This is the text of the message I prepared for Nhill Uniting Church for Sunday 29th September 2019, the sixteenth Sunday in Pentecost
Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; Luke 16:19-31
I’m sure that like me you have heard many of the apocryphal stories of Christianity and that the one I am about to tell you’ve already heard. But since these stories often take the place of what is actually Biblical in our understanding of what Christianity is all about I’m going to tell it anyway. Don’t stop me if you’ve heard it before, because I don’t care and I’m the one preaching. And don’t come up to me later to tell me you have a different version, because I have the correct version.
So anyway: a teenage girl who has been diagnosed with some inoperable and untreatable disease knows that she has less than a handful of months to live. So, being a headstrong girl (as all teenage girls are), she makes her parents take her to the funeral director to arrange her funeral in advance of her death. She tells the funeral director, it may well have been Rodney Kennedy, (it probably wasn’t), that she wants an open coffin and she wants yellow flowers, and she wants to be wearing her debutante dress and her footy boots. And, here’s the bit you’ve heard before, she wants to be holding a dinner fork. “What’s with the dinner fork?” asks the funeral director, (because apparently he’s fine with the deb dress and footy boot combo), and she says “well”. “Well,” she says, “when I was little and we used to go to church with Nana they would have potluck lunch after church. First would come the savoury stuff, party pies, sandwiches, mini quiches, salads, the cold roast chicken (because it’s not church potluck unless there’s cold roast chicken) and a few casseroles, and you’d grab a fork and a plate and you’d help yourself. And when that was all cleared up and cleaned off my nana would remind me to keep my fork because the sweet stuff was on its way. That’s why I want the fork, and the open coffin, because when people see me in the coffin and ask ‘what’s with the fork’ then you can say ‘she knows the sweet stuff is coming, the best is on its way’.”
And so it is with us and faith: Christians know that earthy life is utterly meaningless, but we also know that we’re all going to die some day (yippee!!) and go to Heaven and that will be better. In fact I’m pretty sure it was actually Jesus who told this story originally, and it was about Jairus’ daughter. Pity he raised her from the dead then isn’t it, and the fork was wasted. Oh well, I guess she got some more wear out of those footy boots at least.
It’s a fun story, and it can make a good point. I’m not convinced that it’s the best story in all of Christianity, but the story of the fork in the open coffin is one of those stories that carries truth, truth about the future in God.
A better story is the one we find in Jeremiah 32. Jeremiah is in dire straits at this point: he’s imprisoned, in the dungeon, of the royal palace, of the capital city; which city is being besieged, by an army which has already overrun the rest of the country. This isn’t the girl in the coffin; this is Hitler in his bunker in the last week of April 1945. Except that it isn’t even Hitler, it’s some random Wehrmacht intelligence officer under court marshall in a back room two floors below Hitler. And he’s doing the paperwork and handing over actual coinage to buy his oldest cousin’s farmhouse in the countryside so as to keep it in the family; a house already overrun and currently occupied by drunkenly carousing Red Army soldiers. Why, I mean, why? (What the fork?) “Well,” he says, “well God has told me that houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land (Jeremiah 32:15). There will come a time when these invaders will be defeated, and our land will not be occupied by strangers, and grandpa’s farm will be mine and ours again. Our displaced family, maybe two generations of refugees, will need a home to return to. That’s why.” Now we know that Jeremiah’s hope was on good ground: he was released from his dungeon even as the whole nation of Judah went into exile. In my story our Wehrmacht officer might have been taken as a PoW to Russia, and maybe he never saw the farm again, and maybe the farm was confiscated and collectivised by the East German government. But in 1990 after the Berlin Wall came down and Germany was reunited, maybe this man’s grandchildren were handed back the deed of title in East Berlin, and now thirty years later they’re living life on their own land once more.
What is your hope for the future, Nhill? It’s certainly true that the Babylonians and the Red Army are not here, in fact they’re not anywhere these days; but are you feeling besieged? Are you hard-pressed by doubts and concerns about the future, do you wonder whether there is a future at all? Maybe it’s not soldiers at your walls, but maybe its banks, or the shire or state legislators, or our evermore increasingly secularist and immoral society. Maybe its the Church itself; the Uniting Church in this part of Victoria, or just the permissiveness of Christians across the globe? I’m certainly not here to speak against the Uniting Church, and I won’t do so, but that doesn’t mean that you mightn’t have doubts or wondering. Maybe you’ve had enough and you’re aching for that coffin and a fork; but the Word of The LORD is not found there. The Word of The LORD as it is revealed in scripture is that we are not to lose heart.
In Psalm 91:1 we are reminded that those who live sheltered by God Most High will rightly praise The LORD as my refuge, my fortress, my God in whom I trust. This is not a hope for the future, neither is it a plea for deliverance from the pit: this is a statement of fact and is as true as if there were straightforward and present evidence of its truth. If God is your deliverance; in other words if you have been saved and believed that you have been saved and this is evident in that you have stopped trying to save yourself; then God is, already is, has/is/shall, God is your fortress. And this is true no matter where you are. If God is your fortress then there is no gaol, no dungeon, no Fuhrerbunker that can hold you down; neither is there any overdraft, any drought, or any diagnosis. If you trust in God, and do not trust in yourself other than to trust that your trust in God is sufficient, then you are figuratively (and maybe literally) help beneath God’s wings. You are within hugging distance, and drawing close distance: you are within reach of God’s embrace and God’s snatch and clutch. And if that is where you are, then it doesn’t matter what the walls and floors look like, the skies are open and God is looking right at you. But how can it be true, how do we know it’s really so? Well, because Jeremiah was released from his dungeon for one thing – that happened, (even if Wehrmacht guy and fork girl are actually fiction).
The promise of God’s overriding protection is repeated at the end of the Psalm where in Psalm 91:14 we are told that God’s deliverance and protection are assured for those who love God. Well who loves God and is afforded this promise: Psalm 91:15 tell us that it’s those who call to God expecting an answer.
Do you love God? I’m not asking whether you’re a Christian because you’ve made some sort of conversion prayer or activity, that’s actually quite a different question. Do you love God is a question answered not by, “yes, since 3:10 pm at the Billy Graham event on 15th March 1959”, but by “yes, because whenever I call, God answers”. You may see that as a statement of God’s love for you, that God answers your prayers: but if you didn’t love God you wouldn’t call expecting an answer. You can be Christian and not love God, not trust God, and never rely on God if you think that being a Christian is about having been saved a long time ago, so that you will go to Heaven in a long time from now. You may even have a fork in you hand, or perhaps you’ve had a tiny fork made into a lapel pin or charm for your jewellery. I’m sure God honours your prayer and your intent to do the right thing, I’m not going to tell you that you’re not saved or unsaved or whatever. But again, I ask you, do you love God? Do you trust God?
Imagine this scene, and pay attention because there will be a quiz.
It’s the night of Passover, the first one, the real and actual one in Egypt, okay? Okay. Two Hebrew couples, each with a son, live as neighbours, and following Moses’ instruction the families agree to share one goat between the two small households. Each husband paints his own doorpost with blood while both wives join in roasting the meat and making flat bread and stuff, and when the cooking and the painting are done each family goes into its own house. Are you with me? Right. In one house the family huddles under the covers, cuddling close, and they barely eat. They make little roast goat sandwiches and eat them quickly, hushed together in fear. In the other house the three sit around on their mats and share the meal, dipping their flatbread into the sauce, and eating their goat as they sing their songs of praise to God.
Question time: which boy does the Angel of Death kill?
Correct answer: neither. The blood on the door is enough to save them each.
But which house honoured God? Which house trusted God more? Which house loves God more?
Which house do you live in?
As great as the story of the girl with her fork is, there’s a big point missing from that story. You aren’t supposed to simply keep your fork in preparation for the dessert course, you’re supposed to be eating the main meal with it now. Now, the parable of Lazarus and the wealthy man reminds us that we must never party at another man’s expense: to be prodigious in celebration while your neighbours starve or scrimp is no more the gospel either. Jesus in Luke 16:24 reminds us that all Jews are sons of Abraham, and today we remember that all men and women are sons and daughters of The Father and brothers and sisters of The Son. Their welfare is our concern; you may keep your own fork but if you are a follower of Jesus then you must be certain that everyone else in the room also has a fork, and that there is no one outside the room because everyone is in.
Do you love God? Then love those whom God loves, especially yourself.
Do you trust God? Then live as if God’s promises are true: celebrate the festivals, buy back the family farm, call out to God for salvation at the first sign of turmoil.