. Joseph was seized, roughed up, thrown in a jail, retrieved and sold into slavery.
Quagmires are soft places that give under foot. If you watch people walking through them on the television or if you have been through one, it’s pretty sticky. If your shoes aren’t real tight, you will probably lose them. Quagmires pull the shoes right off your feet as you try to get through quagmires. Joseph was pursued by Potiphar’s wife.
A swamp is a very watery place. It is overwhelmingly watery. When I think of swamps, I never cease to be quite in the middle of it with a hundred miles of water all around me. With a swamp, there’s no way out. You’re going to get wet. Period. End of discussion. Joseph finds himself innocent and in jail.
Quicksand is loose sand. It has lots of water in it. It readily gives way to weight that is put on it, so that any weight sinks down in. The only way I know to get out, if there isn’t any lifeline, is for someone to extend a lifeline to you to pull you out. Joseph remains in jail after helping the cupbearer.
Have you ever found yourself in one of those positions where you weren’t quite happy to be there? You know a little quagmire, a little cesspool, just something in life and you said: “No, I don’t like it; I don’t really want to be there.” As a pastor, and in talking with other pastors, as I have learned in seminary, we share with one another so that we can learn how to help people in need.
We hear a lot about people’s pain, people’s anguish, and the tortures of life. We hear about medical issues that last a long time. It’s pretty tough for some people. Some people are ready to give up. It’s not a nice time. We get to hear about divorces and marriages on the rocks. We get to hear about lost jobs, about boyfriends who have broken up with us, girlfriends who have kicked us to the curb. We are afraid. We’re in anguish. We’re in pain. We, the people of God.
So, one of the things we might do during that time (at least, I know I have done it) is ask: “Why, God? Why am I here? What’s this about? I don’t like it. Get me out” It reminds me of the story when Jesus sits in the boat with the disciples and they are riding along and a storm comes up. In one gospel, it says that Jesus said, “Peace! Be still!” and the storm went away. I have experienced that. But in one of the other gospels, it says, “Peace! Be still!” and the disciples were expected to calm down. I remember times when I held tightly to God. I held on and I was assured. I walked through it, because God sure didn’t take it away. That’s how life is.
I wonder why life is that way. I know we ask that question over and over again. There is this little funny thing called free will. God instituted it in the Garden of Eden with the very first person. God said, “I am not going to make you love me. I am not going to make you do what I ask you to do. I am not going to make you do anything.” If we’re true and authentic, we want others to love us because they love us, not because they must. That is how we know it is true and authentic love. God says: “I will never make you. I want you to choose me whenever I ask. I want you to go through things and know that I am there because you have experienced my love. I can’t take these things away, because if I did, I would not love you. If I took them away and you walked through life without any barriers, would you ever grow? Would you learn yourself like I know you? Would you be prepared?”
How many of us think this world is going to stop throwing diseases around? Expect any new ones coming up? I do. There are some that have surprised us in the last twenty years, right? They’re going to keep coming at us. It’s going to assault us. We can’t get away from it. The world is throwing things at us. God is saying that the world is throwing things at us and I have to love you through them. Yes, sometimes I will remove them. I will remove them because I am trying to teach you something here. But, a lot of times, we have to live through them. Why is that?
There are people out there who do not know God, who are not going to do the wise thing, who are going to fall into the cesspools that life has to offer, who are going to get stuck in the quagmires, and who are going to sink if one of us who knows God and knows the truth doesn’t reach out a hand and pull them out.
It says in scriptures, Romans 8:28: “We know that all things work together for good, for those who love God, who are called according to his purposes.” I just want to say my answer to “Why, God?” The thing that I go back to most is the poem, “Footprints.” I don’t know if you remember it. It is the poem that talks about two sets of footprints in the sand all along someone’s life. When they get to the end of their life and they look back, they say: “Wow! That was a really bad spot in my life, and there’s only one set of footprints.” They go through every bad spot and find one set of footprints. Turning to God, he says: “Where were you when I needed you most?” God replies: “I was carrying you!”
I think about it all the time. I recognize that there are people who may be in pain today, who can’t hear what I am saying. I hope you are listening and putting it into your heart for future reference. I don’t ignore the fact that in the midst of pain, I don’t want to hear what I am saying today. So, I don’t expect everyone to want to hear it.
But the truth is that in these quagmires and cesspools of our lives, God is teaching us something about us. God is teaching us something about the world. God is preparing us for something that we can do for someone else. We are uniquely prepared to touch someone else’s life with what God is doing in our lives during these hard times. Yes, God teaches us in good times and God teaches us in mediocre times. But in these bad times, God tries to touch us as well. I like to think that we remember that that is what our faith is for. It gets built up as we learn, as we hold on to God, as we appreciate (maybe even in hindsight) what God has taught us in the rough times.
It’s like this persistent woman in our scripture today. Her persistence, her faith that she could get an answer and have her way, was responded to by Jesus because of her persistence, not just in getting what she wanted, but in saying you can do this, you can give me just a little bit and I will have what I need. She held on to her faith and she was rewarded.
It reminds me of two things I want to share with you this morning. I was on the phone and terribly blessed with one of our members this past week, having a little chat about some family medical issues. While sharing with me this person touched my heart and blessed me by sharing that his sisters and brothers were on a conference call each week to talk about what’s going on with their parents. I thought to myself, “God, thank you for leading them to do that. But thank you, Lord. Help me to remember this story so that I can suggest it to others who need to lean on brothers and sisters, someone else, to help them work through such a hard time in life.”
Another way that I am reminded of what we need is by our Cancer Support Group. It is a group of people who have been, in some way, touched by cancer. They have written profiles about their own experiences so that they can be handed out to people who are dealing with cancer.” What does that do for a person who is dealing with cancer? It allows them to say, “This is where my deepest hurt and my deepest need is. I think I might be able to call this loving and caring person who is willing to share and talk. I know out of everyone in the world, this person might understand me best, might help me through this. They might give me some information that will help me and bolster me through this difficult time.”
point in these two examples is that you and I, everyone needs community. We
need each other. If you have risen from a cesspool and have pulled yourself
out of the mire, you actually have a story that can be helpful to another
person. You can walk with someone else through bad times. You can offer some
kind of branch that helps pull others from the quicksand that would suck them
under and would drown them in grief. You have those abilities. How might
those abilities play themselves out?
Well, how about in evangelism? That’s a word we all like to shrink from. It’s an important word. It’s not just about getting people in the building so that there’s no space to sit in the pews. It is about telling the story of what we have found. Has God touched us? Are we able to live out the call that God has put on our lives? Do we find that here? Do we find community here that cares for us and loves us? Then why not share that with someone who might be seeking? They may not wind up at Foundry. But at least remind them that there is a God and there is a place for them in one of God’s local churches. There is a place for them to live out their ministry to be in community, to support others and to be supported by others.
lay visitation where we go out there to see how people are doing. I can’t
visit all 1500 of you. I just can’t do it. Some weeks it is harder than
others. This week I have been particularly weepy. It’s been hard. It’s not
always easy to hear some of the pain I have seen out there. Maybe sometimes I
feel the pain a little too deeply. Some of you out there go out on your own. You
have friends in the congregation and you keep up with them. We have
We have all kinds of ministries and I want to name them all right now: fellowship, social, prayer, and spiritual. We have all kinds of ways. But you don’t have an excuse if you tell me that you’re not so good at that kind of stuff. How do you think these ministries are organized? How do you think all the work gets done? By people who have organizational skills to help me out because there are 1500 of you to organize and care for. How about if you know how to do Access? I really want a database, but I haven’t found time to do it this summer. It’s still not done, and I’m not sure when it’s going to get done. I want a database that’s going to help me do the care ministries better here at Foundry. How about those of you who know how to do PowerPoint? I desperately want to know how to do PowerPoint. Here is an embarrassing thing for me. I am a computer programmer. My mother knows how to use PowerPoint and I still do not. It must not be difficult, but I don’t have time. Maybe there is someone out there who knows it well and can help.
It doesn’t excuse you form sharing your story. It doesn’t excuse you from reaching out to someone. It doesn’t excuse you from doing just the little things you can do from where you are. But, it does say that you don’t have to have the great skills of visitation and phone call making. You can have other skills that are desperately needed to support care of ministries.
If you but remember the cesspools of your life, if you remember how God was with you as you worked through those quagmires, if you remember the helping hand that has helped you get out, if you have the love of God in your heart and you desire it, God asks you today to find the way to touch someone. Whether they are here at Foundry or somewhere on the street or at work, touch somebody. Care for them. Take the love God has put in you, the learning God has given you, and help somebody else get help.