Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Paraprosdokian - A Sermon on Word Play

Proper 8A, 2017
Genesis 22:1-14
Romans 6:12-23
Matthew 10:40-42
The Rev. Canon Dr. Kathy Dunagan
St. Paul, Kingsport

Good morning. I am Kathy Dunagan. I am a Canon in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia and live in Bristol, Virginia. I’m glad to be here as your supply priest on this first Sunday of your transition. I am impressed with your hospitality. In my work I travel to a different parish almost every Sunday and I don’t always see such hospitality. It is a good thing to practice good hospitality, especially during times of transition.
I am also a therapist and so I’m going to start with a definition from psychology. Cognitive Dissonance is a conflict or anxiety resulting from inconsistencies between one's beliefs and one's actions or other beliefs.  The classic ethical dilemma is of the man who can’t afford the medicine that can cure his dying wife so he steals it.  He is a good man.  He doesn’t believe in stealing.  But he is desperate.
There is a lot of cognitive dissonance and also a lot of ethical questions in the readings today.  Jesus told us last week to receive (or decline) hospitality when out in the mission field. This week He tells us to be hospitable emphasizing that hospitality and acts of mercy extended to disciples are, in effect, extended to Christ.  Paul’s ethical implications of union with Christ are again found in this continued reading from Romans where Paul outlines his theology on moral relativism. And we have this amazing and oft quoted story from Genesis of God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac.  We’ve been following this story for three Sundays and we have learned just how good and faithful Abraham has been.  Why would God, especially at this point in the story, test Abraham and command him to commit murder?
So in order to live into these rich lessons, we might do well to recognize in ourselves our tendency to struggle with cognitive dissonance and ambivalence in our daily lives. 
Part of the problem, and likely the reason for this story from Genesis, is that we immediately start making demands of God.  Like children we get angry and anxious and stomp our feet and demand that God is not being fair!  It is not fair to treat Abraham this way!  He has been so very faithful to God and he loves God so very much. Why must he suffer so?  Why must we suffer?  Part of the problem here is that we ask these questions from our stance of creating God in our image instead of remembering that’s it’s the other way around.
Our God-created-in-our-image is expected to provide for and protect us like a good parent and always, always, always be good and faithful to us.  The trickery in this story of Abraham and Isaac causes us to want to lose faith in God.  It just doesn’t seem fair.
Isaac carried the wood up the mount to be sacrificed.  Isn’t that strange? Isaac is obedient, as is Abraham, but Isaac even carries the wood.  Jesus too carried the wood to his sacrifice. Obedient to the very end.
You see, Abraham loved God so much that he was able to sacrifice his only son. Abraham loved God so much that this did not seem trickery to him.  He knew absolutely that God would near hurt him or Isaac. 
I learned a new word this week - Paraprosdokian. This is a literary term used by scholars who work with rhetoric and literary criticism.  It is a comedic technique in literature..
A paraprosdokian is a sentence which consists of two parts. The first is a well known figure of speech and the second is an intriguing variation of the first which forces the listener to reinterpret it.
Groucho Marx made a career out of paraprosdokians.
“Time flies like an arrow; fruit flies like a banana.”

“She got her good looks from her father; he’s a plastic surgeon.”

“One morning I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas I’ll never know.”

“Outside of a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.”

Another character who made good use of paraprosdokians was Winston Churchill. When the US finally entered the Second World War he said, ‘You can always count on Americans to do the right thing — after they’ve tried everything else.’

Here are a couple more: 

Hospitality is making your guests feel like they’re at home, even if you wish they were.
I was going to ask God for a bike, but I know God doesn’t work that way. So I stole a bike and asked God for forgiveness.

Another master of the paraprosdokian was Jesus.
Some of the best examples of Jesus’ use of this funny way of turing a phrase are in Matthew’s Gospel. At the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus takes universal experiences inherent in the human condition -  poverty, grief, war, injustice, hunger, thirst, suffering, and persecution and calls them “blessings.”
Perhaps it is time we rediscovered the “punch lines” in Jesus’ most memorable teachings.
The Gospel lesson this morning is from the second of the 5 major bodies of teaching in Matthew. (7:28; 11:1; 13:53; 19:1; 26:1) We have been studying this section for three Sundays.  We have been studying for three Sundays the stories of Abraham, the very beginnings of the formation of who we are as the Church. 
We have also studied the same Pauline theology for these three Sundays, a sort of Paraprosdokian of St.Paul is from this letter to the Romans and it’s about sin.  Paul asks the question that goes like this: If we are now under the expectations of Grace and not Law, does this mean we can sin all we want to because we’ll be forgiven? Sounds sort of like stealing a bike.  Or it’s like that bad theology that suggests we can sin all through life and gamble that we’ll have the chance make amends last minute, just before we die and still get into heaven.  But we know, it doesn’t work that way!  
Paul’s point was to dispel what seems like an obvious question:  “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound?”  In other words, “If God’s grace is extensive enough to encompass our sin, presumably more sin on our part would prompt more grace on God’s part.”  Right?  Well, of course not!  That’s just silly!  Thus Paul’s explanation to the church in Rome about moral relativism.
We are called to resist evil and to do good. But we are called to do this not as people motivated by the hunger for power, but as resurrection people eager to serve.
We are not in it for what we can get for ourselves at the expense of others, but for the good of all.
I’ve borrowed these last two lines from a scholar who says that we are called to be like Christ and so she calls disciples of Jesus, “little Christs.”  She’s the one who introduced the word paraprosdokian to me.  She goes on to say:
As “little Christs” we are called to follow the way of Christ in the way of Christ. This means we not only share the same destination, but we share the same way of getting there.
Sometimes in fact most times this causes us to be in conflict with the value system of our culture.
In this way we ourselves become “living paraprosdokians.”
We, like Jesus, become the punch line of history.
Perhaps that is why Paul said we are “fools” for the sake of Christ.
I am sure there are many in government, business, and the halls of power who see the Christian ethic as foolish. Whoever heard of winning by surrender? Or leading by serving?
And yet the scripture is relentless in its reminders that we are called not just to believe or cheer God on, but to be disciples who actually follow in the footsteps of Jesus (God Incarnate).
Sort of ups the ante doesn’t it? - Joy Sylvester-Johnson
Paul Simon has a new album out. Well, not so new, it’s actually a year old but that’s new in my world.  Anyway, it’s called Stranger to Stranger and holds a theme about hospitality and home and travel and coming home again and being in relationship with each other. 
There is a lot of humor in his lyrics.  I think Paul Simon is a great poet.  One song on this CD has a repeated line that goes, “I can’t talk now, I’m In a Parade!” This song tells the story of a schizophrenic in a psychotic episode in an ER.  The schizophrenic is talking on a cell phone explaining the bizarreness of his thoughts while he waits his turn for help.  It’s funny, not sad. Somehow Simon leads the listener to empathize with the crazy patient and to realize that we all struggle with at least cognitive dissonance, if not outright bouts of psychosis.
The hit from this CD is called Wristband and it too is funny.  This song tells the story of Mr. Simon’s experience one day when he got locked out of a large arena where they were setting up for a concert that night.  He walks around the block and attempts to enter a door in the front but is stopped by a security guard who denies Paul Simon entrance to a Paul Simon concert because the real Paul Simon doesn’t have a wristband.
“Wristband, my man, you’ve got to have a wristband. If you don’t have a wristband, you can’t get through the door.”
Simon goes on, in the bridge of the song, where he gets more serious and waxes poetic about the members of our society who are marginalized, “the folks that never get a wristband, the kids that can’t afford the cool brand.”
Jesus told us last week to receive (or decline) hospitality. This is in the oft quoted section of Matthew where we are told we sometime should choose to shake the dust off of our feet and leave. This week He tells us to be hospitable emphasizing that hospitality and acts of mercy extended to disciples are, in effect, extended to Christ.  In other words, be nice to each other.
Cognitive Dissonance?
Whenever I preach myself into the particular corner of trying to figure God out, I tend to pull out my favorite Christmas movie.  I know.  It’s hokey and over used and there’s 176 days left until Christmas, but I love the story of George Bailey who get’s to live out for us the fantasy of the quintessential second chance of his Wonderful Life.  
George Bailey prayed, in a moment of desperation, that he wished he’d never been born.  And in the fantasy of the movie, he is awarded this wish.  He then spends the next few hours in the Scrooge-like hell of encountering all of his family and friends to whom he is now a stranger.  No one knows him.  No one loves him.  No one accounts for him and he ends up suicidal.  It is in the penultimate scene in which his second prayer – to live again – lifts this curse and he encounters his friend Bert the police officer, when George finally knows the gift of being known. Bert the cop finds the lost George on a bridge staring at the icy water below.
Bert: [shouts] Hey, George! George! You all right? Hey, what's the matter?
George Bailey: Now get outta here, Bert, or I'll hit you again! Get outta here! 
Bert: What the sam hill you yellin' for, George? 
George Bailey: You... [suddenly stunned]  George ? . . . Bert? Do you know me?
Bert: Know you? Huh. You kiddin'? I've been looking all over town trying to find you. I saw your car plowed into that tree down there and I thought maybe you - hey, George, your mouth's bleeding. Are you sure you're all right? 
If you’ve seen the movie, you know the rest.  If you haven’t seen the movie, you probably have at least seen the famous last clip of a joyful family gathered for their prodigal celebration.
It gets me every time.  I watch this 60 year old movie every Christmas and I cry every time!  But it’s not watching George Bailey run through the snowy streets of his beloved home town, nor the Christmas carols, not even the rejoining of all those relationships you’ve just spent ninety minutes watching break apart.  No, what I love about this movie is just this scene, when this lost soul hears a friend call him by name.  He is known, he is found, and so he knows the way home, and he knows what to do about his adversities. 
Abraham was known by God and so he knew how to follow and how to obey and how to listen and discern what to do next.
St. Paul reminds us to that we are known by God. In his letter to the Romans he emphasizes that our Baptism frees us to a life of Grace but not a life of lawlessness just because we are always, always, always forgiven and welcomed home.
Jesus commands us to always, always, always welcome the stranger and to also be the stranger and accept hospitality.  In other words. We are commanded to be nice to each other.
In all of these stories we can recognize this one truth - We are known by God. We are loved by God.  We are sustained by God.  There is little else that matters.
So when we are feeling the schizoid pull of cognitive dissonance, when we are faced with daily challenges, it helps to learn to live into ambiguity. We are able to do this because we are in relationship with a God who knows and loves and sustains us.


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