Thursday, March 12, 2015

Jackie Wilson Said

Sermon preached  March 8, 2015

Texts: John 2:13-22

            Van Morrison, “Jackie Wilson Said”
            Jackie Wilson, “Your Love Keeps Lifting Me Higher and Higher”
            This are pretty bouncy and positive songs and seem dramatically incongruous with the Scripture reading.  They are about as jarring a contrast as the contrast we often feel between Jesus the gentle shepherd of our souls and Jesus chasing money changers out of the temple with chords.  Let’s see if we can make some connections here.
            Well, Jackie Wilson said, “once I was downhearted, disappointment was my closest friend.”  Disappointment, feeling let down.  Who of us has not been there?  Who of us might not be able to, at least sometimes, sing with deep feeling, “Once I was downhearted, disappointment was my closest friend”?  We may be able to sing it with deep feeling even if not as melodically as Jackie Wilson.
            Disappointments.  I am not speaking here of the kind of difficult crises that we discussed last Sunday – when we can’t seem to find a way forward.  I am talking about some of the littler hurts that happen in life. We are not at a seeming dead-end, but feel let down by life.  I am also not going to talk today about how we might let ourselves down, that’s part of next week’s sermon.
            Disappointments.  This weekend if we are Hermantown or Duluth East hockey fans, we know about disappointment, though Superior hockey fans are certainly not.  A little over twenty years ago, I graduated with my Ph.D. in religious studies from Southern Methodist University.  I had gone back to school after serving for three years as a pastor in Roseau.  Completing my Ph.D. was fulfilling a significant aspiration, and another aspiration was to teach.  I thought this was the direction my life would take.  I had two preliminary interviews with schools, one a college and the other a theological seminary, but never heard from them again.  When it became pretty clear that I would not be receiving a teaching offer, I contacted my district superintendent here in Minnesota to say that I was open to be appointed again as a church pastor.  There was some disappointment in that, but I remember feeling it most acutely when talking with the other Ph.D. graduate from my program that year.  Simeon was from Nigeria and he and I had done work together in our program, both of us focusing on Christian ethics.  Simeon was offered a tenure-track position at Wake Forest, where he is still teaching.  When he asked what I was going to do I told him that I had been offered a pastorate in northern Minnesota.  When he said, “Congratulations,” I remember feeling the disappointment, not because of where I was going, but because part of a dream was dying.  I can still feel it – I have a good feeling memory bank.
            Disappointment happens, even if we are sometimes counseled to keep a still upper lip.  Anne Lamott, in her book Stitches writes about that.  If you were raised in the 1950s or 1960s, and grasped how scary the world could be, in Birmingham, Vietnam and the house on the corner where the daddy drank, you were diagnosed as being the overly sensitive child….  Also you worried about global starvation, animals at the pound who didn’t get adopted, and smog.  What a nut.  You looked at things too deeply, and you noticed things that not many others could see, and this exasperated parents and teachers….  Any healthy half-awake person is occasionally going to be pierced with a sense of the unfairness and the catastrophe of life for ninety-five percent of the people on this earth. However, if you reacted, or cried, or raised the subject at all, you were being a worrywart. (27-28)  Anne Lamott was discovering that the world could be disappointing, even disappointing about being disappointed.
            Passover was drawing near, and Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem.  On arriving there, he could not help but take note of people selling cattle, sheep and doves.  Rather than travel with your animal sacrifice, it might be easier to purchase the animal at the site of the Temple.  Jesus could not help but notice people exchanging money.  You see, the Romans issued coins, but these were not acceptable in the Temple, so there were currency exchanges set up.  The sight of all this religious commerce did not seem to please Jesus.  He made a whip of chords, and he drove them all out – money changers and cattle alike.
When Jesus was in the Temple, engaging in this divine spring cleaning, the question that most often gets asked, is, “Was Jesus angry?”  His actions suggest that perhaps he was.  At the very least we know he was passionate, filled with zeal.  Might his passion been fueled by deep disappointment?  Could Jesus have been deeply disappointed by what he saw happening in this place he considered sacred?  Perhaps Jesus was something of an overly sensitive person.
So where is God when life lets us down, when we feel disappointed?  I believe God is with us, so I prefer to turn the question to “How is God with us when we feel disappointed, when life lets us down?”  Let me suggest three ways God is with us when we are disappointed.
God might be with us when what is disappointing needs changing.  The Temple grounds had deteriorated into some kind of tacky religious marketplace, at least as Jesus saw it.  Something needed to be done so that the Temple could more clearly be the house of worship and prayer it was intended to be.  Disappointment fueled passion and passion fueled courage to act.
I am not suggesting that for every wrong we see, a reaction like that of Jesus is appropriate.  But when we are disappointed by life, and what is disappointing can be changed, God is with us to give us the courage to create change.  Perhaps it will be the courage of Selma marchers disappointed that our country still was not getting it right in its treatment of African-Americans.  Perhaps it will be the courage of Norwegian Muslims forming a peace circle around the synagogue in Oslo following recent anti-Jewish violence in Europe perpetrated in the name of radical Islam. 
I appreciate, again, Anne Lamott.  Most of us have figured out that we have to do what’s in front of us and keep doing it.  We clean up beaches after oil spills.  We rebuild whole towns after hurricanes and tornadoes.  We return calls and library books.  We get people water.  Some of us even pray.  Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice.  The equation is: life, death, resurrection, hope.  The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbor, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry….  We live stitch by stitch….  We do what we can as well, as we can. (13-14)
When life disappoints us, when we feel let down, maybe what is disappointing can be changed, and God is with us as the courage to create positive change.
Sometimes what is letting us down cannot be changed, or sometimes that is not really the best first question.  We are disappointed, feeling hurt, let down.  God is with us reminding us that we are not alone.  God, in Jesus, shares our disappointment, Jesus, who was disappointed more than once himself.  I still love the words of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead - God is the great companion - the fellow-sufferer who understands. (Process and Reality, 532)  The theologian Patricia Adams Farmer writes about losing the diamond from her wedding ring, and then finding it almost hidden in the carpet.  She writes about how this helps her think about God.  God knows when things fall out or fall down or fall apart.  And God knows that precious things, like my diamond, are not lost.  They have fallen onto the deep, soft places of God’s heart. (Embracing a Beautiful God, 45)  We are also held in those deep, soft places of God’s heart when life disappoints.
When life disappoints, lets us down, God is with us, sometimes as the courage to create change, and sometimes as the fellow-suffer who understands, who holds us deeply and softly.  But as God holds us, sometimes we can also learn and grow through our disappointment.  A number of years ago, I discovered this blessing for weddings by Robert Fulgham, you know, the “All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindgergarten” guy, and I use it from time to time.  One of the lines of the blessing says, “May your dreams come true, and when they don’t, may new ones arise.”  Sometimes in the disappointment of old dreams dying, new dreams arise that are wonderful.  I was disappointed, in a way, to be coming back to Minnesota following earning my Ph.D.  When I think of all the experiences I have had in the churches I have pastored, of all the people I have come to know and love, all that I have learned about myself – it’s o.k. that a dream died.  I have discovered new dreams on the other side of disappointment.
The same dynamic can work for our church community.  We can learn and grow on the other side of disappointment.  The leadership consultants and authors Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky have written, “Leadership can be understood, in part, as about disappointing your own people at a rate they can absorb.”  That can sound manipulative, but what they are saying is that leaders sometimes need to disappoint if necessary changes are to be made.  I will never forget my first summer here.  One of the pressing issues at the time was whether or not, when fall came, we would return to two worship services, as was our pattern at that time.  After carefully talking with any number of church leaders and members, I made the decision that we would, indeed, return to two worship services.  I wrote my reasons in the newsletter.  The Sunday following Dorothy Ottinger, bless her, came up to me after church and let me know of her disappointment.  “I thought you were going to unite us,” she said.  Welcome to First UMC!  Dorothy was disappointed, as were some others, just as others were disappointed when later we made the decision to have a single worship service.  But I think we have learned and grown together through all of this.  We are a better and stronger community because we have stuck around through some disappointments.
I love how Nadia Bolz-Weber, the really hip and cool Lutheran pastor of House for All Sinners and Saints, writes about his in her book Pastrix.  At new member classes she writes, she speaks last, and says to those who have come: This community will disappoint them.  It’s a matter of when, not if.  We will let them down or I’ll say something stupid and hurt their feelings.  I then invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happen.  If they choose to leave when we don’t meet their expectations, they won’t get to see how the grace of God can come in and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss. (54-55)

Jackie Wilson said, “Once, I was downhearted.  Disappointment was my closest friend.”  Sometimes that’s true.  Life disappoints, leaves us feeling let down.  God is with us as the courage to change.  God is with us, the great companion.  The hurt is real, and God is our fellow-sufferer.  With God, though, on the other side of disappointment, there can be another Temple, new life, new dreams, a kind of grace that’s just too beautiful and too real to miss.  Amen.

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