Tag Archives: suffering

“A Lament For Times Such As These” – Sermon on the 20th Sunday after Pentecost

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Scripture readings: Habakkuk 1:1-4, 2:1-4; 2 Timothy 1:1-14; Luke 17:5-10

 

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Many of us may have spoken these words from this morning’s passage in Habakkuk a lot lately.

Unrest, tension, and the ever-increasing division that’s taking place throughout our country as we get closer and closer to the end of this election season.

How long, O Lord, how Long!?

Devastating state budget cuts to programs and services that many in our community – including many of us – rely on.

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Indigenous communities fighting desperately to protect their water and sacred burial sites. More police shootings of unarmed persons of color. The continuous bombings of innocent families in Aleppo, Syria.

How long, O Lord, how long!?

Financial strain. The death of a loved one. A debilitating illness…The loss of a job. Broken relationships. Depression and anxiety.

Too often in times such as these, it can be easy to just check out. We often feel so overwhelmed with grief, anger, and pain. The needs around us seem too great, and we feel lost and defeated by a sense of helplessness. We fear the kind of backlash we might receive if we do speak out against injustice. We wonder where God is in the midst of all of this suffering, and we worry that if we express our real emotions and if we are honest about our doubts, others – and maybe even we – ourselves – will start to think we have lost our faith.

And so it becomes much easier to just shut our eyes and to ignore the cries around us – and within us. To just allow ourselves to become numb to the world’s afflictions.

And yet, we hear the author of 2 Timothy this morning urging us not to give up hope, even and especially in times such as these… For we have been saved – the author reminds us – and therefore we have been called to a holy calling, that does not allow us to shut our eyes to the pain around us.

“I recall your many tears,” the author writes from behind prison doors to Timothy, likely referring to the tears Timothy had shed over the suffering of many under the Roman Empire and over the persecution that the early Christians were facing. “I understand your sense of helplessness and why you seem to be at a loss of faith. And yet,” he continues, “I remember your sincere faith, one that has been passed on through your ancestors. One that I am sure still remains deep within you. Therefore, I urge you to remember that faith. Remember why you have that faith and who walked alongside you, helping to shape and inform your faith.  Rekindle that gift of God that is – indeed – with you, no matter how much you might feel it has been lost. For God did not give us a spirit of cowardice,” he urges, “but rather God gave us a spirit of love and self-discipline.”

Yes, it is in times such as these, when we must hold onto our faith the most – even when we feel we may have lost it. It is in times such as these when we must open our eyes to the suffering in our midst and cry out to God in our anguish. Because we don’t just encounter God in the times that are easy, comfortable, and joyous, and we don’t just encounter God when we feel most confident in our faith. We also encounter God in our anger, in our suffering, and in our strongest of doubts. We encounter God when we step out of our comfort zones and when we face our biggest fears. Because God actually meets us right there in all of the messiness – even when we don’t see God and even when we refuse to let God in.

God is right there with us.

I love what one author shared in her lectionary devotion this week: “When I am in the midst of a tough time, I don’t always see God at work,” she explains. “Looking back on those tough times though, I can often see God in hindsight. When I was a senior in high school, my family was having a lot of trouble. God gave me good friends to support me and an outlet in music with my choir teacher and my class to express my emotions. I remember praying and begging God for resolution while I waited. What I couldn’t see until looking back, though, was how God was present in the midst of that tough time. Now I see that God provided the right people at the right time. I also see that one can’t go around pain, or over it, but we have to go through it.”

How long, O Lord, how long?!

Yes, it is in times such as these when we must go through the pain. It is in times such as these, when we need to join our voices with the voices of our siblings around our city, our country, and throughout the world in lamenting the suffering, violence, and injustice that surrounds us. 

And yet, when we just can’t find the words to say, we can look to the words of those who have paved the way for us.

“How long, o Lord!?” – We cry out with Habakkuk this morning.

“How long shall I cry for help, and you will not listen? Or cry to you ‘Violence!’ and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrong-doing and look at trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law becomes slack and justice never prevails. The wicked surround the righteous— therefore judgment comes forth perverted.”

How long, o Lord, how long!?

Now sometimes, we might need to stop right here with these words because we might not be quite ready to move beyond this place of lament. And that is okay. For a bit. Because there are times when we need to sit for a while in this place. There are times when we need to do our grief work. For we cannot go through the pain without first actually taking time to express it and process it.

And yet, after some time we will eventually need to move forward. Because our lament cannot just end here. It must move us to act.

And so we can look to the rest of our passage in Habakkuk this morning for guidance as we begin to move through. When we are ready, we – like Habakkuk, must take a stand at our watch-posts, and station ourselves, keeping watch: waiting with our eyes open to see God in our midst and with our ears open to hear how God is calling us to let our laments move us to action.

And when our inadequacies and sense of helplessness in times such as these get the best of us and when we feel like our faith is just not big or strong enough for us to make a difference, we can look to our Gospel text in Luke today. For, Jesus’ message to the disciples when they asked him to increase their faith in the face of such great suffering – is the same message that is intended for us. “If you have faith even the size of a teeny tiny mustard seed,” Jesus says, “you can say to a mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.’”

In other words: “Your faith is enough to make an incredible impact in the world.”

There’s a story I often think about when I feel overwhelmed with feelings of helplessness in the midst of so much suffering throughout the world.

One day a wise man was walking on the beach when he noticed a younger man, who was throwing things into the ocean. As he got closer to the young man, he asked him: “what are do doing?” The young man answered him: “well, I’m throwing starfish into the ocean.” “Why, might I ask, are you doing this,” the wise man asked him. “Well, the sun is up and the tide is going out.” The young man said. “If I don’t throw them in, they’ll all die.” Upon hearing this, the wise man said, “Don’t you realize that there are miles and miles of beach and there are starfish all along every mile? You can’t possibly make a difference!” Just then, the young man bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it into the ocean. As it met the water, he looked at the wise man and said: “Well, it made a difference for that one.”

Amen.

 

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“From Palms to Passion” – Sermon for Palm Sunday for the Passion of Our Lord

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Palms Text: Matthew 21:1-11                     Passion Text: Matthew 26:14-27:66

 

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Well, it’s Palm Sunday for the Passion of our Lord. And it’s the beginning of Holy Week, which means we are finally coming to an end of the Lenten Season. I don’t know about you, but I am getting a little weary of wandering in the wilderness. This cold and snowy Chicago polar vortex went on way too long, and I’m definitely not looking forward to the snow that is predicted for tomorrow; I am sick and tired of soup dinners, somber reflections, and the practice of self-emptying; and – quite honestly, I am ready to get back to drinking the coffee that I gave up for Lent.

Give me Easter already!

And how many of us here wish we could have just gathered outside the chapel this morning for our great Palm Sunday procession, waving our palms, shouting joyful shouts of “Hosannas” to the coming of our Lord, Jesus Christ, and singing “All Glory Laud and Honor…”

And then have called it a day…?

Or, I guess, for many of us, even called it a week… Until we come back next Sunday to celebrate the resurrection – and, of course, skip all that comes in between?

I think that author Anne Lamott puts into words what I – and so many others of us – feel as we begin this long, solemn Holy Week. She says:

“I don’t have the right personality for Good Friday, for the crucifixion. I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection. In fact, I’d like to skip ahead to the resurrection vision of one of the kids in our Sunday School, who drew a picture of the Easter Bunny outside the tomb; everlasting life and a basketful of chocolates. Now you’re talking!”

Isn’t this familiar? Isn’t it common for us to just avoid and skip over the cross?

Don’t we tend to avoid the suffering that is constantly dominating the headlines of our international, national, and local news? Don’t we tend to skip over the pain that is continuously taking over the lives of our friends, our colleagues, our neighbors, and those we pass by as we walk to the train? And don’t we even sometimes tend to avoid the betrayals and persecution that we – ourselves – would have to experience if we did – in fact – speak out against injustices that marginalize the “least of these” in our society and sometimes even us?

I get it. I am with you. I am sick and tired of the wilderness and just want chocolate bunnies and Easter egg hunts. I want Hosannas, Alleluias, and new everlasting life.

And I especially want coffee!

And yet, as followers of Jesus, we are called to be resurrection people, living lives here and now that bring forth light into darkness and proclaim the promise of new life that comes with the resurrection to both our neighbors and ourselves.  And to avoid and skip over the pain and suffering of those around us and even within our own lives is to choose to not live into the resurrection.  It is making the choice to not accept and proclaim new everlasting life.  For we know that we cannot have and experience the resurrection and the promises that come with it without first experiencing what comes before it.

We cannot have the resurrection without first having the cross.

And so, for those of us who are here this morning – on Palm Sunday – wishing we could just hear about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem and then “call it a day,” I’m sorry to disappoint…

After waving palms and shouting and singing joyful “Hosannas,” we must suddenly take a quick turn and hear and accept what comes next on our journey… and what was once bright and joyfully loud becomes dark and eerily silent as we veil the cross in black and hear the long, dark readings about Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, persecution, and suffering as he slowly journeys – with a crown of thorns digging into his skull – toward the cross.

Those joyful shouts of “Hosannas” have now become angry shouts of “Crucify!”

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But this is life, isn’t it? There have and will be times in our lives when we think we are just about out of that wilderness; just about ready to see and experience new life… But just as we begin waving our palm branches and shouting “Hosanna! Salvation has come!” things unexpectedly take a downhill turn. Those we trust the most may turn on us and betray us, the crowds around us might spit on us and mock us, and what looks like our escape and release from captivity sometimes ends up being the very thing that captures us and leads us on our own painful journey on a dirty and bumpy road through Jerusalem.

But it is in these times when we need the cross the most. It is in these times when we realize that we – indeed – need a God who not only was resurrected, but who also walked a similar path. That we need a God who knows what it’s like to experience broken relationships, grieve the loss of loved ones, watch those closest to him look directly in the face of injustice, and be betrayed by friends and ridiculed by crowds. And when things get really dark, we need a God who knows what it is like to feel completely and utterly alone and abandoned – even by his own Father, even by God – to the point where he cried out in his final moments of anguish and pain: “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

When we skip over and avoid the cross, we miss out on a God who knows and understands our pain, our suffering, and our doubts. We miss out on a God who is personal and who is near us. A God who is with us in the flesh, walking alongside us as we walk what may sometimes be a long, lonely road.

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But to skip out on the cross also causes us to miss out on a radical and bold Jesus we are all called to follow.

One of the reasons that we read the Passion texts (the texts about Jesus’ arrest, persecution, and suffering as he journeys to the cross) on the same day we celebrate Palm Sunday is because Palm Sunday is not an event we should separate from the rest of the events that occurred after it that led up to Jesus’ crucifixion.

In fact, Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem – the center of religious and political power that alienated and marginalized so many – was “the moment of dramatic confrontation,” as Walter Brueggemann puts it.  It was the inaugurating event and the beginning of a series of actions Jesus took that ultimately led him to his violent death.

And though riding in on a humble donkey and colt rather than on a chariot pulled by warhorses – as the worldly kings would have done as they began their kingdom ruling – Jesus entered Jerusalem boldly and loudly… In the name of the Lord, proclaiming a new Kingdom – the Kingdom of God – that would soon turn the unjust worldly empire upside down.

And it was his loud voice that angrily shouted as he turned over the tables in the temple after he entered Jerusalem and saw that the temple was being made into a den of robbers; a place where the religious leaders and the money changers were taking advantage of the poor.

It was his loud voice that cursed the religious leaders for placing heavy burdens on others that were hard to bear, for seeking honorable seats in banquets and synagogues and exalting themselves in public while exploiting the poor and the sick, and for publicly tithing expensive elements while neglecting justice, mercy, and faith.

It was his loud voice that preached that the greatest commandment is to love God fully and in doing so, to love ALL our neighbors as ourselves; that those who welcome, feed, clothe, and visit the least of these, do so for him and will be blessed, while those who do not do these things for one of the least of these, will be cursed.  It was his loud voice that declared that those who humble themselves will be exalted and those who exalt themselves will be humbled.

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Jesus was a rebel rouser. A troublemaker. He challenged the unjust and dehumanizing hierarchical political system that not only took over Rome but also dominated the way of the Temple.  And it was Jesus’ loud, subversive voice that shouted and proclaimed on behalf of the “least of these” that got him into trouble in the first place and led him to be silenced on the cross.

But – although those who nailed Jesus there did so to suppress him, after Jesus breathed his last breath, the temple curtain tore in two, the earth shook, and the rocks split.

Death did not have the final say that dark night.

And after three days, we will realize that Jesus’ voice was shouting and proclaiming louder than ever before as his broken and bloody body hung silently and still on the cross.

Brothers and sisters, when we skip over the cross, we miss out on the center of the Gospel. We miss out on a God who came to be with us in the flesh, walk alongside us in our darkest moments, and carry and release us from our heaviest sins and burdens; a God who came to advocate for all who have been dehumanized, to conquer death and bring about life, and to enter in a Kingdom here and now that will elevate the humble and humble the elevated…

A Kingdom that is brought forth on and through the cross.

So this Holy Week, let us not forget the cross. Let us choose this resurrection life and do so by following Jesus on his journey through Jerusalem, remembering – as we do – that Jesus is right alongside us as we take every step, guiding us on which way to go.  Because when we do, we might be overwhelmed at how much we really do need this loud, radical, and personal Jesus of the cross that we too often miss.

 


Related Articles:

 The Politics of Palm Sunday (Adam Erickson on ravenfoundation.org)

Palm-Powered Protest (Rev. Adam Copeland on adamjcopeland.com)

Palm Sunday Ponderings: Jesus and those in Need (Rev. Grace Ji-Sun Kim on gracejisunkim.wordpress.com)

Holy Week and the Importance of Weekday Christians (Rev. Emily C. Heath on Huffington Post)

Prepare the Way (Again) (Sermon from All Peoples Christian Church)