Sunday, September 27, 2020

"Thy Will Be Done"


“Thy Will Be Done”

Matthew 26:36-44

            Jan Karon invented a town in North Carolina.  She named it Mitford and wrote fourteen novels about it.  The central character is Father Tim, Mitford’s Episcopal priest.  He’s a very human priest, the kind of guy you’d like to have coffee with in the local restaurant.  We watch him as he deals with the townspeople (some of whom attend his church some of whom do not), discovers new things about himself (he can fall in love, he becomes a diabetic), gets married to the woman who lives next door.  We see him inherit a young boy who is lost and almost deserted, and through him becomes involved with the boy’s whole family.  Sometimes the relationship is positive, and sometimes not, but Father Tim perseveres, watching this boy grow to manhood and become a force for good in the community.

            Father Tim and his wife Cynthia speak of “the prayer that never fails.”  Those of us who have prayed for things that do not happen, or that do not turn out the way we want, may have trouble believing there is such a prayer, but there is: “Thy will be done.”

            Not what you expected?  Me either.  When I first read the phrase, “the prayer that never fails,” I couldn’t imagine what might come next.  When I read, “Thy will be done,” it made perfect sense—but it raised more questions than it answered, and more concerns than I could handle all at once.

            Thy will be done.”  Simple, isn’t it?  Four short words.  Straightforward.  No subtlety.  Easy to say, but oh so difficult to mean.  We who go to God with a shopping list of wants and wishes and desires longer than a ten-year-old’s Christmas list are used to asking God to do our will.  We don’t often think of God’s will, or asking what God wants from us.  And yet we know how central this prayer is to our relationship with God.

            Jesus understood its importance.  He included these words in the prayer he taught his disciples: “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

            If we stop to consider what we ask when we repeat these words we may get a little—or a lot—frightened.  Do we really want God’s will to be done on earth the same way it is in heaven?          John Milton, in Sonnet 12:  On His Blindness reminds us that in heaven thousands of beings dash to and fro doing the will of God.  Since there are no heavenly beings on earth (at least not that we can see on a regular basis) if anyone is going to be rushing around doing God’s bidding it will be us.  If God’s will is to be done on earth, and it is to be the priority it is in heaven, we’ll have to rearrange our priorities and our schedules.  Are we ready for that?

            We remember Jesus saying these words in Gethsemane.  He finished celebrating Passover with his disciples; then he asked them to accompany him to the garden.  Once there, he left them and went off to pray.

            Poor disciples!  The Passover meal includes several glasses of wine.  They kept their eyes open only long enough to hear Jesus say to his Father, “Thy will be done.”  Even though Jesus had tried to prepare them for what lay ahead, they couldn’t imagine what God had in store for their Lord and Master—or for them.  God’s will was done, in Jesus’ execution, and in his resurrection, and eventually in the lives of those who shared the meal with him.

            Are we ready to pray that prayer—the prayer that never fails—and mean it?  Can we say with the surety that we know Jesus felt that night, “Thy will be done,” and commit ourselves totally to whatever that entails? 

            Be careful what you pray for:  you might just get it.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Wisdom and Beauty


Wisdom and Beauty

Proverbs 31:10-31

            As I write this, it is the day after we celebrated my oldest friend’s eightieth birthday.  We partied on Zoom, both because of the current health situation and because we are scattered from coast to coast and from Canada to Mississippi.  Ken’s daughter organized the party.  I’m sure we all learned things about him we didn’t know as we played trivia games with Ken at the center. 

            Interspersed with the game questions were pictures Ken’s daughter had gotten hold of, pictures of Ken and his family going back to when he was practically a babe in arms.  In some of those pictures I recognized my friend as the child I had known when we were both in late elementary and junior high school. 

            I’m not going to share any of the stupid things we did together at my house on Friday nights when my parents went to a church meeting.  He was—still is—two years older than me, and I’m sure my folks thought his age would somehow imbue the situation with a bit of maturity.              It didn’t.

            Suffice to say we didn’t do any irreparable harm to the house and its contents, and we both obviously survived.  Here we are today, an octogenarian and one so near that age I can almost see it from here.  When I had a chance to extend my good wishes yesterday I told him what I’ve said so many times before.  He is the closest thing I have to a brother.  I’m an only child, so having someone I can say that about means a lot to me.

            Ken has a lot going for him.  He was—is—an excellent musician.  He is the most natural athlete I’ve ever known.  If an activity involved physical coordination it came easily to him.  He is bright enough to have had a wide choice of career fields.  He chose sociology, and the field is richer because he is part of it.

            What struck me most yesterday were pictures of Ken’s mother.  She was beautiful!  I didn’t pay any attention at the time; she was my best friend’s mother, and I hadn’t yet reached the age where I found females attractive.  But looking at those pictures I could see how beautiful Mom Davis was.

            I call her Mom because one summer she became a second mother to me.  I was fourteen, had just finished my freshman year of high school, and was finally old enough to work at our denomination’s summer camp.  Mom Davis was the cook.  I was her kitchen slave.  I washed the pots she dirtied cooking three meals a day for a couple hundred campers and staff members.  She was an exacting taskmaster, and in my first real work experience, the best boss I could have had.  Most of what I know about work ethic I learned that summer.  Many lessons weren’t fun, but I learned.

            For many years Ken and I moved in different circles in different cities.  Our lives touched peripherally; even more so my life with that of Mom Davis.  I was able to keep track of her through my parents, who had continued their friendship long after Ken and I were grown and gone.  Several years ago, Ken and I reconnected.  One outgrowth of that renewed connection was that I was able to spend time with Mom Davis.  She’s gone now, but what she taught me that summer has stayed with me.

            What didn’t come through in those pictures was her inner beauty and inner strength.  Left a widow, she raised three sons to manhood, sons of whom any mother would be proud.  As is often true of Scripture, not every word of these verses from the last chapter of Proverbs is true about this woman who meant so much to my life, but enough is true that they stand as a lasting tribute to a woman of beauty—inside and out.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Whose Slave Are You?


Whose Slave Are You?

Romans 6:15-18

            “In a consumer society there are inevitably two kinds of slaves:  the prisoners of addiction and the prisoners of envy.”

            So said Ivan Illich.  Sounds like a name out of a Dostoyevsky novel, especially when you learn he was a philosopher and a priest.  He was Russian, definitely, but not one of Dostoyevsky’s characters. 

            You might wonder what a Russian who lived from 1926-2002 would know about a consumer society, but he obviously had an understanding of consumerism and its effect on people.

            Two kinds of slaves:  prisoners of addiction and prisoners of envy.  We understand prisoners of addiction, and we are aware that they exist in a consumer society.  We are familiar with addiction.  Anyone who reads newspapers, magazines, novels, will soon come face to face with addiction.  The addict may be hooked on drugs, or alcohol, or something else, but we’ve read enough to understand that people become so addicted to one thing or another that it’s not far-fetched to say they are enslaved. 

            I’ve just finished reading a Harlan Coben novel.  For those of you not familiar with Coben’s writing, he is a master of the plot twist, even planting one final turn in the last few pages of many of his books.  I say frequently that writers of fiction begin with a “what if…?” turn of mind.  Coben’s what ifs happen to be more intriguing than most.

            In this novel, Play Dead, one character is addicted to gambling and also to scams, which is where he gets the money to gamble with.  Unfortunately, he doesn’t come close to shaking his addiction until it’s too late.  Just as he is on the edge of breaking his bonds of slavery he is murdered.  We might say he was sacrificed to the novel’s plot twists, but we know this also happens in real life.

            Slavery to envy might not be as evident as slavery to addiction, but we know it exists, and far too frequently.  You have something I want.  If I want it too much, I become a slave to that desire.  Isn’t that how advertising works?  Ads create a desire to have what we don’t possess.  If that desire becomes overwhelming, I will do almost anything to obtain what I don’t have but wish I did.

            I believe Paul understood these kinds of slavery.  He must have seen examples of both addiction and envy as he moved through the Mediterranean world.  Paul drew no distinction between the two.  He lumped them together under the category of slavery to sin.  For him, whether you were addicted to alcohol, or sex, or anger, or judgmentalism made no difference.  Slavery to one was no better, no worse than slavery to another.  He also knew the Torah, and  the commandment, “You shall not covet…” (Exodus 20:17).  For Paul, sin was sin, and those who pursued a life of sin were slaves to sin. 

            Paul knew another kind of slavery:  slavery to righteousness.  His training taught him both the evils of sin and the virtues of righteousness.  His conversion changed his understanding of righteousness, but not its importance.  He understood, as Jesus taught, that we are never completely free.  We have a choice:  we can be slaves of sin or slaves of God. 

            It is interesting as well as paradoxical that being God’s slave is really the path to freedom.  If I am God’s slave I am free from both addiction and envy, free to be righteous in God’s sight, and free to pursue a life without slavery.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Which Side Are You On?


Which Side Are You On?

Luke 21:1-4

            Richard Hofstadter said, “One of the primary tests of a society at any given time is whether its comfortable people tend to identify, psychologically, with the power and achievements of the very successful or with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged.”

            This is an apt saying for our time, since, as at least one candidate for president says, we are in a battle for the soul of America.  It’s also a good question for us to ask ourselves:  Which side are you on?

            The question has been asked many times in our past:

            Which side are you on in the battle between the royalists and those fighting for freedom from the British?

            Which side are you on in the battle between the union and the seceding states?

            Which side are you on in the fight over women’s right to vote?

            Which side are you on in the civil rights movement of the 1960’s?

In each case people were forced to decide which group they identified with:  those who held all the marbles or those who wanted to join the game.

            Now we fight that battle again, and once more we must decide between the group on the inside and those who want not just to get into the room, but also to take a seat at the table.

            This passage has been used by many preachers on stewardship Sunday, the day set aside to encourage the congregation to give more to the church in the upcoming year.  I have steadfastly refused to use these verses in this context for two reasons.  First, because the ones most likely to take this story to heart are often those who can afford to give the least.  They are the ones who are apt to feel shame at what they give.  Using this story to extort more money from a congregation is blackmail by guilt.

            The other reason I won’t use this passage in a stewardship sermon is based on something I learned in seminary.  Dr. Mitzi Minor used this story one day in class.  Her interpretation was different from any I’d heard before, and I’ve listened to a lot of preachers in a lot of churches over a lot of years.

            Dr. Minor said this widow should not have been contributing to the temple treasury at all.  Funds given to the temple were to be used for the relief of widows and orphans.  Instead of giving, she should have been receiving.  Jesus was calling attention to the role reversal that made a giver out of someone who should have been a receiver.  Clearly, the comfortable people of Jesus’ time identified with the very successful rather than with the needs and sufferings of the underprivileged.

            This is the question we must each ask ourselves over the next two months:  Will we, who are comfortable with our circumstances the way they are, who find the idea of significant change unsettling—will we identify with the successful ones in our society, or will we stand with the underprivileged, the disenfranchised, the downtrodden?  Jesus made it clear which side he was on. 

            The novelist Louis de Bernieres said it well.  “The real index of civilization is when people are kinder than they need to be.”

            We know which side Jesus was on.  Will we follow his example, or will we shirk our responsibility to those he has called us to help?