Three Words from God

June 17, 2018

Series: June 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

A word before the second reading. Topics of a certain weight deserve some advance notice, and so I mention to you now that later in the sermon I will touch upon suicide. I mean to do so in a way that’s supportive, and I simply mention it to you now to give you a moment to be prepared if this is a particularly difficult subject for you…

1 Samuel 15:34-35

15:34Then Samuel went to Ramah; and Saul went up to his house in Gibeah of Saul. 35Samuel did not see Saul again until the day of his death, but Samuel grieved over Saul. And the LORD was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel. THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD. THANKS BE TO GOD.

Three Words from God

That second reading was to be much longer, but I just couldn’t make it past that stunning last sentence: “And the LORD was sorry that he had made Saul king over Israel” (1 Sam. 25).  God was sorry!?  This flies in the face of so much of what we grow up hearing about God—namely that God is perfect, all-controlling, unchanging.  Of course, that version of the God we were taught doesn’t seem to square with human experience, unless we turn to contorted explanations of tragedy and injustice:  We say there is a bigger plan we cannot fully see, that there is a reward awaiting those who are good.  I think there’s some truth in this, though to people who suffer this can sound patronizing or cruel, hardly helpful.

          What if I told you that this perfect God does not square with Holy Scripture, if you understand perfect as unchanging.  This can blow the mind of a settled Christian.  Ultimately, I think that’s for the better, but it makes it no less jarring.  Don’t take my word for it, look up Genesis 18, when Abraham argues God down from exacting wrath or Exodus 32 when Moses did similarly.  I once heard a rabbi describe God as someone you could watch grow up throughout the Hebrew Bible, changing, maturing, even having regrets.  “And the LORD was sorry that the Lord had made Saul king over Israel.”  Maybe therein lies God’s perfection, in the ability to reflect, to listen, to admit mistake, to learn, and therefore to change. 

          God, we tell each other, listens.  In our prayers during the 8:30 service the petitioner always ends, “God in your grace,” to which we all respond, “You hear our prayers.”  It’s a reminder that our prayers do go somewhere or to someone.  It’s a reminder that our faith is not a solitary endeavor; it’s an active relationship.  As with any relationship, it requires participation to the best of our ability if it is to bear fruit.  It involves risk.  Things don’t always go as we would like.  Perhaps the reason the psalmist so fervently prays for protection is because he or she knows the protection doesn’t always come.  

          I don’t say this to tear down God.  Quite the contrary, by offering a more honest, a more biblical rendering of God, I aim to tear down the curtain that sometimes divides us from God, the one that says God’s in charge and therefore nothing bad will happen.  Soon that form of faith becomes apathy and un-involvement.  Maybe God is in charge, but we definitively have a role to play.  As Walter Brueggemann, the great Old Testament scholar, says sometimes in Scripture the people have to go so far as to wake God up, to appeal to God’s ego or honor into order to get God to live up to God’s end of the bargain!  It may seem a ridiculous notion to us (or an less than comforting one), but it underscores that our participation matters.

This is less about downgrading God then upgrading the status of our relationship with God. It is a partnership that we have with God.  With all due respect to the doctrine of sovereignty, God does not function as a dictator.  Shane Claiborne evangelical and “Red Letter Christian” recounts a comic strip in which one person asks another why God allows all this poverty, war, and suffering to exist.  The second says to the first, “Well, why don’t you ask?” The first simply shakes his head and says, “I’m scared God will ask me the same question.”[1]

The question becomes more vital, then, not just what are we willing to do, but how much are we willing that connection, to actively work with God, Spirit—choose your word. Like any relationship, each side will bless the other—think of that, what a thought that we have the ability to bless God, and we do!  And, the actions or inactions of each will disappoint the other, and I think we know that to be true too.  The question is how committed we are to the relationship. Do you know how I know God is committed to the relationship?  Because God doesn’t say, “I told you so!” with respect to giving the people a king, though God could have.  Real relationship isn’t about blame.  God says, “I’m sorry.”  It’s the language of compassion.  Anyone who won’t say they are sorry isn’t committed to you, because they don’t care enough to tend the relationship.

God is sorry because the world God so loves hurts. And this opens the door for us to hear that God might be sorry for other things too.  Otherwise we are the ones who must always be sorry, sorry for not being good enough, or strong enough, or righteous enough.  There is plenty of room for confession—for truth telling about ourselves and our communities—for repentance—for turning and getting back on a right path—for improving ourselves and our societies, but perhaps the church’s only gift to the world cannot be to tell everyone how bad they are.  It must also have something to offer in how to cope with the suffering that life presents.

          Which brings us to the topic at hand, suicide, an issue that has touched or will touch probably everyone in this room.  I have known a number of people who have taken their own life, and it’s not because of the job I do.  As you know by now, I spent my college summers as a camp counselor.  Between two summers once I lost 3 kids to suicide.  I was working with 11 and 12 year olds, all wealthy white boys.  IF we think they have no pain, we’ve totally lost touch. 

The church’s first word in this used to be sin, calling the act itself of taking one’s life a mortal sin. This misguided teaching was, I suppose, meant to encourage people to uphold the sanctity of life, though I don’t think we do that by threatening people with eternal damnation.  While we’ve thankfully gotten past this, most of us, what lingers is a sense that those who are left behind have somehow sinned.  The church doesn’t say that, and many wouldn’t articulate it that way, but it comes out when people voice those understandable but impossible questions, “Why didn’t I see this coming?  Why wasn’t I able to stop it?”  On one level or another, we hear blame, which isn’t the voice of God, when instead we should hear compassion.  What if instead of hearing God as planting those questions in us, we were able to hear God saying instead, “I’m sorry.  I’m so sorry.”

          We are coming off two high-profile suicides, designer Kate Spade and chef and TV icon Anthony Bourdain.  I mention because they give us the occasion for talking about suicide, because suicide rates spike in the aftermath of celebrity suicides, and because on some level we feel connected to these kinds of people and therefore it touches us when they are taken from us by a pain we didn’t fully recognize was there.  Please don’t take their air time here as incentive for seeking similar air time through such an act.  If their level of pain is yours, you need help, and I beg you to see one of us after the service.  I will help you; I won’t preach about you.

I cannot pretend to know as much about Spade as Bourdain, though the poignancy of creating beauty even in the midst of pain is not lost on me.

          As for Bourdain, it is hard for some of us who watched him seem to suck the marrow not only out of some exotic dish, but out of life itself, to understand how the life could be so sucked out of him to the extent he could no longer bear it. 

          I think Bourdain’s life is instructive, not for how he ended it, but for how he endeavored to live it.  If you haven’t seen the show, “Parts Unknown,” it features Bourdain, former high-end chef and sort of rock star of the culinary scene in New York, traveling to all parts of the world, not to eat in the finest of dining establishments, but to experience the tastes of street food, and the company of the people who prepare it and who eat it.  There’s something magical that happens between when people come together over food—all kinds of barriers are broken. 

Eating and drinking are such vulnerable things. In a literal sense, when we do these things, we open a passageway from our inside to the outside world.  To be painfully obvious, we need to eat and drink to live, and so when we break bread with another, we are trusting each other with our vulnerabilities, acknowledging our common creatureliness.  It is why eating and drinking rituals are at the center of every religious tradition.  Of all the tributes to Bourdain since his death last week, the one that has touched me the most is the one that said, “He taught us that other people are not to be feared.”  In this day and age, could there be any more prophetic message, this era in which people are profiting by making us afraid of others?  Bourdain would sit with anyone, people from very different nationalities, different cultures, different religions, with very different beliefs or practices, the difference in cuisine becoming symbol for so many of the differences we carry, and yet his willingness, eager, joyful willingness, to take what was theirs and take it inside his body was an embodied sign of trust.  It was an invitation to relationship, or better yet it was the acceptance of a relationship request.  These meals weave themselves together to tell a very different story about the people of the world, about strangers, about foreigners.

What was amazing was Bourdain never seemed to carry any judgment into these encounters, content to have the experience and hear what someone else had to say. He appeared genuinely interested to hear their stories, their experiences and take them at face value.  In these senses, his way of being was very reminiscent of Christ, who was himself judged for those with whom he ate, those whose circumstances he chose to understand and as a result whose choices he often forgave, and whose partnership in trying to be healers in the world he always accepted.  Isn’t that what our faith should look like?  Our faith is not in that which cannot be changed, but in the One who is perfected through relationship and change, through reflection and growth, through at the core of it all, compassion. 

I gather that God, like all those who loved her, is then sorry Kate Spade hurt so much she took her own life and sorry Bourdain did too.

I suppose if I had asked you at the outset what the three most powerful words God says to us are many would have said, “I love you,” but maybe on some days it’s “I am sorry,” and to make up for lost time and lost occasions, here are a few more, take it as a prayer from God to you:

I’m sorry that you have lost your loved one, and that I didn’t do more and as a result you feel as though you should have. I’m sorry for when you lost your favorite toy as a child and you didn’t feel as though your parent did enough to find it.  I’m sorry that you didn’t get into the school you wanted a little later, that you lost that job.  I’m so sorry about the time your pet died.  It’s not silly.  I’m sorry your friend betrayed you, people in power abused it.  I’m sorry for that time when you got up there to give it your best and you sat down feeling embarrassed and that you had failed.  I’m sorry that your kids turned to drugs, struggled with mental illness, struggled in general, or didn’t launch the way you had envisioned.  I’m sorry you weren’t treated equally because of who I made you to be, who you love.  I’m sorry for the gangs which rule the streets in South America, and the children are in cages in the United States of America.  I’m sorry that your job takes you away from your children, and you feel so helpless about it.  I’m sorry he or she isn’t what you had hoped for.  I’m sorry that you don’t have the she or he or they in your life, if you’d like one.  I’m sorry that you’re afraid and for the good reasons you have for it.

And, not but, and those three other more familiar words I want you to know I love you.  I am growing too, and I am sending you my angels, indeed in many cases I already have.  Look around you, you can catch glimpses of them from time to time.  Some are sitting by you right now.  Some of you are them.  In this world too hard to understand there is a way.  I have shown you it in Jesus.  He came that I might be in closer reach, that you might learn from him and work for good in this world.  Jesus, my child, died young.  You, my child, don’t have to.  You were meant to have life and have it abundantly, so have it, have it and share it, work that others might have it too.  I am here, keep calling, keep calling, keep calling….Amen.

[1] Shane Claiborne, The Irresistible Revolution: Life as an Ordinary Radical, 65.