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Sep 18, 2022

There’s a Place for Your Pain

There’s a Place for Your Pain

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: September 2022


Today's Sermon


"There’s a Place for Your Pain"


Psalm 79:1-9
1O God, the nations have come into your inheritance;
they have defiled your holy temple;
they have laid Jerusalem in ruins.
2They have given the bodies of your servants
to the birds of the air for food,
the flesh of your faithful to the wild animals of the earth.
3They have poured out their blood like water
all around Jerusalem,
and there was no one to bury them.
4We have become a taunt to our neighbors,
mocked and derided by those around us.
5How long, O LORD? Will you be angry forever?
Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?
6Pour out your anger on the nations
that do not know you,
and on the kingdoms
that do not call on your name.
7For they have devoured Jacob
and laid waste his habitation.
8Do not remember against us the iniquities of our ancestors;
let your compassion come speedily to meet us,
for we are brought very low.
9Help us, O God of our salvation,
for the glory of your name;
deliver us, and forgive our sins,
for your name's sake.
Writing the Gospel

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1
          18My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick. 19Hark, the cry of my poor people from far and wide in the land: "Is the LORD not in Zion? Is her King not in her?" ("Why have they provoked me to anger with their images, with their foreign idols?") 20"The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and we are not saved." 21For the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me. 22Is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?

1O that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people!  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.

There’s a Place for Your Pain

          A couple of weeks ago we spoke about a series of things Jesus didn’t say though we treat as gospel in our culture.  One we didn’t mention, but could have, is, “God only gives us what we can handle.”  Again, let’s begin generously.  That’s an attempt to take everything in stride.  What it also does is say there’s no place for your pain here. I don’t want to hear it.  It’s not usually a helpful statement at least to say to someone else, Jesus did not say it in the Bible. 

          One thing that is said in the Bible over and over again is, “I’m in pain,” lament, crying out over pain of all kinds. You heard one in the first reading from Psalm 79 – an invader has defiled the temple, lives have been lost, their bodies left for vultures, and they are the taunt of their neighbors (Ps. 79:1-4).   Jesus himself cries out on the cross, “Why have you forsaken me?” quoting Psalm 22.  Psalms of lament is a whole genre.  In fact, by some count laments make up two-thirds of the Psalms.[1]  We don’t read them often in church because the lectionary of readings shies away from them and other less upbeat passages.  This isn’t entirely because those who put it together wanted to steer us away from those types of experiences and emotions, but rather because it assumes we are engaging the Scriptures all week and Sunday is but our mini-Easter when we celebrate.  For many, however, Sunday is all they get of Scripture or instruction and so we have to make more room for the full range here. 

          If you’re wondering why I would occupy our Sunday with a text that begins, “My joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick” (Jeremiah 8:18), it’s not because it’s the beginning of Stewardship season when we raise money for the church’s operating budget.  It’s because it’s important you know the full range of the human experience is welcome in the life of faith and in this house of prayer. Many places will welcome your achievements, your appearances if they appear a certain way, your happiness, your strongly held and never wavering stances on issues.  Here, you may bring all of who you are.  Here we’re committed not to judging, but to growing.  Where else other than therapy can you find that?

          Our recently adopted vision statement reads, “Our vision is to gather the seeking, the disillusioned, and the faithful, and to equip them for lives of meaning, service, and love.”  Of the three groups mentioned there two of the three have things up in the air.  Those who are seeking, something which at least they have in part yet to find.  Those who are disillusioned with at least some of what they’ve experienced.  This is how we embrace the full range of the spiritual journey and counter the narrative that church is for the always happy, the decided, and the entirely put together.  That narrative is unhelpful and dishonest.  I’ve heard great things about the app 10% happier.  We should start one, called 10% more spiritually honest, which might likewise lead to some more lasting joy.

          Truth-telling is essential to the spiritual journey, just as it is to the virtuous life.  You cannot progress if you do not recognize where you really are.  You can’t address what’s wrong if you won’t acknowledge it. If you’re mad or sad or grieving or confused, there’s little sense in pretending otherwise.  Have you ever heard the term toxic positivity?  Have you ever met someone that would fit the description? They’re intolerable to be around, not because it feels like they are handling everything better than you, but because you can sense there’s something off, not in touch with reality. 

          Acknowledging the truth of a situation is not holding too tightly to negative emotions.  Rather, it’s how we release their hold on us.  It’s how we open up, blessedly, to have our whole selves acknowledged.  When all of us is acknowledged, all of us gets to come along for growth, healing, expansion.  It’s like the apology line we mentioned last week, where people needed to share their regrets so they could, in part, be freed from them to grow.  There needs to be a place you can tell your whole truth.  One place you can share your whole truth is in prayer.  Almost any kind of prayer is faithful so long as it is honest because honesty creates an opening.  I mentioned Psalms or songs of lament; have you ever heard of imprecatory prayer?  Imprecatory prayer is praying for harm to befall your enemy, and it is absolutely found within the biblical canon.  You thought you were going to get asked for money a few minutes ago, and now I am giving you permission to pray for harm to come upon your enemies.  Talk about a turn of fate!

          What’s this about?  Didn’t Jesus asked us to pray for our enemies, and to love them? Surely that means not wishing violence on them.  Yes…and let us consider a couple of things.  First, let us be real about the depths of suffering this world holds for people.  I began work on this passage about three weeks after Russian invaded Ukraine back in February.  At the time it was not at all clear it was going to go the way it appears to be going.  And, despite Ukraine’s success, think of the cost of human life on both sides, of property and culture, of supply chains and food production, the list goes on and on. Tell me you could be in their shoes and not wish ill on the invaders. 

          Second, there’s a difference between offering an imprecatory prayer, which is an expression of anger at someone who has done you wrong, and actually taking action to do them harm, not just in defense but in returned aggression.  There’s a benefit we all know, in sometimes, just getting it out.  One could say imprecatory prayer is an act not only of getting it out, but turning it over to God.  Paul reminds us that the Old Testament proclaims vengeance is the domain of God.  Leave that, whatever it looks like, to God.  We offer it up, lest we act it out.  Perhaps even through this process we reach that place where we are then praying love for our enemies. 

          On a page devoted to New Testament Scholar N.T. Wright, Dr. Glenn Packiam compiles a list of 5 things to know about lament:

  1. Lament is a form of In fact, the lament psalms in Hebrew are called “praises” tehillim. Praises?  Lament seems anything but praise.  Packiam draws a distinction between complaint, which assumes the worst about God—that God doesn’t care, that God punishes the righteous—and lament that assumes the best about God—that God is of good character and wants good for us. Lament is praise precisely because it appeals a God in whom we trust.  It’s not an act of failure; it’s an act of faith.
  2. Lament is proofof the relationship. I remember being told the most dangerous thing in a relationship is when it goes silent – when the partner doesn’t bother, when the coach no longer takes interest even in correcting you, when you stop talking to God.  Lament presumes the relationship.  Packiam uses the example of babies in orphanages who no longer cry out because they have learned that no one is coming.  Keep crying.
  3. Lament is a pathway to intimacy with God. It’s not a breakdown; it’s the pathway.  It’s a reinforcement of our attachment to God, a commitment to the relationship. You don’t have a real relationship, of any depth anyway, if you can only talk about the happy stuff. 
  4. Lament is a prayerfor God to act. It’s more than a merely venting our frustrations, a letting off of steam to the ethers, as valuable as we may find that sometimes.Neither is it passive.  It assumes a recipient and opens one’s self to a possible response.  I know people have a range of beliefs about the degree to which God intervenes, but Wright teaches that in prayer not only is there the possibility and mystery of God’s response, but in fact it is through prayer that we join in with God in bringing about the kingdom.  Prayer, including lament, is how we participate with God in the divine activity.
  5. Lament is participationin the pain of others. The point is not only to pray one’s own laments.  How many of us have been literally “pursued by enemies,” or had to literally keep watch like a night sentry awaiting the morning?  Some of you, but not most of us.  However, in praying such Psalms, the prayers of others, we are joined in the suffering of others and thereby moved into compassion and compassionate action even as we seek to garner God’s likewise response.[2] 

          Someone in the congregation is fond of saying faith gives them someone to thank for all the good things in life.  One could also say it gives us someone to whom to cry. That is good news, uplifting news, certainly news that makes me unafraid to ask you to support the church during this Stewardship season.  What we’re trying to build here is not a place that unthinkingly replays the tired trope that everything in life God gives us and we can handle it.  Here we are creating a space and a community where we recognize whatever we give to God, God can handle—our trust, our thanks, our hope, and also our doubts, our sadness, our fears, our anxiety, our depression, and yes our anger, our lament that this isn’t the way we wish it to be. That enables us to face with a more open heart whatever is.  There is a place for your pain here.