September 4, 2011
Sermon for the 12th Sunday after Pentecost
September 4, 2011
The Rev. Bradford Ayers Rundlett
Matthew, quoting Jesus, makes a good case for working through our differences, especially in the Church. And God knows we do have our differences. The Gospel reminds us that when we have a problem with another person, we need to sit down with them and talk it through, provided they’re willing. I find that when I try this, keep a lid on my tendency to play the “blame game,” and leave even a little room for God’s grace, the conflict is usually resolved and the relationship is usually restored.
I must admit however, that I haven’t figured out how to do this when the other person is driving a car, cuts me off, gives me the sign, then zooms away! I’m working on it! There are some people with whom I’d really like to have a “come to Jesus meeting!”
Resolution of our differences and restoration of our relationships require respect, honesty, and the willingness to face our shortcomings. And it doesn’t always work.
Nevertheless, when we’re willing, when we try, we really can work through most of the problems we have with each other.
But, what do we do when we have an issue with God?
That may sound like a strange notion, but consider this: Ezekiel didn’t want to be a prophet. God simply drafted him “You, mortal, I have made a sentinel for Israel.” Ezekiel didn’t ask God for the job, or give his consent. He was charged with publicly chastising people who were disobedient, and told if he didn’t do this, he’d be responsible for the consequences.
Suppose this is about you: given the choice to speak the truth, which would please God, but incur the wrath of your family, friends, and neighbors - or keep your mouth shut, avoid trouble with your family, friends, and neighbors, and incur the wrath of God - what would you do?
It wasn’t much of a choice if you ask me.
Paul didn’t want to be an Apostle for Jesus. In fact he thought everyone who believed in Jesus should be arrested, “persuaded” to renounce this heresy, or be executed. But Paul, like Ezekiel, wasn’t given much of a choice! Do you remember what happened? Paul was struck blind, knocked off his horse, and left in the dark for three days to think about it. Then, whether he liked it or not, he would preach the Gospel to a lot of people who didn’t want to hear it, he would live like a pauper, suffer multiple beatings, get run out of town from just about every town he visited, spend time in prison several times, and eventually lose his head on a Roman chopping block!
Not much of a choice.
And according to Matthew, Jesus sent all of his disciples out into the world to preach the Gospel, and it got almost every one of them killed in a most unpleasant way.
Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Stephen, Timothy; not one of them wanted to work for God, and for good reason. The servants of God don’t fare very well. The list of martyrs on the Church calendar is long. Why doesn’t God protect his faithful servants?
Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews, knew exactly what he was talking about, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” [10:31]. Jesus may have given his disciples a tidy way to deal with each other, but what do we do when our conflict is with God?
I’m not suggesting God is mean. Some pretty sweet promises have come down to us from the throne of Heaven - like eternal life, with everyone we love (and maybe a few we don’t), a banquet that’ll beat anything we’ve ever seen or tasted, a suite in God’s mansion, perfect weather, and all our pain and suffering gone for good.
I’m looking forward to that!
And there’s the promise at the end of this morning’s Gospel reading, “Truly I tell you” Jesus said “if two of you agree about . . . anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven.”
Did we hear that right? “Anything we ask?”
Jesus promised, if you and I agree on something like . . . We want God to fix it so none of the people we love (including ourselves) will ever get sick or injured, and we’ll all live happily forever. And do you think God will make that happen, just because we want it?
Every week at least we pray for peace, an end to poverty, for people who are sick and suffering to be made well; we agree, we’ve been asking . . .
Okay, that’s not happening, at least not now or in the global and instantaneous way we might want.
Maybe we need to show some good faith. So, what if we all agree to contribute a really significant amount of our material resources to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and comfort the sick – God would like that I’m sure. So let’s say we all pledge 25%; no let’s make it 35%; O let’s just make it an even 50%! That should do. And in return we ask God to make sure we’ll still have everything we want and need, that we’ll be spared the more difficult and painful experiences in life, because God should reward us for being good stewards, right?
Do you think that’s going to happen?
We know it doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t make deals, doesn’t grant favors; God doesn’t offer special incentives.
In fact, God doesn’t appear to operate with the same rules you and I do at all!
God has ways of working things out that are just downright confounding. I’d like The Almighty to snap his fingers, wink his eye, wiggle his nose, say the word, and put an end, once and for all, to hatred, war, disease, poverty, tyranny, abuse; just fix everything and everyone, okay? Can we agree on that?
God can do it, right? God is God! God can do anything!
God can, but there’s this gift of “free will” that God has given us. And all the theologians say God won’t interfere, won’t violate our free will, even when we choose to do unimaginably horrible things, as long as there is even the most remote chance that we might choose to do the most generous and loving things.
God’s promises are good. But god stops short of the point where Heaven’s grace would get in the way of our choice to do evil, or good; to hate, or to love. Because love is genuine only when it is freely given.
Okay. I understand that’s how it works. But most of us would still, for the people we love, gladly relinquish our free will to protect them from the kind of pain and suffering we see in the evening news. Most of us would, without hesitation, lay our lives down for the people we love.
The point is, we don’t have to . . . Jesus has already done that. He gave up his free will, gave up his life; gave up everything, for you, for me; for everyone.
No, God most certainly does not play by the same rules we do, or we’d be condemned! In fact God breaks the rules to save us, every last one of us. And when we are given the opportunity to help, we should jump at the chance. Ezekiel may have objected, initially, but he did what God asked him to do. Paul had serious reservations, and he resisted. But when push came to shove, he did what Jesus asked him to do. Moses, Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Jonah, Stephen, Timothy, the disciples, the saints and martyrs, and many more people than any of us can count or name, sacrificed their own hopes and dreams to make our hopes and dreams, the hopes and dreams of God, come true.
Saying “Yes” to God, giving ourselves to God, is frightening, because we don’t know exactly what will be required of us. We do know that God will go to any length to rescue us from sin and death, and that does involve using human beings as instruments of saving grace. If there are any doubts about that, remember Good Friday; remember the cross.
We are free to bind, or set loose, the love and saving grace of God. We are free to tell God “No I will not serve you;” as we are free to say to God “Yes I will serve you.” But when we come to this Altar and accept the bread and wine, the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ, we are offering ourselves to God, we are offering our lives, we are offering our service. As millions of people who lived before us have done, and as many more millions do today, we ask God to save everyone in this sinful and broken world, and use us as he will.