Richard Maxwell

Epiphany 5 A
9 February 2014
Grace Episcopal Church

In the Name of God:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

What does God want of us?  What does God want us to be?  To do?

I expect that many of us have asked this question at least once in our lives?  At one point I hoped that God wanted me to be a world-famous actor . . . I really DID talk to God about that, about being a really, really great actor . . . for God, of course!  Obviously, that wasnít in the cards.  Now Iíd be happy if God just wanted me to be really, really rich.  Thatíd be fine with me.  Iíd be okay with that.

One of the important and difficult steps in maturing in faith is realizing that God doesnít really care one way or the other whether weíre famous or not, or rich or not.  God cares about other stuff.  Now, donít get me wrong . . . I still try to listen for God and I still ask God for stuff all the time.  On Wednesday mornings, when Iím running late for the early morning mass (which is most Wednesdays, I have to admit), I regularly pray for green lights.  And occasionally I get them . . . all the way from the rectory to church.  Sometimes I donít have to stop once.  Those of you who often pass through the series of traffic lights on Park Rd., around the entrance and exit to 84 in West Hartford, know that to cruise through those intersections without having to stop is truly a miracle.  And when that happens I always thank whatever angels are pushing my car along.  Sometimes things in life get sorted out in the most amazing, and SATISFACTORY, ways . . . who knows why or how?  And I always thank the Lord, and whatever Spirits are helping out, when stuff goes RIGHT.

And yet, at the same time, I know Ė we know Ė that it can be really hard to get a clear answer from God about the really big questions . . . like what does God want of me?  What does God want me to be?  To do?  And sometimes when we DO get a clear answer to our big questions Ė I often wonder if itís EVERY time we get a really clear answer Ė itís NOT the answer we were expecting or hoping for.  Sometimes itís even an answer we donít want.

Think about the Biblical characters we know.  One after another of them is given something unexpected and sometimes unwanted to do:  When God speaks to Moses through the burning bush, Moses tries to wheedle out of the job heís being given.  When Jonah is told by God to preach repentance to the Ninevites, his enemies, Jonah runs in the opposite direction and ends up being swallowed and spit out by a whale so that he finally gives up and does what God wants of him.  Jeremiah tries to hold out speaking the words God gives him to speak, but Jeremiahís mouth begins to burn as if on fire and heís forced to prophesy using the words God has given him.  These are just a few examples that come off the top of my head.  Godís answers to our really big questions are surprising and sometimes distressing.

And thatís if weíre lucky enough to GET an answer.  As Iíve mentioned, the great majority of us donít get any clear answers to our really big questions from God.  Maybe, given the examples Iíve just cited of people who DID hear clearly from God, youíre thinking now that a little silence isnít such a bad thing after all.  But truthfully, weíd all like a little guidance, a little advice, from time to time.  Life can be so challenging, so difficult sometimes.  And that, too, has always been the case.  Weíre no different from our ancestors in all this.  The apparent silence of God can be more than frustrating . . . it can be faith threatening.

Our ancestors in faith did what people still do when faced with Godís apparent lack of guidance:  They tried to figure out what God wanted them to do, even though God seemed to be giving them few suggestions.  And so they worshipped.  Among our very earliest Scriptures are instructions Ė very detailed instructions Ė on how to worship God.  Itís pretty clear, no matter what else is going on, that God wants us to devote ourselves to God.  And so our ancestors built elaborate spaces, created detailed liturgies, crafted beautiful vestments and vessels for their worship Ė apparently all from Godís direct and specific instructions.  In our earliest Scriptures there are frequent mentions of singers and musicians and instruments, and so we know that music was also a critical element of their worship.  And, according to the Scriptures, all this pleased God.

And so, thousands and thousands of years later, we still do the same thing:  in holy spaces, through careful liturgy, using the best vestments and vessels and the most beautiful music we can, we worship God.  And I feel quite certain that this pleases God.  And yet . . . have you noticed something?  What happened to those questions:  What does God want of us?  What does God want us to be?  To do?  Does the answer, ďTo worship?Ē fully satisfy those questions?  Of course not!  Weíre meant to praise, worship, hallow, and adore God, but surely thatís not all weíre meant to do . . . thereís got to be something more . . . isnít there?

Yup, there is something more.  But, unfortunately, I donít think it has anything to do with our individual desires and yearnings.  Oh sure, God may help us along with a whole bunch of stuff in life . . . some of it pretty big and some of it pretty small (Iím REALLY grateful for those traffic lights).  But the answers to the big questions in life are much larger than what we want and yearn for in our own lives.  And it can be really easy to forget that.  And itís really dangerous if we do forget that . . . because then our worship may start to go wrong.  We may decide that our formal worship is all that God really wants from us.  Or, worse, we may Ė perhaps even unconsciously Ė begin to use our worship as a kind of bargaining chip.  ďOkay God, Iíve done my duty.  Iíve sat through mass, Iíve said my prayers, now itís your turn:  this is what I want from you.Ē

Itís not an uncommon problem at all.  Itís been around for a long time.  Isaiah had to warn our ancestors about these dangers thousands of years ago.  Isaiahís people were following all the rules and regulations for the proper worship of God, and yet their worship is empty.  The people say to God, ďWhy do we fast, but you do not see?  Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?Ē  ďHey, God!  Weíve done our part, now this is what we want.Ē  And God responds, ďLook, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.  Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.  Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.Ē  God goes on to say that, ďTHIS is the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke.  THIS is the fast that I choose: to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.Ē

As I said at the beginning of this sermon, I donít think God really cares one way or the other if weíre rich or poor, famous or not.  God cares about other stuff.  Yes, God cares that we love God and that we worship God . . . and God also cares very much that we love each other.  One of the most important steps on the journey of faith is to realize Ė to deeply understand Ė that itís not all about any one of us individually.  Itís all about all of us.  Whatís the Ďitísí Iím talking about?  Well, itís the answer to those questions we may ask of God:  What does God want of us?  To love.  What does God want us to be?  Lovers.  To do?  To love God and to love each other.  Thatís it.  Thatís the answer to the big questions in life:  love.

At the beginning of every mass at Grace we hear the Summary of the Law.  Jesus, asked to summarize all the teachings in the Bible, to condense all the wisdom of thousands of years, says this, ďYou are to love the Lord your God, with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.  Thatís the first commandment.  The second commandment is like it . . . in fact, you canít obey one commandment without obeying the other.  Theyíre almost the same thing.  And the second commandment?  And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.Ē

I think he means it.

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