Shoulda, Coulda, Woulda

November 12, 2017

House for All Sinners and Saints, Denver.

These are a couple of rough texts.

Amos has God yelling at the Israelites about how he hates their worship, hates their music, won’t even look at their sacrifices.

And then Matthew has the Bridegroom, and I’ll let you in on a secret, the Bridegroom is Jesus, telling the five foolish bridesmaids, “I don’t know you” and closing the door on them.

Hear the good news.

I got a later than usual for me start on this sermon. The advantage of not being an every week preacher is that I usually have two or three weeks where I can think about the texts, write some things down, do some research, really work things out.

Reagan IMed me last Sunday morning to see if I would be able to preach tonight. Sure, I said. What could go wrong? What’s the worst that could happen?

Then I went and looked at what the texts were for this week and all of a sudden I had the answer to what was the worst that could happen.

These texts are like trying to get away from a lion only to run into a bear.

One of the things you can do when you’re in a hurry and don’t know what to say about the texts is go pull out the commentaries and see what they say you should say.  I have a particular set that I go to, twelve volumes about preaching the lectionary, edited by folks from my seminary, it’s very popular, especially in Presbyterian circles. So Monday night I hunkered down with Year A, volume 4 and read about the Amos and Matthew stories. And it was very helpful because, by the time I was done reading, I knew exactly what I didn’t want to say.

Fortunately for me, I have another weapon up my sleeve. My almost preternatural and kind of creepy ability, to pull up a pop culture reference for almost any situation.

All week I had two lines from the Whedonverse running through my head.

Xander Harris on hearing  that  his on and off girlfriend Anya had died as she stepped up to save another person’s life, “That’s my girl, always doing the stupid thing”

And Jayne Cobb on being told he could sit out of a particular firefight: “Shoulda, coulda, woulda.”

I’ve been thinking a lot about should lately. Just last Friday I was talking to my therapist about the things I do day to day, and she said, “There’s an awful lot of shoulds in there, where’s the time for Meghan?”

It’s so easy to just do the shoulds, I should get up at 5:30 in the morning go to work, I should take my lunch at my desk, I should make dinner for my mother, I should stay up past 10:30 at night to help my mother get to bed, I should say yes when the church asks me to do something, I should say yes when my friends ask if I want to go out, because if I don’t, maybe they won’t ask me again.

My mother is great at giving me shoulds, most often in the imperial we, “We should clean the gutters,” “We should get the trees out of the garden,” and on.

I could spend the next five years doing nothing but shoulds, and still have just as many yet to do.

But in all that where is there room for “I want”, “I would like to. . .”, “How can I get out of this job, that’s giving so much stress”?

But the truth is, it’s so much easier to just move from one should to another, and not think about the hard questions, not make the hard choices. Even if the shoulds are hurting me.

What’s the smart thing to do, what’s the right thing to do, no matter what I think I should do?

I hear those kinds of questions in both of these texts, although in one case I think sticking to the shoulds is willful ignorance, while in the other, it comes from a genuine desire to do what is right.

The Amos text sounds so vicious and mean. And it sounds so different from what we’re used to hearing and what we’re used to thinking church should be about.

I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

5:22 Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon.

5:23 Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But as with so many things, context is really important 

This text comes from the fifth chapter of Amos, and believe me, most of the rest of the book has been about how horrible the Israelites have been. Particularly how bad they have been to the poor and needy. 

From chapter 2: “Thus says the Lord: for three transgressions of Israel and for four, I will not revoke punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals they who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way;"

From chapter 4: "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan...who oppress the poor, who crush the needy."

From earlier in chapter 5: "Ah, you that turn justice to wormwood, and bring righteousness to the ground! The one who made the Pleiades and Orion...who calls for the waters of the sea, and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name...Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain...Therefore says the lord, the God of hosts, the Lord: in all the squares there shall be wailing; and in the streets they shall say, 'Alas! Alas!'"

So you can see that God wasn’t really happy with Israel at this point, because of the way they have treated the poor and the afflicted.

And the Israelites have been saying to themselves, “As long as we worship the way we should, as long as we sing the right songs and make the sacrifices that we should, we’ll be fine.”

And today’s text is God saying “Umm, no. Your first responsibilities are to see to righteousness and justice, to protect the poor and comfort the afflicted, then you can come and worship and I will listen to your harps and look on your sacrifices.

This is God saying that coming to church on Sunday, that right worship and prayer are not the point, and are not enough. 

Isn’t it great that a couple three thousand years later, we’ve all learned that lesson and there’s nobody out there thinking that church on Sunday and tithing are all they need to do, and how they treat the poor and the needy the rest of the week isn’t really important?

Umm. Okay maybe not.

The ten bridesmaids story gave me a lot more trouble, because on the surface and even when you dig deeper into it, it appears to be saying that there are things you can do, that are in your control, that can keep you out of the Kingdom and put you outside the love of God. And that, aside from being an ancient heresy called Pelagianism, just goes against everything I believe.

So I needed to take another look and try again, and that’s when Jayne Cobb came to mind.

Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

What if this story is a warning about getting too caught up in the shoulds and forgetting what’s really important.

What if the mistake the foolish bridesmaids made was not in not thinking of bringing extra oil, but in thinking that it was the oil and not their presence that was important. They know they should have their lamps lit, but the should is not as important as what they need.

What if the Bridegroom (and again, if you haven’t kept up, the Bridegroom is Jesus) didn’t care nearly as much about whether the bridesmaid’s lamps were lit as he cared about the bridesmaids coming to greet him as he arrived. What if instead of being angry that they weren’t prepared like they feared, he would have been happy to see them, to welcome them in their boldness to approach without having everything in order and to rejoice in their mere presence.

The mistake they make, aside from thinking they’re going to find an oil dealer in ancient Palestine that was open at midnight, is staying away because they didn’t think they had what it takes, that the important thing was having oil and not in joining in the celebration of the coming of the Lord.

It’s the mistake the Israelites were making in Amos but turned on its head. The Israelites thought that just performing the correct worship rituals was enough, all the while ignoring what was actually important to God: justice and righteousness for the poor and oppressed.

It’s, I guess, a question of worthiness. The Israelites just assumed they were good to come to the Lord, despite all the warnings God had given them that they weren’t. They were the chosen people after all, how could they not be worthy?

And the bridesmaids assumed that they were not worthy to approach the Bridegroom because they didn’t quite have their lives in order. I mean they couldn’t light their lamps to welcome the Bridegroom how could they possibly go to him?

Reading the two texts, I think I’d rather be one of the foolish bridesmaids. I’d much rather approach the Lord in my unpreparedness, with my failings, saying I shoulda, coulda, woulda done more.

I think we’re in a much better place when we come to worship the Lord if we come feeling that we don’t deserve to be there than we are coming in certain of our righteousness when we have not been doing what we should.

The people who are sure of their righteousness don’t need to come to the church, to liturgy or to the table, although they would proudly step up for each. And God would hate, despise their worship.

Church, liturgy and the Eucharist are for those of us who forgot to bring extra oil, who want to say to God, “Give me just a little time to get ready, and then I’ll come.” 

God says, “No, come now, as unready as you are, as much as you feel you don’t belong or aren’t worthy. I want you to come.”

One of my favorite settings for the liturgy of the Eucharist goes like this:

This is the Welcome Table of our redeemer, and you are invited.  Make no excuses, saying you cannot attend; simply come, for around this table you will find your family.

Come not because you have to, but because you need to; come not to prove you are saved, but to seek the courage to follow wherever Christ leads.  Come not to speak but to listen, not to hear what’s expected, but to be open to the ways the Spirit moves among you.

So be joyful, not somber, for this is the feast of the reign of God, where the broken are molded into a Beloved Community, and where the celebration over evil’s defeat has already begun.

There are so many of us at House who have been told that we don’t have what it takes to approach the altar of God. Whether it’s because we’re gay, or trans, alcoholic, or addicted, depressed or crippled by anxiety, or whatever, there are so many reasons people will tell us that we should run and get more oil before we come anywhere near the Lord.

I come to House every week, not because it’s another on my long list of shoulds. But rather because this is the place I need to come to, this is the place and you are the people that give me the strength to face all those shoulds for the next week.

It’s stupid for us to think we can approach that altar. None of us belong there, none of us is ready, but like Anya, maybe the best thing that can be said about us is that we’re always doing the stupid thing. 

So I invite you to come to the table and do the stupid thing, come and meet the Lord who welcomes you joyfully, not because you’ve done everything you should, but because you haven’t and yet you still need to come.