Beyond the Unexpected Hour

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Luke 12: 32-40

It is good to be with you today. Let me express my appreciation to Dr. Hill for this invitation and to Ray Bouchard for his kind hospitality. As I was leaving Chicago, Elaine and I rode for several miles along Dempster Avenue on our way to the airport. Named for John Dempster this major traffic artery stretches from the lakeshore west to distant cornfields. John Dempster was, of course, the leader of a fledgling Methodist school that later became the B.U. School of Theology. And, that very same John Dempster became Garrett Seminary’s first president in 1854. Our two schools share the same ancestry and, I suspect, much of the same theological DNA. So, it is good to come and visit the “mother ship” today. I bring greetings from the wild, wild frontier of Chicago.

Creator of life, remind us anew of your invitation to live boldly through the mystery of the present and into your promised future. Forgive our presumptions when we despair by setting limits on our actions and your grace. Renew us in hope and free our strength to your purposes. Amen.

I. The Question

“How can it be to our advantage that Christ has left this earth?” Dr. George Buttrick asked this question at the beginning of a sermon preached a short distance from here over fifty years ago. It is a good question – one that pushes theologians to consider matters of deity and the future, or in “theo-talk” it is Christology and Eschatology. This question is quite apt for our scripture lessons for today. How do we behave in the middle of an unfinished story? How might God surprise us yet again… and, how are things changed after being surprised by grace?

My son occasionally sends me questions he finds amusing. We share a sense of humor that is slightly “out of plumb.” For instance he recently sent this query: “Dad,” he wrote, “what if there are no hypothetical questions?” You have to think about it. Others he has sent include: “What was the best thing before sliced bread?” and this one I like, “If you try to fail, but succeed, which have you done?”

Recently I came across examples of questions used in the admission process as the Oxbridge schools. Among them was: “How would you organize a successful revolution?” (This seemed like a good question for me to ask in Boston.) And there was this one “given the present political climate, why not let the managers of Ikea run the country instead of the politicians?”

Other questions asked of applicants to various schools at Oxford or Cambridge were:
• Would you rather be a novel or a poem? (English, Oxford)

• How many monkeys would you use in an experiment? (Experimental psychology, Oxford)

• Should we have laws for the use of light bulbs? (Law, Cambridge)

• If I were a grapefruit would I rather be seedless or non-seedless? (Medicine, Cambridge)

I appreciated Dr. Buttrick’s question when I came across it a few weeks back: “How can it be to our advantage that Christ has left this earth?” Luke’s gospel lesson for today provides a subset of questions from this larger one. Questions like, “What are you doing waiting here?” “Where is your treasure, anyway?” “And, are you prepared for the unexpected hour?”

My friend Faye asked me a similar, although more piercing question, when she asked, “Where the hell is God in all of this?” I will get to Fay’s story later.

II. Great Expectations and Living with Expectancy

John Dempster headed west. He was home on leave from work in Argentina in the early 1840s. He was preparing to return when he was asked to head a theology school in New England. He was surprised to be asked to be a leader for Methodist theological education in America. You see, father died while he was young and growing up as an orphan, Dempster had little formal education. The invitation came unexpectedly. At first, he declined — yet somehow he discovered a new vocation, a new treasure, beyond the unexpected. In terms of Luke’s gospel, his lamp was trimmed and he was prepared. He served as president of Methodist General Biblical Institute the antecedent to the BU School of Theology for six years. Then, again, the unexpected request and he headed west.

He headed to Illinois (Newbury Seminary in Vermont 1834 [high school] and Methodist General Biblical Institute in Concord, NH 1847). In my mind’s eye I see him moving along with the flinty eyed “free soilers” who were part of the radical abolitionist movement – they eager to claim the land and farm but more eager vote to make or keep a state a free state. Dempster was pressing forward with his call for an educated clergy.

Dempster’s deep piety was matched by a commitment to justice. In 1862, one day before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, Dempster met with President Lincoln and urged him to sign such a document. Dempster kept moving and in 1863 he left Illinois and headed west again, with the expectation he would start other seminaries in the Rockies and in California. Sadly he died an untimely death on that journey, but his dream of establishing other seminaries was soon enough accomplished by his apprentices.

During these same years, as the American Civil war was gruesomely unfolding, a writer named Charles Dickens decided to save his magazine, All the Year Round by writing a novel in weekly serial form. That story was called Great Expectations. What Dickens wrote in 1862 is now required reading for most high school students. You know it, the young Pip, his expectations to become a gentleman of great wealth, his dreams of marrying Estella. You remember the eccentric Miss Havisham and the treacherous Magwitch. Dickens puts the human hunger for social ranking and success on trial. He puts society in the dock and finds that we are too typically unable to accept the decency of a blacksmith like Joe or the redeeming love of a convict.

Pip’s “great expectations” for success and privilege prove counter productive. He is learning the painful truth behind the gospel text “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.” As each opportunity arrives there are problems or tragedy and Pip becomes the more miserable.

And what of us? Where is our hope? A wise friend once taught me the difference between expectations and expectancy. To have expectations is to presume we might control what is likely to happen. What we expect is shaped by our greatest desires or fears. Living with expectancy, on the other hand, means one lives on the tiptoes of hope bringing our best gifts to events as they unfold, even when faced with tragedy. Benjamin Disraeli said, “What we anticipate seldom occurs, what we least expected generally happens.”

On Easter Sunday 2010 I suspect none of us knew what a “Deepwater Horizon” was, and today these are words that represent human greed and deceit. As this environmental crisis went unaddressed choices were open – either moving with our expectations or a new expectancy. Some expected a quick fix so that ample fuel can continue our nation’s insatiable joy ride to prosperity; some fear the sight of the ugly backside of environmental abuses might cause us to question our addictions. Did we stop to ask, what do we treasure most? And a
ll through these short months the astonishing gap between the wealthy and the poor in our society continues to widen. Over the past three decades we have regressed to levels of income disparity not seen for a century in this nation.

In Luke’s Gospel we have the story of great expectancy. The instructions given to the servants waiting for the return of the master are crisp and concise: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit.” Servants prepare! But for what? Well, the return of the master! But what will happen when he returns? Ah, here is the astonishing surprise. This parable is also structured as beatitude. It is: “Blessed are those who are prepared … or, happy are those who are prepared, for they will be surprised.”

Did you hear the surprise? “There is a role reversal. The master takes the position of a servant and serves his own servants. This climax to the parable is so shocking, it is introduced by the phrase, “Amen, I say to you.” [“This striking formula occurs only six times in Luke and in each case introduces something that comes as a shock, or is a hard saying....] Here it introduces a stunning reversal of roles.”

III. Beyond the Unexpected: The Surprise at the End of the Rope

Expectancy opens to the space of what God is doing with and for all people. Expectations have power to limit and shape our understandings. The old axiom “What we believe to be real becomes real in its consequences,” merits our attention. But I am speaking of more than self-fulfilling prophecy. This is about one’s stance toward life and its possibilities.

Gary Dorsey tells of spending eighteen months in a rather traditional New England congregation. He had come as a journalist, and that only! Then the unexpected happened. His life was changed. Spending a year in church as a journalist, the liturgical year progressed and he discovered his place in the larger scheme of things. He writes: “This is what I tell people now: if you ever decide to go back to church, even despite yourself, you will eventually find yourself in a place where you can learn about mystery and timelessness. You will become part of a tradition of stories and verses and gossip greater than you can imagine… with a carnival of small-time saints, whose tales and homespun customs marshal wisdom out of a religious calendar, you will become a character, too, and a player in a cast.”

Dr. Buttrick answers his question of how we might take advantage the Messiah’s delay suggesting that this waiting allows us to see more clearly, to know God beyond the limits of space and time, so that we might grow to be free to discover our strength.

I couldn’t help but think of Frederick Buechner. Before coming to Boston, when Buttrick was still a pastor New York, one day a young man named Buechner sat in the pews of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church and heard George Buttrick describing the Kingdom of God as an experience involving tears, laughter and great confession. As Buechner says, all of a sudden through this sermon it was as if, “the great China wall came tumbling down and Atlantis came up out of the depths of the sea.” It was one of those incredible moments when God genuinely happens to a human being.

Attending Union Seminary Frederick Buechner says two things surprised him: First of all, he was amazed at the earthiness and the honesty of the Scripture. Secondly, what was even more striking about the Biblical story and what recurred all the way through, from Genesis to the Book of Revelation was the continuing motif that the worst things were never the last things. This God who had a thousand names was continually acting in unexpected ways… then waiting for our response.

Chicago’s own theologian and poet, Fr. John Shea puts it this way: “At the center of our best effort, we discover our worst motive. Our perfect plot fails and their sloppiest plan succeeds. In single-minded pursuit of one goal, we blithely achieve the opposite…

In these moments, and many more, we are thrown back on ourselves. More precisely, we are thrown back into the Mystery we share with one another. These moments trigger an awareness of a More, a Presence, An Encompassing, a Whole within which we come and go. This awareness of an inescapable relatedness to Mystery does not wait for a polite introduction. It bursts unbidden upon our ordinary routine, demands total attention, and insists we dialogue. At these times we may scream or laugh or dance or cry or sing or fall silent. But whatever our response, it is raw prayer, the returning human impulse to the touch of God.

Think of the story of Jacob and Joseph, Naomi and Ruth, Simon Peter or the apostle Paul. Think of Jesus. This is the image of a God for whom the worst things are never the last things. John Claypool said it this way, “The loveliest truth I know is that God lives at the end of our ropes.” Claypool notes that the familiar aphorism “as long as there’s life, there’s hope” may carry a deeper truth if we consider the converse. That is: as long as there’s hope, there’s life.

My Friend Faye asked her question of me more than once. You remember that question, “Where the hell is God in all this?” – She was a longtime member of the parish where I served, She had suffered from deep depression following her husband’s long struggle with cancer. I encouraged Faye to seek help for her depression and she also joined a Wednesday morning healing group. We didn’t know much about healing rituatl, we were not Pentecostal, nor did we have the rituals of anointing more common to Roman Catholics or Episcopalians. We struggled to find a Methodist way.

And so, at the close of this group, each week we would anoint one another, going around the circle and asking our neighbor what we could pray with them about for the coming week. Months turned into years for Faye, slowly she began to play the violin again. Slowly she would share in the company of friends. However, she still struggled with her question. One week, when it came time to pray, I was sitting next to Faye and when I asked, “What can I pray with you about? She stuttered. She was about to deliver one of the most powerful malapropisms I have every heard. She answered, “Please pray that… that… that my strength will be faithened.” She got her words all twisted round, but her theology right. In that moment I watched her face slip into a wry smile. Within days, I heard her laugh and then one day she surprised me with a new question. She asked, “And what do I do with this God now?”

How would you help her answer this question?

~The Reverend Dr. Philip A. Amerson, President
Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary
Evanston, Illinois

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