Hope in Suffering | Sermon from June 25, 2017

Based on Jeremiah 20:7-13

The story of a woman on the morning of a war. Remind me if you will exactly what we’re fighting for. Calling, Calling, for something in the air. Calling, Calling, and I know you must be there.

Have you ever experienced times in your life where conflict seemed to surround you, even to the point that you couldn’t remember what you were fighting about in the first place? Where your family, or your group of friends, or your church or your workplace felt like it was at war? In their song “Easily,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers echo a sentiment common to life on this planet: life is full of conflict; conflict that can be so terrible, so ever-present, that it makes us call out for resolution, for peace, for something! Calling, Calling, out to God, for we know God must be there!

Life is like that, and the longer the conflict goes on without resolution, the more we wonder if God is really present. We think God must be there, and we call out for resolution, but the longer we’re met with silence, the more we wonder if God is really present at all. And in that silence, in that waiting, it’s easy to find ourselves feeling like the fictional President Bartlet.

In the 90’s TV show The West Wing, at the end of a season, President Bartlet asks for a few moments alone in the National Cathedral. It’s been discovered that he’s lied to the american people, he’s under investigation that threatens to undo his presidency, a close friend and coworker is fighting for his life in the hospital, a tropical storm is about to pound the eastern coast, navy ships are in trouble, and there’s a threat of war. Jed Barlet is surrounded by conflict. A devout Catholic, Bartlet has cried out to God, prayed to God, and now comes face to face with God in the holy setting of the National Cathedral. There, in the chancel area, he says, to God

“You’re nothing but a feckless thug.”

He then lights a cigarette, takes a drag, and drops it on the floor of the chancel, pushing it into the marble with his foot; a sacrilege meant to convey to God the depth of his antipathy toward God.

I remember when that scene first aired. There was much commotion in the Christian communities in which I then ran. Commentators denounced this scene as hugely disrespectful of God, terribly anti-Christian in showing the President of the United States, no matter how fictional, being so disrespectful of God in a church. It may certainly strike us as odd, or even disrespectful, this morning, for we don’t often speak that way to God, if ever. Certainly, we don’t talk that way about God from the pulpit, or from the stage, or from the choir loft. No hymns call God a “feckless thug,” no modern worship songs tell of God’s “vindictiveness,” as President Barlet also put it. No, we don’t speak that way about God.

Unless you’re Jeremiah. Hear his words, directed to God, in our scripture this morning:

[read scripture]

Jeremiah says far worse about God than the writers of The West Wing ever imagined. He calls God a betrayer at the outset, saying that God had “enticed” him into the role of a prophet, only to “overpower” him with lies and deceit. This is because, for Jeremiah, God has yet to prove Jeremiah’s prophecies right. Jeremiah’s been preaching doom and destruction, telling the people to expect the worst because of their sins. But the people laugh at him, they deride him, because he’s yet to be proven right. At this moment, as he lashes out in anger toward God, Jeremiah is nothing but a laughingstock, even to his friends. He is, in fact, that crazy preacher on the corner of the street who keeps yelling through a megaphone about how God is going to destroy the world, for that is the word of God that God gave to Jeremiah. But, just like those prophets that stand on street corners before Braves games or Falcons games or Hawks games, Jeremiah has slushies thrown on him, has people stand and mock him, has lost his friendships and some family relationships because he stands on the street corner and yells “doom and destruction.”

It’s no wonder he’s angry with God. He’s got a word from God and it’s only made people mistreat him. It’s no wonder he lashes out at God, accusing God of gravely abusing him. We might say that Jeremiah is justifiably angry with God, for it’s God’s command on his life, what’s shut up in his bones such that he must speak or else it consume him; it’s that message that’s causing all this trouble. If God had never given him that message, he wouldn’t be struggling. If God had never called on him to be a prophet, he’d be happily living his life right now. Like Job before him, it appears that everything he’s struggling with is God’s fault. And so, because it seems to be God’s fault, Jeremiah lashes out in anger toward God.

But is that how we’re supposed to act in relationship with God? Were the commentators who derided The West Wing correct that we shouldn’t talk to God the way that President Bartlet did, the way that Jeremiah does?

[Pause]

Jackson wasn’t sleeping. For about three weeks straight when he was about two and a half, he woke up every night about 2am and refused to go back to sleep. Dana would go in and try to comfort him, because he would only scream louder if I came in the room, but he wouldn’t still cry, just more softly, even when Dana laid with him. So from about 2am until we woke up at our usual time of 5 or 5:30am, we had to listen to Jackson cry.

This was when I was commuting from Macon to Atlanta for seminary. Those two weeks that Jackson didn’t sleep, we were studying the Psalms in my Old Testament class. I loved what I was learning; indeed, the Psalms are a core part of my devotional practice, and have become quite meaningful to me. I was enthralled by what I was learning, but I could barely stay awake. I kept nodding off, I was so tired.

At one point, I had nodded off, only to hear my professor exclaim “happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!” That woke me up. What was he quoting?!

I was lost for a minute. I leaned over to my friend Tim to ask what we were talking about, but he was too enthralled to even notice I’d asked him a question. My professor repeated,

“They prayed to God, ‘happy shall we be who take Babylonian children and dash them against the rocks!’ They’re praying to God, telling God how happy they’d be if they committed infanticide; how happy they’d be if they took the little children, playing around them in exile, and beat them against the rocks until they were dead.”

Wow. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The slide on the powerpoint changed and I discovered my professor was telling us about Psalm 137. Indeed, that sorrowful, depressing, anguishing Psalm, ends with these words, “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!”

I didn’t know the Bible could talk that way! I knew that there were episodes of violence, even genocide, even genocide commanded by God, in both the Old and New Testaments. But to hear something so personal, so cruel, out of the mouths of the Israelites in their prayer life. I found that hard to believe. But there it was, in black and white print in my bible, verse 9 of Psalm 137.

That verse opened me up to see, all around scripture, these kinds of prayers and comments throughout the Bible. Prophets praying for people to be destroyed, the Revelation of John at the end of our Bibles painting a vision of the complete and total destruction of the Roman Empire, Paul openly wishing he could simply destroy, or that God would destroy, his adversaries.

This kind of talk struck me. Is this appropriate? It’s biblical, but what do I do with it? What do we do with it? Is this how we’re supposed to act in relationship with God? Is this how we’re supposed to talk about God, to God?

[Pause]

Our scripture this morning is a prayer of lament. They’re all over scripture. In fact, an entire book of the Bible is dedicated to prayers of lament. It’s appropriately called Lamentations. A prayer of lament is one in which the person doing the praying tells God what’s going wrong, complains about the thing that’s gone wrong, asks for God’s help, and usually ends with the person praying giving God some praise at the end, just like in verse 13 of our scripture this morning.

In modern speak, we’d say that prayers of lament are when we get real with God.

Too often in my life, and perhaps in yours, we don’t get real with God in prayer because we think that God is too high and lofty, or too deserving of respect, or too busy, or too whatever to hear us complain, to hear us share our burdens, to hear us lament.

That includes telling God exactly what we think about God when we’re angry or upset or feel unjustly treated by God.

Prayers of lament are when we get real with God, even to the point of attacking God in our prayers.

Scripture, over and over again, gives us examples of priests, prophets, apostles, and even everyday people who lamented, got real, with God. They poured out their hearts, even accusing God, in their own way, of being a “feckless thug,” of being “vindictive,” of betrayal or just plain being mean. Perhaps the greatest example is Job, who by the end of the book, is attacking God directly, accusing God of all sorts of mistreatment, and telling God it would have been better for him, for Job, if he’d never known God at all.

Prayers of lament are when we get real with God, even to the point of telling God our deepest, darkest, impulses.

That’s what Psalm 137 does. It gives God the deepest, darkest, emotions and impulses. It gives us an example of a prayer of lament, a prayer in which we get real with God, by telling God the things we would never tell another human soul. While less common, scripture has these moments within it. Think of Jonah. We all know the story of the whale, but the ending of the story is far more interesting. After God has spared Ninevah, Jonah sits down and pouts. He then tells God that God should destroy Ninevah because it’s only fair to Jonah after all he went through to go warn the people of their impending destruction. Think of that: Jonah asks God to kill tens of thousands of people so he can feel vindicated.

Prayers of lament are when we get real with God.

Why? Why should we do that? Why should we speak to God in the ways of President Bartlet, Jeremiah, Jonah, the Psalms, Hosea, Paul, John?

Because the Lord is a warrior.

[Pause]

In verse 11, Jeremiah calls God a “dread warrior,” a description of God that we don’t often invoke in Christianity, but one that was very common during Jeremiah’s time. In fact, one of the earliest depictions of God in the Bible, one of the oldest parts of the Bible, is Exodus 15, the song of praise by Moses and the Israelites after they had crossed the Red Sea. They look back at the Egyptian army floating harmlessly in the waters of the sea, the bodies of Egyptian soldiers lifeless in the water, and they sing a song of praise to God in which they call God a “warrior.” God has delivered them from their troubles, from their terror; God’s deliverance, in their minds, makes God a warrior.

Prayers of lament, prayers where we get real with God, allow God be a warrior for us.

When we refuse to tell God exactly how we feel, whether about someone else or about God himself, we retain control over the issues that face us. We retain control because we say to God, in not telling God exactly how we’re feeling, “I’ve got this; it’s mine to deal with.” We keep a part of ourselves away from the God who wants to have all of us! And in doing so, we hurt not only our relationship with God, but also our witness to the world.

But when we take the risk to tell God exactly how we feel, no matter if we’re feeling unjustly treated like Jonah, or murderous like the Israelites of Psalm 137, or angry with God like President Barlet, we say to God, “here I am, just as I am. You get this dirty, ugly, part of me, too.”

And when we get that real with God, when we give God access to the dirty, ugly, parts by telling God about them in prayer; in other words, when we lament, our warrior God comes in and suffers with us, moving for justice in our lives. And that’s a movement for justice others can see. When we choose to lament, to get real with God, the world sees God working inside of us and our witness is improved.

Lament, getting real with God, allows God to be a warrior in our lives.

[Pause]

In that same National Cathedral where President Bartlet went on his rant and put out his cigarette, there’s a cross hanging on the wall. It’s a unique cross; I’d never seen one like it before. It looks like featured image of this blog post.

Notice that there are two people on the cross. The one in the back is Jesus, but the one being embraced, the one in the front, that’s you and me.

God loves us so much that suffering with us wasn’t a one time deal on the cross. God wants to suffer with us, wants to not just fix our suffering, but enter into our suffering, experience our suffering, be with us in our suffering.

When we don’t tell God exactly how we feel, when we refuse to be emotionally honest in our prayer lives, when we fail to get real with God, when we choose not to lament, we say to God, “You can’t embrace me; I don’t need you to suffer with me, I got this.”

But when we tell God exactly how we feel, when we are emotionally honest, when we get real with God, when we choose to lament, no matter how painful, no matter how difficult, no matter how much of our complaining and anger are directed toward God, God pulls us up onto the cross and holds us, suffering with us.

We are surrounded by conflict, by terror as Jeremiah put it. We hear of terror attacks around the world and fear for our own safety. We have fear from the conflicts within our national government. We worry about the future for our children and our grandchildren as we see perpetual problems in our country go unfixed.

But even closer to home, we know conflict, we know our own terrors, in family relationships that are broken, in friendships that have failed, in challenging financial situations, in healthcare and in diagnoses that seem to have no fix. Too often in this life, we feel just like Red Hot Chili Pepper’s lyrics:

The story of a woman on the morning of a war. Remind me if you will exactly what we’re fighting for. Calling, Calling, for something in the air. Calling, Calling, and I know you must be there.

Lament is us calling, calling, for something in the air. Getting real with God is us calling, calling, knowing that God is there.

So call out to God this morning. The altar is open if you’d like me to pray with you as you call out to God. Throughout the week, my office door is open for us to have a conversation and prayer together. I love to listen. But in the peace of our final song, God’s channel of prayer is open for you, from your seat, to lament to God from right where you are.

For when we call out to God, when we get real with God, when we lament, we discover ourselves up there, on the cross, being held by our Savior. And in the midst of that embrace, God comes through for us like a warrior, defeating what ails us and empowering our witness. For the Lord, as Jeremiah puts it and as Moses and the Israelites knew on the shore of the Red Sea, is a “dread warrior.”

Let the Lord be a warrior in your life this morning. Choose lament. Get real with God.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Focus: Practicing lament enables us to live out our mission to preach the gospel to all the world because it draws us further into Christ’s embrace
Function: Be completely emotionally honest with God about your struggles to discover how deep, how wide, how long, and how high is the love of Christ who suffers with us and, through that suffering, proclaims the good news that God is a warrior who goes to battle for us

Jeremiah paints a picture, even seems to provide a formula, for how to be in emotionally-right relationship with God. His prayer of lament, with personal details as well as the standard form, demonstrates the personal nature of our emotions that God wants to have with us. When we are so emotionally present, we find ourselves embraced, as with the picture of that cross below. We find that our God suffers with us, and we discover the nourishment we need to suffer properly. Such suffering, such emotional honesty, gives us the wherewithal to live out God’s calling on our lives, just as Jeremiah found the strength to continue to prophesy, no matter how difficult it became. There’s a link between emotional honesty and our ability to live out the gospel. Much of how we learn to live out the gospel comes not from rote learning, nor from bible study, nor from anything that would merely engage our heads, but rather comes from being completely honest with God in our prayer lives and taking to God all the things we have and feel. If we want to preach the gospel to all the world and not use words, as Francis of Assisi infamously said, we must give of our whole selves emotionally to God.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s