Thursday, April 3, 2014

Lament and the Elusive Jesus

"Lament" by Kathe Kollwitz

2 Chronicles 36:16-20:

Therefore God brought up against them the king of the Chaldeans, who killed their youths with the sword in the house of their sanctuary, and had no compassion on young man or young woman, the aged or the feeble; he gave them all into his hand.  All the vessels of the house of God, large and small, and the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king and of his officials, all these he brought to Babylon.  They burned the house of God, broke down the wall of Jerusalem, burned all its palaces with fire, and destroyed all its precious vessels.  He took into exile in Babylon those who had escaped from the sword, and they became servants to him and to his sons.

 John 6:10-15:

Jesus said, “Make the people sit down.”  Now there was a great deal of grass in the place; so they sat down, about five thousand in all.  Then Jesus took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated; so also the fish, as much as they wanted.  When they were satisfied, he told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”  So they gathered them up, and from the fragments of the five barley loaves, left by those who had eaten, they filled twelve baskets.  When the people saw the sign that he had done, they began to say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”  When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.

Some time ago three different people in three different settings asked me the same basic question:  Why didn’t God answer my prayers?  And their prayers were not the small, garden variety kind of prayers… like nice weather for my wedding day or good grades on my finals.  These were big prayers about life-changing and life-shattering events.  They were prayers for a loved one with a terminal illness, for a marriage on the brink of destruction, for a career coming to an untimely end.  In each case, all the prayers, all the church services attended, all the good deeds done in an attempt to coerce God into a quid pro quo did not manufacture or manipulate the desired outcome.  The loved one died, the marriage ended, and the worker was let go.  Why?

I have to confess that there are times I feel like God’s defense attorney.  I can almost picture myself in a court of law rising before judge, jury, and the court of public opinion in order to defend my client… the Lord God Almighty.  The accuser sits on the witness stand and I cross-examine in my most pastoral manner.  Is it possible that God answered your prayer, just not in the way you wanted?  Maybe you asked for the wrong thing.  My client was ready to give you strength and grace and courage to meet your trials head on, but you just wanted God to make the problem go away.  Or, when all else fails, “My client works in mysterious ways.  Right now you don’t see why this is best, but some day you will understand.”

Do you ever feel like you have to come to God’s defense, or am I the only one?

The reading from John’s Gospel is a familiar enough story: the hungry crowds, the bread and fish, Jesus’ action of taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing, the feeding, and the leftovers.  But what catches my attention in the lesson is what appears to be a throw away line at the end of the reading:

When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take Him by force to make Him king, He withdrew again.

There is something elusive about Jesus; something like your date to the middle school dance who flirts with you all night, but then coyly turns away as you awkwardly try to kiss her goodnight.  Of course the crowd gathered that day wanted to make Jesus their king if He was able meet their most urgent physical needs!  What else did He expect them to do?

And how does Jesus think we are going to respond when we read the bible?  If He feeds the masses, then when we are hungry, we are going to pray for food.  If Jesus teaches people to be fair and honest and good, and if Jesus stands with those who are being treated unfairly, then when we are getting the shaft at work for something that is beyond our control, we are going to pray for Jesus to deliver us.  If Jesus heals the sick and even raises a little girl from the dead, then of course we are going to pray for the same thing when our loved ones are ill.  We didn’t manufacture false hope out of thin air; it is all right there in the bible.  Jesus did it then; it seems reasonable to think that He can do it now.

And yet when we need Him most Jesus does just what He did in the Gospel reading: He disappears or withdraws or holds back or pulls some other elusive maneuver that leaves us clutching air while our deepest longing goes unanswered and our deepest need goes unmet.  And then, somewhere down the road, long after the episode is over, but while the pain and grief and the loss are still fresh, someone like me – God’s ordained public defender – has to make a case for why all of it is just. 

But what if God doesn’t want my defense?  What if what God really wants is to hear our complaint? 

The reading from 2 Chronicles details in just six short verses the single most traumatic event in the Old Testament’s history of the people of Israel.  The fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple represented much more than a military defeat.  It represented the complete obliteration of the Hebrew culture.  Survivors were forced to leave their homeland and abandon all familiar expressions of their faith and life.  To be in exile was to feel orphaned, forgotten, forsaken, and rootless.  And although Israel’s exile lasted only seventy years, countless nameless societies failed to recover from similar experiences and were never heard from again.

A most amazing literary style emerged during this dark time in Israel’s history and many scholars believe that it was partially if not largely responsible for seeing them through this terrible experience.  The literary style is known as lament… literally an expression of profound sadness and deep complaint to God about what God has allowed to happen.

Some time take a look at Psalm 44.  It begins innocently enough.  The poet recounts all the ways God intervened to assist his or her ancestors:  Giving them a land in which to live, military victories, signs and mighty deeds.  Every day they praised you,” writes the psalmist, “and so did we.”  But then the psalm turns as the poet considers the plight of God’s people in exile:  We held up our end of the bargain, but you, God, turned your back on us.  You rejected us for no good reason. 

Listen to this litany directed at God, one blast after another:

You have made us like sheep to be eaten.

You have sold us for a trifle.

You have made us the scorn of our neighbors, a mockery… a derision… a laughing stock.

You thrust us down into a place of deep darkness.

For your sake we are being killed all the day long.

That is some pretty tough talk.  And the psalmist never lets up:

God, are you asleep?

Are you going to reject us forever?

Why have you hidden your face?

Why have you forgotten us?

Rise up and do something, anything, to help us.

Keep the promises that you made to us.

Let me see of show of hands: how many of you as a child had a Sunday School lesson covering Psalm 44?  Another show of hands: how many of you feel a little bit uncomfortable hearing this kind of language directed at God?  It is a bit unsettling, isn’t it.  You don’t have to show your hands on this one: how many of you have ever complained to God with the same emotion and intensity? 

And why do you suppose that psalms like this one are in the Bible?  One scholar says of these laments, “they propose to speak about human experience in an honest, freeing way.  This is in contrast to much of human speech and conduct, which is in fact a cover-up.” Another says, “The Psalms in Hebrew are earthly and rough.  They are not genteel.  They are not the prayers of nice people, couched in cultured language.”  Laments directed at God are graphic, R-rated expressions of brokenness and anger.  They are the equivalent of calling God every name in the book.  And because they are in the Holy Bible, it is God’s way of giving us permission to lay it all out on the table, to hold back nothing, to lay bare our most raw, angry, bitter, and broken emotions.

And for people like me (and perhaps you) who sometimes feel the need to be God’s legal counsel, laments like the 44th Psalm say that we don’t need to come to God’s defense.  Let the witness rail and say the worst about God.  You know what, sometimes its true.  Imagine yourself representing the Lord God at a legal proceeding.  The accuser gives it to your client pretty good.  Then judge looks at you and says, “Care to cross-examine?  And you respond, “No, your honor.  The witness pretty much hit the nail on the head.

But let me do this.  Let me, Keith (God’s ordained legal counsel), take the stand.  I want to be a witness in this proceeding:

I too have prayed prayers… important prayers, prayers of life and death… that went unanswered.  I have been broken and crushed.  I have echoed the complaints of the psalmist.  I have called God every name in the book.  And God took it, mostly in silence.

But God did something else.  God sent His Son, His only Son.  And God’s Son was rejected and broken and despised and killed.  And God’s Son came to me not to fix all my problems and not to answer all my prayers… because no one fixed all His problems and no one answered all His prayers.  God’s Son came to offer me Himself in bread and wine… His body broken and His blood spilled.  And by a grace that is beyond me, even when I was broken I continued to take the bread and the wine.  And I don’t know how, and I can’t say exactly when, but I have found healing and peace in receiving the bread and in the wine.

So to you whose prayers have gone unanswered I say just three things:

I know how you feel.

Don’t take it laying down.  Complain up a storm to the highest heavens until you don’t have the strength to complain anymore.  And when you regain your strength, complain even more if you want to.

Please, please, please come to the Lord’s Table and receive the true Bread that comes down from heaven.  Come and receive the bread and this cup, and never stop.  I can’t give you an answer, but I can give you God’s Son.  And while Jesus may at times be elusive, over time He gives life – true life.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Brighter Light & Deeper Darkness

“As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world.”

Our Lenten gospel readings are taking us through the basic elements, aren’t they!  Two weeks ago it was wind, last week water, and now today it is light. Did you know that the word ‘lent’ has a Germanic origin and originally meant spring or, even more precisely, lengthening (as in more hours of sunlight).  Even with this winter’s awful weather, there is no mistaking that the days are getting longer.  But while light is coming into our world with earlier sunrises and later sunsets, our Gospel readings foreshadow a growing darkness.  It feels like the more Jesus shines the Light of God’s love the deeper and more resistant the darkness around him becomes. 

In today’s reading, Jesus’ attention is drawn to a person who has been blind from birth.  The disciples use the occasion to ask their teacher a theological question: Why was this person born blind?  Was it on account of his sin or his parents?  The assumption behind the question is obvious: someone, somewhere, sometime in the past must have sinned and the blindness represents God’s punishment.  Jesus’ response, in effect, is this: “Do you think God uses divine power to cause misery as a way to dole out judgment?  That kind of thinking is rubbish!  Let me show you what God’s power is intended to do.”  And with that, the Light of the world gives sight to a person blind from birth.

You would think such a wonderful event would be cause for celebration, for thanksgiving, for praising God, but it is not.  It serves to muster the forces of darkness.  Questionings, interrogations, accusations, insults, and intimidation follow.  It is a story of one person’s new-found faith knotted in a very real fear of attack.  It is a story of reversals where those in authority are blind to who Jesus is, but a person once blind can see his identity clearly.  And ultimately, it is a story where the person who now can see is driven away by the community of the blind.

The themes of light and darkness play a significant role in John’s gospel.  Nicodemus comes to Jesus under the cover of night.  Peter denies his Lord at night.  On Easter morning, Mary leaves for the tomb while it is still dark.  John begins his gospel by telling his readers that Jesus was the Light for all people, that the Light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.  Well, the darkness may not overcome the light, but it sure tries. 

When light shines in darkness it exposes two kinds of people: those who are lost and groping to find their way (and for them the light is a welcome relief) and those who live in the dark so that their works will not be exposed (and for them, the light is unwelcome and sends them scurrying for cover).  As I said, the brighter Jesus shines the deeper the darkness around him seems to become.  He can scarcely say or do a thing without stirring up controversy because those in authority love the darkness and always react negatively to his light. 

2,000 years later and I wonder how much things have changed.  Many of Jesus’ followers seem overly concerned about determining who is good enough and who is not, who is a sinner and who is not, who deserves to be blessed by God and who does not, whose doctrine and theology and practices are acceptable to God and whose are not.  At times the church seems more caught up in shining a light of judgment to expose the deeds of others rather than being a light that helps people to find their way to God. 

And it seems to go hand in hand that when you focus on the faults of others you grow blind to your own shortcomings.  Continually pointing the finger at others seems to diminish one’s ability (or perhaps desire) to engage in critical self-reflection.  Jesus once put it this way: “Why do you focus on the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but ignore the log in your own eye?” 

I trust you saw the news a few weeks ago that Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, died a lonely and broken man – rejected by family members and the church he founded.  Phelps and the Westboro congregation gained national notoriety by protesting at military funerals and using various tactics to intimidate church-goers who they deemed to be sinners.  Reaction to his death was interesting, to say the least.  Many people posted angry comments suggesting that crowds should picket his burial so that his family and supporters could get a taste of their own medicine.  One person went so far as to suggest that the military should send a transport plane to fly over the proceedings and dump garbage on everyone.  In one form or another, people were holding tight to that old moral dictum of an eye for an eye.

But I found a different sentiment being expressed by many people of faith.  Several priests I know said they would offer prayers for Fred Phelps during Sunday worship.  “We pray for our enemies and love those who persecute us because this is what Jesus taught us to do”, one posted.  Others stated that in burial Phelps should be afforded the dignity he so often denied to others.  And while this kind of response goes against the grain of the emotions that well up in us so naturally, it is in keeping with our own baptismal covenant.  When we say the words of the covenant, we do not make conditional commitments.  We never promise only to respect the dignity of those who deserve to be respected.  We promise to respect the dignity of every human being.  When we act like this we become a light for the world, helping the lost to find their way.

Over the next few weeks we will witness Jesus’ determination to shine God’s love and light all the way to the darkest place imaginable, to the darkest moment in human history, to the cross.  His unflinching grit and determination is an example we seek to emulate, but often fall short of achieving.  Still, whenever we find ourselves immersed in darkness, we know that there is a Light to which we can turn for strength, for guidance, and for support. 

Jesus said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the Light of the world!