This Sermon was preached the Rev. Nancy Vogele on September 3 2017, Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost. The readings and Psalm were Jeremiah 15:15-21, Psalm 26:1-8, Romans 12:9-21, and Matthew 16:21-28.
I have a big problem and it has to do with all the negativity found in every single one of our readings this morning!
The reading from Jeremiah (15:15-21) begins with
O Lord, you know;
remember me and visit me,
and bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.
“Help me get even, Lord.”
Plus he cries out, “I did not sit in the company of merrymakers, nor did I rejoice.”
I didn’t do this. I didn’t do that. I did everything you told me to do. In fact, you, O God, are the one who has fallen short: “Truly, you are to me like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.”
And our psalm (26:1-8) continues this righteous view of self:
Give judgment for me, O Lord, for I have lived with integrity; *
I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered.
Test me, O Lord, and try me; examine my heart and my mind.
For your love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you.
I have not sat with the worthless, nor do I consort with the deceitful.
I have hated the company of evildoers; I will not sit down with the wicked.
I will wash my hands in innocence, O Lord, that I may go in procession round your altar,
Singing aloud a song of thanksgiving and recounting all your wonderful deeds.
Really? You have lived with integrity? If this is indeed a psalm of David, I don’t think so. Remember his affair with Bathsheba? And that is just one example of his unfaithfulness.
Plus, when I hear this psalm I immediately think of another, Psalm 130 (vs. 2) which reads in part:
If you, LORD, were to note what is done amiss, O LORD, who could stand?
And what about the passage from the letter to the Romans? It starts off nicely: “Let love be genuine… love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.”
And then the passage (12:9-21) goes and ends with
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.”
Wow! That’s about as negative as it gets.
And then we arrive at today’s Gospel lesson from Matthew (16:21-28) with all this talk from Jesus about suffering and dying. Peter is concerned for Jesus and so he says, “God forbid it, Lord.” It’s quite natural not to want calamity to fall on your friend, your teacher. But instead of responding, “I appreciate your concern, Peter, but this is how it has to be.” No Jesus calls him Satan! “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me.”
And the passage ends with Jesus declaring, “For the Son of Man is to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay everyone for what has been done.”
Now, I’m no ax murderer, but I’m not perfect so I don’t want to be held accountable for everything I have done…or left undone.
Plus isn’t this last statement contrary to the foundation of our faith? That while we were yet sinners, Christ died for our sins so as not to hold our sins against us (Romans 5:8).
Lynn’s not here today because she is taking her daughter back to college. When I was sharing with her about all the negativity in the lessons for today, she said, “Don’t give a downer sermon.”
Kind of hard to not give a downer sermon with these readings.
What do we do with the downer readings we don’t like or the challenging ones we’re not ready to hear? What do we do with the commands to deny yourself, to take up your cross, to lose our lives for Christ’s sake?
Sometimes, I can go there with Jesus. I can stay open to his commands even when I can’t do them. I can be present to the challenges and difficulties and do my best, knowing that I – like everyone else – will fall short. Nonetheless, I can surrender to these commands and say Jesus’ prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Lord, not my will but thy be done.” (Luke 22:42).
But, to be really, really honest this morning, sometimes I can’t. Sometimes I am just overwhelmed with what’s going on in the world or in my life and I need to take a break.
Sometimes, I feel like I have already lost my life or sometimes, watching the news, I feel like that’s all I see – one traumatizing story with accompanying traumatizing photos after another. I want to be able to stay present to this reality, to pray for these folks and these terrible situations, to lend a helping hand, but sometimes it’s too much for me. Watching it triggers my own suffering and I find myself just shutting down.
What are we to do in moments or situations like this? We can’t just throw up our hands and walk away. Following Jesus is not a 9-5, weekdays only job – more accurately, it’s not a 9 to noon, Sunday only job. It’s 24/7 and it’s 365 days a year.
Christianity sometimes seems to lack practices that spell out what to do in situations like this. It’s not that our faith doesn’t have teachings on this but we’re not very good with getting the word out about them.
In Buddhism, by contrast, there are several meditation practices for dealing with difficult situations or people, with trying or traumatic times. There are loving-kindness meditations, compassion practices – where you offer loving kindness or compassion to an ever expanding circle of beings from loved ones to difficult people. There is a heavy duty meditation practice called Tonglen, where you build up your capacity to take in the suffering of the world – to just be able to breathe it in and then to offer a prayer – or as they would say, an intention or aspiration – that there would be an end to suffering and the causes of suffering. And these practices help Buddhists stay in difficult situations without the necessary need to flee or shut down or give up.
But here’s the thing. In the loving kindness and compassion practices, you always start with yourself – with offering loving kindness and compassion to yourself. Kind of like, in case of an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first before trying to help others. There is also a teaching that says that if you find that in using one of these meditative practices for difficult people or situations and that becomes too much for you, you are to return back to yourself and offer loving kindness or compassion practice for yourself because, in that moment, you are the one who is suffering and so you are the one who needs the loving kindness and compassion. You are instructed to continue to practice for yourself until you are able, once again, to reach outward and let in the sufferings of the world.
Does Christianity have similar practices or at least teachings on taking care of ourselves in the midst of so much suffering around us? Scripture makes it seem like it’s all work and no play, but remember, the Pharisees accused Jesus of being a drunkard and a glutton. So Jesus must have enjoyed a few good parties. We also read that sometimes he went off by himself to deserted places in order to pray and rejuvenate. The Church has feast days – times of feasting and merrymaking to celebrate events in its life and the people who exemplified the faith so well.
In the midst of difficult situations and times – whether they be on a national or global scale or deeply personal and private, it is so important to seek the good, the positive, the joy, the peace. Not in a cliché way and not to avoid the tough stuff. And certainly, not to expect someone to “snap out of it” and just “be happy.”
No, I’m talking about ways we can take care of ourselves that – far from avoiding the tough stuff – helps build our capacity to be present to it and in it.
That’s why I garden because in the midst of the flowers and vegetables and being outside, I am deeply aware that I am being cared for – ministered to by creation. Humor and laughter are also important to me. Spending time with my family. Running, exercise, walks in the woods, a good night’s sleep, quiet. And more quiet. Turning off the radio and the television – reducing the noise and stimulation. Closing my laptop and putting down my cell phone. Think about it. When was the last time you actually turned your computer or cell phone off? We used to do that… Reading – sometimes it helps to read a book on spirituality and sometimes it helps to read a good novel. Prayer is important to me, but when I am overwhelmed, it’s usually just silent meditation – calming my mind and body and spirit and just resting, knowing – whether I feel it or not – that I am in God’s loving presence. And, like the Buddhist loving kindness meditation, I just take in that love and I take in the love of friends and family. I take in the love of our pets of our garden or the sun shining down on us – even on rainy days like today. I soak up all that love and then, filled back up with love, I get up and bring that love with me as I reengage with this world – with all its beauty and brokenness.
How do you take care of yourself? And if you don’t do a very good job at that, what could you start to do? What simple things could you do or stop doing to refresh your soul? How do or could you recharge so that you are better able to be God’s hands and feet in this beautiful and broken world?
Our Sunday worship is key to this as well. Our worship together is meant to refresh us and build our capacity to go back out to that beautiful and broken world better able to love genuinely; to hold fast to what is good; and to serve the Lord.
Our Sunday worship is meant to help us leave here, rejoicing in hope, being patient in suffering, and persevering in prayer.
Being here, fully present and engaged in worship is meant to build our capacity to actually bless those who persecute us; to bless and not curse them.
What we do here together is meant to enable us to rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep, live in harmony with one another; and even, so far as it depends on each one of us, to live peaceably with all.
On this Labor Day weekend, let us remember that we have a need and a right to periodically rest from our labors so that we might simply enjoy life for its own sake and to experience all the good there is to experience. May our rest and refreshment help us gain perspective, get recharged, and be more effective once we do get back up to do the work God has given us to do. And may this place and this time of worship always help us. Amen.