Sermon for the 16th Sunday after Trinity, October 1, 2017
“I bow my knees unto the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ that he would grant you to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height; and to know the love of Christ [and] filled with all the fullness of God.”
HAVE YOU EVER stood under a night sky and, seeing the first star of the evening, or a shooting star flash overhead, you felt moved to squeeze your eyes shut for a second and make a wish? We do that after blowing out the candles on our birthday cakes. We wish for something. It’s not always certain who it is that listens to such a wish, if it’s God or just the sky that hears and takes notes on our wishes.
If you were to make a wish right now, what might it be?
Formal wishes like that are called up by external circumstances, a kind of superstitious but harmless fun, like reading Chinese fortune cookies and laughing at how appropriate or inappropriate they may sound. Flip a coin to make a random decision. Speak the same word as another person, exactly at the same moment, and wrap your pinkies on it. Clink glasses and offer “cheers” to your friend: these are all remnants of more serious pursuits of the other world, invisible to us, seeking from something a favor, a boon, something mystical in its origin. It’s okay to do these. Just don’t get caught up in such vague beliefs.
And stay the heck away from Ouija boards and Tarot cards.
I mean it.
Everybody has wishes, has desires of the heart that only they know. Wishes will sometimes express regret: I wish I hadn’t made that foolish choice. I wish I’d followed my mother’s advice. Wishes such as these aren’t able to call back the past, but they mourn over a lost chance to do it right.
And wishes can be toward the future: Tiny Tim looking in the shop window at the toys he’ll never receive this or any Christmas, still wishes things were different and his father, cheerful Bob Cratchet, could afford one of them, or if there really was a Father Christmas…
People will wish when it seems obvious to them that a prayer to God would be useless, even faithless, and perhaps sinful. You can’t pray that your enemy gets sick and dies. You can’t pray against your fate that has set up a circumstance that you deserve and feel you must live with.
A woman stumbles behind the stretcher that bears her only living relative, her adult son’s dead body. This day he breathed his last, and she, a widow, will have to rely on the charity of others from now on. There’ll be no more living made by her one last hope. God has looked upon her and judged her, and has turned his face away from her. It’s done. It’s over. But her heart so sore and broken yields itself, not to prayer – which is hopeless and unaccepting of the lot that has fallen to her – but to a vain, little wish. “I wish he were still alive…”
She follows the neighbors and friends and dwellers of her village, their feet raising dust in the late afternoon sun. They will walk to the graveyard of Nain, a lonely spot where her husband had also been buried some years back. Her only remaining hope now gone, she forces her feet to stumble just that far, and then she can abandon herself to grief.
Another small band of people are coming up the road leading by the gates of her town. Among them is a man with the kindest face, and he’s looking at her intently. The travelers appear to want to pass the village, heading another destination, but the man with such kind eyes raises a hand and they come to a halt. He moves confidently into the burial procession like one in command and, likewise, halts the march of the dead. She wonders what more can happen today and if this stranger means to wound her heart yet further. He comes now right up to her, his eyes never leaving her face.
“Don’t cry,” is all he says, and he holds her eyes in his gaze for a full minute. Something passes from her to him, and from him back again. She feels all her bitterness leave her, all her fears float away, her dread of living in this new sorrow, every sting this life has left her aching mind. She feels peace somehow, and hope. But hope for what? Yet he has heard the wish, that almost prayer that her heart was afraid to ask of God. He heard it. And now he turns.
He touches her son’s stretcher. The bearers have stopped their march, and now stare at him with mixed feelings of shock, offense, distrust and anticipation. Sensing a command unspoken, they gently set the stretcher down. His shadow now darkening the face of the dead man, Jesus gives a word of command. “Young man, I say this to you—Arise!”
With the word still in the air, a jolt of something passes through the form laying prostrate. Fingers move, leg muscles flex, eyes spring open, the figure comes alive. Alive. And he sits up. “What? Did you speak, my Lord?” His voice, her son’s voice, is speaking. She stands frozen, afraid to believe what she is seeing. The town’s people shrink back a step or two, wondering at what is either a conjurer’s trick or the visitation of God – but which is it?
Jesus reaches down and gives the man a hand up. The son who was dead now rises to his feet, and is given back to his mother. Fear and wonder, praises to God, and shouting start to rise from the silent crowd. Some of Jesus’ apostles cry their “Alleluias” since they are sure of the miracle and of its source. The fame of that moment spreads through the countryside, people running to share the wonder, the hope that God is among his people today. Today, life has won over death.
The wish was granted. The wish that was all she could manage in her despair.
God is always ready to do more. More than we hope for. More than we are worthy of. More than is promised. More than what we feel is right to ask of Him.
We have our humdrum everyday, all purpose prayers—for peace, for safety, for His blessing of our food, our path, our days and nights, and our eternal rest at the end. We know the religious context for prayer, what you pray for if you understand how this goes, what He’ll hear from us. We pray and we don’t expect much to change. But that’s the drill, that’s what prayer is about. We pray and that makes us good Christians. Don’t expect anything to happen. Right?
Wrong. God is ready to do more. But our prayers don’t ask for more. Our prayers are often too low, and expect nothing, and will be considered righteous if their answers have no measurable effect, for a God who does miracles is the heart-wish of a child. We adults can’t expect miracles. I’m afraid that’s the voice of a faith beaten out of us by years of unmet wishes and hopes dashed by circumstances until our prayers become proper little religious packages of pious formulary that make us feel smug and accomplished and well-trained to speak to Almighty God, yet never to expect, or even desire, an answer. But God is ready to do more.
Aim low and you often fail to reach any target, your arrow hits the dirt several yards in front of the target. Gravity and a low aim does that. Aim low, and you don’t believe in the impossible becoming real. And yet, our God is so much more than we believe of Him. St. Paul knew that. People lose heart, and life does test our faith. When we do well and yet suffer, we have our hearts broken, and our faith weakened, our old patterns of thought returning with triumph to gloat over the failure of this religion after all. “I knew it. There is no god. And if there is, he won’t do anything. This is a joke.”
St. Paul then wrote to his disciples at Ephesus. He had a wish. His wish was big, really very big. He desired an outcome, and it would play across their lives and catch them in their free-fall, and rescue them from despair. He first says: “I ask you not to lose heart at my sufferings on your behalf, for they are your glory and honor. This is why I bow my knees in reverence before the Father of Jesus, by whom every family in heaven and on earth derives is named.”
Now Paul’s higher wish finds words and soars above them, aiming so high it’s beyond any normal human vision. Yet this vision, riding on his powerful words, becomes our vision as well. It’s so big, our eyes must open wide, and then wider to see it. He wishes – this is not a religious prayer, but a heart song, a passionate desire, a longing that finds words, as he speaks: “May He grant you out of the riches of His glory, to be strengthened and spiritually energized with power through His Spirit in your inner self, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts in faith. And may you be deeply rooted and securely grounded in love, becoming fully capable to comprehend with all God’s people, the width and length and height and depth of His love; that you may come to know the love of Christ which far surpasses knowledge, and that you may be filled with the fullness of God, with rich experience of God’s presence in your lives, completely filled and flooded with God Himself.”
It’s an impossible prayer. Nobody can stand before some man-built altar and seriously ask for such an audacious and miraculous prayer, thinking any god would or could grant it. How much could you pay a deity to come down from heaven and carry out such a proposal? What kind of deal do you think you have standing enough to negotiate such a request? Well folks. We have just that kind of God and it is already in His heart to grant that prayer, that wish, because He already loves you enough to answer that prayer with a “Yes!”
Can He do it? Will He really give that much of Himself to you, right there in your seat, and let you carry it away and keep the experience. You may not be able to pray it: it’s so big and we’re so puny and unimportant, after all. But can you wish it? Then wish so, and hear what God can do. Paul speaks again:
“Now to Him who is able to do superabundantly more than all that we dare ask or think, infinitely beyond our greatest prayers, hopes, or dreams, and according to His power that is already at work within us, to Him be all glory, and may it abound in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations forever and ever. Amen.” Ephesians 3:13ff
He is able. God can give that much of Himself. He isn’t ashamed of you. He hopes that you will at least wish for that. He knows your darkness, the shadows over your heart, your fear of what is holy, your uncertainty that you’ll measure up if faced with such a close inspection. There is nothing secret about your life. He knows already. And I guarantee you that He loves you anyway. He wants you to know Him and love Him, so He wants you to give yourself to it, abandon yourself, whatever you think you are, to His keeping. Let Him stretch you, expand your vision, let you see how high the target is and, in hope, Godly hope, shoot that arrow, offer that prayer, make a wish.
Breathe, exhale, squint your eyes shut for just a second, and wish it.