God is not a vending machine.
The Sixth Sunday after Pentecost, known as The Sixth Sunday of Matthew.
The Holy Great Martyr Procopius.
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12:00 PM 7/8/2012 — I would like to continue today with the exposition of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans which we began last week, wherein St. Paul was scolding the Christians in Rome because they weren’t adhering to the faith they had received from the Apostles, but were making up their own religion to suit their own fancies and calling it Christianity; something that a lot of people today like to do.
Today, St. Paul delves a little deeper into what’s wrong with the Christian community in Rome, and lashes out at them about another common problem that is all to present even in the Church today: the notion that we all have to be the same. He’s describing how all of us have different gifts and abilities given to us in grace: some people are teachers, some are prophets, some are preachers, some are leaders, and so forth; and some people are not these things—they have other gifts. We are not all equal. He’s writing this to the Christians in ancient Rome because, apparently, there was some jealously among them;—some backbiting and sniping and vying for position—and Paul, rightly so, thinks it’s unseemly for Christians to be behaving this way. He considers such behavior among Christians to be hypocrisy. That’s why he says in the Epistle: "Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly and affectionate to one another, with brotherly love, giving preference in honor to one another; not lagging in diligence but fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, patient in tribulation, continuing steadfastly in prayer. Distribute to those in need, be hospitable, bless those who persecute you, and do not curse anyone." He lecturing them like a father would lecture his children, because that’s what they are by the way that they’re behaving; and he’s giving them an abject lesson in maturity. He’s telling them, basically, to grow up.
But one point he makes toward the beginning of this reading is something that deserves to be meditated upon seriously. He says that those who show mercy should do so cheerfully. Now, we don’t often think of cheerfulness as a Christian virtue, but it is. And this is not the only place in the New Testament where he mentions this. As a matter of fact, our Lord, himself, mentions this. On Cheesefare Sunday, just before Lent, in his admonitions about fasting, our Lord says straight out: When you fast don’t walk about with a long face like the hypocrites do, saying, “Look how I’m suffering.” He says to comb your hair and wash your face, so that no one knows that you’re fasting. After all, who are you fasting for? Are you doing penance so that everyone can see you do penance; or are you doing penance for God? God knows the secrets of your heart; you don’t need to put on a display for someone else.
St. Paul is saying basically the same thing, but he doesn’t localize it to the subject of fasting; he applies it to our whole lives as Christians. The Christian, for St. Paul, is not someone who walks around with a long face, all teary-eyed, beating his breast and saying, “Woe is me.” For St. Paul, the Christian is someone who, despite whatever personal problems he may have, is still filled with joy because of his faith. He is the kind of person who, no matter what befalls him, trusts our Lord to see him through. He’s not saying the Christian doesn’t have problems;—everybody has problems—but the Christian with a problem behaves differently than the pagan with a problem. The Christian with a problem doesn’t need to seek out the sympathy of others, because he doesn’t need it. He has our Lord. And even when our Lord is slow in responding, or responds in an unexpected way (which he often does), the Christian can deal with it because he knows that the grace of Christ will always be there so long as he always remains faithful.
Now, being cheerful in the face of great personal difficulty is a hard thing to do; and, to be fair, in some circumstances it can seem almost impossible. What is always possible, though, is prayer. Prayer is our direct link with Christ; it is our cell phone to God. But even prayer needs to be done in a spirit of maturity. God is not a vending machine; and what we pray for we don’t always get just the way we want. Prayer is conversation; and, when you converse honestly with someone, you don’t always hear what you want to hear. When illustrating the way prayer works, I always like to refer to the story—which you’ve heard me tell you many times before—of the two little boys walking home from Sunday school where they had just endured a lesson on prayer; and one turns to the other and says, “I just don't buy this prayer stuff, do you?”
And his companion is a little shocked, and says, “What do you mean you don’t believe in prayer? What’s the matter with you?”
And the first little boy says, “I don’t believe in prayer. I don’t believe it works, and I can prove it. Remember that X-Box you wanted for Christmas last year?”
“Did you pray for it?”
“Did you get it?”
“There, you see? That’s why I don’t believe in prayer. God didn’t answer your prayer.”
And his companion says, “Oh, yes he did. He said ‘No.’”
Now we can pray to God ‘till we’re blue in the face about all our problems and say, “God, I need this” or “God, I need that.” And we might be tempted to become indignant when God doesn’t give us this or that, thinking that God, for some reason, has chosen to ignore us; when, in fact, God may be saying to us, “I know some things you need more that that: things maybe like patience, or perseverance, or faith.”
Whatever it is that prays on our minds and makes life difficult from time to time, St. Paul is right, and so is our Lord. Our problems are ours, not anyone else’s; and there’s no reason for us to spread the misery. Because if we truly are people of faith (or, at least striving to be), there’s no misery to spread. Christ truly is, as St. Basil the Great says of him in his Liturgy, “a help to the helpless, a hope to the hopeless.”
Father Michael Venditti