Be Careful What You Praise For
Be Careful What You Praise For
A sermon for the Twenty-First Sunday after Penetecost
Texts: Esther 7:1-6, 9-10; 9:20-22
Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29
Be careful what you praise for.
The five lections recommended for this Sunday present a curious blend of themes. I know, I know, the preacher is not supposed to try to touch base with them all; or dare to find a unifying thread weaving its way through each of them. The passage from Esther, picked I suspect because this Sunday stands next to Rosh Hashannah, tells of a holocaust the Jews escaped long before Christ. Numbers recounts Moses’ exasperation with the Israelites in the wilderness, clamoring for a more varied menu than the one the Lord provided, the manna from heaven. Psalm 19 sings of the wisdom of paying attention to God’s commandments, that a life lived according to heavenly wisdom steers a path from beginning to end minimizing the troubles and maximizing the satisfactions. The advice in James seems to be offering an Amen to Psalm 19 with a coda to help each other get on the right track. And Jesus in Mark declares that his fellowship is inclusive, that anyone who wants to be with him has only to come along; but we should be certain to fix our eyes always on the prize, eternal life.
In each lection the message, whether stated or indirect, is to know, be assured, be forewarned, and embrace with all our minds and hearts that our lives are dependent on God’s grace and favor.
Praise the Lord!: the evocation quickly on the lips of many a pious soul, when something good and, perhaps, unexpected happens. You’ve heard it, I’ve heard it, maybe we’ve even said it, a hundred times.
Like this past summer up on the hill in Vermont: we were returning to our cabin from shopping chores in a village 14 miles away. Hurricane Bill was prowling the Atlantic off the coast of New England. The weather was menacing. The rains came, they poured, three inches in an hour. The waters coursed down the dirt road to our camp. As we drove to one of the lowest points we spied a large tree limb lying across the road. We stopped the car to remove it and discovered the tree limb was a mirage. What we had come upon was a large fissure in the roadway, a foot wide, four feet deep, and several feet long… and growing by the minute. I decided to make a run for it, driving the car to one side of the fissure, and making it to the other side unaware in the moment just how lucky we were. Within five minutes the road was impassable. In either direction! Other cars reported an even worse washout four miles at the other end.
Up on the hill safe in our cabin, with the realization we might have had to spend the night in a motel miles away, with Betsy and the boys already in the cabin unaware of our predicament and worrying what happened to us, we thought but did not say, “Praise the Lord!” For seeing us safely across the parted road. For holding the ground firm for the passage across one edge in our station wagon.
Escapes like ours remind us just how fragile life is and how, for all of our taming of the elements, we are subject to the sudden ravages of the natural world. Humility and gratitude sweep in, humility before and gratitude for God’s grace and favor.
But what about the Drews? No, you don’t know them. They are neighbors on our Vermont hillside. They did not get back to their cabin that afternoon, had to spend the night at a motel and the better part of the following day waiting for the road crew to repair the damage. I doubt they were saying “Praise the Lord” at Motel 8. One family’s good fortune, providential rescue, is another’s frustration. Do I attribute my arrival at the break in the road just in time to pass over to the hand of God as my Taurus’ co-pilot? Maybe, but not when the Drews are listening. They might conclude I was putting them in the category of the pursuing Egyptian chariots at the Red Sea crossing. And the Drews are loyal churchgoers who know their Bible.
Be careful what you praise for. God should not be conceived as the Divine Dispenser of personalized miralces, like Daddy Rockefeller handing out his silver dimes to those whom he meets along the way. Queen Esther may thank the Lord for sparing the Jews extermination at the hands of Haman; but what do we say to those whose family members died in gas chambers at Auschwitz, those whom God didn’t spare?
Or like that battle song which so infuriated my pastor during the Second World War, “Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition,” words attributed to a gung-ho chaplain. I doubt those Japanese on the receiving end of the ammunition were praising the Lord.
Or consider Barbara’s father’s sheepish look when God would provide the financial means for the family’s vacation or a downpayment on a used car… made possible by the honorarium from, say, the funeral of a church member. The Rev. Lewis Davis wasn’t always sure he approved of God’s method of providing.
Be careful what you praise for.
Which is not to say that praising God is wrong. Far from it. We should praise the Lord in every eventuality, for the totality of our lives, every moment of our existence. Just don’t get too specific and make it seem that God is looking over your shoulder, nudging you here and there, out of harm’s way, into blessings you dared not hope for, and doing it in a way for you unmindful of the consequences for others.
One of the few poets, other than hymn-writers, whom I have quoted in sermons, and I’ve quoted him often, especially on Easter Sunday mornings, is Gerard Manley Hopkins. I was introduced to this late 19th Century Irish monastic in my sophomore year in college… and, obviously, never forgot him, buying a book of his verse post-graduation for my library. Hopkins writes in one of his most memorable poems:
Praise God for dappled things,
For rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim,
For brindled cows in meadows….
The created world in which we live and move and have our being is crowded with the goodness and glory of God.
Two days after the flood in Vermont, we sat in the main room of the cabin looking through the raindrops of yet another storm, when, of a sudden, the sunlight broke through the clouds and – you guessed it – a rainbow appeared in our meadow wth its potential pot of gold just a couple of hundred yards away. Praise the Lord, but, please, hold the rain. And no, we found no gold or leprechauns.
Looking back on the long arc of my life - longer, I report, than I ever imagined it would be – I am prompted again and again to mutter to myself, “Praise the Lord.” So many good things have happened to me. Like that woman who shares bed, board, and her pension with me, the prettiest Methodist I ever met, the soul who has endured fifty-four years of my arrogance and petulance: with her in mind I can sing with utter conviction the old camp song, “Tell Me Why.” Especially the last verse: “I really think that God above Created you for me to love. He picked you out from all the rest, Because he knew I loved you best.”
Praise the Lord for Barbara.
Praise the Lord for you whom I number among my congregants, Brooklyn, Valley Stream, and online. Valley Streamers, I can easily conjure up that moment when I knew I was going to be your pastor. The phone rang in the upstairs bedroom of the parsonage in Brooklyn. It was early May 1973. Before I lifted the phone from its cradle I just knew that it would be D. S. John Carrington on the other end and that he would be asking me if I would consider being considered for pastor of Valley Stream. No sooner had he asked that question than I replied simply, “Yes.” The rest is history, twenty-nine years of it, mostly richly rewarding… for me, if not always for you.
If God sent me to Brooklyn to be, unbeknownst to me at the time, surrogate father to a generation of young people, God sent me a few miles to the east of Brooklyn to shepherd for a whole generation a wonderful mix of clam-diggers, metropolitan emigrants, and new arrivals from around the world. I’ve usually cringed when colleagues speak of “doing ministry,” but, by God, you and I did do ministry and did it to the glory of God and sometimes for the fun of it on the South Branch of the LIRR.
And many of you, Brooklyn and Valley Stream, now in my electronic congregation, continue to hold me together in retirement and provide me with something I’ve always needed badly, but now maybe more than ever, a sense of purpose to my days.
Praise the Lord for you. Amen… without reservations. But--
Be careful what you praise for. Be careful that your joy is purchased at no one else’s expense. Do it with an eye for the irony of it all, even as you do it with a carefree heart. In everything, for everything give the praise and glory to God. Including, dare I say it, for it’s a whole ‘nuther sermon, setbacks, troubles, and sorrows.
In all things, in every circumstance, praise the Lord.