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Sermon for March 14, 2010

Disappointment with God

Tax collectors and other notorious sinners often came to listen to Jesus teach. This made the Pharisees and teachers of religious law complain that he was associating with such sinful people—even eating with them! So Jesus told them this story: “A man had two sons. The younger son told his father, ‘I want my share of your estate now before you die.’ So his father agreed to divide his wealth between his sons. A few days later this younger son packed all his belongings and moved to a distant land, and there he wasted all his money in wild living. About the time his money ran out, a great famine swept over the land, and he began to starve. He persuaded a local farmer to hire him, and the man sent him into his fields to feed the pigs. The young man became so hungry that even the pods he was feeding the pigs looked good to him. But no one gave him anything.

When he finally came to his senses, he said to himself, ‘At home even the hired servants have food enough to spare, and here I am dying of hunger! I will go home to my father and say, “Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son. Please take me on as a hired servant.”’ So he returned home to his father. And while he was still a long way off, his father saw him coming. Filled with love and compassion, he ran to his son, embraced him, and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against both heaven and you, and I am no longer worthy of being called your son.’
But his father said to the servants, ‘Quick! Bring the finest robe in the house and put it on him. Get a ring for his finger and sandals for his feet. And kill the calf we have been fattening. We must celebrate with a feast, for this son of mine was dead and has now returned to life. He was lost, but now he is found.’ So the party began. Meanwhile, the older son was in the fields working. When he returned home, he heard music and dancing in the house, and he asked one of the servants what was going on. ‘Your brother is back,’ he was told, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf. We are celebrating because of his safe return.’ The older brother was angry and wouldn’t go in. His father came out and begged him, but he replied, ‘All these years I’ve slaved for you and never once refused to do a single thing you told me to. And in all that time you never gave me even one young goat for a feast with my friends. Yet when this son of yours comes back after squandering your money on prostitutes, you celebrate by killing the fattened calf!’ “His father said to him, ‘Look, dear son, you have always stayed by me, and everything I have is yours. We had to celebrate this happy day. For your brother was dead and has come back to life! He was lost, but now he is found!’” -- 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.

John Quincy Adams, sixth President of the U.S. – perhaps not the greatest president, 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.”

These men would be great candidates for some 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. 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.”

Sometimes, we disappoint 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 others. People fail to meet our expectations. They won’t do what we hoped they would.

Have you ever been disappointed with God. I know, we don't like to talk about THAT. I think this is part what's going on in this familiar story from Luke's Gospel. We call it the parable of the Prodigal Son. While some of us can relate to the lost, wasteful son who came home to his father, I believe that many of us see ourselves in the child who felt like his faithfulness was being ignored. 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, little brother comes back home. He’s dirt poor and looks like one of his father’s servants. He smells like he has been living with pigs. I can imagine the older brother thinking, “Finally, 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. Dad throws a feast in his honor. Everyone joins the party -- except for big brother. 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 prostitutes 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.

Here’s a story about a daughter’s disappointment with her father. Grace says:
By the time I was ten, I was totally ashamed of my father. All my friends called him names: Quasi-Moto, hunchback, little Frankenstein, the crooked little man with the crooked little cane. My father was born with something called parastremmatic dwarfism. The disease made him stop growing when he was about thirteen and caused his body to twist and turn into a grotesque shape. It wasn’t too bad when he was a kid. Soon after my birth, things started getting worse. Another genetic disorder took over, and his left foot started turning out, almost backward. His head and neck shifted over to the right; his neck became rigid and he had to look over his left shoulder a bit. His right arm curled in and up, and his index finger almost touched his elbow. His spine warped to look something like a big, old roller coaster and it caused his torso to lie sideways instead of straight up and down like a normal person . . . I hated to be seen with him . . . By the time I was seventeen, I was blaming all my problems on my father. I didn’t have the right boyfriends because of him. I didn’t drive the right car because of him. I didn’t have the right jobs because of him. I wasn’t happy because of him. Anything that was wrong with me, or my life, was because of him(Candace Carteen in God Allows U-Turns, Promise Press, 2001, 19).
Have you ever felt like the older son whose been upstaged by the wastrel? Ever felt like Grace -- like someone else was intentionally or unintentionally causing all your problems? 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. You were certain that you knew how God worked. Predicatable. 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. 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? What didn't God punish the evildoer? 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 but can’t find God anymore. Broken 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. You focus on your abandonment instead of your blessings. 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.”

Grace, the teenager who was disappointed with her crippled father, happened to talk to some of her friends. “Grace,” Jane said, “you have the greatest father.” Grace's face fell. “What?” Jane smiled and grabbed Grace's shoulders. “Your father’s just the best. He’s funny, kind, and always finds the time to be where you need him. I wish my father was more like that.” Grace began to try to understand her disappointment with her father. She started seeing her father in a new way. She finally came to a place where she said, “Father, I owe you a big apology. I based my love for you on what I saw and not what I felt. I forgot to look at the one part of you that meant the most, the big, big heart God gave you.”

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 says, “Behold the greatness of God’s love for 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 feel dumped and left behind, God is for us.
When we feel embarrassed or ashamed, God is for us.
When we've prayed our hearts out and get no answers, 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 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 God and to one another as possible.

Chris and I 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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