Thursday, August 14, 2008

Ouch - God has us right where He wants us (an unpreached sermon to follow us around)

I am not preaching the RCL lessons this Sunday, but they are rich and our midweek Bible study looked at them.

The thing I notice is that the Lesson, Epistle and Gospel all have something to say about God blessing us through situations that are mightily unpleasant. Were I to preach on these readings, the outline would be something like:

I. "Up on the map, this thing is beautiful." Joseph summarizes years of garbage (being thrown down a well and sold into slavery by his brothers, languishing in prison for years over a false accusation, then a couple of extra years because somebody he helped forgot to repay the favor, then his brothers show up again...) with the wonderful words, "I am your brother, Joseph, whom you sold into Egypt. And now do not be distressed, or angry with yourselves, because you sold me here; for God sent me before you to preserve life... So it was not you who sent me here, but God..."

When I was in the Army, we lined up our artillery battery for some big, important training exercise. Then we sat for hours in classic military "hurry up and wait." It was a cold German morning, and we were shivering, hungry and in very sour moods.

Suddenly, a perky 2nd Lieutenant came up to me and said, "Fountain, I know that you are pi**ed off, but I was just with the Battalion Commander and up on the map, this thing is beautiful."

The Bible doesn't say much about Joseph's day to day moods during the years of slavery and prison. It does say that God took care of him and made his work valuable. But even Joseph did not see the beauty of God's plan (or even know there was a plan) until that moment when he was reunited with his brothers. God has a plan for his people, and it is beautiful. And we can be in the process of fulfilling that plan and heading toward a great blessing even when we are mired in miserable stuff.

II. Irritation produces pearls. Yeah, it's a cliche. But Paul wraps up his complicated discussion of Christian-Jewish estrangement with the words, For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all. Gentiles failed to worship God as the creator and worshipped gods of their own creation; Jews did not recognize Jesus as the Messiah. But somehow, our different ways of disobedience open a way for God's mercy and provoke many to receive it and be saved. Again, God has a method, even when we only perceive the irritation.

Can't help but apply this to the shake up/tear down/whatever of the Anglican Communion and the Episcopal Church. My efforts to put Humpty Dumpty back together are fruitless and irritating, but some how God is using the whole irritating mess to bring people to His mercy. The same is probably going on with the historic estrangement and cultural differences between White and Indian in South Dakota. Pick your irritation - somehow, God is using it to produce "the pearl of great price" for you to find.

III. Error: Access Denied. Jesus is downright nasty to the "Canaanite woman" in this Gospel report. She wants an exorcism for her demon afflicted daughter, and Jesus gives her a cold shoulder, then an impersonal "tell it to the hand", then an insult - He speaks of her as a "dog."

Years ago a Rabbi explained to me that would-be converts to Judaism must be discouraged three times to test their sincerity and resolve. We see Jesus give the woman three frustrating messages, much like "Access Denied" coming up on a computer screen and driving us to keyboard pounding, profanity and maybe even property damage.

But look at how the woman is changed by the rebuffs (and how we might be changed as well):
  • Her first approach is mere flattery: "Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David..." She's a pagan, not a Jew, yet she addresses Him with the title due to the Jewish Messiah. Access Denied - Jesus did not answer her at all. Maybe we are talking to God with the religious words that sound right, and He is not responding to our prayers. Like the woman, we must try something different.
  • Her second approach is to up the volume: "Lord, help me" ...she keeps shouting... But Jesus, seemingly in a "stage whisper" not directed toward her but loud enough for her to hear, says "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel." He's not just some do-gooder. He has a mission, and it is based in God's revelation to a particular people. It is on God's terms, not ours. Maybe we see God as our divine do-gooder, and want His blessings without really belonging to Him. Again, "Error: Access Denied." With the woman, we try once more.
  • The woman now offers a humble, simple plea: ...she came and knelt before him, saying, "Lord, help me." And Jesus gives the worst of the three rebuffs: "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs." But the woman, kneeling there, understands what's going on and says, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table." She admits her profound need. She admits that she is coming to God as one estranged from Him and needy. How often we go to God with a list of "entitlements" and expect God to dole out the benefits. Rather, we should go thankfully and simply aware that we are recipients of a pure gift, no more of our earning than the crumbs that fall to lucky dogs. This "opens the program" - no more "Access Denied" when Jesus responds: "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish." And her daughter was healed instantly.

All three of the Bible readings begin in difficulty but lead to blessing. In our difficulties, God might well have us just where he wants us - not to torment us or punish us, but to lead us toward blessing in His wonderful plan.

I hear this message summarized in a reading I like to use during hospital visits:

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. Romans 5:1-5

1 comment:

Georgia said...

Thanks, Fr. Timothy, for this well-wrought sermon from the furnace of much affliction - thanks for passing the grace and encouragement along to us...I really really needed this message and these Scriptures this morning.