Pentecost 14 (Year A), Sunday, October 2, 2011Isaiah 5:1-7 Psalm 80:7-15 Philippians 3;4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46 Preached by Anna C. Haugen Trinity Lutheran Church, Somerset, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Paul writes: “If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more.” He then goes on to list all the reasons he has to be confident in himself, in his own righteousness and abilities. But the things he lists mattered in his own time and culture, and seem kind of strange to us. What does it matter what his tribe was? What does it matter that he was circumcised—after all, Paul is the one who said circumcision didn’t matter. None of those categories that Paul identifies as important matter to us much today. It’s kind of like watching National Geographic, about some strange foreign culture—it’s not easy to identify with what Paul is saying. So let me re-write Paul’s list as if it were about me, and see if that makes it more understandable. Here goes.
“If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: baptized in the ninth month, an American citizen, from a white middle-class family, daughter and granddaughter of American citizens. As to intelligence, a straight-A student with a Master’s degree. As to religion, a seminary graduate who works in a church. As to doing what good white middle-class girls are supposed to do, blameless.”
It sounds so good when you put it all up there like that. What an impressive résumé! I have been blessed by God, both by where and when I was born and by the health, intelligence, and drive to accomplish all the things I’ve done. Shouldn’t I be proud of it? Paul, too, had been blessed by God in a wide variety of ways. Shouldn’t he have been proud of himself, thankful for all the ways God had blessed him and all the things he had accomplished with what God had given him?
No, Paul says, he isn’t proud of those things. In fact, he regards them as loss—as rubbish—compared to Christ. But even there, we don’t really hear what Paul is saying. In verse 8, where our translation says “rubbish”? That’s not what Paul actually said. The most accurate translation of the word Paul said is one I can’t say in church. Paul believes that all those wonderful blessings he has, all that he has accomplished in his life, are worse than useless. It’s worse than trash. It’s worse than unclean. Compared to knowing Jesus Christ, those things are bad.
But wait. Shouldn’t he be grateful for God’s blessings and proud that he has earned them? Aren’t they proof that Christ is with him? Shouldn’t those blessings—and the approval and support of the community that accompanies them—be the goal of Paul’s life? Isn’t that the way it works? The Builders’ Sunday School class is currently studying Wisdom literature in the Bible, primarily the book of Proverbs. And one of the themes of the book of Proverbs is that God blesses those who do the right thing and punishes those who do the wrong thing. Good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. That’s a very popular belief these days—televangelists preach it all the time. So, why the heck does Paul call the good things in his life trash? Shouldn’t he be happy about them?
I didn’t really understand Paul’s point in this text until after my first year of seminary. Seminary students are required to spend three months doing Clinical Pastoral Education, as a chaplain in a hospital, nursing home, or prison. I did my CPE at Oregon State Hospital. I chose it because it was the only hospital within driving distance of my home with a CPE program. Oregon State Hospital is a mental facility, and if I showed you a picture of one of the older buildings you might recognize it, because they filmed One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest there.
Nothing could have prepared me for that hospital. There I was, an educated, healthy, dedicated woman, ready and eager to work. I felt so useless. It was the first time in my life that I had been confronted with the reality of brokenness. It was the first time I had experienced first-hand what life is like for those people who don’t have all the advantages that I have had, it was the first time I had been confronted with the fact that sometimes terrible things happen to good people.
At the hospital I was supposed to be ministering to people who had long-term, serious illnesses they would struggle with for the rest of their lives. There was no cure, nothing was going to fix them. If they got out of the hospital, it would likely be to a half-way home. Medication might ease some of their symptoms, but only at the expense of serious (and sometimes debilitating) side effects. There was a middle-aged woman, who had had a traumatic brain injury after an accident and would never again be able to live with her husband and children. There was a man with paranoid schizophrenia, who heard voices yelling horrible things in his ear all day long. There was a young man with obvious problems who had been passed around the system for years, with each doctor believing something different was wrong with him and none of them able to help him.
All those things I listed earlier—my family background, my education and intelligence, all the things I have accomplished—none of them prepared me for that. The residents of that hospital were in pain, deep and abiding pain, but there was nothing I could do for them. I couldn’t fix their problems, no one could. The more I tried to figure out what I could do, with all of my resources and experience, the less I was able to be with them in their pain and grief. The more I tried to use my own abilities and resources to fix things, the less I was able to be truly present with them when they needed me. The more I focused on my own gifts, the less I was able to listen to what God was calling me to do, and what those patients needed me to be. It was the first time I realized how helpless I was, and how worthless the things of the flesh are. It wasn’t the last.
I have sat in a room with an elderly woman who has cancer and held her hand as she cried and said she just wanted it to be over, while her children tried to tell her she needed to be strong, that they didn’t want to lose her. The whole family had been struggling with a wide variety of health problems for over a year, and they seemed to go from one crisis to the next with little time in between. So far, they had all pulled through together, but it couldn’t continue for long.
I have prayed and talked with a ten-year-old girl with anorexia. She was a bright, active girl who had seemed happy to everyone who knew her, but she starved herself until she needed a week in the hospital to recover. She seemed to be doing well, she went home and was eating everything she should. Then she wasn’t in church one Sunday, and I called her mother. “She had a bad week,” her mother said. “We’re hoping she doesn’t have to go back to the hospital.”
In all those circumstances and many others, I was helpless. All the things of the flesh that I had been so proud of were useless, and sometimes worse than useless. But Christ was not. You see, there are times when our blessings blind us to the one who gave them to us. It’s possible to be so focused on our own possessions, our ambitions, our wants and our own life that we can’t see what God is doing. God gives us many blessings, but if they get in the way of our relationships with God and one another, if they distract us from Christ, they become obstacles instead of blessings. The love of Christ is the greatest gift God has ever given us, greater than anything else could possibly be. Paul said “I want to know Christ,” because he realized that knowing Christ was more powerful than all the blessings of the flesh he had.
In those hospital rooms, and homes, Christ Jesus was there. Jesus came to earth and became human just like us. Jesus suffered and died a horrible, horrible death. Jesus understands pain because he has suffered it himself. Jesus understands grief because Jesus has grieved. No matter what we humans endure, no matter whether we have been blessed with good fortune or bad, no matter whether we’ve fallen away and done things we shouldn’t have, Jesus loves us and Jesus understands us. And Jesus will never abandon us. Whether we live or we die, we belong to Jesus Christ. No matter what happens, Jesus Christ has called us as his own. Jesus Christ will make us whole, whether in this world or the next. Christ rose again from the dead, and we rise with him. Jesus Christ calls us to go out into the world, and share God’s love with the whole world so that all may know God’s love and grace, and the sure and certain hope of the resurrection. God gives us those blessings of the flesh so that we may share them with others, and be a blessing to them.
Jesus came to live as a human being two thousand years ago. Jesus comes to us every week when we gather together for worship, when we come share his holy supper. Jesus is with us when we have all the blessings we could want, and Jesus is with us when we hit rock bottom. Jesus is with us when we succeed, and Jesus is with us when we fail, when we let the gifts God has given us blind us to our need for God’s grace and mercy. Through Jesus Christ, through the power of his suffering, death, and resurrection, we are given hope and salvation. Suffering is not the end of the story, pain and loss are not the end of the race. The end of the race is Christ Jesus, and the joy of the resurrection. Thanks be to God.