Featured Sermon: Fr. Robert Lewis – Country Music and Hagar
On occasion, I listen to country music. I admit that, when I do, I listen to the classics. There is something about old country that screams reality – it’s honest. It talks about real problems, real emotions, real people. It has been even said by David Allan Coe that a proper country song includes things like getting drunk, prison, mama, your pickup truck…real stuff.
A bumper sticker I once saw asked us to consider playing the country song backwards. You know, back in the 80s folks thought that rock music had secret satanic messages if you played it backwards – which, of course, none did. But, play country backwards and you get your wife back, your hound dog back, and your pickup will actually start.
Today we heard in our Genesis lesson about Hagar. She is a servant girl, a woman who has had an intimate relationship with Abraham, born him a son, raised the jealousy of Sarah and today we hear, sent out, abandoned, forsaken, and at that, this woman who has offered herself, service, both in body and hard labor, we clamor and say – that is not fair!!!! But I also recognize, that for many of you, this very morning, are secretly going through similar struggles, sent out, your bearings shifted. You are a mess of emotions, you wonder if anyone cares, you wonder where is God, and you cry out in prayer, – “GOD, SERIOUSLY?”
We say: My wife (or husband) argues with me day and night. There always seem to be more bills than income. The kids are making all kinds of bad decisions. The dog has heartworms. I’m facing a health crisis. Just get the guitar up here, cause I got the stuff of a country song…and yet, in church, we hear: Build your house on the rock. Or even in today’s Gospel, “I came not to give peace, but a sword. GOD SERIOUSLY? When is this supposed to get better?
If we listen to motivational speakers or whatever seems to be selling to the masses, if I just think positively God is breaking barriers and giving me the best life—right? Try telling that to Hagar, or Jesus’ disciples (all but one of them died for the faith, you know, and even John (the one who survived)was so abused he probably wished he was dead.) Tell the myth of Prosperity Gospel Light to those who died in the Coliseum when they were drowned for entertainment, or fed to lions. Tell that to crucified people in Armenia in 1915; Jews, clergy, LGBT folk, or intellectuals in Auschwitz; Jesuits in Japan in the 1500s – All of them echo, “GOD SERIOUSLY?” Even we who have lives that are filled with pain, but are not faced with the prospect of death, pray likewise.
But what if the Rock of our life was actually seeking to polish us? What if, “GOD, SERIOUSLY” was a prayer that got us through successive layers of grit until God could see his image in us. Yes, God…seriously!
When I was growing up, I had a Graves cabochon machine. (Cabochons are gems that have a rounded top, without facets) The machine consisted of a diamond saw which cut larger pieces of gemstone into manageable pieces. Then it had a series of wheels, working from left to right: 80 grit, 150 grit, 400 grit, and then a leather wheel green with chromium oxide, a polishing aid. All of this was cooled by a constant water drip.
Slowly, a rock, hidden in the earth for millions of years becomes less of a doorstop and more like jewelry. Slowly the grit and water, and time reveal something that is prized!
Life is like a country song, it filled with real grit, real trouble. We tend to get angry, our patience is tried, we wonder how we can take it, and yet, the longer we live and the more we see, the grit bothers us less and less. God starts with the diamond saw, clipping off whole chunks at a time, and works through our formative years with some pretty aggressive abrasion. As we enter the senior years, he is polishing, polishing, waiting to see his image, just at the right time to enter God’s Kingdom.
That’s what Christian community at its best does, it is a polisher…except when we short-circuit the process because it’s just too hard, too painful.
Sadly we often react to the polishing, sometimes we attack, lashing out at the polisher. We blame, we ignore God, we keep our distance from our brothers and sisters in the Church. Really, we act like Jonah and walk in a passive aggressive way – totally the opposite way that God wants us to go.
Other folks just shut down by avoidance. They leave the room, they leave the church, they just have to get away because the grit is too hard. The polishing is too intense. Still others just shut down through emotional isolation. They don’t fight and they don’t flee, they just go inside and put up walls.
Our emergency defense is how we protect ourselves when we feel threatened. But God is trying to polish us in every situation. We may feel like life has become a bit too much like a Merle Haggard ballad and were all praying the same thing: GOD SERIOUSLY? But can we see God working in our midst, or are we too clouded by the friction of when God is working?
What if we did not have to stay in that place? What if we accepted the polishing. What if we decided to accept becoming the jewel and less of a boulder. Even in the desert, God cared for Hagar. God knew the story. He vindicated her cause. God loved her son Ishmael. God heard Hagar. God saw her abandonment and her plea, “GOD…SERIOUSLY?”
This doesn’t mean we deny our pain or repress it or pretend it isn’t there—it’s real and God is a big God to take exactly the real emotion we give him. God is not challenged like our Aunt Suzy who gets off in a huff if she is even challenged. GOD GETS US, and He gets that “God, seriously?” prayer even before we are ready to offer it.
Today, I ask you if your struggles are a bit too much like a country song. Maybe you are praying the “God, seriously?” prayer. Maybe you are praying the Eight Word Prayer – “Oh, God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.” Maybe the heat of being against God’s polishing wheel is just too much and you are thinking you are going to crack…God’s listening. He is working on things you will never even comprehend. He is an Almighty God, not a limited one. He’s polishing you. Let him turn you from a doorstop boulder to the jewel of his delight. It might not be comfortable, you might have a lot of heat, but God isn’t done with you yet!
But even more than that, remember that you are in a group of folks going through the same thing. We are all being polished. Some of us have lopped off corners, some are cracked, some of us have taken all the polishing we can stand in this time in our life. You belong – HERE. It is here -the Church – that you find the quench of the constant drip of the Water of Life, which quenches the heat and soothes our pain.
So I should imagine that the steel guitars and fiddles are crying away on the road to Heaven. The road from here to there is often paved with pain and friction. You are not alone. The Church is here to work along with you. It’s here you belong – let’s work through the grit, and the hurt, and even the song, together. Amen.
The Reverend Robert M. Lewis, D.Min., Rector
Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Grand Island