Tuesday, July 18, 2006

For the Praise of God's Glory (Sermon for Proper 10B)

A sermon preached by the Rev. Jason A. Fout
at the Episcopal Church of the Mediator, Chicago, IL
on July 17, 2006 (Proper 10B)

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

I’d like to start off this morning with a question: what are we for?

What are we for?

What I mean is this: a watch tells time; we know what a watch is for. A shovel is used to dig holes; we know what a shovel is for. What are we for?

This isn’t an obscure, abstract question, either. In fact, our society looks at this in all sorts of ways. We are provided with many different answers to the question.

Continue reading For the Praise of God's Glory

One answer that we are given is that what we are for is to work, and to be productive. To put it so baldly might seem vaguely ridiculous, but a moment’s reflection shows it to be true. Think about the shame and anxiety that people feel when they are unemployed. Or consider that we usually don’t take a child or young adult seriously at least until they’ve had their first job, or begun making their way in their career. Or for those of us who are retired, think especially of those first few days after leaving the workforce – maybe you wandered around a bit wondering just what you were meant to do now? And some of us are stay-at-home parents: do you ever get a sidelong glance and a sneer from someone who works away from home, as if you don’t really work? I think it becomes quite clear after awhile that as a society, we say that what we are for is to work and to be productive.

That’s one of the things we say we’re for, but there are others too. Related to this is the idea that what we are for is to compete and to win. From our early years we are taught to admire winners and to do our best in whatever task we undertake. These are good things, to be sure. But our admiration of winning has become pathological, and we are unwilling to consider anything else. Winning through fair play has become winning at all costs. The joy of throwing and hitting a ball has transformed into the nightmare of steroids and drug use. In business, it is not enough that a corporation report profits, but they must report more profits than last time, or else Wall Street will assume there is a problem. All of this plays out in our lives as we are tempted to defeat others by hook or by crook to get ahead. We can see this even in the phenomenon of so-called reality TV, as contestants on Survivor plot against each other. Friends, I wonder sometimes if we have not adopted as a motto the saying of author Gore Vidal: It is not enough that I succeed. Others must fail.

So those are two answers that our society gives us about what we are for: what we’re for is to work and be productive, and what we are for is to compete and win at all costs. I’m sure we could name other possible answers: wealth, pleasure, family, and so forth. But this morning I’d like to suggest another answer, one not commonly found in our society. We find it in our second reading, from Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus, near the end of this incredibly rich passage. What he says, condensing a little is this:

“In Christ we have …obtained an inheritance,…so that we…might live for the praise of his glory.”

God has come to us in love, so that we might live for the praise of his glory. What does it mean to live for the praise of God’s glory? Of course in one sense we can barely even scratch the surface this morning. But I think we can make a start by saying two things about it:

First, to live for the praise of God’s glory focuses us on a life of worship. And of course what we do here on Sundays is important, but what I really mean is a life shaped by worship, 24/7. There is nothing more profound that we can do.

What happens when we worship? We are reminded of God’s loving actions on our behalf. We feel a gratitude which gives rise to generosity and perhaps sacrifice. We are called out of ourselves and into an intimacy with God. In short, we experience God’s love, and then come to reflect that to others. And so to live for the praise of God’s glory means living a worshipful life.

But secondly, living for the praise of God’s glory changes us, animates us, so that we embody that glory we behold. We grow not just in love of God but also in love of neighbor. God’s glory is that he made us through the beloved, through Christ. And God’s glory is that through the beloved he is gathering up all things to himself, as Paul says in today’s reading. And as we grow to embody that glory in the world, we come to see others as made through God’s love, and as destined to be gathered up through God’s love.

Friends, I feel as if I could talk to you about living to the praise of God’s glory all morning – for days, if you could allow me. But I wonder if one story would serve to help us make a start at imagining what this might look like?

Tony Campolo is professor emeritus of sociology from Eastern University, a political activist, and a Christian pastor. One other thing about Tony that you should know is that he doesn’t handle jet lag well: he and his wife once visited Hawaii together, and since Tony lives in Philadelphia his internal clock was six hours off. It was 3:30 in the morning, but it felt more like 9:30; he couldn’t sleep, and so he went out in search of what seemed to him like a late breakfast.

Unfortunately, the only place that was open was a diner that might be charitably characterized as a greasy spoon. He walked in, sat down at the counter and ordered coffee and a donut. Soon afterward, a group of loud and boisterous prostitutes entered, sat down and ordered.

One of them, sitting next to Tony, said to her friend “Tomorrow’s my birthday. I’m going to be 39.”

Her friend shot back “So what? What d’ya want from me? A party? A cake? So you’re 39, who cares?”

The woman next to Tony responded “Come on! Why do you have to be so mean? I was just telling you, that’s all. Why do you have to put me down? I don’t want anything from you. I mean, why should you give me a birthday party? I’ve never had a birthday party in my whole life. Why should I have one now?”

Eventually the women left, and Tony had an idea. He asked the guy behind the counter if they came in every night around that time, and he was told yes, and that the woman who sat next to him was named Agnes. Tony suggested that they throw Agnes a birthday party the following day. The counter man and his wife, who was the cook, thought it was a great idea and agreed to bake a big cake, and Tony bought decorations and signs and got there early the next day to put them up.

The next morning at 3:15 the decorations were in place, and apparently word had gotten out, because a large group of prostitutes was waiting in the diner. At 3:30 on the dot, Agnes and her friend came in, and everybody shouted “happy birthday!” Tony writes that “never have I seen a person so flabbergasted… so stunned… so shaken. Her mouth fell open. Her legs seemed to buckle a bit. Her friend grabbed her arm to steady her.” Sitting down at one of the stools, everybody began to sing happy birthday; and when the cake came out, she began to cry.

The counter man egged her on to cut the cake after she had blown out the candles: “Yo, Agnes, we all want some cake. Cut the cake.”

But Agnes kept looking at the cake, and slowly, softly stammered, “look, is it alright if I…can I keep it a little while? I mean is it alright if we don’t eat it right away? I live just down the street and I… I want to take it and show it to my mother. I’ll be right back. Honest!” And she got up off the stool and slowly, intently carried the cake out the front door and on down the street.

A stunned silence hung over the diner, and Campolo writes that he “broke the silence by saying ‘what do you say we pray?’”

He goes on to say that “looking back on it now it seems more than strange for a sociologist to be leading a prayer meeting with a bunch of prostitutes in a diner in Honolulu at three-thirty in the morning. But it just felt like the right thing to do.” When he was done praying, the counter man leaned over and said “Hey! You never told me you were a preacher! What kind of church do you belong to?”

And Tony responded, “I belong to a church that throws birthday parties for whores at three-thirty in the morning!”

Campolo doesn’t tell this story to toot his own horn – at least, he tells a lot of stories about his failures, too. But that night, by God’s grace, his life was worship. He was able to see in Agnes not someone unsavory or beneath his notice, but a beloved creature of God. And he was able to love her too, with the love of God.

I tell this story this morning to suggest that this is one way of living to the praise of God’s glory. There are as many different ways as there are different people; although they will all have family resemblances, sometimes they will be quite surprising as well.

And perhaps just as importantly, this is the answer to the question we are all faced with: what are we for? What we are for is not merely to work and be productive; not just to compete and win; it’s not wealth, pleasure, family, or any of the other half-answers we’re given. We are to live to the praise of God’s glory. That puts everything else in context. That is what we’re for. Amen.


Blogger Aaron G said...

Campolo's story is amazing!


Wednesday, July 19, 2006 12:02:00 AM  
Blogger Aaron G said...

By the way, I loved your comment on Faith and Theology and plan to use it on my series on "Place."

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 3:09:00 AM  
Blogger Jason said...

Hey, thanks Aaron! I usually put in the reference, but for some reason I think I forgot to this time: it's _Tell Me a Story_, a book in which he explores theological loci primarily through telling stories -- some about himself, others not. It's a pretty good book, and no technical at all.

I'm glad you liked what I had to say on F&T, and I look forward to what you have to say about place, a topic which is a preoccupation of mine, too.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006 4:42:00 PM  

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