The world is a dismal, frightening place: Droughts, Hurricanes, Floods, Fires, Earthquakes, Wars, Riots, Terrorism, Pollution, Global Warming, Shootings, Plagues, Cancer, Death, … Politics.
We’re tired: one crisis after another; never ending. We learn that another old friend died – months ago – and we never knew. Yet another ridiculous posting from that clueless idiot on Facebook. And, that politician or radio pundit said something outrageous – again!
And, we just got sick again, or the kid got sent to the Emergency Room, or maybe we were “downsized.” No job, no income, huge bills; and so we ask ourselves, “What now? Become a greeter at Walmart?”
Maybe … maybe we should just get angry. Lash out at the people that are the source of our problems. Maybe post a really nasty to the point Facebook meme. (That’ll show ‘em!) Or, smash a few store windows. Throw a Molotov cocktail or two. Vote for Trump, or Bernie, or Jill Stein, – but certainly not the establishment candidate!
But to ignite anger requires fuel that burns well and with intensity. It requires someone or something to blame. It requires a simple solution to fire the imagination, to focus our energies, to be the target of our anger, and our hate, and our fear.
We don’t want to be lost, anymore. We don’t want to be alone, anymore. We don’t want to live in this world of uncertainty and hopelessness and despair any more. It’s been too damn long. Doing the right thing hasn’t worked. We paid our dues, and now more than we can bear, or afford, is being demanded of us, again. Time to lash out.
We find such thinking all around us right now. It is the search for simple answers. It is a crusade to find something or someone, anything or anyone, to blame for our misery and despair. It is the search for an easy way (or any way!!!) out of this mess.
The misery and despair are real. The anger is real. The hopelessness is real. And, to get beyond all of that means that we must be real. Easy platitudes, inspiring sermons, and breezy assurances that we’ll pray for them, aren’t enough, nor should they be. Such things only deepen the dark pit that our neighbors, our loved ones, and we, find ourselves in.
I believe this is what Jesus means when he talks about being lost. Being lost means we’ve run out of answers. We have no solutions. We realize that we can no longer solve our problems by ourselves. It means we have failed to be the strong, independent, self-sufficient icon of American Goodness and Values that we imagine ourselves to be.
Our cause may be just and good and right, but that is not enough. We are not Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sigourney Weaver in an action movie. We’re not going to power through all the bad guys and single handedly save the world through our grit, our determination, or our strength of character in time for Dinner. (…Although, it would be nice.) In First Timothy, Paul tells us that he already tried all this, and it didn’t work. Instead, he found a better way.
Bad stuff is going to happen, we can’t stop it. Even if we could make the world a perfect place: no more disasters, no more terrorism, no more global warming or stock market crashes, and especially no more politics; it would not, and could not, stay that way. That’s because human beings live here. We live here. And, we will always fall short. We will always be confronting new problems, new disasters, new darkness, and the debris of our past failures. We will always be confronting ourselves. All that changes is how these challenges look to us. The real challenge is not what is outside of us, it is what is within us.
The answer is that we must admit our failures, just as Paul did in First Timothy. There is no one else to blame. There is no effigy that we can burn. We are the problem.
And, Jesus knows this. We go wandering off into the hills. We constantly seek for the next good bit of grass to chew on, and then move on to the next, and then the next: we get lost. We don’t know how we got here. We cannot find our way back. There’s nothing we can do about it. Yelling at the rocks or stomping on the grass won’t fix it. Wandering around won’t work: we’ll just go in circles, maybe getting even more lost!
You know, one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you can’t rescue someone who doesn’t think they’re lost. Think of all those cranks on Facebook and elsewhere; or the “Angry Uncle” that everyone seems to have. They know they have the answer. We know they don’t. We try to rescue them from their ignorance. But, they keep on prancing along as they always have, oblivious to our good intentions. They see us as a bunch of obstructive, dense “know it alls” who really know nothing, and they’re right.
That’s how we see them, and that’s how they see us. We think we’re better informed. And yes, maybe we are, but we’re ignoring the very real anger and despair and hopelessness driving them and their words and their frustration.
And, until they admit to themselves that they are lost, they literally cannot and will not hear anything we have to say. It doesn’t matter how well intentioned and caring we think our words are. And don’t forget, we’re lost too.
So, don’t assume you’re any less frustrated or hurt or hopeless than they are. We may well be in a better place, at least by some measures, or in our own personal estimation. But, judging who is in a better place is not our job. It is God’s. We’re only called to love, without condition, without prerequisite, and without judgment. We are not called to convince our Angry Uncle to not vote for what we see as the worst Presidential Candidate of all time.
Paul was just as frustrated and bitter as any of our Angry Uncles. His world was not working the way it is supposed to work. He was sure the Messiah that some were proclaiming was a fraud! No Messiah would dare look and act and die like that! And besides, his people were still oppressed, Israel was not free, the economy was a mess, injustice was afflicting his people. And, these crazy Christians challenged all that he knew to be right, they rejected how he saw the world. So, they must be the ones responsible for all the problems in his life and in his faith.
The solution? Go on a crusade to wipe out any evidence or hint that the world was other what he felt it should be. Find and eliminate those who challenged his simple answers to this complex world. And yet, as he tells us here in First Timothy, the real challenge was entirely within himself.
How did he solve it?
He didn’t. Instead, he was finally able to see. Acts Chapter 9 tells us the scales fell from his eyes, and he saw that he could not solve the problems. He saw that he himself was part of the problem. No human agency could force him to realize any of this, let alone all of it; this revelation came only through the power and grace of God.
Just like with Paul, once we admit we need to change, then God has room to work within us. And that’s where we start. We can’t heal the world’s problems, but we can open ourselves up to God, and so allow God’s power to work within us; and in doing that, we become part of the great family of God. It is not us tilting at windmills on our own that solves the world’s problems, but all of us working together – including our Angry Uncles.
So, the lesson for today is a simple one. You can’t solve your problems, let alone the world’s problems, by yourself. You need us to help, and we need you. Walls built to shut out the bad stuff will always fail. Smashing the things that stand between us and peace only creates more havoc and hate and despair for everyone.
God shows us how to do this. Paul said “He went out on a limb, trusting me.” God trusted Paul, the murderer: Paul, the man who had proved himself totally unworthy of any sort of grace or redemption. Paul, the man who knew how to hate, but not how to Love. God trusted him. God trusts us. We must learn how to trust the unworthy, just as the followers of Christ learned to trust Paul, despite all he had done.
It began in a small way – first Ananias went to him, when he was still blind. Then Barnabas sought out Paul after he had exiled himself, convinced he was unworthy; but Barnabas convinced Paul that this was not so. And then, the elders in Antioch came to trust him, and on and on. And now, Paul is trusting Timothy to carry on after him.
Our faith is built on trust: God trusting us. We in turn trusting each other, even trusting those whom we do not know how to love, even our Angry Uncles, even trusting ourselves.
God is here, God really does love and trust you. We do not need to have all the answers. We cannot solve the world’s problems, or our own problems, on our own. That’s God’s job. Ours is a simpler task, and yet harder at the same time. We are called to love the unlovable, to be just as concerned for them as we are for ourselves. We are called to trust them, as God trusts us (and trusts them, too).
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, September 11, 2016.
1 Timothy 1:12-17 (The Message)
Luke 15:1-10 (NRSV) (Parables of the Lost Coin and Lost Sheep)
Acts 9:1-29 (NRSV) (Additional reading, Paul’s Revelation on the Road to Damascus)
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)