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Anger and Pathos
Psalm 27; Luke 13:31-35

A sermon preached by the Rev Blair Robertson at Invergowrie Parish Church on Sunday, 24 February 2013.  A pdf version is available here

What’s the most important question to wrestle with as a Christian?  As a church?

Perhaps, is the Bible true?  Or, perhaps, is there a future for the church?  Or, perhaps, what did Jesus really say?

It would be fascinating, wouldn’t it, if I was to stop preaching right now and we just all sat and talked about this: what’s the most important question to wrestle with as a Christian?  Shall we do that?  Perhaps not!  (Not everyone likes wee discussion groups!)

But here’s my answer to that question.  The most important question we must wrestle with as a Christian, and as a church, is this: what’s God like?

I think this is a crucial question.  Is God like a divine policeman telling us off for breaking the rules?  Is God an old man up in the sky, sitting on a cloud and dangling his legs over the edge?  Is God like Jesus?

Here’s a story about how two different ways of thinking about God came into conflict.

William Sloan Coffin, was the minister at The Riverside Church in New York some years ago.  One night his son Alex was killed in a car accident.  Sloan Coffin wrote a sermon about the loss of his son, and in it the preacher theologian and the grieving father speak with one voice.  The sermon is titled, simply, ‘Alex’s Death.’ 

Here’s a quote from that sermon:

‘The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room ... when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking middle-aged women.  When she saw me she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, “I just don’t understand the will of God.”  Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit ... “I’ll say you don’t ... Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windscreen wiper of his, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm ... Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road, and no guard rail separating the road from the harbour?”’

And Sloan Coffin continues:

For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the inability of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God does not go around the world with his finger on triggers, his fist around knives, his hands on steering wheels.  God is dead set against all unnatural deaths ... As [my younger son] put it simply, standing at the head of the casket at the ... funeral, “You blew it, buddy.  You blew it.”  The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is ‘It is the will of God.’  Never do we know enough to say that.  My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.’

‘God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break.’  There’s an answer to my question of what God is like.  God is the one whose heart breaks.  Not, God is a God who pushes cars off harbour edges; not God is a God who decides that young men will die.  No.  God is a God whose heart is so full of love that it’s the first to break.

It’s a powerful and moving sermon – the more so when you know that it was preached just two weeks after the death of the preacher’s son.  There’s anger in that sermon: raw and understandable anger.  Sloan Coffin seems to be angry with everyone around him - including his own dead son.  But the anger is founded upon love. 

More than that: Sloan Coffin speaks of God.  He tells us what sort of a God he is able to have faith in.  And in so doing invites us to think about the kind of God we believe in.

II

 Let’s hear again the words of Jesus as he looks over Jerusalem:

‘Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  How often I have desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing.’

Jesus loves this city, but despairs over it.  His heart goes out to the city, and his heart is broken.  Jerusalem is the holy city, it’s the centre of political and religious power, and in the time of Jesus the two were much the same. But this most religious place has rejected the prophets of God – and it will reject Jesus.  Towards this city Jesus walked, and he must have known that he would come into conflict with those powers, as had the prophets before him.  Over this city Jesus weeps, despairs, laments: sorrow and love flow mingled down.

And here we have an answer to that crucial question of what is God like.  God is like Jesus.  That’s the central claim of the Christian faith: God is like Jesus.  And God laments, despairs, weeps over the things that powerful people and powerful religious people do – and do in God’s name.

III

The American poet Robert Frost was once walking through a cemetery, looking at tombstones.  He saw names, dates and words, summing up lives lived.  Frost asked himself what epitaph he might chose for his own tombstone.  It’s a good question.  He decided upon these words: ‘I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.’ 

I wonder if they’re good words to describe what William Sloan Coffin was saying about the death of his son.  And I wonder if they express what Jesus was saying as he looked towards Jerusalem:  a lover’s quarrel.  Perhaps God has a lover’s quarrel with the world, with the church, with us – with you and me.  But for sure, I know that I have a lover’s quarrel with the church.

Some years ago a young gay man said to me: ‘why should I believe in God when the church says that God doesn’t believe in me?’   My heart missed a beat because I knew exactly what he meant.  The church expends huge amounts of energy and time talking about sexuality, human relationships, gay and lesbian love, and all the while so many gay and lesbian people are walking away from the church.   So long as the church sees lesbian and gay people as problems to be solved, the walking away will continue.  God’s heart must be breaking.   In this ongoing debate in the church about sexuality, the most important question we can ask is: what sort of a God do we believe in? 

IV

The God we see in Jesus is a God who invited everyone and anyone to sit at table with him …the sinners and the tax-collectors accepted the invitation … and the religious stood apart muttering into their beards, “I’m not sitting with those people.”

The God we see in Jesus allowed himself to be touched by an unclean woman and the power went out from him …. and she was healed by her faith.

The God Jesus tells us about is a God who hitches up his robes and runs down the road to welcome home a son who made the wrong decision … while his brother is ungracious and unwelcoming.

The God we see in Jesus blesses the woman who pours expensive perfume over his feet, and weeps …. and the good disciples worry about the cost, blind to the love.

The God we see in Jesus allows his favourite disciple to rest his head upon his chest while lying at the table for their last supper …. so close that he must’ve heard the heart beat of God.

The God we see in Jesus called the children over to sit on his knee, but the disciples tried to shoo them away because Jesus is surely way too important to be bothered about kids.

The God we see in Jesus stood on a hill looking over Jerusalem, the place he loves, and this God wants to be like a hen gathering her brood under her wings, into a place of safety but it can’t be so.  So this God weeps.

What sort of a God do you believe in here at Invergowrie Parish Church?

On your website you say that you believe in a God of welcome, because you say that you are a church of welcome.  On your website it says:

We welcome into our community of faith people of every age, gender, race, country of origin, ethnic heritage, sexual orientation, mental or physical abilities or condition, education, marital status, culture or religious background.

That’s quite a list.  It’s a great list.  And I congratulate you on having made the decision to be a congregation that is affirming and welcoming of gay and lesbian people.  Did you know that you had done that?  I hope so and I hope that you’re proud of the fact.

Why is this important?  Consider this: if our God is a God who desires to gather under her wings all those who she loves, how can it be possible for the church to say to some of the brood ‘you’re not welcome here,’ or ‘you’re welcome but only if ….’

Time and again, in the story of Jesus, we see him welcoming people, and the disciples, or the religious folk, try to push away the very people Jesus calls to him.  Just as Jerusalem did:  the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it!  And Jerusalem would do the same to Jesus.  And the heart of the father must’ve been the first of all hearts to break.

V

Surely God must have a lover’s quarrel with the world.  God is filled with anger and pathos because of this world, and maybe because of the church too – the church that puts stumbling blocks in the way so that gay men and lesbian woman can’t know their Saviour, can’t celebrate love, or know that peace that passes all understanding.  God must surely weep.  How could this not be so?

Would you expect God to be satisfied with a world which sometimes disappoints us?  God struggles with this world, and with the church, and with you and me, in anger and in love.  God wants it, and you and me, to be different.  Our God is a God of the lament, who cries ‘How I long to gather you together, as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, but you would not let me.’ 

In this time of Lent, as we follow Christ on his road towards passion and death, we recall that God loved us so much, that he came to us in Jesus the Christ.  The Jesus who was not welcomed but pushed out of the holy place.  That’s what happened to the love of God;   a generous, costly love, which joins us to the lover, claims us – each of us - as God’s own.

Who is this God that we believe in?  A God who has a lover’s quarrel with the world, but at the last, what remains is not the quarrel, but the love.

 Prayer:

O God, whose father-heart is broken at our folly,
whose mother arms carry us in our weakness;
may your tears of anger and love fall upon us that,
in their cleansing warmth,
we may be restored and renewed;
and the day will come when there will be not more weeping,
and the world will resound to the laughter of the Kingdom of God.
Amen.

Bibliography:

‘Alex’s Death’ - a sermon by The Revd. Dr. William Sloan Coffin

‘A Lover’s Quarrel With The World’ - a sermon by R. Maurice Boyd, from a collection of the same name (Canada 1985)

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