Monsieur Hulot and the fools

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Sermon for July 31st, 2022

Readings:

Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23
Psalm 49:1-11
Colossians 3:1-11
Luke 12:13-21

One of my favorite filmmakers of all time is the French director Jacques Tati. Probably his most famous movie is Mon Oncle, or “My Uncle,” but there is also Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday, Traffic, and his masterpiece which is called “Playtime.” If you get the chance, go and watch them. They are hysterical and you don’t need to speak French, because not only are they subtitled, but there is very little dialogue in the first place and it really doesn’t matter. Most of the humor is visual and auditory. 

Tati was most active in the 60s during a time of immense cultural change in post-war Western Europe, and the central character in his movies, Monsieur Hulot, with his characteristic hat, trenchcoat, umbrella and pipe, which Tati always played himself, he stands at the crossroads of two different worlds: the very messy ancient world of tradition and community; the old-world France of villages and street vendors and dilapidated buildings, and the new emerging modern France of super highways, steel skyscrapers, and clean sanitized suburbs. Monsieur Hulot is a product of the old world, and his encounters with the new world are a revelation of the absurdities of modern living. Because no matter how hard humans try to make things better, they usually just end up making them a bit worse, at least in Tati’s world. Now maybe that sounds depressing to you, but the movies really are hysterically funny, or at least I think they are and it could be because I identify with Monsieur Hulot. I feel out of place in the modern world too. I too am very skeptical of anything that gets labeled “new” or “progress.” 

The people in Monsieur Hulot’s old-world live in a bit of a mess, but it is a mess filled with meaning and purpose and everyday joys: little boys playing pranks and eating bits of sugary dough fried by a street vendor, old ladies haggling over vegetables, old men arguing at a local cafe, stray dogs and cats running around cobblestone streets, sunshine, grass and birds singing. The inhabitants of the new world? They live in a mess too, only they don’t realize it because they are so enamored with their ideas of progress. But their world is filled with cranes and jackhammers, and traffic jams and is made of plastic, steel and glass. In one film, Playtime, which is set in Paris, the only time you see any of the famous Paris monuments like the Arc de Triomph or the Eiffel Tower, are brief reflections in the glass windows of sterile, modern buildings. It could be any city anywhere: there’s no style, no local character or culture. So much for the bright future that humans are making for themselves. The people in Tati’s films that are obsessed with living in the future, walk right past the immense beauty that is right in front of them. Monsieur Hulot is regarded as something of a fool in each of these films, but Jacques Tati is only using him to show you who the real fools are. 

The real fools are the people who cannot see the beauty in the world, as it is. But you don’t have to be living in the modern world to be that kind of a fool. There have always been people in the world that are so obsessed with a theoretical, idealized future that they miss the very real, very beautiful life that is going on all around them. One of my favorite books in the Old Testament, probably in all of scripture is the Book of Ecclesiastes, which we heard excerpts from this morning. 

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

I had to work all my life to build something for the future, only to have to die and leave it to people who didn’t work for it, and may not respect it, care for it, or use it wisely. What a waste. So I despaired about that, and then realized that despairing was a waste of energy too. 

Now you may think that Ecclesiastes sounds depressing, but I find it to be liberating. It is liberating, because you know what, the future can be a golden idol that people bow down to and worship. The future can be a false God that people make the most astounding sacrifices to. How many evils have been perpetrated in our world in the name of some idealized, theoretical future? All of the “isms” that have tried to rule our world: Communism, Naziism, Fascism, Socialism, Capitalism, Consumerism…all of those isms, all of them, have shown themselves willing to tolerate and even perpetrate horrendous evils now for the sake of some theoretical future. All for the sake of progress. All for the sake of the new or the novel. But what happens if those theoretical future utopias never materialize? What you are left with is pointless suffering. That is what the teacher in Ecclesiastes sees: so much pointless suffering. It is pointless suffering that comes from trying to live in and exercise dominion over a world that does not belong to us. We do not live in the future, and it does not belong to us. The only thing we really have control over, in so far as we have any control at all, is the life we are living today; the decisions we make today; the joy and the meaning and the purpose that we find today. We may hope for tomorrow; we may dream about it; we may plan for it, we may try to make it better for those that inherit it, but we have to live today. Tomorrow doesn’t belong to us. 

That doesn’t mean that we ignore the future; that would just be giving up one type of foolishness for another. The decisions we make now, the life we live now will have an effect upon the future, we must always be mindful of that, but we have to recognize that it may not be our future, it might be someone else’s. But whether we live to see that future hope or dream or not, we have to recognize that it is the life we are living now, right now, that truly matters. We need to live with the future in sight, we need hope for the future, but we need to live now. We need to find joy today, not tomorrow. It doesn’t have to be a big joy, it can be a silly stupid joy. It can be the joy of a good cup of coffee or a piece of crusty bread or a baby’s smile or a momentary break in the humidity, but we need to identify it and cherish it. We need to find purpose today; it doesn’t need to be the grand purpose for your entire existence; it can be the purpose of cooking a good meal for your family, or fixing something that was broken, or telling a story to your grandkids. We need to love today, we need to repent today, we need to worship today…not tomorrow. Today is all that you have been promised. What are you doing with what God has given you today? 

If you think about it, greed is a sin that is really focused on tomorrow: what will I have tomorrow? What could I have tomorrow? Greed makes us lose sight of what we have today. Greed makes us dissatisfied with what we have today. That’s why, when Jesus wants to talk about greed, he tells a story about a man whose only thought is about the future; how to control his future. But as it turns out, the future didn’t belong to him; it belonged to God. All that the rich man accomplished was wasting the great gift of the present day that God had given him. That’s what greed does: greed promises us tomorrow if we will only sacrifice the joy and all the other gifts we have today. But it is a false promise, because greed is a false God. Tomorrow, the future, it is something we can have hope for, but it is not an idol that should be worshipped.

God has given you the gift of today, with all of its messy beauty. Can you embrace that beauty, that gift, like Monsieur Hulot, or are you only looking at a world filled with things that you plan to someday fix? Some people may think that Monsieur Hulot is a fool, but he knows who the real fools are.

Boldness and Humility

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Sermon for July 24th, 2022

Readings:

Genesis 18:20-32
Psalm 138
Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19)
Luke 11:1-13

The dialogue between God and Abraham in our passage from Genesis this morning could almost read as a Monty Python sketch. The back and forth between them over how many righteous people were worth saving the town for is definitely absurd and the repetitiveness of Abraham’s questions treads the line between tedious and amusing. 

God has heard that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are filled with the most heinous, awful sinners. What were they up to? People love to speculate, but the truth is we don’t really know, but that is a bible study for another time, because it doesn’t really matter for my argument this morning. You can appreciate this passage without knowing how this particular story begins or ends. 

God says he has heard bad things about Sodom and Gomorrah and is going to see if it is as bad as he has heard. He is coming down as the great divine judge. Abraham asks him a question: What if there are 50 righteous people in the city? Will you sweep them away with the sinners? And God says: no, if I find 50 righteous I will forgive them all. Then Abraham says, well what if it is 45? And God says, OK, 45. Abraham: How about 40? God: alright, 40. Abraham: do I hear 30? 20? 10? 

And God says, OK, OK, OK! 10. If I find 10 righteous people I will forgive the whole town. The exchange is very amusing.

Now how this story ends is a whole different sermon, although since the air isn’t working in here this morning I am probably missing a great opportunity to preach about some hellfire and brimstone, but that’s not really what this passage is about, so I’ll skip it. Forget about Sodom and Gomorrah for a minute. Stop fantasizing about what you think those folks were doing and pay attention to this relationship that we see between Abraham and God right here. 

Abraham knows that he has no business questioning God this way. As he says, he is but dust and ashes. What business does he have trying to negotiate with God? Why should God even be talking to him or listening to him? Why should God care what Abraham thinks at all? God doesn’t have to justify himself to Abraham. He is God. End of argument. You could say that Abraham is almost being impertinent or disrespectful, except that he’s not. Not really. Abraham understands his position in relationship to God. He is dust and ashes and he is speaking to the Judge of all the earth. Abraham knows that he really doesn’t have a leg to stand on, so he is very respectful each time he approaches God, almost to the point of being obsequious or annoying, but he is still bold enough to do it. He is still bold enough to speak to God. Abraham knows that he has no business talking to God, but he talks to God anyways. He is humble and then he is bold. He is bold, and then he is humble. Balancing boldness and confidence with humility and reverential fear, that is a tough call. That is what makes Abraham so remarkable. He isn’t just some jerk who tells God what to do; but neither is he so self-effacing that he refuses to believe that God can be spoken to by mere humans. Abraham is both: he is bold and he is humble. And that is remarkable because it is always so tempting to just be one or the other. 

We all know people of faith. We all know Christians who are better at being one or the other. There are people out there just brimming with confidence and boldness. 1000% sure that they know what God’s will is for their life, and for yours, and not afraid to tell you about it. They are not a bit afraid to talk to God, but you have to wonder sometimes if they ever stop talking long enough to listen to what God has to say. We know those Christians, but on the other hand there are Christians who are so meek and mild that they don’t really appreciate how much God loves them, don’t believe that God can use them, or they may be so afraid of giving offense that they just cannot stand up for anything. We know those Christians too. As people of faith we need to balance boldness with humility. We may not ever get it to be a perfect balance all the time, but the people who veer off too far one way or the other are gonna miss God speaking to them and their going to miss God’s will. People that are too bold are going to confuse their voice for God’s voice and their will for God’s will. People that are too humble are going to think that God doesn’t speak to them at all or doesn’t have a will for their lives, or that God won’t act here and now. 

This is a perennial problem that we need to be aware of. Paul was aware of it. Jesus was aware of it. Paul warned the Colossians about being “puffed up without a cause by a human way of thinking.” He knew that some people get caught up in their own philosophy and traditions and ways of thinking that they end up leading others astray, often in the name of God and Christ. He warned them about being too bold. But Paul also wanted the Colossians to know exactly who they were in Christ, how they had been forgiven and saved at a great price, and just what grace they had received when God saved them. They couldn’t be too bold, but they shouldn’t be too humble either. 

And our Lord, when he taught the central prayer of our faith, he taught us to come before God boldly, addressing God as Father, asking for our daily needs and asking for forgiveness, confident that God can and will supply both to us in unlimited measure, but at the same time we are reminded in that prayer that it is God that is truly holy, it is God’s kingdom that needs to come, God’s will that needs to be done. The forgiveness we have been promised, we must be willing to share with others. And although we may be bold and confident, we too may be tested and tried and we live in constant need of God’s grace and protection. It takes boldness and humility. It took boldness for Jesus to say to the crippled man “your sins are forgiven”; it took humility for him to help him to stand and walk. It takes boldness to hold the bread and say “this is my body,” it takes humility to get down and wash your disciples’ feet. Jesus had boldness and humility. It takes boldness to ask God for what you need, especially when it requires great persistence; it takes humility to trust that God IS giving you good things when what you get is NOT exactly what you asked for. 

The life of faith takes boldness and humility. It takes boldness to follow Jesus; it takes humility to know that you aren’t the first person to do so. It takes boldness to speak to God; it takes humility to listen to him. It takes boldness to stand up for what is right in the world; it takes humility to know that even in trying to do what is right, you might do the wrong thing or come to the wrong conclusion or make a bad decision. It takes boldness to read the scriptures as the word of God; it takes humility to know that your interpretation of what is written may not be the only one or the correct one. It takes boldness to share this faith with others; it takes humility to learn how to share it in ways where people feel more loved than judged. It takes boldness to talk about God’s anger at sin and unrighteousness; it takes humility to know that it is only by God’s forgiving grace that any of us are saved. 

Boldness and humility. Knowing that you are unworthy to talk to God, but talking to him anyways. Knowing that you are dust and ashes, but dust and ashes that God has already raised from the grave. Knowing that you are a sinner, who makes mistakes and gets things wrong, and at the same time knowing that you have a place in God’s kingdom and a share in Christ’s righteousness. Knowing that you can ask for forgiveness and knowing that you need it. Knowing that God speaks and also knowing that God listens. Boldness and humility. It cannot be either or. As Christians we need both.

Be joyful, keep your faith, and do the little things…

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Sermon for July 3rd, 2022

Readings:

Isaiah 66:10-14
Psalm 66:1-8
Galatians 6:(1-6)7-16
Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Throughout the bible there are many places where God is depicted as a parent and we his children. It is an image that occurs over and over again. Obviously, “father” is how the Lord Jesus refers to God many times, especially in the central prayer of our faith, the Our Father, but Jesus wasn’t unique in this. The image of God as a father or a mother is woven into our scriptures, especially in the prophets and in the psalms. In our passage from Isaiah this morning, God says: “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you, you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” Of course, I have read these passages many times before, but when you have spent the past several weeks literally comforting your child, feeding him, changing him, and looking into his eyes and knowing that he depends upon you for everything, and also knowing that you would do just about anything to protect him, well that just gives that image of God an extra depth of meaning. It stands out to me a little more right now for obvious reasons.

Now I should say here, I don’t like it when preachers talk about their kids all the time. In the first place, it’s just not good preaching. There is a fine line you walk as a preacher between using personal stories and experiences to illuminate the gospel, and using them just as an excuse to talk about yourself and your family. Preachers cross that line all the time, and cute kid stories are a trap. In the second place it is bad practice because it is unfair to the kids themselves. You, the preacher, signed up to be in the public eye. Your kid did not. Not everyone wants to be a sermon example. And not everyone wants to be on display.

I say all this because I want you to know that I don’t intend to speak about our son Robbie very often from this pulpit. Nor do I intend to yammer on incessantly about what it’s like to be a father. You can have a wonderful, meaningful, purposeful, grace-filled life without being a parent, as I did until just about 4 weeks ago. So as I said, I’m not going to talk about being a dad or my kid very often from up here. 

But, this IS my first time back in the pulpit since Robbie was born, so I am going to indulge myself just a little today. 

What I have learned over the last few weeks is that it isn’t just responsibility you feel looking into eyes that desperately need you, and it isn’t just a sentimental love. There is also a powerful, almost inexpressible, joy. Pure joy. Now I’m not naïf, I know that infants become toddlers, and teenagers, and adults, and that along with the love and joy comes heartache and frustration and maybe even disappointment. I know that it isn’t just sunshine and lollipops and rainbows everywhere. But, you know, it isn’t that way for God either, is it? If we pay close attention to the stories in scripture, then we will know very well that God’s relationship with his children is NOT an uncomplicated one. God’s children are not well behaved. Heartache, and frustration and disappointment are all a part of our relationship with God too, aren’t they? According to our faith they are. But you know our faith also tells us that for some reason God keeps loving us, and caring for us the way that a mother or a father cares for a child. God still finds joy in us, even when we cry and scream and struggle and make a mess of ourselves. That is the power of that image of God as a parent. That is what it can teach us about God’s love. Kids are a lot of work, but parents still seem to find joy in them and care for them. Human beings are a major headache, but for some reason God keeps loving us and finding joy in us and caring for us. It is true that there are plenty of bad parents in the world that don’t care for their kids the way they should, and even the best parents in this world are still broken sinners who make mistakes, but when a parent-child relationship is at its best, it has something to teach us about God’s love and God’s persistence in caring for us in everyday simple ways. Understanding that God loves us like a parent means understanding that God’s love isn’t just shown to us in big showy miracles that happen once in a while; God’s love is shown most powerfully in little everyday things that just happen over and over and over again.

As a new parent, it would be easy for me to get overwhelmed thinking about the future, and everything this kid is going to need and all the times he is going to try my patience. Yes, I have moments where I think and dream about what he might become and the things he might do, but I don’t have a whole lotta time right now to think much further than the next bottle or the next diaper change. Now, do I have an overall vision for how I want to raise my child? Yes, but there is also an immediacy to his needs right now that forces me to actually get up and do something, seemingly every few minutes. No vision or philosophy ever changed a dirty diaper. And parents, I am sure you know this well or can at least remember, it is mind-numbingly exhausting. It is some of the hardest work I have ever done. I know that there are plenty of parents out there that have done this right by themselves and I can’t imagine how. There are two of us taking care of this kid, we have had the blessing of time off, we have just about every convenience and gadget that has been gifted to us to make life easier, and thanks be to God and all of you for those blessings, but even still with all of that, it is incredibly hard work. There have been a few mornings at 3am, and a few times when he wet through a sheet that I JUST changed, where I have said “you know kid, it is a good thing you are so darned cute!” It is such hard work, but somehow you keep finding the strength and the energy to just keep doing the things that need doing. And they usually aren’t big things, they are little things that just need doing over and over and over: feeding, changing, burping, laundry; trying never to forget to take the trash down to the curb lest your garage start to smell like a superfund site. Little things that just need doing over and over again. No one thing that is super hard to do, just a constant repetition of little things that become the hardest, and most joy-filled work that you have ever done. That is what makes the parent-child relationship strong. It isn’t one moment. It is a million tiny moments. Choosing to love; choosing to put someone else first; choosing to do what needs doing, over and over and over again. It is hard work, but it is also filled with joy.

It’s the joy that makes all that hard work possible really. It’s the joy that gives you the strength to do the little things that need doing. It is an immediate joy that is about a miracle that is happening right here, right now and not just about some future dream or vision. It is a joy that is hard to explain, but you can feel it. And reading the scriptures I am reminded that it isn’t just a joy that I feel for my child; it is a joy that God feels for me, and it is a joy that God feels for you too.

Most of you know that our son’s name is Robert David. Robert for king Robert the Bruce of Scotland, and David for both King David the psalmist and Saint David of Wales. Now you may not know much about Saint David, Saint David of Wales was a Welsh bishop and missionary in the 6th century and he is responsible for some of the early evangelization of Wales, kind of how Saint Patrick is credited with evangelizing Ireland. In Saint David’s last sermon which he gave right before he died, David said “Lords, brothers and sisters, be joyful, and keep your faith and your creed, and do the little things that you have seen me do and heard about.” Be joyful, keep your faith, and do the little things. Joy, faith, and little things, that is what David saw as essential to the Christian life. Not huge miracles and big programs and grand schemes. Joy, faith, and little things. In Saint Paul’s letter to the Galatians this morning, he says: “let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest-time, if we do not give up. So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.” 

Let us not grow weary in doing what is right. In other words, we need to keep doing what needs doing. Doing what is right is often doing little things. Keep working for the good of all, but especially for the person that is right in front of you. Especially for the family of faith, but not just for them. To be a Christian, it isn’t just about making a one-time big commitment of faith and receiving a one-time major reward. Now I believe in making a commitment of faith, and I believe that there is a heavenly reward, but those are big things, and so much of the Christian life is really about little things. Little decisions that you make over and over again. Stopping right now to say this prayer. Not worrying about a philosophy of prayer or cultivating a style of prayer, but deciding to pray right now in this moment. Not worrying about implementing a major feeding program but deciding to feed this person who is right in front of you. Not talking about love endlessly as an idea, but deciding to love and show love to the people that God has already put in your life. Our relationship with God, like the relationship of a parent to a child, is not built so much on the big things that are done once; it is built on the little things that are done a million times. And you know, you don’t have to be an actual parent to understand this. People have been calling me father for 18 years before I actually was one. Not everyone is called to actually give birth or even raise children, but that is still a model for how we care for one another, because it is a model for how God cares for us. The church is a family. It is the family of faith, and the beating heart of family life are little acts of love and care that are done over and over again. 

Paul was right to warn the church about growing weary in all of this. It would be so easy to grow weary if we stop looking for and stop finding joy in it. Even though it is small things that need doing, it is still hard work. It is joy that will give us the strength to do it. There is nothing worse than a miserable Christian. We need joy as Christians to do the work that God has given us to do. We need to look for and find joy in the simple everyday signs of God’s love for us, God’s joy over us, as his children, and we need to share that joy with God’s other children. The Christian life is work, yes, but it should be joyful work. And it can be joyful work if we stop worrying so much about all the big things and just pay attention to the small things. There’s that old saying “mind your pennies and your dollars will take care of themselves.” Well pay attention to the small things in life, do them, take care of them, and let God worry about the big things. 

I don’t think this is just good advice for the life of faith. I think it is important for life in general.

You know, whenever I look at the news I am confronted with huge problems that I personally can do very little about. It is overwhelming, it steals your joy, and it leaves you feeling powerless and hopeless. Politics, gun violence, war, disease, the environment, not to mention all of the nonsense that people share on the internet. It is enough to drive you crazy and it is driving people crazy. Because people are only looking at the big things, big headlines, and they aren’t paying attention to the small things. Most of the time we don’t have control over big things, but we do have control over small things. Don’t underestimate the power of those small things. Don’t grow weary in doing them. Because from the very beginning, life really is about little things that happen over and over again. Look for joy there. Look for joy and meaning and grace and God’s love in little things. Let God worry about the big things. Be joyful, keep your faith, and do the little things. Something I have learned from both Saint David, and from Robert David.