Erma Bombeck died way back in 1996, but she left the world richer for her presence … and especially for her humor. Many of us have favorite sayings from her. I guess this sermon is in her memory, for she inspired this sermon. That inspiration is her observation: “If life is a bowl of cherries, then why am I in the pits.”
For those of us called by God to the ordained ministry, you would think that life would indeed be a bowl of cherries … and perhaps it should be … but sometimes I have been in the pits. I know it’s hard to believe that even in the wonderful parishes that I served, not every Sunday was a bowl of cherries. For instance, everything seems to be going smoothly in my parish, but then someone stirs the pot and the rumbling commences. With my 50 years of parish ministry to reflect on, it seems be an inevitable part of parish life. It’s inevitable. I recall one time when this happened and, yes, I was in the pits. Now I’m told that some people leave their problems at work when they leave the office. Not me! No way. I share.
So after I’d spent most of the evening being grumpy (which of course is very unlike me), even Nansi (who is also a Pastor and so she understands) finally had enough, and said, “Oh, stop your sulking.”
That did it. Like a light turned on in a dark room … I suddenly recalled a favorite phrase, sulking through the inevitable. And that’s just what I had been doing.
The phrase, sulking through the inevitable comes from a letter written by Baron Friedrich von Hugel. The Baron died in 1925 (so you may not have ever heard of him), but when I went to seminary (back before the flood) he was one of those people to be reckoned with in any study of prayer and mysticism. His books and letters have touched the lives of countless numbers of searching Christians. He was born in Italy, a Roman Catholic. His family settled in England when he was 15; and at the age of 21, he married and moved to London.
Von Hugel had occasion to write a letter to a young girl who was away at an English boarding school. The girl’s name was Juliet Mansel, the granddaughter of a devoted friend. Juliet was very unhappy in her school, so Von Hugel wrote this to her:
“I am sure that if you take (the hours in school) … looking at all the best sides …and throwing yourself as fully into them as ever you can, the time will not only pass quicker, but will pass doing you good: otherwise it will pass, but will do you harm; I have now come to feel that there is hardly anything more radically mean and deteriorating than, as it were, SULKING THROUGH THE INEVITABLE…”
SULKING THROUGH THE INEVITABLE: what an inspired phrase. I know what it means. I had been sulking that evening over an inevitable part of parish life. The sullen mood, sulking …yes, you know it, too. You’ve also done it, haven’t you?Why, you may be sitting here in church doing it at this very moment … sulking through the inevitable.
We know what it is to be sulking … and we also know about “the inevitable.” An “inevitable” cannot be changed, and it is sometimes hard to accept. Our problem (at least among my race and gender and culture) is that we resist the very thought of anything being inevitable. White, male, Episcopalian, American … I am supposed to have the world by the tail. I am supposed to be smarter than any foreigner, more successful than my parents, have a bigger house than my less-educated friends, have a better yard than my neighbors … and inevitably it can’t be done.
Moreover, the “inevitable” is more in harmony with Eastern religions with their stress on resignation. We who participate in Western religions are more optimistic about the immensity of our reach: We are made in the image of God, we say; We are given dominion over the universe we say.
Yes, we do try to control. We use our scientific reason to great effect. But there are times when we cannot control … and then we can easily end up sulking through the inevitable.
Beyond my sulking about an occasional Sunday at work when life is not a bowl of cherries, there is “the inevitable” dictated by the circumstances of history. We pride ourselves on the national myth of defying all limitations (opening the western frontier, breaking the speed of sound, putting people on the moon, discovering cyberspace). We refuse to take “no” for an answer.
Part of me treasures the hopefulness of this American legacy (though I abhor the way we abuse others to achieve it with domestic poverty and exploitation of the Third World). Part of me treasures that hopeful legacy, but I also know that refusing to recognize inevitable limitations is to live in a make-believe world.
Every great nation must realize that eventually all dynasties that rise … in time give way to other rising dynasties. Even now when we are the only super-power on earth, tenth-rate countries from Somalia to Iraq to Venezuela no longer gratefully anticipate our every wish. Those foreigners don’t even respect the dollar anymore! And a Detroit autoworker reported counting more foreign cars than American ones in the executive parking lot of his company!
It is not a comfortable period for us Americans. We live on the hinge of history when power may be shifting. Pay attention to the reception our President receives in Europe. We are part of an historical process that we do not like … but it is inevitable … and we are tempted to sulk.
Beyond my sulking about historical processes, there are also inevitable limitations in my personal life. When I left the Army, I promised myself never to stand in line ever again … but you can’t go to the market, or the bank, or the movies … without waiting in line … and as I do so, I remember that promise I made to myself … and I sulk (so when you see me waiting in line, you know what I’m doing!).
If it isn’t that, it may be that your job is declared redundant, or your marriage falls apart, or your illness is what you secretly feared … and so, on a personal level, the plans you have for your life come up empty … a painful and inevitable change … and, quite understandably, you may sulk … and every sensitive friend will understand and be sympathetic.
And finally on the personal level, beyond all that, the inevitable takes place in the very process of sickness, aging and death. No one is exempt. There is no fountain of youth. We all have a date with death.
You may recall the last chapter of Moses’ life. He was a charismatic leader who loved his people and loved being their leader. Though he was phenomenally successful, the leadership role finally became too much, and he reluctantly had to let Jethro take over some of the legal work and let Joshua train the fighting men.
Then the day came when he stood on the heights of Mount Nemo and looked across the Jordan River to the Promised Land. His dream of 40 years was literally in sight … and God told him to retire … NOW! Retirement: a time to throw away the alarm clock and sleep through the morning traffic … and a little voice whispers: “What difference will it make if I stay in bed?”
Scripture tells us that in spite of Moses’ advanced age, he felt his eye was not dim nor his strength diminished. He didn’t feel old. He felt he could still put in a good day’s work … but he had to turn it over to Joshua. Much as he loved his young assistant, it must have been hard. Letting go is painful … but inevitable.
And there on the bank of the Jordan River, all Moses had struggled to achieve in those 40 years …the goal within sight … and the people he had banded together as a community were going to go on without him.
That community that he loved and had served with distinction,
That community that antagonized and criticized him,
That community that respected and even loved him
… they were now going forward without him. And especially those closest to him (his wife, Zipporah; his sister, Miriam; his brother, Aaron) … his dearest friends were going on with their lives … as Moses went off to retirement and death … But it’s inevitable.
I sat with a parishioner who was in the last stages of cancer a few years ago. She knew she was dying. She told me about what she would miss … especially her summers in Maine with her husband … playing golf and eating at fine restaurants and then sitting in the evening looking out on “my husband will be going there this summer without me and doing all those things without me … the things I love … and I resent it!”
But as with Moses, it was inevitable.
And I think of the funerals I’ve had for companions on my life’s journey. I think of the Funeral Services that were a wonderful celebration of that person’s life … and a glorious affirmation of The Resurrection … but they were hard work … very hard because I had to give that person up. And some of us are still working on letting go. It is hard to let go of a person we deeply care for. There is hurt … and grief … and resentment … and anger … and to hold on for too long can slowly cripple us … but sometimes we can never fully let go, can we?.
Hear what the author, Hereward Carrington, wrote of his wife’s death … expressing a grief we can surely understand. He writes:
“It is impossible to think that I shall never sit with you again and hear your laugh. That every day for the rest of my life you will be away. No one to talk to about my pleasures. No one to call me (to go) on walks … I write in an empty book. I cry in an empty room. And there never can be any comfort again.
Unless he can finally move on, Carrington, will never fully live again.
Compare that with the experience of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, wife of the famous aviator. After the tragic loss of her infant son through his being kidnapped and murdered, she reported in her 1975 book, Gift From The Sea, about the solace she found in God. She wrote: “But (solace) must not be sought for or – heaven forbid – dug for. No, no dredging of the sea bottom here. That would defeat one’s purpose. The sea does not reward those who are too anxious, too greedy, too impatient … Patience, patience, patience is what the sea teaches … One should be empty, open … as a beach – waiting for a gift from the sea.
That is how she moved from death to life. She found solace in God by the sea just as Paul found solace in God in a Roman prison cell. When it comes to moving beyond sulking through the inevitable, we can learn from Paul. He wrote: “I have learned, in whatever state I am, to be content.”
Rather than sulking, he wrote: “In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and want.” Then he goes on to tell us his secret. He writes: “I can do all things through Christ, which strengthens me.”
With the eyes of faith, Paul looked to Christ. They are eyes that have known beatings and stoning and whipping. They are eyes dimmed with age and the darkness of a Roman prison. Even when being crushed by the inevitable … rather than sulk, Paul looks to Christ for strength. Paul was not singing, “I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses;” but rather “Stony the road we trod. Bitter the chast’ning rod.”
So it is that when you are willing, you too can find strength in Christ. When you stand on the bank of YOUR Jordan River … let go and allow an empty space for Christ’s presence. It’s his gift for you.
So this morning I want to drop Baron Von Hugel’s phrase into the mind of this congregation:
sulking through the inevitable.
I hope that it will come back to haunt you from time to time as it has haunted me. AMEN.
Scripture for March 24, 2019
Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable; if there is any excellence, and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned, and received, and heard, and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.
I rejoice in the Lord greatly that at last you have revived your concern for me, but had no opportunity to show it. Not that I am referring to being in need; for I have learned to be content with whatever I have. I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty, and of being in need.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.
Friends, listen to what the Spirit would say to us today.