comin’ in on a wing and a prayer

20130101_140(A sermon based on Exodus 32:1-14 Philippians 4:1-9)

When was the last time you were on the Mt. Washington Auto Road? Do you like that kind of driving? Having so much beauty all around you, but having to keep your eyes glued to the road? Or were you a passenger, and maybe wondering if you should have more fully vetted the driver’s driving skills? And those reminders on the way down … “stop here and cool your brakes!” Yikes!

Thirty-five years ago or so, I drove my parents up Mt. Washington on the Auto Road in their station wagon. Wide car – very narrow road. The station wagon was an automatic, but at least it did have two low gears. What a beautiful day. I was happy to give them this special day trip; my Dad had been sick for a while and they really needed a change of scenery. I wanted it to be relaxing and fun for them.

On the way down, I stopped dutifully at the first rest stop and checked the brakes. The wheels were nice and cool. So when the next stop came along, I skipped it. No sooner had we gone by that second rest stop – I mean, I think it was still in my peripheral vision – and people going by on the way up were tooting their horns and madly pointing to the front brakes of the car.

Which were smoking….

Of course there was nothing I could do but keep going. I shifted into Low 1. The car crawled. I was sweating bullets, as some of us like to say. I know we all said a few prayers! And I couldn’t wait for that third rest stop to come so that I could stop and relax a little bit.

Yesterday, Wally and I went up the Auto Road, but we had the luxury of going up in one of the vans. A “stage” they still call it, reminiscent of the stagecoaches that first went up that road when it was quite primitive. The road was completed when Abraham Lincoln was President, and I can’t even imagine how many people have gone up and down that feat of engineering. And how many prayers?!

It was a nice day yesterday, cloudy but with a high ceiling. A few stray cumulus clouds floated by us as if to remind us that there’s a reason why they say you’re “among the clouds” when you’re up there.

Those vans that they use now have specially designed gear ratios so that the engine acts as a brake on the way down. Because of the gearing, the brakes last four years! I’m not sure if the woman in the seat behind me in the van cared too much about that assurance of safety. It was the height and no guard rails that got to her. We were still below tree level and had stopped at a lookout, and she looked down and gasped, “Jesus Christ!”

I’m sure Jesus heard her. I know that was a prayer!

I had hoped that we’d see some gliders while we were up there. This weekend is the glider encampment called “The Wave,” when gliders come from all over the world to soar around Mt. Washington in the thermals and wave that goes right along the Presidentials. The gliders were grounded while we were on the mountain, but that didn’t stop me from thinking about my Dad and his flying days. He flew a C-47 in the Army Air Corps in World War II. He was stationed in Italy, and flew frequently between Italy and various points in northern Africa. After the war was over, he stayed in the Reserves for a while, and had to put in flying hours at the Hanscom Air Force Base in Bedford, Mass. Some of those World War II C-47s are still flying, you know!

I loved to hear his stories about flying, about problems flying, about solving problems under pressure, and about – as they’d call it – coming in on a wing and a prayer. Maybe you know that old song:

“Comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.
There’s just one engine gone,
we can still carry on,
comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.”

I think that’s how I felt thirty-five years ago when I was driving down the Auto Road with brakes smoking. And I wonder if that’s how Aaron might have felt when Moses left him in charge, and Moses was gone for forty days and forty nights. The people grew restless. We know they’re a tough crowd, don’t we.

All these stories we’ve been hearing Sunday after Sunday. Stories of a people who are not afraid to let Moses know when they’re unhappy. Hungry, tired, thirsty, impatient. Go, complain to Moses. And Moses prays to God. And each time, God comes through for Moses. Do you remember those stories? Water from the rock! The manna and the quail! Crossing the Red Sea! But this time, Moses is away and the people push Aaron to show them that God is still with them. Remember a few weeks ago, the sermon title was “Is God Among Us, Or Not?” And that’s just about where the people’s heads and hearts were again this time. They told Aaron “we don’t know what’s become of Moses, so you make gods for us, to go before us.”

Now Aaron, remember, is Moses’ brother. So Aaron should know better. I’d go so far as to say that Aaron should rebuke the people for asking for gods to be made by humans. But rather than rebuke them, Aaron joins in! Oh no! He has the people bring all of their gold and jewelry to be melted down and formed into a calf. And we know this story, too, don’t we: the people worship not the God who made them, and heard their cries for help, and preserved them, and brought them out of Egypt, and saved them, but they forget their true God and they worship this piece of metal that they’ve had Aaron fabricate for them.

As the story goes, God is miffed. Well, more than miffed, actually. God is really burnin’. God is ready to give up on the covenant God had with those people and start again with Moses and a whole new group of people. Remember how frustrated Moses has been with these people. I mean, they’ve really kept him up nights, if you know what I mean. But Moses doesn’t take the bait and use God’s anger and new plan as a way to bail on these people. Moses prays to God. Moses pleads with God. Moses implores God not to bring destruction on God’s people.

And Moses has some nice arguments. First, Moses says, “Look, you just spent all this energy saving these people and bringing them out of Egypt; you’ve got a lot invested in them.” And then, he brings up God’s standing in the world: “If you do this, you know, then the Egyptians will brag that they were correct back when they said that the Israelites would die if they left the slavery of Egypt.” And there’s another more urgent, more tender prayer. Moses pleads with God: “Remember your covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Israel that you would multiply their descendants ’til they were as numerous as the stars of the heavens.”

I think the best part of this story is that God changed God’s mind. What a wonderful God, who will listen and change thinking, change view, come at something a different way because of what a human said. That tells me one of the reasons why prayer is so important. Not so much that we can change God’s mind, although we know by this story that that indeed can happen. Because, you know, I’m never sure I can say what God’s mind is exactly. I’m not so bold to think that I know God’s mind and that God would be better off to have a different position on something. But if God can change God’s mind, well then I guess I can change my mind. And if God’s heart that was so broken by the people’s worship of an idol can change, then I hope I can change my heart from time to time. Make sure I don’t develop a stony heart, but that I keep a heart of flesh.

And the idea of God’s changing God’s mind and responding to Moses in that way, to Moses’ prayer, his pleading, his imploring God, the idea of that helps me to remember how close God is to us, to you and to me.

“The Lord is near,” Paul says to the Philippians. “Don’t worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and pleading with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

There are a lot of different opinions about why Paul wrote this letter to the Philippians. You may remember that Paul wrote this letter from prison. We’re not sure where he was in prison. At the end of the letter he thanks the Philippians for a gift he received from them, but since that thank you is at the end of the letter, many scholars believe that wasn’t the real reason for the letter, because if it had been, the letter would have started with that thank you language. Many scholars believe that Paul wrote the letter because Epaphroditus, a co-worker of Paul’s in spreading the Gospel, was going to Philippi, and so Paul had the opportunity to send the letter with him to support the Philippians’ community.

It’s interesting in the portion that we read today that Paul offers special support to Euodia and Syntyche. These are women that worked alongside Paul, just like Epaphroditus. Now Paul gets a bad rap with respect to women, in part because of some comments in the letter from Timothy that wasn’t even written by Paul!! But throughout all of Paul’s letters, we see him working for the Gospel alongside women such as Phoebe, Lydia, Apphia, Claudia, Julia, Persis, and Priscilla. These women were actively involved in significant ministries, and some were leaders of those ministries.

The women mentioned in our reading today, Euodia and Syntyche: Paul calls them fellow yoke-bearers, a term that he uses also for other male members of the ministry. And we are told in the reading that Euodia and Syntyche are not of the same mind on some matter. There is no evidence that they are quarreling. It no doubt is a minor matter, because when Paul is really mad at someone, he will not use their name in his writings. No doubt you’ve read some Epistles that go something like this: “And there are some who have said such and such.” That’s how Paul refers to something that’s a big dispute. He won’t name them if he is angry with them. But here he does name them, and in fact he gives a wonderfully generous testimony about them. And he simply asks them to “be of one mind.” To have the mind of Christ. Because that is where any of us will find our peace.

And the peace of Christ is far more than an absence of seeing eye-to-eye. It is a total well-being, and it comes only from God. This God who is always with us. This God who is closer to us than we can imagine. This God who loves us unconditionally. This God who wants us to pray, to express our needs and concerns to God.

My friends, remember how close the Lord is! Pray always.

Maybe your life right now is like one of those Mt. Washington stages, and you feel like you’re cruising through with a special gear box so that you don’t feel any wear and tear and your brakes are hardly used. When things are going really well, pray and rejoice!

Or maybe you’re flying around in a basic but very serviceable C-47, not elegant exactly, but fairly dependable and if something does break down, you’re sure you can cobble a repair together and can get through somehow. Is that you? Pray and rejoice!

When things are a little more difficult, or there are a few obstacles you’re dealing with, don’t hold back. Don’t think that God is too busy for your problems. In everything, let God know what you need!

And when your life’s weather is bad and one engine isn’t working and you’re running on half power and wondering if even that little bit is going to collapse, too, well then remember that God is still near. Maybe even nearer.

Keep praying, and keep going. And God will raise you up, and you’ll be okay, because you’ll be comin’ in on a wing and a prayer.

God bless you.

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