Sermon: The Acceptable Time, Now
Texts: Psalm 82:1-7; 2 Corinthians 6:1-2, 16
Date: October 23, 2016
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church
Psalm 84 is a song praising Zion as the longed-for goal of the pilgrim. Faithful folk in Israel used to hope to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to visit the splendid temple, a place where Israelites believed God dwelled. It’s not that they thought Yahweh was contained in the temple, but they believed God was present there with a special intensity, especially in the innermost court, the Holy of Holies.
One might wish to visit the temple on one of the holy festival days, joining throngs of other pilgrims. Or one might go for personal reasons at another time, to pray for something important, or to bring a sacrificial gift to atone for sin or as a demonstration of gratitude. A pilgrimage to the Temple was something ordinary folk dreamed of and sometimes were able to do. Psalm 84 is a song that celebrates the pilgrimage to God’s dwelling place in Jerusalem. The pilgrim casts his or her heart toward the temple just thinking about it. The song poetically expresses envy of the birds that make their nests in the temple courts and fly effortlessly in and out. Psalm 84 might have been a psalm that was sung on the pilgrimage itself as well, while on the road.
I like the bit that places the highway to Zion in the heart. “Happy are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.” That implies locating the pilgrimage to God within a person, as well as or instead of its literal form as a trip to the temple along dusty roads. As the pilgrim—who might be sitting in a rocking chair on their own porch—journeys through a desperately dry place, they find it unexpectedly a place of springs and pools. Those journeying toward God, with God–even if they are staying right at home–go from strength to strength.
In the course of Israel’s history the Jerusalem temple was destroyed, and pilgrimages there were no longer possible. Good thing there was already this hint of understanding that the journey was an inner journey. Many years later, Christians came to understand Jesus as the dwelling place of God, a person in whom God lived with special intensity like the temple of the olden days. When Jesus concluded his earthly ministry, Christian thinkers boldly suggested that the post-Pentecost dwelling place of God was now to be understood to be the Church. Not the church as building so much as the members of the Christian fellowship. Paul says it pretty plainly in our reading this morning: “We are the temple of the living God.” “I will live in them and walk among them.”
Seems like a bit of a comedown for God, if you ask me. From a splendid marble temple on a hill at the heart of the holy city, a temple that had been appointed with all kinds of gold and precious jewels, one of the wonders of the ancient world to…us. We are the temples of the living God? Talk about your fixer-uppers. One might think God would prefer a dwelling place that didn’t need quite so much repair work.
A Sufi story: Nasrudin was an old man looking back on his life. He sat with his friends in the tea shop telling his story. “When I was young I was fiery—I wanted to awaken everyone. I prayed to Allah to give me the strength to change the world. In mid-life I awoke one day and realized my life was half over and I had changed no one. So I prayed to Allah to give me the strength to change those close around me who so much needed it. Alas, now I am old and my prayer is simpler. ‘Allah,’ I ask, ‘please give me the strength to at least change myself.’”
Can anyone relate to Nasrudin’s journey? You’ve probably heard the story before; I know I have. I think there’s some wisdom in it. At the same time, sometimes this story is trotted out as a kind of excuse for having failed to change the world very much. Which is irritating. There is an unspoken implication that we’re not going to change the world until we have managed to remodel ourselves, become better people. And according to the perspective of Nasrudin in this particular tale, we’re going to grow old trying, and maybe never succeed. So much for changing the world.
The key is not giving up on either project—changing oneself and changing the world. We can’t afford to wait until the leaky, musty, fixer-upper heart is completely repaired before engaging in repairing the world. And we can’t give up on that transformation prematurely, no matter how slow or frustrating the progress.
Among Soren Kierkegaard’s parables is this one called “The Early Finish.” “When in a written examination the youth are allotted four hours to develop a theme, then it is neither here nor there if an individual student happens to finish before the time is up, or uses the entire time. Here, therefore, the task is one thing, the time another. But when time itself is the task, it becomes a fault to finish before the time has transpired. Suppose a man were assigned the task of entertaining himself for an entire day, and he finishes this task of self-entertainment as early as noon: then his celerity would not be meritorious. So also when life constitutes the task. To be finished with life before life finishes with one, is precisely not to have finished the task.”
One hopes that Nasrudin’s old man prayer: “Allah, please give me the strength to at least change myself,” was a sincere prayer and a sincere desire. Hopefully it’s not a sort of sly, sideways confession that Nasrudin views changing himself as a lost cause after a lifetime of half-hearted attempts. Does he have the will to pray for strength and put effort into the inner remodel? Is he keeping the pilgrim way open in his heart, longing to grow closer to God and longing to be the person God wants him to be?
Changing ourselves is one area of life in which one of the seven deadly sins often manifests itself. Everyone who has had classic religious education, especially in the Roman Catholic tradition, may be scrambling to remember the deadly seven at this moment. The one I want to focus on particularly is sloth. “Sloth” is such a great word. It’s a word you could say half-asleep, one you could finish with your tongue hanging out in a spitty raspberry and make it sound even more like what it means—too drained to make a proper “th” sound. Sloth rolls in like a fog over countless self-improvement projects. Like, “I’m going to get in better shape, really tone my core and arm muscles….starting tomorrow.” You know what I mean.
Frederick Buechner warns against confusing sloth with laziness. “A lazy person, a person who sits around and watches the grass grow, may be a person at peace…Sun-drenched, bumblebee dreaming may be the prelude to action or itself an act well worth the acting. A slothful person, on the other hand, may be a very busy person. A person who goes through the motions, who flies on automatic pilot. Like a person with a bad head cold, they have mostly lost their sense of taste and smell. They know something is wrong with them, but not wrong enough to do anything about. Other people come and go, but through glazed eyes they hardly notice them. They are letting things run their course. They are getting through their life.” Like Kierkegaard said, finished with life before life finishes with them.
Here’s the truth about the God who dwells in us: God is never finished with us. God will never walk away from a half-finished soul remodel like some kind of shoddy fly-by-night contractor. If the prayer for strength to change is a sincere prayer, and we meet God halfway by shaking off that devilish sloth, we can become an ever-more beautiful and suitable dwelling place for God.
Sloth always wants us to wait until tomorrow to make a new beginning. Listen again to Paul urging Christians “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” He quotes the prophet Isaiah: “At an acceptable time I have listened to you, and on a day of salvation I have helped you.” And lest one fail to connect the dots, Paul says, “See, now is the acceptable time; see, now is the day of salvation!” [2 Corinthians 6:1-2] Now! Now is sloth’s kryptonite.
I met several people yesterday who had “Now” thrust upon them in very tragic ways. I went to a rally for Initiative 1494, which creates an avenue for people who have a family member at extreme risk of harming themselves or others to have their guns temporarily taken away by law enforcement and prevents them temporarily from buying firearms. Gabby Giffords, former Congresswoman from Arizona, was the headliner speaker. As you probably know, she was shot in the head by one of her constituents several years ago. She has fought hard for her recovery, and is able to speak briefly but eloquently of coming together, working hard, being bold, courageous in the fight against gun violence. She is touring the country with her family and assistants, encouraging grass roots change.
Marilyn Balcerak is the citizen sponsor of I-1491. She had listened to her troubled young adult son threaten to commit suicide for months, at one point called the police. The police couldn’t do anything until a crime had been committed. Her son killed himself and her step daughter two years ago. She has worked tirelessly on this initiative this year, hoping to save other lives from similar tragedy.
Either of these women could have packed it in, given up on life when it seemed life had given up on them. But they didn’t. They have carried on the effort of seeking healing for themselves and for the world.
Most of us, I hope, will not have that kind of “Now!” thrust upon us so dramatically. We wouldn’t wish it on anyone. When we live a more peaceful life, the initiative to do what needs to be done has to come from within to a larger degree. The good news is that God is quite patient with the beloved creation. It wouldn’t hurt, though, to hear that “Now!” as if it were Mother God saying it, with some urgency. I went back and watched a scene from “Terms of Endearment” again that came to mind as I was thinking about “now.” The mother, whose name is Emma, is trying to have a bit of polite conversation with another adult who has just helped her out in the grocery store. Her older son is yanking on her arm, trying to get her to leave. She asks him nicely to “Go over and wait by the car, honey.” He ignores her, and she asks him again a little less nicely. When he continues to disobey, she repeats her request—still calling him “honey” but through gritted teeth—and she ends up backing him up to the station wagon shouting “Now! Now! Now!” She loves this boy, and she’s not going to cut his life short or anything. You can certainly sympathize with her frustration. I bet every parent who watched that scene was right there with her.
We can hold both images of God in our minds and hearts—the infinitely patient, and the impatient God who would like to jolt the sloth right out of us so we can get on with repairing our souls and repairing the world. Now!
Now is the acceptable time, and now is the day of salvation. Let’s not wait until tomorrow to carry on with changing ourselves so that we are more beautiful, more suitable dwelling places for the Divine who wants to make a home in our hearts. And just as we have been in plenty of houses that are in some disrepair but are still clearly succeeding at being “home,” we can offer ourselves as agents of healing and positive change before we’re perfect. Can we imagine God asking us politely, “Go over and help those lonely people, honey. Go over and feed those folks. Work out what justice means in that system and exert yourself for it. Honey.”
No need to wait for her to start turning up the volume on “Now!” We can hear Mama God whisper it, along with that encouraging promise about going from strength to strength. Now is the acceptable time. Now is the day of salvation.