There’s these two ministers have a head on car crash on the coast road. Both cars are complete write offs, but the two ministers get out of the wreckage and find they haven’t even got a scratch.
“You know” says one, “I can’t believe we’re not both dead. I think this must be a sign from God that we were supposed to meet, and despite our different denominations that we should work together”.
The other minister says “Yes, I agree, it’s definitely a sign from God. Look, there’s even a bottle of wine here and there’s not even a scratch on the bottle, I think it’s a sign that we should celebrate by sharing wine, just as our Lord did.”.
“Absolutely” says the other minister. He takes the top off the bottle, downs half of it, and then hands it to the other minister, who very carefully puts the top back on.
“Hang on”, he says, “are you not going to share in the wine with me?” “Not just now” the other minister says. “I think I’ll wait until the police have finished writing up the accident report.
The life of a minister isn’t always easy, and sometimes bad things happen. Services can be a nightmare, especially funerals. There was one week a minister I know had three funerals to do and it was already really busy. But thank goodness for computers. There’s this very handy ‘find and replace’ function that means that If you’re in a fix you can use a lot of the same liturgy for two different funerals. They just took the all the names out of one order of service and replaced them with new ones. they still had to personalize them, and write a Eulogy, but it saves a lot of time.
Except that one of the funerals they were doing was very high church, and when they got to the Apostles creed everyone read together” I believe in JesusChrist, the only Son, conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Edna”. Even worse than that they”d remembered to change the name of the person who’d passed – but not her husband, which led to a very uncomfortable silence as everyone wondered if this sweet old dear really did have a whole secret man that nobody knew anything about.
I remember hearing about one poor dear who wanted everyone to file out of the service to Judy Garland singing ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ from the Wizard of Oz. But somebody at the London crematorium got the track on the cd wrong and as everyone got up to leave the music system blared out, ‘Ding dong, the witch is dead, which old witch, the wicked old witch’. Of course it may be an urban legend.
But these kinds of things do happen to ministers, and when it happens it’s a nightmare. And isn’t it funny that when something does go wrong it’s natural to lift our eyes to heaven and ask ‘why me? – Why are you punishing me?’
I suppose it makes sense really. If I get the cold shoulder off Chris, if he glares at me, or snaps at me, it’s automatic to ask him ‘Have I done something wrong?’, and when I’m off my game he asks me the same question. If someone is acting differently, in a way that’s out of character or unkind then we wonder what we did to deserve it, we wonder what we did wrong.
And since God created everything, and can make anything happen, do anything, then when things don’t go right it’s natural to ask God ‘What did I do wrong?’
And if we don’t get an answer, which more often than not is the case, then we do exactly the same thing we do if a human doesn’t give us an answer. We assume we’ve done something wrong and try to work out what it is and how to put it right.
In our reading today the Psalmist writes
I cry out to you in my anguish, O God.
I have tried to be good.
How many times have we said the same thing? Or, “what have I done wrong?” It’s very human to feel like God is punishing us for something.
So, we get out our personal score sheet, our Karma list. There’s always a few things we think are really good on the list, like I gave to charity, I’ve not missed church, I gave the pastor chocolate, you know – the important stuff.
And then there’s the stuff we think is bad, like stealing garden gnomes, poking someone with a sharp stick, or telling the pastor’s husband that you gave the pastor chocolate. (You see a recurring theme here).
But the problem is it’s only guesswork, and there’s a whole swathe of stuff we’re not sure about. Sure, it’s wrong to nick a few paperclips from work, but is God going to punish me for it? How do we really know?
It’s obviously wrong to be unkind to someone, but what if someone has been really unkind to us first? Jesus said turn the other cheek, but does that include the guy who’s yelling ‘faggot’, or some other bigoted term at us? Does it include the neighbour who keeps us awake with their music until 5am? What about the builder that ripped us off? Do God expect us to be nice to them?
Is God going to care that we wear clothes made from a polycotton, or that I have a tattoo, or eat chicken with a cream sauce, black pudding, prawns, or even chocolate? They’re all forbidden in the old testament. Is God keeping score of this stuff? How would I know?
None of this stuff worries us when life’s going well. But when everything goes pear shaped they worry us.
Is it really OK to be LGBT? Is it really OK to live with someone without being married? Is it really OK to miss church for a few Sundays? It’s the way our mind works, it’s part of being human.
But then the Psalmist says
I have blown on the embers of the faith I have found.
I have learned to pray and to trust.
In the middle of all the worry and doubt the Psalmist turns to their faith. Not to give them answers, but to help them through it all.
You see, cheap answers are a dime a dozen and religion is full of them. I’ve heard that bad things happen because you don’t believe enough, or don’t have enough faith, or do something that the religion doesn’t approve of. They advise that you try to be someone else, not be LGBT (as if I have a choice), give more money, behave this way or that way, do what I’m told, follow the rules, and everything will be OK.
Do you remember the minister who came out and said that 9-11 happened because America tolerated LGBT people? Or the pastor who said that the Louisiana floods were because of God punishing gays?
It’s easy to spot them when they’re being obviously bigoted and phobic, you wouldn’t take a preacher seriously when he runs around with a banner that says ‘God hates fags’. But when one talks about love, forgiveness, and it’s a shame you’re going to hell because you’re gay, or because you smoke, or because you don’t pray three times a day every day, or because you don’t say three hail Mary’s and an our Father after using a four letter word, then it’s a bit more difficult.
They feed into that feeling that we’ve done something wrong, that God is punishing us for something, that God is more like Father Christmas than Jesus, totting up the naughty and nice list instead of being forgiveness and love.
It’s something we need to get past if we’re going to be free. As long as we trust religious teachings over the love of God we’re always going to be slaves. That’s what Jesus meant when he said You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free.
The Psalmist continues –
I ask you for better times, but more urgently,
for courage and joy in whatever the times bring.
Hopefully, we’ll look to Jesus and get to the place where we realize that God’s not punishing us. Bad things happen, it’s a part of being human.
In Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 almost 3,000 years ago King Solomon wrote that:
There is a time for everything,
and a season for every activity under the heavens:
a time to be born and a time to die,
a time to plant and a time to uproot,
a time to kill and a time to heal,
a time to tear down and a time to build,
a time to weep and a time to laugh,
time to mourn and a time to dance,
And then again in Chapter 9 Solomon wrote that Again I saw that under the sun the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the skillful; but time and chance happen to them all.
So, hopefully we heed the advice of the Psalmist and avoid the sellers of easy answers. We avoid the trap of trusting religious teachings rather than the unconditional love of God. We realize that both good and bad times are part of what it is to be human.
Of course we ask God for some help, we want the good times to roll round, but on the other hand we also ask for the courage to get through it all, and the ability to find joy even in the midst of it. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference” It’s the biggest prayer I know.
We look to Jesus and we understand what’s going on. We hear the Easter story and we see the son of God, not having done anything wrong, going to the cross. We hear Jesus crying out ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’ and we realize that even Jesus asked God “What did I do wrong?” And we know that the answer was ‘Nothing, you did nothing wrong’. You’re my beloved, in whom I am well pleased.
The Psalmist continues:
Your presence in my heart is more important to me than success or riches.
With it I can trust the darkness, and live-waking and sleeping- in peace.
And that’s the ultimate solution, that’s the goal. To live in God’s presence. Trust in God’s love. Walk in the Spirit.
1 John 4:18, there is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out all fear. If you know that God loves you, and you love God, then you can’t be fearful of God. Jesus didn’t fear God, he called God ‘abba’, it means ‘daddy’. Even the sufi poet Rumi said that that“Jesus was lost in his love for God.” and saint Augustine said ‘The one who is filled with Love is filled with God’. How can you fear someone you love so dearly, and you know loves you?
And if that’s where you are then I’m happy for you. It must be wonderful. Peace, Joy, the complete acceptance that comes with a complete Love. – But me, I’m miles away. Not even close. The darkness still scares me and when things go pear shaped I still wonder what I’ve done wrong.
And that’s OK because it’s all a part of being human, it’s all a part of life. We can be a complete mess, get it all wrong, and that’s OK. We are perfectly ordinary human beings.
Ordinary human beings have good things happen to them and bad things happen to them. And when the bad things happen it’s completely normal to ask ‘What did I do wrong?’ Jesus was perfect, but right at the end, on the cross, he did the same thing.
And because I understand that it’s a very human thing to do, – when I do it I know it’s all about me and not about God. It’s me who’s wondering what I did to cause something bad to happen, and God is simply there wanting to be with me to help me through it.
God isn’t Father Christmas. There’s no naughty and nice list, no record of everything you got right and the mistakes that you made. There’s simply love.
So, remember that the next time life gets pear shaped, God is love, God is not punishing you for some sin. And if you forget then simply bring your pastor some chocolate, and I’ll remind you. Amen.