Friday, March 31, 2006

Sermon for March 26, 2006

Disappointment with God
Luke 15:1-3,llb-32

It is said that Alexander the Great conquered Persia, but broke down and wept because his troops were too exhausted to push on to India. His grave marker reads: A tomb now suffices for him whom the world was not enough

Hugo Grotius, the father of modern international law, said at the last, “I have accomplished nothing worthwhile in my life.”

John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the U.S.– not the greatest president, perhaps, but a decent leader--wrote in his diary: “My life has been spent in vain and idle aspirations, and in ceaseless rejected prayers that something would be the result of my existence beneficial to my species.”

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote words that continue to delight and enrich our lives, and yet what did he write for his epitaph? “Here lies one who meant well, who tried a little, and failed much.”

Listen to what the gravestone of the famous poet John Keats
This Grave contains all that was Mortal of a Young English Poet Who on his Death Bed in the Bitterness of his Heart at the Malicious Power of his Enemies Desired these words to be engraven on his Tomb Stone “Here lies One Whose Name was writ in Water.”

Our modern psycho-babblists would just love these men. They are great candidates for positive affirmation therapy. Can you just imagine Alexander the Great with Doctor Phil: “Alexander, I want you come up with a set of sentences to repeat to yourself, or, for a small fee, you can repeat some of mine. For instance, next time you feel like you have not conquered enough of the world, I want you to say over and over again to yourself, “Every day in every way I’m getting better, better and better. Everything is coming to me easily and effortlessly. Everything I need is already within me. I love and appreciate myself just as I am.” By the way, some new studies argue that positive affirmation therapy may lead to deeper depression.

Sometimes, we disappoint with ourselves. We want to make a bigger impact. We want to achieve more. We find parts of our lives that we don’t particularly like, let alone love. We also become disappointed with people. People fail to meet our expectations. They won’t do what we hoped they would. I think this kind of disappointment is occurring in today’s Scripture reading.

I want to talk honestly this morning about something we don’t like to admit happens. While some of us can relate to the lost son who came home to his father, I believe that many of us see ourselves in the child who felt left out. How do we handle it when God disappoints us? What are we supposed to do when God doesn’t meet our expectations, or even worse, when we feel that we have not been fully appreciated by God?

We tend to focus a lot on the younger son in this story. Many of us are familiar with this parable: the young son takes his share of the family inheritance and goes to the big city to squander his money in the fast lane. Yet, all this time, a responsible older son works at home. He obeys his father. He stays at the ranch, contentedly caring for the family farm and waiting patiently for what’s due him. He is respectable. People depend on him in tough times. Then one day, without a word of notice, his little brother comes back home. He’s dirt poor and looks like one of his father’s slaves. He smells like he has been living with pigs. I can imagine the older brother thinking, “Finally -- now this squanderer will learn some responsibility. Maybe he’s hit rock bottom and he’s ready to learn his lesson.” But the black sheep of the family is treated more like royalty than a wayward son. The Dad throws a feast in his honor. Everyone joins the party -- except for on person, the older son. If I were the big brother, I would be angry too. He works day in and day out, honestly and devotedly. Suddenly, this rebellious waste of a brother comes home, and they throw him the party, complete with a fattened calf. Is this how you thank hard work and devotion? I would feel that all this undue attention on the brother was just a slap in the face. I would be disappointed and angry with my father. The older son says as much.

“Look how many years I’ve stayed here serving you,” he says to his father. “I’ve never given you one moment of grief, but have you ever thrown a party for me or my friends? Then this son of yours who has thrown away your money on whores shows up, and you go all out with a fattened calf. You have never even given me an old goat to celebrate with.” He sounds resentful, and hurt that his father has not fully appreciated who he is or the sacrifice he has made for the family.

Have you ever felt like this older son. Imagine a window in your heart through which you can see God. Once upon time that window was clear. Your view of God was crisp. The glass was clean. Like the older son, you knew how God worked. No surprises. You saw God’s will for you, and you followed it. Then the window cracked unexpectedly. A pebble of pain broke your vision. Perhaps the stone struck when you were a child and a parent left home forever. Maybe the rock hit in adolescence when your heart was broken. Perhaps it was a midnight phone call that woke you up with shivers up your spine. Those calls are never good news. Maybe it was a letter on the kitchen table that said, “It’s over, I just don’t love you anymore.” The pebble could have been a diagnosis from the doctor who said, “I’m afraid our news is not good.” Maybe it was the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a reputation. Whatever the pebble’s form, the result was the same-a shattered window. Suddenly God was not easy to see. The view that had been so crisp had changed. You turned to see God and the figure was distorted. It was hard to see God through the pain and through the fragments of hurt. You were puzzled. If God is really in control, why would these bad things happen? Why didn’t God heal him? Why didn’t God let her live? Why do those people get to live happy, perfect lives, and I don’t?

Most of us know what it means to feel disappointed with God, and most of us have a way of completing this sentence: “If God is God, then...” Each of us has unspoken yet definite expectations about what God should do. “If God is God, then . . . "
· There will be no financial collapse in my family.
· My children will never be buried before me.
· People will treat me fairly.
· My prayer will be answered.
These statements define our expectations of God. When pain comes into our world and splinters the window of our hearts, our expectations go unmet and doubts may begin to surface. We look to God but can’t find him. Fragmented glass hinders our vision, and we’re not quite sure what we see anymore.

I don’t think these feelings are bad. The struggle is real. The question is: how do we deal with them? The older son in Jesus’ parable took it too far. He became critical and unsatisfied with his father. Disappointment does that. It can make us bitter and isolated. You begin to lack joy, and love as you focus on your abandonment. It can make you critical of a God who chooses to make others happy while you wallow in pain. It can cause you to be angry with a God who would throw a party for “sinners” rather than rewarding the efforts the “righteous.”

Jesus reminds us the good son does not need the care. The lost son is the one who needs to find life. By the end of the parable we learn this: the one who was lost has been found and has returned home. The one who was secure and self-satisfied is now the one who is lost and needs to rediscover his father’s love.

How can we overcome disappointment with God? How can we see God more clearly, even though the window of our heart has been shattered? God’s message of good news is this: God is for us. Jesus addresses this parable to those of us who feel like the older brother. Jesus says, “Behold the greatness of God’s love for his lost children, and contrast it with your own joyless, loveless, thankless, critical lives. Cease your bitter, isolated ways, and be merciful. The spiritually dead are rising to new life. The lost are returning home.”

Jesus says that when we’ve been dumped and left behind, God is for us.
When we get bad news, God is for us.
When we feel abandoned by God, no matter what we feel, God is for us.
When we grieve . . . when we feel alone . . . when we’ve been dumped on by life . . . when God doesn’t meet our expectations . . . even when we feel disappointed with God, God is for us. God loves the sinners and the saints alike, and calls us all to be as close to him as possible.

We used to drive a van full of youth from Boston to Georgia for a summer camp. We would drive twelve hours each day. I told everyone right from the beginning, “We are stopping every four hours. Not two, not three; but four hours. I am not pulling over unless it is an extreme emergency.” It was easy for me to keep driving, because I knew the destination. Warm water, fresh air, bright sun, and a week of nonstop fun awaited them. We just had to get there without pulling over every twenty minutes. It was not as easy for the teens in the van. They were uncomfortable. The wanted to stretch. The hours were long. It was hard for them to fix their eyes on a goal that they had never seen.

For some of you the journey has been long. Some of you have shouldered burdens that few of us could ever carry. You have been robbed of life-long dreams. You have been given bodies that can’t sustain your spirit. You have spouses who can’t tolerate your faith. You have bills that out number the paychecks. And you are tired. It is hard for you to see the destination in the midst of the journey. The desire to pull over and get out entices you. You want to go on but some days the road seems long. When you feel disappointed that the journey is so long and hard, I want you to remember that God is for us. God is for us. And if God is for us, no one or nothing can stand against us.

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