August 17, 2014
God’s Lemonade Stand
The Rev. Philip Tierney
My children and I headed to Cape Cod, last week, to hold a memorial service for my mother. Everyone wanted to stop in Boston for breakfast at one of our old haunts—the Paramount Restaurant on Charles Street. After a satisfying breakfast we went into the Public Garden to feed peanuts to the squirrels and pigeons. Then we walked around Back Bay. It was hot and we were getting a bit tired as we headed back again through the Public Garden to go to the Boston Common. All of a sudden there was a flash of lightening and the roar of thunder. We hastened our pace to make a quick stop at one of those outdoor lemonade stands that appear during the summertime—to quench our thirst. While we waited for our fresh-squeezed drinks, the skies opened up and it poured. The downpour lasted for about 15 minutes, but we stayed pretty dry under the umbrella over the stand. Our stop, there, was triply beneficial. We quenched our thirst from the walk, we enjoyed a delicious drink, and we stayed relatively dry during the thunderstorm.
Sometimes unexpectedly negative conditions arise in our lives. Sometimes, like a flash thunderstorm, they seem to come out of nowhere, and sometimes we bring them on ourselves by the choices we make. Those negative experiences can feel extremely bitter, like eating raw lemons. But that may not be the end of the story.
Take today’s reading from the Book of Genesis. Suddenly and seemingly out of the blue, Joseph’s older brothers overpowered him and threw him into a hole in the ground. When they spied a passing caravan, they thought they might derive some benefit from it, and sold him to the merchants, who took him to Egypt and sold him at the slave market. An argument could be made that Joseph had brought his brothers’ deplorable behavior on himself by acting as if he were better than they were. Whether their actions were totally heartless or triggered by resentments that Joseph had caused, slavery in a foreign land was horrible. Joseph’s condition was bitterly painful and dispiriting. And things went from bad to worse when he jilted the advances of one of the members of Pharaoh’s family. So he was thrown into prison. It must have seemed hopeless. He must have felt miserable.
But then, serendipitously, he was presented the opportunity to interpret a dream that had caused Pharaoh extreme agitation. He predicted a seven-year drought and advised storage of resources to weather the oncoming drought. Pharaoh was so grateful that he put Joseph in charge of all Egypt’s resources.
When, in today’s reading, Joseph encountered his brothers again, as Pharaoh’s right-hand man for national resources, they were understandably shocked to see him alive and terrified that he might take revenge against them from his position of power. But Joseph had had a lot of time to think. His fortunes had completely changed, and he had time to reflect on his strange journey. Instead of dwelling upon the very negative aspects of his experiences—his rejection, abduction, victimization of human trafficking, his imprisonment, grief and depression—, he focused, instead, upon what God had done to make it good. God had made the lemons of his experience into lemonade—slavery into a new position of power to help others. He tried to find ways in which God was involved in his negative experiences to bring good for others. And so he was able to say this to his brothers: “Do not be distressed or angry with yourselves that you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life.” He saw God in his misfortunes and credited God with bringing good out of them. He saw a good end to his terrible misfortunes.
God is able to make lemonade out of the lemons that come our way in life. It doesn’t often happen as dramatically as it did in Joseph’s case. It doesn’t even always happen in ways that people hope or envision or wish it would. In fact, in the midst of the bitterness of the twists and turns of our lives—the ones that come at us out of the blue and the ones we bring upon ourselves—, we can’t very often see God in the midst of it, let alone have any positive perspectives on negative circumstances. But God is able to make lemonade out of lemons. That’s God’s part. Our part is to pray, to put ourselves at God’s disposal, and to wonder how God might be involved. Reflect less upon how bitter life is or how much it hurts or how we are victims or how to get out of it and more upon what God might want to teach us amidst the bitterness of our negative conditions. That can make pain meaningful and its bitterness purposeful.
If you think about it from a bit of a different vantage point, Jesus was saying something of the same thing in the gospel reading. Fundamentalist Jews of his time, among other things, focused upon what people ate and how they ate it. The scribes and Pharisees wanted to make sure that people didn’t make themselves unclean by eating the wrong things in the wrong ways. Jesus offended those leaders by teaching people that it wasn’t so much what a person takes in that defiles them—makes them unclean or spoils them—but rather what comes out of a person that spoils them. It’s not what comes into us or comes upon us that distorts us, but rather what we let it do to us and what we do with it.
We may have bitterly painful experiences and undergo bitterly negative conditions. Those factors do not have the power to distort us unless we give them that power. What makes people bitter is not the painful experiences we have, but what we do with them and how we choose to allow them to affect us. This is the psychology of bitterness. Something painful happens—whether perpetrated by another person or brought on by our own choices. We feel the pain. We feel sorry for ourselves in the midst of the pain. We think of ourselves as victims of the pain or of those who inflict it upon us. We cherish those thoughts and feelings. That is, we hold onto them, and become habituated to thinking about them. We take perverse satisfaction in thinking of ourselves as people in pain, as self-pitying, and as victims. That’s what distorts us—what makes us bitter people instead of people who endure bitter times. And that’s what Jesus meant. It’s not what we take in, but what we do with it, how we let it affect us, and how that affects our feelings, thoughts and actions toward life, ourselves and others, that pollutes us and distorts us. It’s one thing to experience bitterness, but it’s entirely different to become bitter in the process.
Joseph didn’t let that happen. Of course, part of his ability to do that may well have been the God-given positive outcomes he experienced subsequently. But Jesus didn’t let it happen either. From the cross He may well have cursed the religious leaders and their followers or the Romans. After all, he was rejected, unjustly condemned, tortured, humiliated, scorned, and put to a long, painful death. He might well have been justified in calling God’s curses down on the people who treated him that way. Instead, he resisted letting the bitterness of his experiences have any power over him. Instead, he prayed. He prayed for others. He prayed for his persecutors. He did the opposite and forgave them for it.
That’s how to turn lemons into lemonade. Jesus did it. And we can too, with God’s help. God stands at the lemonade stand as we walk through the journey of our lives. He offers us the choice to turn over the lemons we collect in life and to make them into lemonade—to nourish and sustain us as we move forward. What we need are eyes to see God along the way, minds to grasp the ways in which God might help use our pains for good, and hearts to choose to give up our pains and bitterness to be transformed by Him for our own good and the good of others.