30 January 2011

Sermon for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany: "All the World's A Stage?"

         Did any of you have to memorize Shakespeare when you were in high school?  I did.  Mrs. Sundell made us memorize a few things, and one that has stuck with me over the years is the soliloquy from “As You Like It:”  “All the world’s a stage / and all its men and women merely players / they have their exits and their entrances / and one [person] in [their] time plays many parts…

          Well, my daughters have recently fallen head over heels in love with Barbie movies.  “The Princess and the Pauper.”  “The Island Princess.”  “The Diamond Castle.”  “Twelve Dancing Princesses.”  You can sense the theme, I think – being a princess, or being princess-like is an important part of the story.  My wife and I have decided they’re okay because they’re not what you might expect from the Barbie folks:  in these movies, brains, friendship, loyalty and determination are far more important than looking good and finding the right accessories.  There’s not a Barbie corvette to be seen.  But there is the moment at the end of each film when the heroine is revealed to be more than what she appears.  She’s a princess who loves her teacher, or the indentured servant who falls in love with a prince.  In one, the prince falls in love with the heroine, and just before the end, after they’ve already decided to buck convention and let the prince marry a commoner, she discovers her long-lost mother, who, coincidentally, is a queen, making her – you guessed it – a princess.  Ugly ducklings abound:  people who persevere through limitations and hardships and evil stepmothers to discover their true inner beauty and, of course, the object of their desire.  Everything gets tied up in a neat little bow and the good guys (good girls) win in the end.
            It would be wonderful indeed if this were real life, if life and circumstances brought out the best in us and, of course, good would always triumph over evil.  But that’s not the world in which we live.  In our readings for today, both Paul and Jesus show us the world as it is.  There are no princesses in Corinth.  There are no princes sailing the Sea of Galilee.  Jesus shows us the poor, the sorrowful, the meek and hungry.  Paul points out the foolish, the weak, the despised and lowly, the nobodies.  If I was going to pick a script to show my girls what the world is really like, I might choose Tom Stoppard’s excellent play “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.”  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the two friends who were supposed to find out what was wrong with Hamlet.  Everyone knows what’s wrong – Hamlet’s father murdered by his brother, who then marries his mother – but no one wants to admit what they know.  Eventually, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern take Hamlet to England to be executed, only to wind up dead thanks to Hamlet’s cleverness.  

“We only know what we’re told, and for all we know, it isn’t even true.”  In "Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead," everything is up for grabs:  identity, truth, geography, even time itself seems fluid, fleeting and impossible to grasp.  Rosencrantz and Guildenstern wind up on a boat, looking around wondering, “Is that it, then?  There must have been a moment when we could have said, ‘No.’”  Then the floor drops out, the nooses tighten, and they hang.

            I know, I know – Worst. Pep Talk. Ever.  But that’s the thing:  if there’s one thing we’re lacking, it certainly isn’t pep talks about human possibility.  Somewhere, lost in all our talk of living our dreams is a devastatingly painful truth:  life rarely, if ever, lives up to our dreams.  The simple truth is that most of us live a good portion of our lives like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern:  unsure of who we are, why we’re here and how we can accomplish the tasks set before us.  Look at your neighbor, that person who seems to have it all figured out, who just doesn’t seem to have a doubt or a care in the world.  Do you know how many nights your neighbor hasn’t been able to sleep because of how confusing this life can be?  Do you know how many disappointments and failures lie in the wake of your neighbor’s life?  Do you know how frightening it can be to be your neighbor?  Did you know you weren’t the only one who ever felt that way?

            We tend to handle this kind of fear and insecurity in two ways.  The first is to ignore it and live your life as loudly and proudly as possible.  Buy the finest things you can afford.  Make a scene whenever possible.  Life the good life, baby.  The second way is to give in to it – to believe that your fears and your insecurities are the reality in which you live, no matter what your friends and loved ones might say to you or about you.  We can see all of this active in the church in Corinth, the folks to whom Paul was writing in our readings for today.  Paul knew that there were some folks in Corinth who were living it up when they all got together for worship.  He’d even heard that some folks were getting drunk on the communion wine and eating all the food, leaving their less fortunate, more insecure neighbors hungry and thirsty.  Paul decided that they needed a reminder, so Paul set out to put them firmly in their proper place from the get-go of his letter. 

            “Consider your own call, brothers and sisters; not many of you were wise by human standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”  This is powerful stuff Paul’s unleashing on the Corinthian believers.  You can boil those sentences down into one essential sentence:  “God didn’t choose you because you are special:  you are special because God chose you.”  For those inclined to ignore their failings, it’s a reminder that there’s a place and time for humility.  For those inclined to fall too much under the power of their insecurities, it’s a reminder that God has not withheld blessing because of them.  God chooses – and we whom God has chosen are blessed, not matter how wise, foolish, strong, weak, noble or common we might be.

            Pastor Peter Marty of St. Paul Lutheran Church in Davenport writes a monthly column for The Lutheran magazine: if you don’t read it, you really should check out this month’s copy on the tables in the lounge.  His January column was entitled, “Praise in an Awe-Deficient World.”  It was all about worship.  One paragraph has stuck with me this week:
Lutheran Christians turn to worship as the central melody for their lives because they want a place where God is taken seriously and where they can be taken seriously.  For them, worship is their weekly opportunity to practice not being God.
          Now, you probably didn’t come here tonight to listen to me tell youyou’re no ugly duckling.  You probably didn’t come here tonight to see a witty three-minute movie clip you might not have understood anyway.  If you wanted more entertaining music, better food or a livelier experience, you probably could have found it pretty easily.  Maybe you didn’t know it at the time, but you came here tonight because you’ve become aware that something bigger than you has claimed your life, and you want to be a part of a community that believes this is true.  You know that there’s very rarely a Prince or Princess Charming waiting at the end of the rainbow for you, but you also know that the confusion, anxiety and fear with which you live isn’t reality, either.  You’re here because you want to be where God can speak to you, where you can hear good news with friends.  You’re here because, like your brothers and sisters, the more you discover God, the more you discover who you are as well.

            This is the good news:  this life is not a fairy tale, but it is also not full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.  Whatever it is that brings you here – whether it’s dashed hopes, unfulfilled dreams or simple “I’ve always gone to church-it is,” the truth is God has already blessed you with life and wants to continue blessing you through the salvation and sanctification of Christ and the Holy Spirit.  Paul says it himself in his letter to the Corinthians:  “God is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, who became for us wisdom from God, and righteousness and sanctification and redemption, in order that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, bost in the Lord.’”  Before you could display your wisdom, strength and talents, God gave you life:  you are welcome here.  Before you could hide your foolishness, weakness and commonness, God gave you life:  you are welcome here.  Here you don’t have to be a prince or a princess, and you don’t have to be afraid that you’re Rosencrantz or Guildenstern:  here you are God’s child, written into the same script as all of us, called to play your part, whatever it may be, with justice, kindness and humility.  Welcome, players – let the show begin.

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