What Would You Ask God For (or "Going Syrophonecian"), Old First Sermon 09.09.12

What Would You Ask God For (or "Going Syrophonecian"), Old First Sermon 09.09.12

Isaiah 35:4-7a and Mark 7:24-37

Our Gospel passages are about people approaching Jesus with their needs — believing, trusting, expecting, even demanding that he fulfill what could be seen as their impossible hopes.

So, as we begin today, I want to try something. A spiritual exercise really. Sort of like the first spiritual discipline I was talking about in Thursday’s E-pistle about making room for God.

Now I expect, for some of our more rationalist folks, this exercise won’t work. …The whole sermon might be a wash. …That after worship, someone’s gonna come up and say, “Rev., I disagree with you on that one. You made God into a Genie in a bottle granting us 3 wishes.” Or “Pastor, you got caught preaching magical thinking today.”

To which I’d respond: “Christianity is mainly wishful thinking. Even the part about heaven and hell reflects the wish that somewhere score is being kept. Dreams — waking or sleeping — are wishful thinking. Children playing at being grown-up is wishful thinking…”

Coming to church is wishful thinking!

“Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes true on. Sometimes wishing is the wings the truth comes on! Sometimes the truth is what sets us wishing for it.” (Buechner)

“Ask and you shall receive,” I think someone said. Not of course, that you shall receive everything or exactly what you asked for! I’m not offering any “abracadabra” that faithful people get their deepest hearts’ desires and every wish fulfilled. That’s obviously not our experience. Scripture reconciled to or made sense of in light of how life goes ends up coming down firmly and securely on “Not our will, but, we pray, God’s will be done.”

In humility, I’m leaving the the exact receiving end of the equation unattended this morning.
It’s all God’s decision anyway.

Instead, I want to focus on your willingness to ask. Can you be that trusting, vulnerable, honest and
open in your approach to God? The issue I’m talking about — what I’m asking you to work on —
is your spiritual attitude and approach. So here goes:

Think to yourself — you don’t need to share it with anyone else, though maybe later there is someone with whom you can and will… But for now, this is strictly between you and God: So think to yourself:
“If I came here today to meet Jesus, and if he can make the Deaf hear; the Mute, speak; the Blind see;
the Captive, free; the Sick, well; the Dead, live…and those who’ve given up, hope… what then is it that I would ask Jesus Christ to help me with?”

Struggle with the question for a minute until you have an answer or two.
(Pause)

Not some cleaned up or reined in polite request that wouldn’t surprise anyone. Don’t duck with something tame so as not to embarrass yourself. Instead, dare to offer up something more courageous.
What you really, hope against hope, believe you need. Don’t worry if you wrong, because it’s only God who can do any giving anyway! What would transform your life? What’s the deep down, aching desire you’ve almost pushed out of your consciousness because it seems too much to ask for.
Just too impossible?

Beloved, we’re taught — I don’t know exactly by whom or how — but we’re taught to stop asking.
To stop remembering even — what we ourselves think we really need. It starts as an issue of politeness perhaps (there are certain things one just doesn’t share), or personal safety maybe (am I afraid of the disappointment of expecting too much?). or is it others’ comfort we’re obeying (it is hard when all of a sudden you see the raw struggle someone you care about is living)?

But do we really need to self-edit for God? Couldn’t we at least, in silent prayer, name what we think we need? Do you feel the power or any resonance with prayers like these?

“By the way, Lord, could you bring my son back from the dead: I still ache and cry inside. Life hasn’t been right; it’s seems empty and awful, really, since he died.”

Or, how ‘bout: “God, I’m not sure how you can handle this, but I can’t keep going without work, without income, without the basics — food, a place to stay, my medicine — for my family and me.”

“Lord, I could use my old body back; you know, the one before the cancer, before the chemo and radiation, before the surgeries, before I’m so tired and worn down and feeling like I’m always living in the shadow of the next pet scan or the next occurance.”

Or “Jesus, I feel horribly alone. It’s been so long since there’s been anyone special. Anyone to make me feel special. Anyone for me to love. And make me feel loved. Cared for. Touched. I just need someone to hold me tight, so I can relax and stop feeling like I have to do it all by myself.

Or, “Lord, there’s this little issue of depression. It’s not so bad, except that it sort of plagues me. Haunts me when it lifts. And debilitates me when it settles in again on me. And I worry that I’m not going to make it through the next one.”

“God, I don’t know what to say to my mother! Haven’t been able to deal. Just cut off 9 years ago. Is there anyway you could help. Give me words where I don’t have any. Give me the spirit to try again. Give us back some relationship. Let us start over.”

“Jesus, I’m scared. Aging’s no fun. My eyesight just keeps getting worse. I can’t read the little print anymore. And I can barely climb the stairs. How much longer can I stay in my home? How much longer can I be on my own?

We all have them — though right now, we may be trying to put on brave faces, and look like we don’t! Trying to affect that confused “what in the world is he talking about” look, or appearing securely left out of this one. But everyone in this sanctuary has had some problem that’s bigger than they are. We often don’t share them. Maybe the people closest to us can sort of tell… But not even sharing them with God?
As if we can keep our secrets…

Beloved, why not approach God with our needs on the table?

A host of reasons, I guess. We try not to think about them. Maybe we don’t want God to have to worry, fool ourselves that we can spare God some worry! Or we just wish we could just make them go away.
If we can’t, isn’t pushing them out of sight and mind the next best thing? Anyway, it will be worse if we ask, but there’s no answer — then we have disappointment to bear on top of our needs. And certainly no one else really wants to hear about them! Is God any different? Anyway, it’s life. Stop crying. Keep pushing on. You know: strong shoulders and stiff upper lip… I mean, how much can one expect.
Everyone suffers. In other ways, I’ve been pretty lucky. I have other things to be thankful for. I don’t want to expect too much, to be greedy…

Yes, yes, yes. All that’s true. And we all know the rationalization monologue by heart

But shouldn’t we, at least with our God, be open and honest and vulnerable? If we are here with God, or better, if we trust God meets us where we are, isn’t there room — doesn’t there have to be space
where we can share and expect God hears and cares about our complaints, our sorrows, our needs, our burdens, our suffering?

I mean, as the note says about confession — not that I think these problems are sinful — but as with confession, there’s nothing that we can say that God doesn’t already know.

Except maybe our holding back… our believing we can’t ask… That we shouldn’t ask… Or that we need to keep ourselves from being too vulnerable. Or somehow feeling we need to protect God. “What if God isn’t even powerful enough to bear, much less respond to my need?”

Church, could holding back, tucking in, tidying up our lives, pretending… could that cause the disconnect you sometimes feel in your faith. That God is not as real or helpful or close by as you would hope. Perhaps it’s not about God’s proximity or presence or compassion at all; could it be our reticence and our unwillingness to be real, even with God?

Geneva and I spent a whole day with Lois on Friday. A whole bunch of us, and more this afternoon,
we’re trying to help her get through all her stuff, to downsize before she moves to the Wyncote Church Home on Monday.

Lois has bags of stuff she’s giving out here today. And still more stuff at home. Lois said I could share this. You might think she’s just a church lady — here every week, worked for the church her whole life.

And that’d true. She had enough papers to tell a whole history of the United Church of Christ and the Reformed Church before it. And of the Conference, and the Association, and Old First and Heidelberg Churches.

But she has a lot of other interests too.
Music. Community theater. Soap operas. National geographic. Traveling. And Roller Derby.

Each one of us — made in the image of God — is so complex and multilayered. And Lois has
the magazines and momentos, the maps and matchbooks and memorabilia to prove it.

But now she’s having to make hard decisions about what to keep, when most of it needs to be given away. But Lois taught Geneva and I something on Friday. What?

First, that pastors aren’t very much like Jesus. But, it turns out, Lois is like the Syrophonecian woman we read about today. She helped Geneva and I know what it must have felt like for Jesus when he ran into that formidable force.

We’d say, “No, Lois, you can’t keep that.” And Lois, her steely blue eyes unblinking as she stared us down, would respond, “Yes I can. You can’t throw that out.” Put it over here for me to look at later.”
And we did. We got rid of boxes and boxes, even after a whole week of downsizing. But she kept the 6 boxes of stuff she wanted.

My point is, Lois isn’t afraid to tell us what she wants. To say No. To correct us. To complain when she thinks something is wrong. To share what she needs, wants, expects.
Either was the Syrophonecian woman.

I bet both women are the same way with God. Not holding back.
But speaking their minds. Saying straight out what they want. What they think they need. Demanding what they expect. They may not always get it, of course, but they begin by asking, expecting, with honesty…

Everyone knows the dead don’t come back. Bodies get sick. People go hungry. We’re alone. We suffer from mental illness. People stop talking to one another. We just can’t see or hear or say all we ought to.

Yes, all that’s true. As true as God not answering our prayers as we would like. But, Lois has impressed upon me the meaning of “Going Syrophonecian!” As for me, I’m going to pray as raw and needy and honest as I can. I want to pray like Lois, and let God do the deciding.

Lois starts a new life in a clean, safe room at the Wyncote Home tomorrow. That’s proof enough for me of God’s power to come in and make a difference (albeit through Marjorie and Geneva and a long list of others)… Why that’s outright evidence of resurrection!

Church, hold fast to the promises — the last line of our passage from Mark and the first line from this morning’s Isaiah:

“They were astounded beyond measure, saying,
‘Jesus does everything well;
he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’”

and

‘Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
God comes with vengeance, with terrible recompense.
God will come and save you.”

Amen.