Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“What God Wants” (Psalm 86:11-12)
July 23, 2017
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
I am going to begin by juxtaposing two illustrations, the first from a classic Saturday Night Live sketch, the second from a famous movie.
My all-time favorite Saturday Night Live sketch is “Matt Foley: Motivational Speaker.” It originally aired on May 8, 1993 and features the hysterical heavyset Chris Farley. Two middle aged parents are at their wit’s end with their teenaged son Brian and daughter Stacy, and sit down with them in their family room for a “family communication session.” The mother tells them, “Your father and I came up with a brilliant idea to give you kids some direction: a motivational speaker.” “Yeah,” the father chimes in, “one of those guys who speaks to big groups at high schools and churches.” Stacy asks, “You mean to come to the house?”
They get up to leave and the father implores them, “Come on, you guys, this set me back a few bucks. His name is Matt Foley. Now he’s been down in the basement drinking coffee for about the last four hours. He should be already to go. I’ll call him up.” Matt Foley bursts into the room wearing thick glasses, a gingham purple sport coat and green tie—“Alrighty how’s everybody? Good, good, good. Now as your father probably told you, my name is Matt Foley and I am a motivational speaker.” The studio audience is in stitches as he continues, “Now let’s get started by letting me give you a little bit of a scenario of what my life is all about. First off, I am 35 years old, I am divorced, and I live in a van down by the river.”
He gets in Brian’s face and yells, “Now young man, what do you want to do with your life?” Brian responds, “Actually, Matt, I kind of want to be a writer.” Matt Foley belittles him and then yells in Stacy’s face, “Young lady, what do you want to do with your life?” Stacy sees right through the charade and sarcastically responds, “I wanna live in a van down by the river.” The audience erupts in laughter and Matt Foley hesitatingly replies, “Well, you’ll have plenty of time to live in a van down by the river when…you’re living in a van down by the river!” The sketch is not only hilariously funny, it is also very insightful.
The 2004 film, The Notebook, based on the Nicholas Sparks novel, recounts the lives of Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams). Noah and Allie fall in love in the 1940’s South Carolina Low Country, but Allie’s mother calls Noah “white trash” and forbids them to see each other. Years pass and Allie becomes engaged to an up and coming lawyer from a wealthy family but still feels drawn to Noah. So she drives to the visit Noah who is sitting on the front porch of the house he had built. Allie feels torn and so they get in a heated argument. Allie storms to her car only to have Noah follow her. Noah stands in front of her car and continues to make his case for Allie to choose him:
“It’s not going to be easy; it’s going to be really hard. And we’re going to have to work at this every day but I want to do that because I want you. I want all of you, forever, you and me, every day. Will you do something for me? Please? Just picture your life for me. Thirty years from now, forty years from now. What’s it look like? If it’s with that guy, go, go! I lost you once, I think I could do it again if I thought it’s what you really wanted—but don’t you take the easy way out.”
Allie is exasperated, “What easy way? There is no easy way. No matter what I do, somebody gets hurt.” And then Noah presses: “Would you stop thinking about what everyone wants? Stop thinking about what I want, what he wants, what your parents want. What do you want?” “It’s not that simple,” Allie protests, but Noah persists, “What do you want?” Allie balks and replies, “I have to go.” Noah puts is hands over his heart and walks away from the car. Allie gets in and drives away.
What do you want to do with your life? What do you want? Stacy is right in seeing that it is absurd to think a motivation speaker whose life is a train wreck could help you figure that out—and Allie is also right, “It’s not that simple.”
There are many people, however, that think it actually is that simple, that if you can clearly define what you want to do with your life, clearly define what it is you want, then you’ll be off to the races. But ironically something unforeseen often results—as Billy Parham tells John Grady Cole in Cormac McCarthy’s novel Cities of the Plain, “My daddy once told me that some of the most miserable people he ever knew were the ones that finally got what they’d always wanted” (219).
In Arthur Miller’s 1949 Pulitzer Prize winning play, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman is a traveling salesman who spends his whole life trying to get what he wanted, only to have it all end, literally, in his self-inflicted death. At the end of the play at Willy’s funeral his forlorn widow Linda talks to her deceased husband:
Help me, Willy, I can’t cry. It seems to me that you’re just on another trip. I keep expecting you. Willy, dear, I can’t cry. Why did you do it? I search and search, and I search, and I can’t understand it, Willy. I made the last payment on the house today. Today, dear. And there’ll be nobody home. We’re free and clear. We’re free. We’re free…we’re free (Penguin classics edition 112).
Even two of Jesus’ disciples believed that it was all about getting what they wanted. In Mark’s account of the gospel Jesus is nearing the end of his earthly ministry and has just told his disciples for the third time about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection when the following occurs:
James and John, the sons of Zebedee, came forward to (Jesus) and said to him, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” And he said to them, “What is it you want me to do for you?” And they said to him, “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” But Jesus said to them, “You do not know what you are asking” (Mark 10:35-38).
James and John, thinking they knew what they wanted, in reality did not know what they were asking. In other words, questions like “What do you want to do with your life?” and “What do you want?” are the exact wrong questions.
Along these lines the collect for today is one of the most insightful collects in the entire Book of Common Prayer, “Almighty God, the fountain of all wisdom, you know our necessities before we ask and our ignorance in asking: Have compassion on our weakness, and mercifully give us those things which for our unworthiness we dare not, and for our blindness we cannot ask” (231). What do you really think of this collect? Does it offend you that God is the “fountain of all wisdom” which means you are not? Does it offend you that, according to this collect, when it comes to what you think you want, you are actually ignorant, weak, unworthy, and blind? That is the bad news.
But there is good news in this collect too—God knows what you actually need before you even ask and God has compassion on your weakness—and in addition, in spite of your unworthiness and blindness, God still gives you what you dare not and cannot ask.
Incidentally, this is at least one reason why Jesus taught us to pray, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done” instead of “my kingdom come, my will be done.”
So if your life is not about what you want to do with your life, not about what it is you want, what is it about? The psalmist gives us the answer in today’s psalm:
Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; knit my heart to you that I may fear your Name. I will thank you, O Lord my God, with all my heart, and glorify your Name for evermore (Psalm 86:11-12, The Book of Common Prayer 710).
In other words, what ultimately matters is not what you want, but what God wants. And what does God want? You. As the credits roll in the epic 1988 U2 concert film Rattle and Hum, Bono sings:
You say you want
Diamonds on a ring of gold
You say you want
Your story to remain untold
All the promises we make
From the cradle to the grave
When all I want is you…
What God wants…is you. All God wants is you—“from the cradle to the grave,” from the manger to the cross, Jesus wanted you.
Even though we did not want God, God still wanted us—as Paul wrote, “God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Jesus came to seek out and save lost sheep who think they know what they want but are actually ignorant, weak, unworthy, and blind—who, like James and John, do not know what they are asking—who may even be living in a van down by the river—to give them what they dare not and cannot ask—unconditional love, total forgiveness, eternal life…free and clear.
Back to The Notebook for a moment…Of course Allie eventually chooses Noah and they are married for many years. At the end of the film, an elderly Noah (James Garner) is visiting Allie (Gena Rowlands) in a nursing home where she is suffering from the latter stages of Alzheimer’s. Allie has a lucid moment and gazes into the eyes of Noah who is holding and kissing her hand. “Hi,” she says.
Noah realizes she recognizes him and apologizes, “Sorry I haven’t been able to be here to read to you.” Allie replies, “I didn’t know what to do. I was afraid you were never coming back.” Noah smiles, “I’ll always come back.” Allie gets a worried look on her face—“What’s going to happen when I can’t remember anything anymore? What will you do?” “I’ll be here,” Noah reassures her, “I’ll never leave you.”
Allie continues, “I need to ask you something.” “What is it, sweetheart?” “Do you think that our love can create miracles?” “Yes, I do, that’s what brings you back to me each time.” “Do you think our love could take us away together?” “I think our love can do anything we want it to.” He leans over and gently kisses her, “I love you.” “I love you, darling,” she answers. And Noah crawls into the bed beside Allie. “Goodnight,” she whispers. “Goodnight,” Noah whispers back, “I’ll be seeing you.” The next morning an orderly enters the room and discovers that Noah and Allie have crossed into eternity together in each other’s arms.
Even when you can’t remember anything anymore, you will find that God is with you, that God will never leave you. God’s love indeed creates miracles and God’s love does anything God wants it to—turning sinners to saints and death to life.
Whether or not you ever figure out what you want to do with your life, or what it is you want, or if you finally got what you’d always wanted and it’s not how you thought it would be, be at peace; because it’s not about what you want, but about what God wants—and God wants you, so much so, that he died for you.
So during this earthly life you can pray with the psalmist, “Teach me your way, O Lord, and I will walk in your truth; knit my heart to you that I may fear your Name”—and when you cross into eternity in God’s everlasting arms, “I will thank you, O Lord my God, with all my heart, and glorify your Name for evermore.”