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Your Will Be Done

A sermon preached by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock

at St. Philip’s, Easthampton, Massachusetts, on 13 March 2022 [Lent 2}:

Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18; Philippians 3:17-4:1; Luke 13:31-35

Have you ever been angry at God? What do you do at such times? What’s it like for you? If these questions put you off, or make you uncomfortable, or cause you to deny this component of your spiritual life, then with respect I suggest that you may not actually love God enough – enough to be angry with the Most High, not to mention that you aren’t being very honest with yourself.

Along these lines, I remember a story that was told to me years ago. It is a story about those times when God doesn’t do what we want the Holy One to do. It’s a story about how easy it is for us prayerfully to mouth the familiar words, “your will be done”, and how difficult it is (especially in times when God disappoints) to live those words. The story goes like this.

A man was walking in the lower eastside of New York, when his attention was yanked by the loud roars of a man’s voice. The walker stood still in his tracks; and looking up from his stroll spied a rotund individual, standing in the middle of the street, and shouting at the top of his lungs. The man wore a stained, white apron, replete with the marks of his butcher’s trade wiped down his front. His beefy right hand was raised in defiant protest, punctuating his vociferous complaints, which were clearly addressed upwards.

Intrigued, if not bewildered by the sight, the pedestrian noticed how florid the butcher’s round, bald head was, and how the arteries in his neck bulged with furious indignation. Nonetheless, it was also patently clear to this innocent bystander that this outraged protester was … was praying – or (at the very least) addressing God.

As the walker stood in silent awe at such a public display, the butcher continued with his enraged indictments. Yes, he was indeed addressing God; and yes, indeed, he was venting his list of grievances against the Creator of heaven and earth. And from the sight and sound of him, the butcher’s list was as heart rendering as it was extensive, which is the point at which the pedestrian noticed a strange and ominous change in the color of the local atmosphere. Steadily, in the middle of the day, it was beginning to get quite dark: a fact that went unnoticed by the butcher in the street, who continued with his angry complaint. But the situation changed immediately, when the dark clouds and the still air converged into an ear-splitting clap of thunder, accompanied by an explosion of blinding lightening.

In that moment, clouds of dust and smoke billowed and swirled about, as if to suck the very breath of life away; and then as suddenly as it had struck, a deep silence emerged. The dust and smoke cleared; and as the bystander blinked his bewildered eyes clear, there stood the butcher, still in the middle of the street but now his face was blank and ghostly white with fear. Then, the butcher began to blink his own eyes in gradual recognition of what had just happened, that beyond all expectation he was alive. The normal color of his complexion began to return, and his stiffened, terrified body began to loosen with the slightest of movements, until that beefy fist of his returned to its high, menacing perch. The shaken pedestrian couldn’t miss hearing the last praying complainant: “And another thing, you can’t take criticism either!”

What about when things don’t go as we thought they would? What about when what God has said and promised gets delayed? What’s that like? What do we do?

These are all questions that the readings from Genesis and Luke embrace. For instance, I don’t know if Abraham got angry at God because God had promised him that if he would keep the Maker of heaven and earth at the center of his life that Abraham would be the father of a great people. I know that his wife, Sarah, laughed at the prospect of two old goats becoming parents. But that covenanted promise seemed to be unraveling. How would that prospect come to fruition, if there was no true heir, no child? Abraham may not have been angry at God, but his faith in the promise severely wobbled, to the extent that he and Sarah initiated “Plan B” precisely because what was supposed to happen evidently was not happening.

“Plan B” entailed Sarah giving her slave woman, Hagar, to Abraham so that through Hagar Sarah might claim a child and a future. But “Plan B” and God’s promised plan were two very different things. As usual happens in such substitutional situations, there are unintended consequences to a self-made “Plan B”-alternative, and a bad situation gets worse. “O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless …You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.”

Angry or not, it was hard for Abraham and Sarah -- as it is for us -- to stay steady in the face of a future in which God’s promises are delayed. The issue from a human point of view is this: Can we continue to trust an unknown future to a known and promising God? Such faith ain’t easy; is it?

In the gospel lesson, we see the same sort of situation – one in which God’s promises are delayed; but the viewpoint is different. What we see in this reading stems from God’s end of things. Jesus is clearly on his way to Jerusalem. As the prophet Isaiah had foreseen (50:7), Jesus “set his face like flint” toward Jerusalem, fully conscious of what his commitment to complete God’s promise would produce. So it was that when some Pharisees warned Jesus that the pretend “King of the Jews”, Herod was looking to do to him what all tyrants do when the pretense of their power and control is threatened. In today’s gospel, Jesus spoke in painful lamentation about the stubborn resistance of God’s own people to God’s promises, a resistance that ironically and tragically creates the delay.

“Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who ae sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” [13:34]

The image Jesus uses is a poignant one. It is an image of a mother hen providing safety and protection for her vulnerable chicks, “under the shadow of her wings”. And the extreme example of this mother hen is that when the barn is on fire and all hell has broken loose, she gathers her panicked babies unto herself; and spreading her wings over them, keeps the flames from the overwhelmed fledglings, even to the cost of being consumed by the fire herself.

Jesus knows what awaits him in Jerusalem. He knows the reason he must face our petulant resistance, our disappointed anger, and our feckless faith on the crucible of the cross. Like the mother hen, he will demonstrate what real love entails, what real commitment looks like, and what fulfilling the life-promise costs. God’s love is God’s life and God’s eternal promise. Not even death – death on a cross – can overshadow what God alone can and does give in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Such love can and does pass all our understanding, as such we rebel; and the promise is delayed. That’s a fact; but the truth is to hold onto the larger fact that with God the future holds the same provision that you and I have known in the past. I am mindful of the refrain from the old slave spiritual puts it well: “You’ve brought too far to let me go now.”

There is more to our lives than what we make of them, what we expect of them, what we demand of them. The truth is that the Maker of heaven and earth gives us what we need and cannot provide for ourselves. And that, I think, is the reason you and I are church. We hold on to one another, especially in the anxious times, so the promise may unfold among us and in us.

God keeps the promises. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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