Friday, October 01, 2010

Sermon for October 3, Proper 22, Prayer is Projecting Anger

Lamentations 1:1-6, Psalm 137, 2 Timothy 1:1-14, Luke 17:5-10
The little parable of the mustard seed is meant to be funny. To command a mulberry tree to do something so unbeneficial, and to make that work of faith. Why not command the mulberry tree to bear more berries, or even why not command the Roman soldiers to "Get pulled out and get lost at sea?" But why something so useless as a work of faith?
And it’s also meant to be funny that Jesus calls for a faith that is smaller when the disciples ask for faith that is greater. They say, "Increase our faith!" He says, "Get it small!" It doesn’t matter how great your faith is. What matters is what your faith is in.

It’s tempting to use the weakness of our faith as an excuse. It’s too hard for me, it’s too hard to believe all this. But is that really the problem? It really comes down to facing the right thing, just the right thing, and just doing it.

Thirty years ago an elder from Massachusetts invited me to come up to his church as a guest preacher. I said, "Well, it’s hard, I’d have to find a substitute preacher for my own church, and I’d have to leave Melody alone with Nick, and I’ve got my doctorate to work on," and then he said, "You want to do it or not?"

There’s a preacher whose blog I follow and on his profile he writes that he "struggles to follow Jesus." Well, I know what he means, and I’ve said that too, but it feels a little self-indulgent, like "Look at me, I’m trying to follow Jesus but it’s so hard." Well, is it the right thing or not? If I’m following Jesus, that’s no big credit for me, it’s what we’re supposed to do.

We think, "O God, please make some allowances for the weakness of my faith." And then I say to myself, "Who do I think I am, that doing the right thing requires so much faith on my part? Of course the right thing is the hard thing. What did I expect? Do am I going to do it or not?"

We have to face our obligations, our obligations as human beings. This is hard for us modern Americans, who see our lives so much in terms of freedom and personal self-fulfillment. Well, yes, the gospel certainly offers us freedom and self-fulfillment, but that comes with obligations.
We need to learn our obligations. It’s one of the most important parts of learning morality. We teach our children their obligations, that they must do them not for applause or reward or even recognition, but simply because they’re the right things to do. For example, I do not think we should applaud our children’s choir after they sing in worship. Not according to Jesus’ parable here. For our children to serve God in worship with their music is their obligation as human beings, and we should distract them from God by our applause. We should just shout "Amen."

This matter of facing our obligations is in the reading from the Lamentations. The writer laments the suffering of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians. So much loss and misery. But the writer knows that their suffering is the result of their own transgressions. For centuries they had not kept up their obligations as God’s chosen people, and finally God said, "Enough, enough indulgence of your self-indulgence, we’re done here." God was hard on them but not unfair.

They figured they deserved their punishment. They believed that God was right to be angry. And they were angry too. You can feel the anger in the passage, in their weeping bitterly. They were angry at their enemies but mostly at themselves. Their anger was mixed with grief. And that is what leads to depression, according to psychologists. It’s a problem many people have. And that’s why in Psalm 137 the singers refused to sing. Anger mixed with grief.

You have to pray it out. You have to pray your anger out. You have to pray out your grief. That’s easier, it’s more acceptable, to pray your grief. But to pray out your anger is harder, maybe because you yourself are partly responsible for what it is you’re angry about. You blew your obligations. So you are angry at yourself. But you look at other people who have blown their obligations and they don’t seem to be suffering as much as you are. So the unfairness comes in the comparison. And that’s the anger and the grief. You have to pray it out. Like in the ending of the Psalm, one of the most difficult passages in the Bible, with its words of hatred and revenge. The Christian church has found those words embarrassing. Can you admit to those very same feelings deep inside you? Can you dare to pray those feelings out to God? You need to.

How much is your anger justified? Of course you think it’s very justified, and maybe at one level it is, like if you were the servant coming in from the field all tired and then you still had to make dinner for your master. You have reasons for your anger and they are real. But then how long will you stand on your reasons and keep yourself angry? Soon your anger starts to empower you. Soon your anger starts to be a pleasure. Soon your anger makes you feel more righteous. Eventually you won’t need to live by faith any more. You have your certainty. You know what’s wrong, and what’s been done wrong to you, and you stand by it.

You have to give your anger up. I mean literally, giving it up. Up to God, giving it in prayer. You cannot give it unless you acknowledge it. Feel your frustration and your grief, your jealousy and your disillusionment, it all feels so damn unfair, you lousy God, what a lousy life I have, what a lousy world you made. "Here God, I give you my anger. You take it, I don’t want it." That’s what faith does. It finds the right target. The right point. A point no bigger than a mustard seed, but the right point, right at God. You plant your prayer in God, and you let God have it, you give it up to God, and you let go of it. Because you don’t want to stay in it, you don’t want that kind of power and that kind of pleasure, because it corrupts you, and besides, who do you think you are to have the privilege of dwelling in your anger?

Commit your anger to God. So you can return to your obligations of serving God and serving other people and living joyfully in the world. It is your obligation to live joyfully in the world, not because you’re so special but because it’s the right thing to do.

When I was a child my parents had family devotions at the dinner table every night, and we read the Bible and we prayed and we had to sing. They considered it our obligation. One of the songs the taught us was from our epistle. "But I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I’ve committed unto him against that day." I learned the melody and the alto and the tenor and finally the bass, but I had no idea what it meant. I doubt my parents understood it in terms of committing to God our anger, that Jesus is able to keep the anger we’ve committed to him against that day.
I think what St. Paul meant is that your own life is too much for me ultimately to understand or even control, so you commit your life to God for God to hold on to it.
Your own future is beyond your ability to manage, so you commit your future to God, for God to hold onto till that final day.
Your part of the world, that little part of the world that’s within your control, you do your best with it, but you admit you haven’t done what you should have done with it, you haven’t lived up to it, but you give it all up to God for God to keep it until God makes good of it.
Your obligations, in which you’ve fallen short, your service to others, so half-hearted and self-serving, you commit it all to God, as a sort of surrender, and there is a little grief in that, which grief is the feeling of the crucifixion, but that’s how you let go of your sovereign self-fulfillment. Not because your faith is so great, but simply because who God is, and it’s the right thing. What freedom that gives you. Most of all, the freedom from yourself.

Copyright © 2010, by Daniel James Meeter, all rights reserved.


Pamela Smitter-Baker said...

This made me cry.

Old First said...

Well, I guess that's a great honor.