After reading today’s lessons, I wrote an imaginary letter to God. It’s really a letter from any man listing a synopsis of the human complaints about God reflected in today’s lessons.
What have you done for me lately? You led me out of bondage in Egypt, but now the mad man you are put in charge has disappeared and I’m all alone and hungry in the dessert.
You invited me to a wedding feast which was impossible for me to attend and then when I declined your second invitation you threatened me and forced me to come. You knew I didn’t own a good suit let alone a tux and now I’m condemned for not wearing proper clothes.
I’ve followed the Law all my life, but your man Paul says that’s garbage all I have to do is to know Christ. I certainly share his suffering, but where is this grace that’s supposed to go before, and await me. I need it right now!
Doesn’t this sound like the lament of a spoiled brat? From time to time we all feel this way. I signed it as I am the only child of a relatively prosperous middle class family and probably do expect more from God than many of my fellows.
Fr. Rick addressed the problem of “What have you done for me lately?” last week. How much is enough, how many times do we expect God to bail us out? We love to think of God as a celestial Fairy Godmother with nothing better to do than to yield her a magic wand to turn pumpkins into golden chariots and all our troubles into blessings. We forget that God paid a price for the gifts given to us and we forget that we who receive so much are expected and indeed required to give something back.
Today’s lessons sound very harsh as they stress our responsibility and our need to respond to the grace that God so readily provides. God tells Moses, “I’ve had enough! I will fulfill my promises to Abraham, but rather than through this bunch of ingrates, through you. They can see what their Golden calf will give them. No more manna, no more springs of water out of a rock, no land flowing with milk and honey!“
A similar warning is found in the parable of the wedding feast. God distributes his blessings to all of us. Too often not one of us has the courtesy to respond, “We’re too occupied with our ‘golden calves’ to pay any attention to the very source of our plenty.” And when God narrows the invitations to those whom he has given the most, we begrudgingly respond but only under duress and indignantly that God would make enforce what is demanded of us.
Once again we gather for a wedding feast. We are gathered to celebrate Christ’s Life, Death and Resurrection. Just what kind of clothing does God demand of us? In our Epistle Reading, Paul spells it out to the congregation at Philippi: Have an attitude of joyfulness, gentleness, peacefulness, and thankfulness. Seek to do what is true, noble, right, pure, lovely and honorable. Such clothing cannot be purchased with money.
About 15 years ago I was visiting my son at Virginia Tech’s Graduate School equine facility in Middleburg, Virginia. On Sunday I attended services at a very upper crust Episcopal parish. Accustomed to parish life in California, I was wearing new slacks, a new dress shirt, a lightweight V-neck sweater, a tie, and brightly polished shoes. Thus attired I was not acceptably clothed. I was the only male over 6 year’s old not wearing a three piece suit. I’m not sure how many in the congregation were attired in gentleness, humility, goodness or the thankfulness, but I do know only one male in the congregation, yours truly, lacked the proper garments to participate in the life of that parish.
What sort of grace do we need to walk the walk and talk the talk that clearly identifies us as followers of Christ, as members of his earthly body, as his present day co-creators of the Kingdom? Today’s lessons challenge us not just to blindly follow the pack to be another lemming, but rather to accept those gifts, those graces of God enumerated by Paul that will allow us to resemble the Saints and discern the true paths that lead to God.
Generosity isn’t directly mentioned by Paul in this particular sermon to the people of Philippi, but that’s probably because it was a given. They were already practicing generosity in providing for Paul during his missionary trip through Macedonia. Their generosity was making his ministry possible and they were exercising care as well for many in their local community.
Generosity suggests money and in our society money is the most often chosen form of charitable giving. But over the last few weeks since I have returned from our long vacation and as penance for my long absence taken over the finances of the Monterey History and Arts Association, I have found that equally valuable and sometimes even more valuable than monetary gifts are gifts of Time and Talent. Look around you, the ministry in this place would be impossible without the gifts of time and talent generously provided by many in this congregation. Few congregations, even in the richest parishes, have money to pay a professional choir, or altar guild members, coffee hour providers, gardeners, visitors to the sick. The list goes on and on.
Time, talent, and treasure are familiar themes in Episcopalian circles during pledge drives and annual stewardship campaigns, but perhaps we should add another “T” word. One mentioned by Paul in today’s epistle; thankfulness. We can’t really “Walk the Way” without thankfulness for the many opportunities we are given in this pleasant place, in this land of plenty, in this community of acceptance. We are rich beyond and have possibilities beyond the dreams of most of the world’s inhabitants. Where else can you break bread with a multitude of community members of other religions, other races, other political persuasions, other national origins without dissension or rancor? How do we dare pose that question to God? What have you done for me lately?
God’s grace, God’s gifts is always available to us, but all too often we do not value them enough to incorporate them into our earthly pilgrimage, our individual walk. I grew up with an old country truth, “You can take a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink.” We do have the ability to refuse God’s gifts, to take another path. The condemned wedding guests in today’s Gospel didn’t need to buy fancy duds, but they did need to change their priorities, their attitudes, and their outlook on life.
God does not need to condemn any of us. We are quite capable of condemning ourselves. That being said, we should keep firmly in mind that we can’t ransom our way into God’s Kingdom. The widow’s gift of a single penny will always have far more effect than the rich man’s gold and silver. We have many opportunities to return thanks to God in many different media, time, treasure, and talent, but the form of thanks most desired by God is for us to walk in faith, hope, and love and for us to really strive to be his presence in this torn world.
The Rev. John H. Burk (Retired) preached at All Saints’ Episcopal Church, Carmel