June 18th Sermon: Mismatches (Rev. Zollfrank)
Matthew 9:35 – 10:8
Bethesda Lutheran Church
June 18, 2017
Rev. Angelika Zollfrank
Genesis 18: 1-15
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O LORD, my strength, and my redeemer. Amen.
Welcome to the so-called ordinary time of the liturgical year. You can tell, less celebratory pomp and circumstance… It’s an ordinary time between feast days, marked by the color green and it is here to stay for a while. By the way, thank you to those who have taken on the task of changing the paraments. You have been busy these last weeks and you are getting a break now for a while! – Thank you! – So, ordinary times, less liturgically dramatic, maybe less exciting… Summer time and the living is easy, maybe? … Or as a one of my colleagues said to me last week, “Look, the answer may not be at the beach. But shouldn’t we check?” – And another person overhearing this, chimed in, “Traveling? Look, I am not sure about believing in an afterlife, but I’m taking along an extra pair of underwear just in case.”
Did something happen in your life last week that made you smile? Did you hear or see something that made you laugh? I invite you this morning to turn to someone next to you or around you and share something that made you smile or chuckle or laugh…. Go ahead, just take a moment and share.
Thank you! Did you smile? Chuckle? Or, God forbid laugh? Sara laughed… The trinity of angel travelers told her that she would have a boy in no time. Laughable! Now, she laughed to herself, inwardly. She was too well mannered to laugh out loud. The theologian Reinhold Niehbuhr wrote,
“Humor is a prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.” – He goes on to explain this a bit… “The intimate relation between humor and faith is derived from the fact that both deal with the incongruities of our existence (the mismatch between what we expected to happen and what turns out to be). So, humor and faith have one thing in common: they both deal with those incongruities and mismatches in our lives.
“Laughter (Niebuhr goes on to say) is our reaction to immediate incongruities and those, which do not affect us essentially. Ok, he is a theologian, so he made it complicated… but basically he means to say, that when the reality of our life and the expectations we have for our life do not match, it’s – in the best-case scenario – kind of humorous and funny. Like being stuck working as a chaplain in a hospital and sitting with illness and suffering, while having this nagging doubt that maybe, just maybe, the answer to life’s persistent questions, could be found … at the beach! – That’s humor as the prelude to faith. “Faith (Niebuhr again) is the only possible response to the ultimate incongruities of existence, which threaten the very meaning of our life.” In other words, when what is happening in your life and what is ultimately promised to us by God do not match up at all, you either start chuckling at the promise, like Sara does. Or with any luck, you don’t despair but find some sort of disbelieving faith. The kind that says, “really?” The kind of disbelieving faith that has this nagging sense that maybe just maybe God could surprise us in ways you did not dare to dream of in our wildest dreams. That is why Sara, ninety years old – just saying…, when she is told that she will have a baby boy in a year’s time, is laughing. Her laughter to herself in the face of her life’s realities’ mismatch with the promise of these three angel travelers (who showed up out of the blue), her laughter is a prelude to a kind of disbelieving conviction that God sticks to God’s promises, that carries even us today since those ancient times. It’s the humorous, disbelieving faith that says, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am (90 years) old?’ – But then, with a smiling face and teary eyes, “Is anything too wonderful for God?” Sara begins in hat moment to carry a new and growing delight in a possibility that her laughter at the same time doubts deeply.
What about your sense of humor? Is it a prelude to faith? And what about your faith? Do you expect God’s outlandish promises to come true in your life? – Ok, I believe in God, the father almighty creator of heaven and earth… but seriously, do I in my ordinary life expect this same God to intervene and bring the kind of happiness that one expects when one is not quite a grown-up yet? Well, yes and no, but who are we kidding? Even if not ninety, we are mature folk and learned to accept with a true sense of gratitude the realities of what life is and isn’t, right? For example do you think God will heal you of your greatest pain or have you simple learned to live with it. This is exactly where Sara is, she is sad and pained about being barren and without child, but she has learned to live with it. in that way, suffering builds character… But what about our hope for God to make God’s promises true? Do you expect that God will intervene in your life, in the life of this community, and in the history of this country again – in ways that we don’t even dare to imagine?
Ours maybe a faith that doesn’t have any expectations that God will meddle extensively in human affairs, intercede in each of our lives, providentially guide your biography and human history, care for a loved one, heal the hurts we suffer, or — God forbid — do the impossible. “Functional deism” is what someone called this kind of faith. It never denies the existence or reality of God, but it also never really expects God’s surprising action in personal affairs. And if someone suggests such, do we catch ourselves, laughing to ourselves? If yes, then this chuckle may be the prelude to faith. – When Sara, who laughed inwardly, gives birth to her child, she names him Yitzchak, Isaac, – the Hebrew word for laughter. It’s the laughter of incongruity, of mismatching expectations and realities, of the absurd disproportion between God’s compassionate promise and our humanity.
Now, are you up for another round of sharing? I would like for you to think of something that happened in your life last week that made you feel your humanity, your vulnerability: A small suffering, a frustration, a grumpiness, a sadness, a discontent. — You got one? If you would, turn to someone next to you and share…
What happened to you when you listened to the story of the person next to you? Did it feel a bit vulnerable to share a story like this? Well, I’m with you. I went to the dentist this past week. While I was waiting in the waiting room, a young woman – seemingly homeless – walked in to ask for an appointment to have another, a third tooth pulled. I just had a small cavity fixed and it didn’t hurt. What made me cry is the thought of me fuzzing over this tiny cavity while this woman much younger than me had three teeth pulled. – Chances are that when in your stories, when your partner in conversation shared an “ouch”, you felt little bit of an “ouch”, too. If the other person shared a sadness, you might have felt a tinge of sadness as well. And if you listened to a bit of a frustration you might have said something like “I would be frustrated, too. Sorry this happened to you.” Somehow when the person next to you shared an instance when life’s expectations and life’s realities did not match up, you matched your listener. She was frustrated, so were you. He was a bit sad, so were you in that moment. They didn’t quite know what to do or say, neither did you. What happens there?
Chances are what happened to you as you were listening, is the same thing that happened to Jesus when he saw the crowds. He saw the crowds, our text says, and they were harassed and vulnerable, like sheep without a shepherd… And Jesus had compassion for them. He suffered with them. You may just have suffered a little bit with someone next to you… So, you are a bit like Jesus. Jesus, who has in him that of God the creator and the Spirit of life, Jesus, who has compassion for the crowds for they – like us – deal with all matters of things: illness, irritations, tiny and bigger sadnesses, worries big and small, some trouble that found them: in sum, they like us wear on their faces the mismatch of their hopes and expectations of life and the actual realities they find themselves in. This mismatch caused them and causes us smaller and larger pains and suffering, which we know to be part of human life. And you now listened just very briefly to each other and you were quite likely kind and compassionate. And you matched the affect of the person sharing with you. And maybe you found what you knew already – that a joy shared is a joy doubled and a sorrow shared is a sorrow halved.
Now, how does this happen? Chances are that you experienced what you experience any day: Let’s say you’re walking through East Rock park or on the beach when out of nowhere, the man in front of you gets smacked by an errant Frisbee. Automatically, you recoil in sympathy. Or you’re watching your favorite football team, and you feel your own heart racing with excitement as the players fight for every goal. Or you see a woman sniff some unfamiliar food and wrinkle her nose in disgust. Suddenly, your own stomach turns at the thought of the meal. Or you watch a dancer perform to one of your favorite pieces of music and you feel elated as if you we are gliding across the stage. What is more, you tear up when you watch a sad movie, you feel your kids’ growing pains, you understand and love your dad even though he wasn’t always the dad you wished he could be. You look at a picture of yourself as a child and you have compassion with yourself because you see something in the picture that maybe you haven’t seen before.
Researchers believe that a recent discovery called “mirror neurons” might provide a neuroscience-based answer to the question of why we are compassionate and empathic in this way. Mirror neurons are a type of brain cell that respond equally when we ourselves are frustrated, sad, or in pain, and when we witness someone else’s frustration, sadness, or pain. Neuroscientist have shown when someone is frustrated, sad, lonely, in pain, or happy, a certain region of the brain is active and – get this, if you study what happens in the brain of the listener, the same brain areas light up. This indicates that we are wired to literally feel each other’s emotions and this provides the science for our ability to be compassionate. – Why is this so remarkable? First of all: look, it means that we are made by God to do the same thing God is doing: we are wired to be compassionate, to suffer along, to feel the same pain the person we are with is feeling. This neural mechanism is involuntary and automatic. We don’t have to think about what other people are doing or feeling, we simply know.
The second reason why this is so cool is because it tells us that the God who created the earth and keeps creating it, is a God who created us as group animals, hard-wired for community, creations more interested in the survival of all than in the survival of the fittest. And even if the world does not look like it – we are made to collaborate and cooperate. We are made to have compassion for others. If we really take a moment to listen and see, we have a visceral reaction to others just like Jesus did with the crowds.
Please, come along one more time back to the story of Sara and Abraham. You probably remember that initially Sarah was Sarai and Abraham was Abram. They got their new names when their lives matched up with God’s promise for them.
In Matthew’s story for us today, there is a subtle name change as well. Maybe you picked up on it: the disciples are called “disciples” at first. Then they all are named one by one, but only because they no longer are disciples, they are changing to become “apostles”.
They are being sent into the world to be as compassionate with others as Christ has been with them. They are being sent into the world to love others as they were loved. And they can’t even help it. They are created for compassion, just as we are. They are sent into a world that does not match God’s loving, extraordinary, compassionate promise. They are asked to meet with compassion those who suffer from this mismatch. They can’t but mirror the suffering in compassion and make a sorrow shared a sorrow halved. They can’t but reflect God’s delight in his people and make a joy shared a joy doubled. We, too, today again, are called and commissioned to be God’s match on this earth, reflecting Gods compassion and love. And as we do this, God will surprise us – no doubt. Amen.