Sermon: Polite Faith

12.18.2016         Preaching Text: “‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means “God is with us.’” (Matthew 1:23)

The other day in Bible Study Gerry Nolin brought in a crèche with intricately hand-carved wooden figures – the holy family, the wise men, shepherds, and various and sundry animals.

She got it in Florence, Italy some years ago and to say they’re spectacular is an understatement.

It reminded me of a man I came to know and love from the first church I served. His name was Joe. Because he was homebound, I would visit him often and he would regale me with stories of his life. They were always entertaining and listening to his many struggles and triumphs was inspiring.

I once commented on how much I loved hearing his stories. He responded with characteristic warmth and humor, “Yes, I can take you into some pretty dark alleys!”

He also loved to carve wooden figures. They, too, like Gerry’s, were spectacular. He and his wife displayed them throughout the house, each more magnificent than the next.

Shortly after he died, his wife presented me with one of his carvings of a man from the 19th century with mutton chop sideburns, a vest, and a walking stick. It’s one of my most prized possessions. I can’t tell you how touched I was when his wife gave it to me shortly after he died. I cherish it.

I also remember sitting in the living room of their house planning his memorial service. In the course of things, I asked his wife how she was doing, knowing how close their marriage had been.

She was a gentle soul and very much a person of faith. She struggled to express her loss. She spoke of how much he had suffered and wondered why it had to be.

I told her that it was okay to bring to God her unanswered questions as well as her pain. It was okay to be angry with God even, I said.

She looked shocked. “No, I could never express anger at God. God has blessed us with so much.”

I pointed out that half the Book of Psalms in the Old Testament is lament psalms. They contain raw anger, frustration, even betrayal. They aren’t always pretty. They are unfiltered emotions that come from the depths of the human soul.

Such is found in today’s responsive reading from Psalm 80. There we encounter anger and frustration over how God seems to have allow calamity to fall upon Israel. We don’t know what the issue was, but we see the faith community gathering to address their collective pain and grief, something they did often in times of adversity.

The words speak to the heart. They are so very human.

Yet underneath the loud and angry cry is a deep-seated confidence that God is there and that that same God cares. Implied is that there is NO human emotion we are NOT permitted to bring to God.

If you stop and think about it, it’s silly to think that God doesn’t know what we’re feeling already. Pretty words cannot conceal the truth from the all-searching love of the Lord.

Nonetheless, we often assume we can only bring pretty sentiments to God. Our faith must be polite. Such politeness is, after all, appropriate most of the time, for much of our prayer life is properly spent thanking God for life’s many blessings.

Yet there are those times, no sense denying it, when to offer polite words to God simply avoids the truth of who we are and what we’re going through. It can become a game of mere pretense. Or even a passive-aggressive anger or rage we attempt to cover over with prettified words, as if, that is, God is fooled.

Years ago, Martin Marty, then-professor of church history at the University of Chicago, wrote a short little book on grief entitled, A Cry of Absence. It was written in response to the death of his wife to cancer.

Very much in line with C.S. Lewis’ earlier classic based on the death of his wife, A Grief Observed, Marty talks about the importance of grief, of being honest in the face of adversity and loss.

He suggests two kinds of faith, “summer spirituality” and “winter spirituality.” Summer spirituality is the sunny kind of faith that avoids pain and looks almost obsessively on the bright side of things. Like whistling past the graveyard.

“Oh so-and-so lived a good long life,” summer spirituality might say. Or, “Well, he’s in a better place.” It’s positive thinking with a side of desperation.

It’s not that these two statements are wrong. Usually when said, they’re entirely accurate. The problem is they often try to cover over the basic human need to grieve, to name one’s loss, and to get in touch emotionally and spiritually with that loss.

Marty tells of how, in her final days, he and his wife would take turns reading the Psalms. After a particularly grueling day, he found himself confronted with an especially bleak and emotionally charged psalm, filled with unfiltered pain and angst. There was nothing polite about it.

After looking it over with no small amount of trepidation he announced to his wife, “I can’t read this.” Her reply shocked him. “No,” she said, “I really need it tonight.”

This, he says, conveys something of winter spirituality, the kind that does not shy away from the truth of what we’re going through, that honors the pain and vulnerability of human existence. Winter spirituality, that is, does not speak to an empty void, but to a loving God who has promised to be our companion not just amidst our sunny days but in and through all our days.

Israel is never shy about being honest with what’s going on in the day-to-day. For they believe God is there for them, no matter what. When joy abounds, they express it, extravagantly. When adversity and setbacks arise, so too does their voice…to the God who wishes them goodness.

In reading the passages this morning from Isaiah and Matthew, we’re confronted similarly with heartfelt expressions of need. Like Israel, the church does not overlook or deny the existential power of our need. But it does so with confidence, hopeful expectation based on its unshakeable belief in God’s saving power.

The words of the faithful, too, are not directed at an empty void, but toward a loving God who has promised to enter into our pain, to the One whose light shall overcome our darkness.

For God’s light has come into the world and, as we are told, the darkness shall not overcome it. Amen.