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Sunday, September 24, 2017

Comfort and Truth

A Sermon for the XVI Sunday after Pentecost Proper20
September 24, 2017 - St Phillip's, Laurel, DE

There’s a great story my family - especially my mother - loves to tell on my grandmother. Although I was a child of about seven or eight, I do remember the event, if not all of the details.

It was the day of my grandfather’s funeral. We had just returned home from the funeral to a traditional Portuguese ‘funeral repast’ – which meant a house full of family, friends and neighbors, all feasting on the food my grandmother, aunts and cousins had made.

As is the custom for Portuguese women, my grandmother was all dressed in black and wailing inconsolably in her rocking chair in the parlor, attended to by various women – themselves widows in black – who, by some seemingly well choreographed turns, fanned her, mopped her brow, patted her hand, stroked her hair, and softly whispered consoling words and prayers.

It was, as my mother liked to say at this point in the story, “quite a scene”.

In her grief, my grandmother rocked harder and harder as her voice got louder and louder. She cried out to God in heaven, “Why did you take him? He was a good man, good provider for his family. Who will provide for us now? Why did you take him? Why? Why didn’t you take me, instead? Take me, Lord! Take me! I can’t be here alone without him! Take me!”

And, on that last plea for God to “Take me!” her rocking chair, straining under so much vigorous rocking, let forth a mighty groan and CRACK! 

Suddenly, she was on the floor, sitting in the middle of broken, splintered pieces of wood. 

There were gasps and cries from every corner of the house and then silence as we looked in past all the round bodies of the women who surrounded her to see if she was okay. Just then, in the midst of the silence and from middle of that heap of humanity, came my grandmother’s voice, 

“Oh, God! I didn’t mean it! Let me live! Let me live!”

My mother would finish the story by saying, “So, now, remember: Be very careful what you pray for. You never know how God may answer.”

I thought of my mother’s telling of my grandmother’s lament as I read over the scriptures for today. I heard it especially in Paul’s letter to the Church in Phillipi: 
 “To me, living is Christ and dying is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two: my desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better; but to remain in the flesh is more necessary for you.    
We actually have two choices for today’s Hebrew scripture: The first is the story from Exodus about manna from heaven and the second from the story of Jonah. The scripture chosen by this particular lectionary insert series this church uses is the one from Jonah but I'll talk briefly about the Exodus passage as well.

In that story, the Israelites are complaining bitterly to Moses and Aaron that they have no bread. These were the very people who hungered for their freedom and had been miraculously brought through the plagues of Egypt and walked through the equally miraculously parted waters of the Red Sea! Apparently, they still thought there were limits to the power of God. 

“Oh!” they said, 
If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
Imagine! Hungering for a return to slavery rather than accept the temporary sacrifices necessary to enjoy the fruits of freedom!

The other possible selection from Hebrew scripture, the story from Jonah, is no better. We heard it as this morning's first lesson but let me briefly recap.

Jonah is sent to Nineveh to tell them to repent of their wicked ways. He runs away at first, going to Joppa to sail to Tarshish, but his boat capsizes in a storm and Jonah is devoured by a whale. He prays fervently to be released, promising God he will go to Nineveh, and, after three days, the whale spits him out. Jonah goes to Nineveh and preaches repentance which the people heed and the whole city – even the sheep – repent.

But, Jonah is angry. He wanted to see fire and brimstone and punishment. He goes and sits and sulks under a bush which is infected by a worm. Now he has to stew in his anger with the full force of the sun. He’s angry enough to want to die. God says to him, 
“You are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand persons who do not know their right hand from their left, and also many animals?”
Are you getting the message here? It’s just as my mother said. “Be very careful what you pray for. You never know how God may answer.”

Both stories, as well as the parable we heard in this morning’s Gospel, highlight the two things people seek from their religious experience.

One is comfort.

The other is truth.

We want to be comforted by God. And, the religious journey is always about discovering deeper layers of truth for our lives of faith. 

And yet, there is sometimes an unstable relationship between the two.  What's that old saying? The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable. Sometimes, that happens.

And, the truth can also set you free and place you on a path to a richer, fuller, more authentic life. Sometimes, that happens, too.

There is, however, this tension between truth on one hand and comfort on the other. That’s really the unstated theme of the parable from this morning’s Gospel.

We are comforted in knowing that, after we die, we will be in heaven. We’ve tried to live good lives – well, falling short every now and again but – always depending on the grace and forgiveness and unconditional love of God.

But, what of the scoundrel? What if a person has been a ne’er do well and a reprobate scallywag all his life – or, worse, a dotard – and, 10 minutes before closing his eyes in death, repents and makes a hearty contrition? Does that person get into heaven, too?

Well . . . . actually . . . . yes, says Jesus. If you concentrate on this parable as one about wages and fair labor practices, you'll miss the fuller, deeper meaning of the parable.

If you read Matthew's version of this parable and replace “wages” with “forgiveness” you'll get a better understanding of what Jesus is trying to say. Take the lectionary insert home with you and read it again, substituting “wages” for “forgiveness” - it’s a parable so you can - and see what I mean.

That might not provide you with much comfort, but it is the truth.

And, the unvarnished truth in each of these stories is this: When it comes to sin and redemption, salvation and grace, God is in charge. Not you. Not me. God.

We often repeat that truth without fully understanding what that means.

And some of you here in this church this morning take comfort in the fact that you won't be seeing some people in heaven. You know who you are. Well, I'm here to tell you that you may well be in for quite a surprise. So will I, I suspect. 

As Jesus is quoted as saying,  
I choose to give to this last the same as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” 
Whether it’s manna from heaven which comes down like a layer of dew on the wilderness, as fine as frost on the ground; or whether God redeems those you thought were beyond redemption - even though you had been good and obedient all of your life and they had been scoundrels - God always answers prayers. 

The point is God answers your prayers the way God decides. God just may not answer your prayers in the way you thought God might. Or, should.

Like, giving you the bread of freedom instead of the bread of bondage.

Like, giving you a tree for shade and then taking it away for you to steam in the hot sun until you come to your senses.

Like, humbling you by telling you – you who have actually started to believe your own press releases about yourself – that same arrogant you: “The last will be first and the first will be last.”

What’s that song by the Rolling Stones?: “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes, you get what you need.”

Or, as one wise person once said to me, “You don’t always get what you want. And, you don’t always get what you need. You get what you get and then you make the best of what you’ve been given.”

It’s that old tension in religion between comfort and truth.

Or, as my mother always said, “Be very careful what you pray for. You never know how God may answer.”


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