We know that all things work together for good for those who love God,
who are called according to his purpose. - Romans 8:28
Never place a period where God places a comma. - Gracie Allen
Some of you may be familiar with the comedy duo of George Burns and Gracie Allen, who were active together in show business in the middle of the 20th century. George played the straight man to Gracie's comic timing. They were also married and had children. They were deeply in love. When Gracie was dying and George was deeply grieved, she wrote him a final love letter. One sentence that George shared from this letter was this, "George, never place a period where God places a comma."
This was Gracie's way of reminding George that his life wasn't ending. There was a pause, but there would be more the sentence God was writing as the life of George Burns.
That sentence, which may have been a proverb before Gracie wrote it, has taken on a life of its own. The United Church of Christ adopted the line as part of its "God is still speaking" campaign in 2004. Others have worked it into speeches to underscore their points about all kinds of struggles- political, social, economic, physical.
Never place a period where God places a comma.
When I think about that phrase, I think beyond the idea that we sometimes misunderstand God's word- both the written scripture and the living Word of Jesus. The phrase itself, "Never place a period where God places a comma", reminds me that we are not called to be God's editors. An editor goes through a writer's work and checks for errors, lack of continuity, and places that need elaboration.
We often cast ourselves in the role of God's editor, deciding that we are sure we know for sure what was meant in the Bible, the intentions of the saints, and even why God chose to act in certain ways. We edit God's word by lifting our favorite parts and letting what we don't like to fall away. We modify God's intentions by aligning them with our preferences and understandings, instead of wrestling with how we may be called to act differently for the sake of Christ in the world.
Today's readings remind us of the dangers of editing God, of deciding we know how God means to punctuate God's words and work in the world. God is pleased when Solomon asks for wisdom and grants it to him. Later Solomon acts unwisely. He takes many wives, some for affection and attractiveness and some because it is politically expedient to do so. This entangles him in many relationships that damage his loyalty to God. He conscripts his fellow Israelites, and others, for the building of the temple and his palace. He acts so unwisely that you and I might decide to punctuate his story differently, but God doesn't. God puts a comma in Solomon's story. Even when Solomon's choices are ruinous, he is part of the line to whom God intends to keep a covenant with Abraham. And Solomon is part of the line through whom God will keep a covenant with the world. We tell the truth about Solomon, but we learn, we gain wisdom when we accept that God will use whom God chooses. God's work through a leader does not necessarily make that leader good, but God is still speaking and we do put a period when God places a comma.
Any decent editor might look at Matthew's account of the good news of Jesus and recommend some tightening up of the text. Not just punctuation changes, but maybe leaving a few of these confusing parables on the cutting room floor. In my mind, I can even see Matthew, writing with the help of the Holy Spirit, recalling Jesus' stories, and wondering how many to include. "Do we need all of these?" he wonders, looking at how much papyrus he has left and considering his cramping hand.
The parables, in their strangeness and curious composition, are reminders that we are not God's editors. These brief glimpses into the shape of the kingdom of God reminded Matthew, his audience, and us that God's ways are not our ways. God is wild like yeast, causing change even in our measured circumstances. The kingdom of God stirs so much enthusiasm that one who comes to it unexpectedly is willing to sacrifice everything to keep it. Our God, the God to whom we belong, draws all people in, in the net of Divine Love, and it is God who does the sorting at a time that we do not know. These stories are fantastic and they push our imaginations. We who especially want things to be logical and reasonable can be frustrated by the parables. It is tempting to rework them, to smooth them out, make them clearer through allegory (God is this, we are this, we should do x), but that is editing. We are not called and we are not equipped to edit God.
Never place a period where God places a comma.
When the apostle Paul dictated his letters, which he likely did, everyone probably longed for a comma. Certainly his amanuensis, the person who wrote for him, likely did and we do, too. His long sentences can be confusing and years of translation mean we feel far from Paul's context and his way of speaking. We often edit Paul so that we can understand him, but our editing of his work means that we lose some of what he intended to say and what God has said through him to the church then and now.
When Paul says, "We know that all things work together for good for those who love God,
who are called according to his purpose"- he does not mean that only good things will happen to faithful people. He doesn't even mean that we will understand the why and the how of difficult things that happen to us. That sentence is part of that whole section of Romans. A faithful person will likely reach a place where they don't know how to pray, possibly because they are so overwhelmed or grieved or frustrated. The Holy Spirit will help them pray, creating effective intercessions out of even their deepest sighs.
A person who is struggling to pray is not in a position to understand how God is working amid difficult and confusing times. (Let me say here that if none of you can identify with that statement, I will own it for myself,) A person who is relying on the Spirit's help to pray needs to be able to trust that God is still at work, still speaking, still healing, still bringing resurrection power into a world that is obsessed with death.
If we say to that person, that person who is struggling, "God won't give you more than you can handle" or "Everything happens for a reason", we are editing God. We are putting a period in the sentence, implying that feeling overwhelmed or frustrated or grieved is a sign of weak faith. God has a comma in that sentence. Even Paul's translators put commas in there,
The Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. -Romans 8:26-27
The Spirit intercedes, meaning God knows faithful people will come to a place where they don't know how to go on, when they aren't even sure how to pray. We cannot edit that by implying that people who are struggling can buck up if they want to. Sometimes things are hard and the Holy Spirit is what keeps us going. When we are seeking to be in alignment with the Spirit, we must be still, listen, and wait until we can speak what we know is true and what is not our edition of God's word.
Through Paul, God reminds people in that type of situation that nothing is stronger than God. Nothing can separate God's people from God's love. Not only does God have no eternal counterparts, but even entities that will die away cannot compete with God for loving us, providing for us, saving us, all through Jesus Christ. I'm tempted to edit here by throwing in some exclamation points.
For I am convinced! That neither death! Nor life! Nor angels! Nor rulers! Nor things present! Nor things to come! Nor powers! Nor height! Nor depth! Nor anything else in all creation! Will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord! - Romans 8:38-39
But that's also my editing.
The main thing I want you to understand is this: God is still speaking. Even through words that have been written for centuries, those words are alive with the spirit and bring freedom to us through Christ. We are not the editors of those words. We are not the editors of God's will. We cannot and must not place periods where God places commas.
During this pandemic, in the middle of our present political tensions, in the center of our community tensions over all kinds of things, speaking with certainty gives us a sense of control. That control is a false idol, encouraging us to lean on our understanding, which is most definitely sinking sand.
God is still speaking to us. God is working, actively, powerfully, lovingly, in the world right now. We may not fully understand how or even what we are to do, but we can pray, with the Spirit, for understanding and peace. And we can sit with each other, in that same understanding and peace, supporting one another and reminding each other that we are not God's editors.
Over the years, people have talked about how the Burns and Allen show ended with George saying, "Say goodnight, Gracie" and her reply, "Goodnight, Gracie." Recordings of the show demonstrate they didn't actually say that, but that sign off has taken on a life of its own. Keep that in mind now, so you can help me end this sermon.
We are not God's editors. God is still speaking. Do not place a period where God places a comma.
Say amen, congregation.
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