Sunday, November 22, 2009

Tables Turned - A Sermon

Have you ever noticed how quickly the tables are turned on us in so many ways?  One day we live with one set of rules or in one reality -- the next moment things are totally different.

Most of you know last week, I was on my way from one nursing home visit to another when I hit a deer.  In one instant, the course of the day changed entirely.  I was remarkably lucky - for some an accident changes the course of their lives forever.  There is a man at one of the area nursing homes who has been there since his 30s - unable to feed himself and barely able to communicate - all the result of an accident.

I know another man who had a job and a family until he was arrested for robbery and sentenced.  After a few years in prison, they found the real guilty person and he was absolved.  But by then, his wife had divorced him and now he can’t find stable work.  

This is the way of the world, isn’t it?  Nothing is eternal or cast in stone.  Not buildings, nor our fortunes - nor even our impressions of the world.  They can all change.

Certainly, as Jesus points out in the gospel today, even the greatest and grandest can disappear in the blink of an eye.  The temple?  Huge beyond comprehension (at least for them), yet “not one stone will be left upon another.  All will be thrown down.”  He goes on to say that there will be hucksters who come after him -- claiming to be him and sounding convincing -- but their messages will be found to be empty.

Not that tables are always turned for the worse.  Hannah had a loving husband, but Elkanah wasn’t really all that bright.  He could not see how much she suffered from the taunts of his other wife Perinnah, about Hannah’s inability to have children.  Hannah wasn’t necessarily old, but it doesn’t take that many years of harassment for life to become unbearable.

Hannah’s fortunes change over night.  Once she prays, and Eli realizes she is not drunk as she appears, she gets her wish.  Not only is she Elkanah’s favorite wife, but she has a son.  She is, as it were, on top of her world.

And in the same way, more than once people I know have discovered that their hearts which they once thought were dead have a spark of life after all.  They have found that where they thought they could never forgive, now they can forgive -- and are given back their lives in that moment.

But what do these stories really tell us?  that the world is an unstable place? 

It tells us that ours is a religion of tables turned where all is not as it seems, where what looks like a dead certainty turns out to be the exact opposite, where expectations are regularly dashed, where fortunes can turn on a dime.  Where nothing is written in stone and an assumed course is not the guaranteed course.  

Where sin is forgiven and (as the author of Hebrews reminds us) the need for sacrifice simply goes away...  We are accepted -- just like that.

In short, ours is a religion based in reality.  Whether you believe in god or not, you cannot declare anything a done deal.  In the immortal words of Yogi Bera, it ain’t over till it’s over.  Sometimes our joy is interrupted.  Sometimes Grace breaks in where there was only darkness.  

The lesson is that outcomes are not what we are about.  It is to hold lightly to our accomplishments, to those things like the temple that impress us or that we’re proud of.  But also to have a light hold on those things that OPPRESS us.  They will not be there forever either.

Does that mean we lie around waiting for things to happen -- and then unhappen again, and that it doesn’t matter what we do because it’s all ever-changing?  That would be like asking, “Is there a point to life since we all die anyway?”

The fact that we cannot force or even predict where things are going does not mean we aren’t to be involved.  It only means that results are not our ultimate goal.  More important is the living that happens, the love that is shared, the effort to reach out to others.  

Giving, loving, forgiving.  Tables are often turned, and we can rarely predict how things will turn out.  So, hold lightly to results because they may be upended.

But hold tightly to one thing: God’s presence and love.  Not only is it written in unchangeable stone.  It is written in our hearts.