Luke 17:5-10The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea’, and it would obey you.
“Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from ploughing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!'”
And so we hung up our harps,
there upon the willows.
For there our captors asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth,
saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing God’s song in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither!
Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy.
Remember, O God, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem’s fall,
how they said, “Tear it down!
Tear it down down to its foundations!”
O city of Babylon, you devastator!
Happy shall they be who pay you back
what you have done to us!
Happy shall they be who take your little ones
and dash them against the rock!
Ug. What a way to start the week, huh? “Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock.” Not the feel good part of the Good Book. Kate Huey has a wonderful meditation on this passage over at the UCC website. Spoiler Alert: This passage is an example of the psalmist lifting pain, anguish, and the thirst for vengeance up to God. It is easy to be horrified by this kind of language, and people use violent images like this as examples for why the Bible is barbaric and arcane and should be avoided. Really, nothing could be further from the truth. Because as opposed to actual grotesquely violent people, who have sought out vengeance for wrongs done them by taking justice into their own hands, the Psalmist expresses the rage, the sadness, the grief raging in her/his heart…but knows that it is up to God to do something about it. Huey quotes Bible Commentator Brent Strawn who suggests, maybe, just maybe, this psalm comes from a mother who watched her own children bashed against rocks. And in her grief, in her deep sorrow, she turns to God, rather than allow her devastation and anger to transform her into a monster.
It is ironic (or, perhaps, not) that we are uncomfortable with this kind of anger, this deep lament; because, as This American Life informed us last week, we are a nation of Cry Babies. I’ve thought this for some time, and now that Mr. Ira Glass and crew have weighed in, I will just take it as hard and true fact: The more money you have, the more likely you are to complain about…anything. Complaining, it seems, is linked to having options; if you can, or if you THINK you can, have something different than what you presently have, then you whine and moan about it. People without options don’t complain…they are a little busy surviving. In all our complaining about not getting things to go our own way, we have lost the Psalmist’s art of lament. But what’s the difference between singing our grief to God, and complaining? Why is this important?
To put it as simply as I can, I think this is an important distinction to make because it completely informs what you are able and willing to pray about, how you pray, and who you are praying to. As an illustration, I will talk about superheroes.
You’re going to be hearing a lot in the next year about the Green Lantern, as it is about to be turned into a huge blockbuster starring Ryan Reynolds. The Green Lantern is a classic DC Comics Superhero, his real name is Hal Jordan. In a chance encounter on his home planet (Earth), he is given a power ring that enlists him in the intergalactic police force known as the Green Lanterns. The ring is fueled by his willpower, which allows him to conquer his fears and create powers and weapons with the ring. The “will” of the universe, it turns out, when it is channeled through these rings and
put to use, it is green. As long as Hal’s will is strong, as long as his green light burns bright, his power is limitless. Well…the ring does need to be powered up now and again, in a green lantern (hence the…anyway), but they’re kind of inconsistent about it, so I’m just going to move on.
So, every hero needs an arch nemesis. Green Lantern’s is Sinestro, another member of the corps from a different planet. I’m not going to bore you with the details, but it goes like this: Hal Jordan is humbled by the responsibility, the duty, the honor, of wielding this tiny, infinitely powerful thing. Sinestro has no such feeling. Sinestro believes himself to be the greatest of all Green Lanterns and insists that he has the right and the duty to use his power to punish and terrorize people into following the law. This eventually leads to Sinestro being kicked out of the corps, and, in a stroke of genius, I think, he eventually starts his own Lantern Corps, the Yellow Lanterns. If will is green, fear is yellow.
What I like about this is that, what started as a disagreement, opposing views about how a Green Lantern should do the job, evolved into two factions with the Green Lanterns willfully serving the good of the universe and the Yellow Lanterns inflicting their will upon the universe by terrorizing it.
This is how I approach the Gospel lesson sited above. In Luke 17: 5-10, the disciples are saying, “What’s in this for us? This kingdom that you keep talking about, how can we be as close to the top as possible when this new kingdom comes to reign?” And Jesus immediately shifts the conversation: You don’t get it, do you? It’s not about big, it’s about small: faith as small as a mustard seed can accomplish incredible things. It’s not about being on top or in charge: it’s about being a grateful slave to God and God’s Word. It’s not about what do you get, it’s about what others get from you. Love, service, justice, and when you think your work is done, ask what else you can do.
I have always related to the whole “faith as small as a mustard seed” thing in the way that superheroes relate to their power. When I was in high school, my favorite t-shirt was one given to me by my grandma that, in blurry, hard to read letters, said, “Walk by faith, not by sight.” I thought that was brilliant. Still do. Faith, I have always known, but only recently have begun to understand, gives you power to exist and function outside of “normal” existence. And “as small as a mustard seed…” this idea that such a tiny amount of faith, if it is PURE, it can do magic. Whew. The downside to this is that it can lead you to a place of, “Well, I must not really believe then, because I can’t do anything right,” and then that’s a dark path of self doubt. But maybe we just don’t understand what kind of power we’re talking about. Maybe it’s not that genuine faith in small amounts allows us to be strong enough to plow through mountains, or magic enough to levitate bushes…maybe it’s a different kind of power. A kind of power that runs counter to the popular concept of power. Maybe it is not a power that moves and changes others, but one that helps us to change ourselves? And in that self-reflection, we unleash a light which we can use, yes, in the blackest night, to light the way for others.
The thing is: We don’t hear what Jesus is saying in this Gospel story. We are too preoccupied attempting to make the world about us and our problems and our ability to solve them. Sinestro, the bad guy, was so determined to dominate rather than serve, to complain rather than humbly lament, that he created, essentially, a new deity; one that fit his worldview. Let’s not kid ourselves: We all are responsible for the theology that governs our lives. Some of us are attempting to know more about the God of the Israelites, the God revealed in the life, ministry, teachings, and death of Jesus of Nazareth; and some of us are, quite honestly, more interested in creating a god that is focused more on our personal problems than the rest of the universe. The Psalmist’s Lament is the act of someone who has faith that God is in charge, and we are simply here to serve as we can. Are we interested in serving, or are we interested in being and having “the best?”
The ability to sing the Psalmist’s song of grief is a practice that can wake us up to greater service. We often try to take on issues and events that do not belong to us. We often forget that God is God and we are not. Why is it OK to pour out our emotions, even those that are violent and hateful, even those that conjure images that make us question our humanity, why is it OK to pray these, to SING these to God? It is more than OK, it is our duty as people of faith, it is the way of life for those who would walk the way of faith; we trust these feelings to God because we can’t do anything with them. We just can’t. We are limited, we are incapable of properly containing and healing our deepest pains. The same reason you wouldn’t treat cancer on your own, you would seek help because you are ill-equipped to manage it on your own. Don’t kid yourself; grief, anger, hate, regret, vengeance…these things will eat at you and take you apart as sure as cancerous cells. Maybe faster. The ability to sing this deep sadness to God also helps us hear the grief songs of others.
Have you heard about the youth and young adults–especially GLBT persons–in America who are opting for suicide over living in a society that constantly devalues and terrorizes them? Billy Lucas and Tyler Clemente are some of the most recent. They are not the only ones, and they may not be the last.
How can we not be angry? In the words of Maya Angelou, “If you aren’t angry you are either a stone, or you are too sick to be angry. But, mind you, you must not be bitter.”
Grieving is what we do…and SINGING that grief, not letting it consume us, but singing it out to God, is what we are CALLED to do. People who think that religion is there to make you feel happy and comfortable all the time…they aren’t getting it. People who think religion is all about a final reward aren’t getting it. As we are reminded in the Gospel lesson today, we are not called to be great owners of servants, but to BE great servants ourselves. We want our faith and our God to work like consumerism, we want it to pay off, to make our life easier and cleaner and safer. Jesus Christ himself has said from the beginning of his work: It ain’t about that.
Faith gives us power, but it is different than the other kind of power we see in our lives. It isn’t something we access in order to make the world the way we want it. It is a sacred gift that allows us to see our place in the grand scheme, and to humbly and gratefully work towards understanding how we are to live in that place. We don’t get there by ignoring the heartbreaking parts of reality. But we might be able to sing our way there.
This morning, I find myself singing a song of grief. Not as violent as the psalm, not as despairing as those who are suffering great tragedies…but a song of grief just the same. I sing for all those who lose their jobs, and with those jobs, their sense of worth. I sing for all those who feel compelled to resist the violence they experience in their lives with violence towards themselves. I sing for those who have, as Dr. Angelou says, turned to “stone,” and cannot sing. Those who lie deaf and dumb while rage and fear boil around them. The prophets say, “even the rocks will shout on the day of the Lord,” perhaps he didn’t just mean literal ones.
I sing for those who are afflicted with disease and chronic illness, that they may know comfort.
I sing for the lonely. Those who, due to economic realities, social injustice, or the wrong-doing of others, are forced into solitary lives in solitary places. You might be one of them. You might know one of them. They might seem completely happy, but they still sing the song of the lonely, and that is a hard song to sing.
I sing for Shadow Rock UCC as they courageously and painfully ask, “How do we serve in our time and place?”
The world as we knew it has passed away. That is true on the smallest of levels (the sun has risen anew, a totally unique and historic day is upon us) and on the largest (the decline of the American middle class, for example). It is good to grieve the loss of yesterday. It is not only appropriate to give that grief to God, but it can make for some beautiful music as well.
I pray that my song will make me more sensitive to the songs of others, and form in me a heart that seeks to serve and says, “I have done only what I ought to have done. What’s next?”