Sermon preached February 28, 2016
Texts: I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9
Paula Cole, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=15SIu84TDSQ
This is a song about disappointment. “Where is my John Wayne? Where is my prairie sun? Where have all the cowboys gone?” This morning’s readings are also about disappointment, though they are challenging texts to work with.
Let’s do some work with them. In I Corinthians, Paul is working with some stories from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we often call “The Old Testament.” Here the disappointment seems to belong to God. Some of the Hebrews who were with Moses did not live up to expectations so they were struck down in the wilderness. Some engaged in sexual immorality and 23,000 fell in one day. Others were destroyed by serpents. Yikes. God, it would seem, has a particularly harsh way of dealing with disappointment, though I think we need to do a little more thinking here.
Paul’s point is not that you better watch out because God is going to get you. His point is this. Think about people who were with Moses, with Moses! They must have had some incredible experiences of God. Yet even some of them lost their way. “Take care, people,” Paul seems to be saying. “So if you think you are standing, watch out that you do not fall.” Paul is writing to a group of people who were often very proud. It was as if nothing bad would happen to them, they were so spiritually attuned. There would be no challenges, struggles, disappointments. Paul is trying to tell them something else. Sometimes things get hard, but God is with us. One side comment. I think verse 13 is often used as a justification for the idea that “God never gives you more than you can handle.” I don’t think that way of putting things is helpful. The particular context here is about falling away from faith. There is nothing that happens that you cannot, with God, make it through. The idea that God never gives you more than you can handle is too superficial sometimes when people are in the midst of tragedy.
In some ways, Luke is a good corrective to too superficial a treatment of the idea that God never gives someone more than they can handle, and it provides some fodder for deeper thinking about tragic events. Jesus is presented with two tragic events, cruel treatment of Galileans by Pilate, and the fall of a tower. Some seemed to be saying to Jesus that such suffering must have occurred because of how terrible these people were. Jesus rejects that, rejects the idea that God was punishing people, or even testing people through such events. Instead, Jesus invites those who are coming to him with questions to think about their own lives. Then he tells a story about disappointment.
The owner of a fig tree finds no fruit on it and orders his gardener to cut it down. It has produced no fruit in three years. This man is disappointed in the tree. The gardener, on the other hand, though he may share in the disappointment, urges patience. More can be done – a little digging, a little manure. Let’s see what may happen.
Disappointment. It is part of our experience of life and it is a challenging emotion. Experiences sometimes let us down. Other people sometimes let us down. We let ourselves down. We disappoint others. We disappoint God. All of these are dimensions of disappointment, and in the rest of today’s sermon I want to dance with some of them just a little, explore them with you. How as people of faith do we deal with disappointment? My focus will be on our own experiences of being disappointed, though I will touch on other dimensions as well. Disappointment will happen. The super-spiritual Corinthians were wrong to think otherwise. How do we deal with it in ways that help us grow in faith, hope and love? Where is God in the midst of our disappointments? Those who came to Jesus were wrong in thinking that disappointment and tragedy were somehow always the result of people’s own mistakes or sins. Disappointment happens even to the nicest and best people.
I have shared with you before a particularly disappointing time in my life. Following my first pastorate in Roseau, MN I went back to school to earn a Ph.D. I really hoped to move into teaching. I love to read. I enjoy writing. There was something very attractive about academic work to me. My family and I moved to Dallas, TX. I earned my Ph.D. and there were no teaching positions. A friend with whom I graduated – same program, same degree, a man who grew up in Nigeria, was hired in a tenure-track position at Wake Forest. I ended up being part of a pastoral staff on the Iron Range working with seven United Methodist Churches, most of them rather small. I may re-visit some of this with you in a couple of weeks when I preach on jealousy. For now, let me simply say I was disappointed.
So what good is disappointment, if it is good at all? Disappointment is a good mirror emotion, by that I mean it reflects something important. Disappointment reflects that we care, that we dream, that we risk. It is good that we care and dream and take some risks. Disappointment is not really a good in itself, but it says something good about us – that we continue to care, that we continue to dream, that we continue to take some risks.
Rabbi Harold Kushner a few years ago wrote a book about Moses. He called it Overcoming Life’s Disappointments. As he often is, Rabbi Kushner was wise about disappointment. Nobody gets everything he or she yearns for: I look at the world and see three sorts of people: those who dream boldly even as they realize that a lot of their dreams will not come true; those who dream more modestly, and fear that even their modest dreams may not be realized; and those who are afraid to dream at all, lest they be disappointed. I would wish for more people who dreamed boldly and trusted their powers of resilience to see them through inevitable disappointments. (3-4)
Kushner is wise, but I think he misses one possibility for working with disappointment. There are times when we should look at our expectations, and manage them. Sometimes we set ourselves up for needless disappointment. In his book Kushner identifies five elements of a complete life: family, friends, faith, work, and the satisfaction of making a difference (136). He then goes on to say: It is probably unrealistic to expect perfection, not from Moses, not from Einstein, not from ourselves. It is probably too much to expect ourselves or anyone to be equally competent in all five dimensions of the complete life. But as a friend of mine likes to say, “You can have it all, just not all at the same time.” (152) There is a new thought here.
Sometimes we need to adjust our expectations a bit. I think this is particularly true in our most intimate relationships. Sometimes we come to expect that our partner will just know what we want or need, and are disappointed when they don’t. In the course of a long-term relationship, not everything will always be wiz, bang, pop. Sometimes they can be, but not always. Sometimes the cowboys are just gone. We live with the tension of dreaming, caring, hoping, risking, and of having some expectations that are rooted in reality.
I also think that this dynamic matters to the church. I remember when a woman with whom I was confirmed was telling me at a class reunion how she left her church because the pastor really wasn’t sensitive enough after her father died. Now the person may have been really insensitive and her response appropriate, but it did cause me to think about her expectations. I appreciate the Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber. When she holds classes for new members, she speaks last and says: 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 think invite them on this side of their inevitable disappointment to decide if they’ll stick around after it happens. 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 it and fill the holes left by our community’s failure, and that’s just too beautiful and real to miss. (Pastrix, 54-55)
Sometimes we need to manage our expectations, yet we always need to care, to dream, to take some risks if we are to live fully, if we are to follow Jesus faithfully. We will be disappointed along the way. We will disappoint others along the way. Yet, with God’s grace and a caring community around us, we can learn and grow. We can understand ourselves better by understanding our disappointments. We will often find that on the other side of disappointment, if we don’t allow it to close us off, to shut us down in discouragement, on the other side of disappointment, there are wonderful, and beautiful and unexpected things that happen. Were it not for coming back to Minnesota and being a pastor on the Iron Range, I would have missed meeting some remarkable people, two of whom visited here last Sunday morning. My Pd.D. work was personally rewarding, a wonderful time of growth.
In 2008, I was part of the election process for bishop in The United Methodist Church. I had been your pastor for only three years at the time. I did well in the election, for a time having the most votes, though not enough for election. Then I stalled, and made the determination, when the election had come down to two people, that the momentum was not going my way. I withdrew as a candidate. That was a challenging moment, a disappointment. I also know that I disappointed some of you along the way, not in not getting elected, but it being part of that election process. On the other side of that disappointment, we have done some beautiful and wonderful things together, and I am deeply grateful to you and to God.
This summer, we will be in that same place again. I have been endorsed by the Minnesota United Methodist Church as a candidate for bishop. This time there are four open positions, and I expect there will be fifteen or so candidates.
There will be no way to avoid disappointment this summer. If I am not elected, I know I will feel disappointment. When you put yourself out there, it is nice to have people say “yes.” If I am elected, I will be disappointed. We continue to do beautiful and wonderful things together, moved by God’s Spirit, and while I know you will continue to do such things if I am gone, I will miss not being a part of them. And I really do not want to disappoint you. It is a mirror of how much I care. There are these two dreams fighting it out in me. I have some gifts to help the church as a bishop at a critical time for our denomination. It is a dream. I dream of this church continuing to grow in vitality, in reaching out to others, in welcoming others in, and I am delighted to be a part of it.
So I move forward. We move forward. Driving to the Twin Cities this week to preach at the chapel of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, I was listening to the recently released CD by Lucinda Williams, “The Ghosts of Highway 20.” The final song is “Faith and Grace.” Just a little more faith and grace/Is all that I need. Yes.
So I move forward. We move forward. We dig a little. We spread a little fertilizer. And God goes with us. With God, with one another, disappointment need not mire us in discouragement, but can lead to unexpected beauty, wonder, faith and grace. Amen.