Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?

Sermon preached March 15, 2009

Scripture Readings: John 2:13-22; I Corinthians 1:18-25

Judith Viorst, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

I have been asked, from time to time if I am almost always upbeat, energetic, positive. We have walked through a lot together in recent months so you know that I don’t turn away from the sadnesses and difficulties of life, but when I am here, in this place on Sunday morning, I am usually upbeat, energetic and positive. That’s who I am, much of the time, and that’s the part of me I want to bring to my worship leadership as your pastor.
But you know that I am not always positive. You know I feel sadness and discouragement. Sometimes I feel it more deeply than I really want to show here, but this morning I want to give you just a peek into a darker moment.
It was a couple of weeks ago. It was in the middle of my dad’s dying process. I was feeling a bit bewildered about some things here at the church. We have experienced some ceiling leaks here at the church, as you know. We are asking some good questions about our worship life and about faith development here, and we want to make some changes (and change is never easy). There were some frustrating things at home. Julie and I were driving out of town, to the Twin Cities. I was going to attend a day long workshop and she was going to visit our daughter, Beth. We were going to meet later for supper before heading back home. We were talking about all these things that were discouraging and then it happened. In a moment of feeling overwhelmingly frustrated and discouraged, I blurted out, “Sometimes life just sucks!” It surprised both of us.
Ever have that feeling, even if only fleetingly? That’s a wilderness feeling. Earlier this week I was speaking with someone who asked me if I ever feel sad about all the cruelty in the world. I told her, “I do.” This week has been a difficult one in the world. In Illinois, a pastor is shot in front of his church. In Alabama, a man goes on a shooting rampage, killing nine, then killing himself. In Iraq, there have been at least twenty insurgent attacks including a bombing outside Baghdad on Tuesday that killed at least 33 people and injured 57. In Germany a 17 year-old kills 15 people then takes his own life. The wilderness feeling of life being disappointing, sad, hurtful creeps up on me when I hear such news. Add to that the smaller personal hurts and disappointments that are a part of all of our lives, and sometimes those hurts and disappointments are not really very small at all, and is it any wonder that someone might cry out in anguish, “sometimes life sucks”? I promise I am now done with that phrase for this morning.
A wilderness feeling, that life is difficult, that life disappoints, that life can hurt. If we think of wilderness images, maybe we don’t think of the biblical desert, but of images of the old west – cactus, rocky bluffs which may hide danger of various kinds – hostile persons, snakes, mountain lions. If that is how we want to envision wilderness, maybe we ask the question asked in this song – “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” Paula Cole. [play part of song]
Where is our John Wayne, where is our prairie son, where is our happy ending, where have all the cowboys gone? For many of us, this is also a God question. Many of us grew up with a John Wayne conception of God. Maybe it worked o.k., at least for awhile. For many of us, we still carry within us that notion of God – the cowboy riding in to rescue the town, the knight in shining armor, the magician waving a magic wand amazing us all.
Wilderness gets thicker when our wilderness experiences challenge these conceptions of God - when our disappointments lead us to wonder if rescue is anywhere to be found, when our hurts challenge our faith. Jewish teacher and therapist Estelle Frankel in her book Sacred Therapy describes this kind of wilderness experience very well. Our very conceptions of God and our assumptions about the meaning of faith may shatter as we bump up against the morally complex and often contradictory aspects of the real world (42-43).
Our texts for this morning are about shattered conceptions of faith and God. In the background of Paul’s writing in I Corinthians are two conceptions of God that he sees being shattered. For the Greeks, the gods were larger than life. Their dramas were more intense. Their power could create havoc for humankind. Human persons who dared to challenge the gods were often left wounded, left sorry for their audacity in challenging the gods. For the Hebrews, infamy, ignoble death, shameful suffering were incompatible with the idea of divine blessing. There is this powerful scene in the movie, The Great Debaters which is about the debate team at Wiley College, an African-American college in the 1930s. Two of the Wiley College debaters come upon a lynching scene and barely get out without being attacked themselves. Later, in their conversation, one of the young men says, “What do you suppose he did?” The tragic reality was that he did nothing. For the Hebrews in Paul’s time, there was always a sense that someone killed shamefully, in a way such as crucifixion, must have done something wrong, at least in God’s eyes. Divinity could have nothing to do with shameful suffering. For both the Greeks and Hebrews, God or gods did what was expected. Paul sees the God of Jesus Christ shattering both these conceptions of God. The God of Jesus Christ is different than many imagined.
Not only might conceptions of God and of faith be challenged or let us down, so can the institutions which seek to connect us to faith and God. The story of Jesus we read is a story about his institution of faith, his institution which was supposed to help connect him more deeply with God letting him down, and Jesus is, so to speak, at the end of his rope. The place he thought should nourish spiritual life had become some kind of market place, a religious flea market.
The wilderness is getting really deep and dark and desolate now. Life is going to hell and there are no cowboys in sight, no magicians, no knights in shining armor. Such concepts of God and faith and church are crumbling.
If these texts describe something of our wilderness experiences, times when we are frustrated, disappointed, hurt and our usual conceptions of God seem to be breaking apart in the face of a more complex reality, they also point in the direction of how this kind of wilderness can also be a time and place where we meet God, though the God we meet might be different than the God we might have expected.
When we look more closely at the story of Jesus, Jesus at the end of his rope, we see a story about disappointment with his religious institution, we see a story about deconstruction, but also a story about reconstruction. Jesus tells them to tear the Temple down and he will rebuild it. The whole thing is a little difficult and mysterious, but what it boils down to is this – it is not the Temple as it is, nor the God who always does what is expected, including avoiding the pain and hurt of life, that we should seek. Rather, in looking for God we should look to Jesus, this Jesus who taught and healed and created community and connected people with God, and was killed because he was considered a subversive, considered some kind of threat to the Roman Empire. The God of Jesus Christ is a God who embraces our discouraged, suffering humanity. The God of Jesus Christ is not a God who avoids the pains and tragedies of history, but is God who we see in a crucified Christ. This is a God who walks with us and seeks to bring the best out of us and out of difficulty.
Paul looks for God in this same Jesus Christ, and when he does, typical Greek and Hebrew conceptions of God shatter. The power of God is not something completely foreign to us, completely outside of us, but rather the power of God is within us and between us. The power of God is seen in a crucified Christ, a suffering human being through whom and in whom God continues to work. Even as we struggle in our human lives, God’s power can find ways to work in us and through us. The wisdom of God is not locked in an ivory tower accessible only to the learned, but is to be found in the midst of the grit and grime of life. “Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Like both the Greeks and the Hebrews, we like to hold on to our ideas of a cowboy God, a knight in shining armor God, a magician God. Where have all the cowboys gone? We are not sure, but we think we need just to wait. But the God of the crucified Christ is not the cowboy God, which is not to deny that we can sometimes feel rescued from the worst of life. The God of the crucified Christ, a Jesus who could be at the end of his rope is a God for our lives, a God in our lives, a God who is always at work to create love, beauty, justice even in the midst of disappointment. Part of our wilderness experience is a letting go of ideas of God that don’t really fit life. We let go so we can encounter God again, but in new and deep ways.
Let me go back to Estelle Frankel. Our very conceptions of God and our assumptions about the meaning of faith may shatter as we bump up against the morally complex and often contradictory aspects of the real world. Yet if we learn from our mistakes and find ways to pick up the broken pieces of shattered dreams, we can go on to re-create our lives out of the rubble of our initial failures. And ultimately, we become wiser and more complex as our youthful ideals are replaced by more realistic and sustainable ones…. We must salvage the essential elements of our youthful dreams and ideals and carry them forward on our journeys so that we can find a way to realize them in a more grounded fashion. (Sacred Therapy, 42-43). God is with us, but maybe not as a cowboy or knight in shining armor. We need to let go of outmoded ways of thinking about God so we can meet the God of the bible, the God of Jesus Christ. Another person put it well when he wrote about “the supreme choice facing every person of faith, namely, whether or not to update and transform our psychical image of God” (Bingamon in Cooper-White). In the wilderness, where our very ideas about faith and God might be challenged, we can encounter God again as we are willing to let our thinking grow.
So when I have that feeling that life well… that I am having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day – that feeling of disappointment, discouragement, bewilderment, what gets me through? What can help feed hope and faith in that kind of wilderness?
I need to ask about my own contribution to that wilderness feeling, and that will be my theme next week.
I need to remember that God is with me, even when I feel at the end of my rope. God is there, but maybe in surprising ways. I need to slow down and slow my mind down. I need to stay alert. I need to pay attention. The wisdom of God is not locked away in ivory towers nor hidden behind stained glass. It is there in the midst of the wilderness, in the grit and grime of life. The power of God is not something completely foreign to us, completely outside of us, but rather the power of God is within us and between us. The power of God is seen in a crucified Christ, a suffering human being through whom and in whom God continues to work. Knowing God is right there with me, working to bring out the best, working to empower me, feeds faith and hope. The wilderness is a place to encounter God.
I need to remember that learning and growing are always possible, and not just in cognitive ways, not just in my head, but a deep learning, a heart learning, soul-making. If I were to be rescued by some knight in shining armor, by some cowboy coming from the west, I would not have the opportunity to learn and grow in the wilderness. Wilderness experiences can make me a better human person – gentler, more thoughtful, more caring, more courageous.
This weekend at the Opening our Doors, Opening Our Hearts conference, I heard again the story of Phil and Randi Reitan. Phil and Randi have four children, and their youngest, Jacob, is gay. When he first shared the news with his parents, there was a wilderness time for them. Their ideas about God and faith and life were challenged. Their own church disappointed them. In and through this wilderness, however, the Reitans discovered deeper sources of faith, discovered a God who created all people and called that creation good, and that goodness extended to their son Jacob. On another occasion, Phil Reitan confessed that at first, if he had been told he had a magic wand and could wave it and change his son Jacob, he would probably have done that. Now, through the wilderness, Phil Reitan has learned that he can love his son as he is, and wouldn’t change a thing. Instead Phil and Randi have been changed.
Everyone of us knows wilderness times of discouragement and disappointment and hurt, times when life feels heavy and disheartening. In such a wilderness we can meet God, but sometimes only when we leave cowboys at the movies or in Zane Grey novels, only when we let go of kindergarten conceptions of God (of knights in shining armor, of cowboys come to the rescue) in order to embrace the God who is with us in the wilderness, the God of Jesus the Christ who is the power of God and the wisdom of God. Amen.

Paula Cole, "Where Have All the Cowboys Gone"

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