Pentecost 14 August 29, 2010

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16                                                     

Luke 14:7-14                                                                       

A woman describes her mother, a “serious Anglican” on a hardscrabble farm in Ontario earlier in the last century:

My mother prayed on her knees at midday, at night, and first thing in the morning. Every day opened up to her to have God’s will done in it. Every night she totted up what she’d done and said and thought, to see how it squared with Him. That kind of life is dreary, people think, but they’re missing the point. For one thing, such a life can never be boring. And nothing can happen to you that you can’t make use of. Even if you’re wracked by troubles, and sick and poor and ugly, you’ve got your soul to carry through life like a treasure on a platter.

“You’ve got your soul to carry through life like a treasure on a platter.” What a marvelous image! I always hesitate when we have a reading like the one this morning from Hebrews. There are soaring moments in Holy Scripture – the one in the Hebrews passage this morning, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever,” is an example. But then, embedded right there with these soaring moments are the nitty gritty ones: “Let marriage be held in honor by all, and let the marriage bed be kept undefiled; for God will judge fornicators and adulterers. Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have.” 

I hesitate because I ask myself, can I preach on the soaring passages and ignore the nitty gritty ones? And if I preach on the nitty gritty ones, what can I say? Fornication means sex outside marriage. Well, these days virtually everyone has sex before they are married. Churches are full of people living together without getting married – some without any intention of ever getting married. Of all the marriages I’ve officiated at, only once has a couple not had premarital sexual relations; the man was a serious evangelical Christian. So what do I say?

Condemn everyone? Or is the Bible hopelesssly out of date when it comes to the nitty gritty? Are only the soaring passages relevant? Though if Jesus Christ is the “same yesterday and today and forever,” can the nitty gritty parts really be so easily discarded as applying only to the past?

The description of the farm woman carrying her soul through life on a platter comes from a marvelous short story by the Canadian author Alice Munro. The story tells how after the author’s parents died, their farm was sold to a commune of hippies. The hippies raised goats and painted a rainbow on the barn and flowers on the walls inside the old farmhouse—flowers and, in one room, a naked Adam and Eve. Revisiting her childhood home after the hippies left, and seeing the painting of the Adam and Eve couple, the author speculates on what sort of hippie orgies went on  in that room, which had been her parents’ bedroom.

The story is thus about the changes in morality that have occurred over the last century. It ends on an ambiguous note. We learn that the hippie commune collapsed; its easy amorality didn’t work. But we also learn that the prayer on your knees, soul on a platter morality of the old mother wasn’t the whole story. After the mother’s death, her husband in a nursing home grumbles in his senility about how harsh his wife’s moral standards had been in practice, how her righteousness had hurt her family. And the author herself, divorced, her hair dyed Copper Sunrise, telling a little white lie to paper over a relationship, the author concludes:

Moments of kindness and reconciliation are worth having even if the parting has to come sooner or later. I wonder if those moments aren’t more valued, and deliberately gone after, in the setups some people like myself have now, than they were in those old marriages, where love and grudges could be growing underground, so confused and stubborn, it must have seemed they had forever.

So Alice Munro’s story, entitled “Love’s Progress,” ends up where a lot of modern morality ends up: with ambiguity, a sense that neither the old absolutes nor the hippie discarding of all standards is the answer; with a wistful grasp at “moments of kindness and reconciliation” in a world where nothing lasts forever, a world essentially without God.

Well, I don’t know. In this sermon I have in effect offered you three choices: the old Anglican on your knees, soul on a platter choice; the hippie commune pattern; and the grasping at moments of kindness and reconciliation pattern. Maybe it’s my generation, maybe my vocation, maybe my experience of life: for myself I’m really pretty convinced that the on your knees, soul on a platter choice is the only real one, the one closest to “Jesus Christ the same yesterday and today and forever.” It can be done wrong, of course – in ways untempered by forgiveness, with a self-righteousness that ends up hurting others. But it takes more seriously than the other choices, it seems to me, the fact that we live our lives under the eye of God and in relationship with other immortal souls. It gives ultimate value to our days, our actions.

The nitty gritty of a reading like the one from Hebrews today – not throwing people in prison and treating them as inhuman, not torturing people as though they were not like us, honoring marriage and treating sex as something sacred, freeing ourselves from the love of money and being content with what we have – this nitty gritty seems to me in the end of a piece with the soaring passages. In the lives I minister to, ignoring the nitty gritty leads to unhappiness and worse, has created a society that seems to me in many ways bent on destruction. “Mutual love,” which is what the Hebrews passage is about, may have its soaring moments, but it is built on nitty gritty and a sense of living in the presence of God.

0 Responses to “Pentecost 14 August 29, 2010”


  • No Comments

Leave a Reply