The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 31, 2016
My grandmother could cook. As I remember it, everything she made was incredible. I remember Christmas dinner at her house was always a treat. Roast beef. Mashed potatoes. Everything was just right.
But you never quite knew, you weren’t ever sure, what exactly was in what she made. There’s a story that’s passed around the Abbott family. One evening my grandmother was making dinner and she had a pot of beans on the stove. She tasted it, something wasn’t quite right. Now, my grandmother was old school. She took a whole stick of butter and plopped it straight into that pot of beans. Of course, that made the pot of beans delicious. And if you asked her for a recipe, she couldn’t give it to you. Some salt, some butter, some brown sugar. It was a little bit of this, a little bit of that. Whatever was in it, though, you surely didn’t want to tell your cardiologist.
It’s this image, a little bit of this and a little bit of that, that I want to use this morning. See, in a relationship – with your spouse, with your friends, with your church – there’s always a little bit of this and a little bit of that. You know this. You go through periods of life where you love church and all that’s happening, and you feel at times as though you are isolated from the community. Think about your spouse. There was a wise old couple that once told me how they had been married for fifty years. They said, “well, for about ten of those years we couldn’t stand each other.” A little bit of this, and a little bit of that.
It’s also how our relationship with God works. We are close to God, we feel apart from God. A life with Jesus is a little bit of this and a little bit of that. Hosea, the Old Testament prophet we read from today, describes this exactly. Our relationship with God is a little bit of this, and a little bit of that. There is good, and there is bad. There is intimacy, but there is rejection.
To put things in perspective, Hosea is writing God’s word to the ancient Jews about two thousand seven hundred years ago, at a time when the Jews are tempted to worship other gods. At a time when the ancient Jews were under constant threat of being invaded by other people. This is a time in which the ancient Jews were ambivalent in their relationship with the true God. They worshipped other gods, they were oppressing the poor. Hosea is writing to the ancient Jews, telling them to remember how God loves them. But Hosea is also telling the ancient Jews how disappointed God is. There’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
This is how Hosea starts, “when Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” He says, “it was I who taught them to walk, I took them up in my arms. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to feed them.” This is just so beautiful. These are tender images. God teaches his people how to talk. He feeds them. He pulls them up to his own cheek like a mother with her infant. But there’s more to it.
God is disappointed. Hosea says that the more God called to his people, the more they went from God. The more they sacrificed to other gods, the more they oppressed the poor. Hosea says that God will let the people go back into slavery in Egypt, God will let them have other nations rule over them.
God loves his people dearly, tenderly, as a mother who picks up her children to her cheek. But God is heartbroken, heartbroken as when that same child leaves their parents and runs away from home. There’s a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
This story is not so different today. In our life with God, there are times of intimacy but also times of abandonment. See, I am skeptical of Christians who tell me that they have never doubted God. I am skeptical of Christians who say that their relationship with Jesus is always wonderful, that they’ve never had a difficult time in their spiritual life. I am skeptical of people who do not have this conflicted relationship with Jesus because I have a conflicted relationship with Jesus. And I do not think that I am alone.
Go back through Christian history and you’ll see that our spiritual heroes are usually the ones who struggled with God. In the gospel of Mark, when a man asks Jesus to heal his child, the man says to our Lord, “I believe, help my unbelief!” Then there is St. Thomas the apostle. He tells his fellow apostles that he is ready to go to Jerusalem with Jesus and die with him. But then St. Thomas is the one who doubts, who doubts that Jesus is risen from the dead. A few centuries later, St. Augustine, the great St. Augustine uttered his famous prayer, “Grant me chastity, but not yet.” John of the Cross, a Spanish monk who was imprisoned for his faith, wrote a poem called, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” For it is only in the darkness, in the night, in times of imprisonment, that one finally meets God. And most recently, you have heard of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Upon her death, her followers read her diary and were awestruck by Teresa’s frankness. Even she, a hero and a saint who tirelessly served the poor, struggled to feel God’s presence in her life.
And now, I am going to be frank with you. In my relationship with Jesus, there has been a little bit of this and a little bit of that. When I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes during my physical exam to get into seminary, it felt like God abandoned me. That, even though I was committing my life to God and the Church, God was turning his back on me. When I was ordained to be a priest, the presence of God was near me, and with me. The feeling was palpable and undeniable. Some days when I sit down to say my prayers, it feels like I’m just saying them with my lips but my heart could care less. Some days when I sit down to say my prayers, it feels as if I’m sitting in God’s lap. Some days I feel confident that I am a faithful priest and pastor. Some days I feel like a complete failure. Some days I have great hope for the Church – the Church in the big, general sense. I see Christians living in unity, helping the poor, worshipping in spirit and truth. And some days I despair at our proclivities to fight, to criticize, to hold grudges. In my life with Jesus, there is a little bit of this and a little bit of that.
The good news of Jesus Christ, is that God’s love for us is not dependent upon our fickle emotions. As Hosea says, God is the one who teaches us how to walk. Who feeds us as children. Who picks us up as if we are infants and holds us to his cheek. And though God may be heartbroken at our willingness to leave him, God will always take us back home. God’s love does not change.
There is nothing that you can do or not do that will change God’s heart for you. This is the gospel. That despite ourselves, God is with us. God is faithful even as you and I might or might not be. This is the most important doctrine in Christianity. That Christianity is not about us, it’s about God.
That’s why we baptize infants, because baptism isn’t about that person, it’s about God being made present in that child’s life. That’s why, in the Episcopal Church, we don’t go around and around about who is going to hell and who is going to heaven. About who is justified, who is sanctified, who has been back sliding, and who is sealed in God forever. That’s God’s decision, and if we know anything about God, it’s that God is merciful, loving, and gracious, even to sinners like me and you. Christianity is about God, and that’s why the prayers you say, and the prayers I say, are not contingent upon our holiness, or upon the time of day we say them, or if our prayers go on for hours or if they uttered in flash. Christianity is not about our faithfulness to God, it’s about God’s faithfulness to us.
Our life with God is simply a response to God’s irresistible and overwhelming love. It is us returning time and time again to God to say thank you for this love, even if we don’t totally understand how it is that God loves us. It’s like my grandmother’s cooking. You never knew what exactly was in it. But whenever you sat down at her big dining room table, you knew it was going to be delicious. And you always had to say thank you. That is the key, saying thank you. Giving gratitude to God for God’s incredible presence in our lives. That’s why this year, 2016, is our year of gratitude at Holy Comforter. That despite the ups and downs of life, God is with us and for that we say thank you. We say thank you with our money, we say thank you with our lips, we say thank you with our whole lives.
Every morning when you wake up, during every hour of the day, at every year that passes in your life, give thanks to God for the love of our Lord Jesus Christ. And take courage, that in the ups and downs of our earthly pilgrimage, God is with us. God is always with us.