Monday, March 11, 2013

Sermon for March 10, 2013 / Lent IV

Where is God When I Am In Need?
Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Click here for an audio version of the worship service.

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 a loving parent, I believe that many of us see ourselves in the child who felt left out. How do we handle it when we expect God to act a certain way, and lets us down? 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 ?

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, 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, the little brother comes back home. He’s dirt poor and looks like one of his father’s workers. 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 most irresponsible member of the family gets treated more like royalty than a wayward son. Dad throws a feast in his honor. Everyone joins the party -- except for one person, the older son. As a responsible, first-born son type, I’d be angry too. The older brother works day in and day out, honestly and devotedly. Suddenly, this rebellious waste of a brother comes home and they throw him the party. Is this how you thank hard work and devotion? I would feel as if I had just been slapped in the face and sucker-punched. 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. 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.” 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 child? Forgotten? Abandoned? Taken for granted Unappreciated? Confused?

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 clear. You thought you knew how God worked. No surprises. You saw God’s will for you, and you followed it. Then the window cracked unexpectedly. A stone of suffering 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 rock of pain 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 stone’s form, the result was the same -- a shattered perspective. The view that had been so crisp had changed. Suddenly God was not easy to see. You turned to find some hope in the usual places, but the usual places were not helpful anymore. It was hard to see anything good through the fragments of suffering. You were puzzled. Perhaps you wondered, “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 does it seem like bad people prosper while the good die young? Why do others get to live happy, perfect lives, and I don’t? Where is Go when I’m in need?

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. 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. We begin to lack joy and love as we focus on our abandonment. It can make us 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.”

A medieval theologian named John of the Cross had a phrase for this feeling. He called it, “The Dark Night of the Soul.” Writing in the seventeenth century, John of the Cross had just escaped from a Spanish prison. He was locked up because he had a fiery, passionate love for God, unconfined by the doctrines of the church. He was a lover who had to go through exile in a land with no reference points before he could return home. He had a spiritual homesickness, living as a wanderer in a place where he did not belong. Everything he thought he believed was turned upside down. He wanted union with God, but it was elusive. In the dark night of the soul, one's own voice feels unsupported by God and unheard in the wilderness of the world. Nothing makes sense anymore. There’s no purpose to anything. We have another word for this feeling: despair.

Despair is very difficult to deal with in our culture because there is no permission for it.  We don’t deal well with this kind of pain. That why the Christian world drew a collective breath of shock when, in 2007, we discovered through a posthumously published book that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had undergone a severe, intense dark night that persisted through almost her entire ministry. It didn't seem to make sense. Why on earth would such a saintly person suffer such painful darkness? She wrote of "this untold darkness—this loneliness—this continual longing for God—which gives me that pain deep down in my heart." The place in her soul where, as a young nun, she had experienced God's intimate presence was now just a blank. "I just long and long for God—and then . . .  I feel—[God] does not want me—[God] is not there." In the pain, she found integration. Teresa finally used her dark night as a way to identify more deeply with "the hungry, the naked, the homeless . . .  all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone." This is part of the rhythm of the spiritual life: desolation invites us to participate in God’s justice.

Theologian James Cone talks about the Dark Night but with different language. He calls it the “dialectic of despair and hope.” Theologians love to kick the word “dialectic” around. The word has to do with questions and answers.  In other words, despair asks the questions, “Why this? Why me? Why now?” Hope has the answer – an invitation to reunion. Cone talks about being black in the South during the lynching era. Blacks knew that violent self-defense was equivalent to suicide. Self-defense and protest were out of the question. How did southern rural blacks survive the terrors of this era? For many, it was the blues. On the one hand, African Americans spoke of how they cried and moaned, about
“feel[ing] like nothin’, somethin’ th’owed away.”
Yet, in the next line they balanced despair with hope:
“Then I get my guitar and play the blues all day.”
Cone says, as long as African Americans could sing and play the blues, they had some hope that one day their humanity would be acknowledged. Sorrow turns to joy, despair to hope. Violence to justice. Those who are last will someday become the first.

Jesus gives a parable for the forasken. The one who was lost has been found and can return home to be reunited with the beloved. The one who feels secure, self-satisfied and superior becomes the one who is lost and needs to rediscover the meaning of love. It’s an invitation through the dark night.

Let me tell you about a woman with a vision. She lived in England in a time when war terrorizes and Black Death equally terrorizes the people. She was only 30 years old. A widow. Homeless. Sick. Dying. Forsaken. In tired desperation, she sat in a lean-to attached to a church in Norwich and in her feverish condition she saw Christ. In her darkest night of the soul, she felt the embrace of the Divine and heard these words: “All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well" She lived to write it all down, giving us the first book in the English language written by a woman. We don’t even know her name. We simply remember her as Julian of Norwich.

Where is God when we are in need? Where is God when we feel abandoned? Where is God when we’ve been running from home and are ready to come back? Where is God when we feel like nothing?

God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

When we’ve been dumped and left with the rubbish, God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

When we get bad news, God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

When we feel abandoned, God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

When we grieve . . . when we feel alone . . . when God doesn’t meet our expectations . . . even when we feel forsaken by God, God is with us. All is well, and is well, and all manner of things shall be well.

A Prayer of Julian of Norwich
God, before you made us you loved us you love us; your love was never abated, and never will be. And in your love you have done all your works, and in your love you have made all things profitable to us, and in your love our life is everlasting. In our creation we had our beginning, but the love in which you created us was in you from without beginning. In your love we have our beginning, and all this shall we see in you, God.

James Cone, The Cross & the Lynching Tree.

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