Sermons That Work

Sooner or Later…, Proper 17 (A) – 2005

August 28, 2005

Sooner or later, all of us have to bear something that is, to all intents and purposes, unbearable. A young widow is left with three children to raise alone because her husband was killed in Iraq. A baby dies at birth. A sister dies in a car crash involving a drunk driver. Sometimes it is enough just to turn on the television news: the media thrive on unbearably immediate images of global famine or terrorist attacks. Sooner or later, bearing the unbearable, we realize how little control we have over so much that damages our society and ourselves. Grief, rage, anger, and fear flash to the surface of consciousness. What sort of conversation can we possibly have with God when we are like this?

Today’s readings begin with an example of what Hebrew Bible scholars call a “lament,” but we would be far better off calling it “a rage-song.” In a tradition of rage-songs that can be traced back to Moses, and forward to the book of Job, the prophet Jeremiah gives voice to unbearable pain, anger, and misery at unspeakable horrors and uncontrollable events that surround him in his life as a prophet of God’s Word. His relationship with God has ceased to be a joy and delight (15:16) and has become an unceasing pain and incurable wound (15:18). He is full of rage at his fellow human beings who torment him, and asks God to “bring down retribution for me on my persecutors.” (15:15) He is equally hostile towards God: “… you are like a deceitful brook, like waters that fail.” (15:18)

Jeremiah is bearing something unbearable, and all he wants is for the misery to stop. But even the Word of God that comes to him, in response to his outburst of rage, is disquieting: the misery is not going to stop or go away—there is to be no respite from his torments and horrors. God simply assures Jeremiah of his presence, to strengthen him to withstand more misery. (15:20-21)

Psalm 26 is another example of a lament or rage-song. The singer begins by announcing that he has “lived with integrity, … trusted in the Lord and not faltered,” (v.1) and ends on the same note: “As for me, I will live with integrity … in the full assembly I will bless the Lord.” (vv. 11-12) These sentiments would sound intolerably self-righteous if we did not recognize from the verses in between (vv.2-10) that the singer has a lively awareness of encounters with people who are out to get him: worthless, deceitful evildoers who thirst for blood, are full of plots, lies and bribes…. There is a jarring difference between the raw, candid outburst of Jeremiah in his radically disorienting misery, and the composition of the psalm-singer for a liturgical occasion. Jeremiah has no rhetorical moves with which to hide the depths of his despair and rage. Yet each in his own way is a rage-singer, and both remain faithful to the conversation with God because they each know the conversation is central to their being.

Now we can turn to today’s Gospel and register the impact of Jesus’ exchange of words with Peter. We pick up in Matthew’s Gospel right after last week’s scene, in which Peter had acknowledged Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed one of God. In that scene, Jesus called Peter a rock, and said, “on this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matt. 16:18) Then Jesus explains to his friends that he “must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders, and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” (16:21) Suddenly, Peter the Rock becomes “Satan” and “a stumbling block.” (16:23) Yet all Peter had said was, “God forbid it, Lord! This must never happen to you.” (16:22)

Peter’s objection sounds to us so innocuous at first: how could anyone have known or understood the workings of God in Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection? But Matthew the Gospel Maker, writing all this down years later, has both known and understood. When we are bearing the unbearable, we need a God who has suffered the depths of rage and despair as we ourselves do. No other God can be trusted, and this is the Good News of God in Christ. Whatever the unbearable suffering, whatever the uncontrollable events that afflict and grieve us to the core of our being, God has seen it, known it, and taken it into God’s own life in Jesus who was crucified, who died, descended into hell, and was raised on the third day. This is why we cannot and must not take suffering, death, and resurrection out of the Jesus story: that is what says to us—not that God has obliterated or removed everything that is unbearable in human misery, not that God has taken away all cause for rage and anger in human life, not even that God controls all things—but that God is the one who bears the misery and the rage with us and for us. By bearing the unbearable, God overcomes it and faithfully keeps the conversation open for life.

These readings today let us know that we cannot take the cross out of Jesus’ life and death because the cross is the place for every human experience of hell on earth. God knows this; God has been there, and as a consequence we know this God can be trusted. The rage singers and the psalm singers were absolutely faithful in their perception that no other channel of communication is open to us when we find ourselves bearing the unbearable amid things that we cannot control. And Peter was absolutely wrong to imagine a God who could remain in conversation with his people without bearing the unbearable himself.

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Christopher Sikkema


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