“God in the News” or “By Disappointment Only”
August 28, 2011
As you know, occasionally I find it appropriate to use my sermon to address some important current event. And for awhile I thought I might have to speak quite forcefully about the new Cy-Hawk trophy. That issue, however, seems to be moving toward a resolution that can only be better for all of us.
I turn instead to another instance of a disappointed public.
Late last month the news broke that God’s approval rating was at 52%. Questions about God were asked as part of a larger survey about congressional leaders in a poll by the Democratic research firm, Public Policy Polling. In reflecting on this story, Stephen Colbert suggested that clergy are God’s PR team and wondered aloud if perhaps we hadn’t dropped the ball.
Maybe so. Maybe so.
While 52% might seem like a small percentage of people who approve of the job that the Lord God Almighty is doing, God does poll better than President Obama, who came in at 47%—but then again, God doesn’t take vacation time. God approval rating is also higher than that of House Speak Boehner. Democrats and Republicans in general each had approval ratings of only 33%.
On the low end of the scale, Congress had an approval rating of 14%. And while Satan apparently wasn’t included in the survey, Rupert Murdoch could barely find 12% of the population who were pleased with his performance.
So God’s 52% approval rating is starting to look pretty good.
One might ask the 48% who were disapproving of God’s performance to imagine how much oxygen would cost if someone else provided it.
If 48% of the people can disapprove of God’s performance, maybe that’s an indication that some people are just never satisfied.
Sooner or later, however, God disappoints us. Sooner or later, God does not meet our expectations.
A child becomes ill and prayers for healing go unanswered.
The job that provided both income and dignity is lost.
A relationship that meant everything falls apart.
We pray for peace and war continues.
We cry out: “That’s not the way it should be.” God lets us down.
Barbara Brown Taylor put it like this: “Many feel betrayed by a God whom they believe to have broken an implicit promise. According to their Sunday School teachers, God made a bargain with each one of them: do what I say and I will take care of you. So they did, and for years it seemed to work. They obeyed their parents, their teachers, their coaches, and they were taken care of, but one day the system failed. They did everything right and everything went wrong. Their prayers went unanswered, their belief went unrewarded, their God went AWOL, and the lie was exposed.”
It is crushing to feel let down by God, to discover that being a good person, doing your best, praying your hardest didn’t seem make a bit of difference.
Maybe you know that from your own experience. Maybe you’re living through such a time right now, coming here today wondering if there is any reason to believe or hope or pray.
What do we do when God lets us down?
Some find the experience so painful they are left only with anger and bitterness. They bring those feelings with them everywhere, even to church. Some will simply try harder to win the approval and the favor of God. They work hard everywhere, even at church.
Others just jettison the idea of God—or the hope of God’s blessing—completely, tossing it out the way they would yesterday’s newspaper. They bring their disbelief everywhere, even to church.
My guess is that all of us here—you and me—all of us have tried some of these approaches.
But if, by the help of others, we are able to keep moving through the wasteland of disillusionment we come to a new place. Disillusionment—about God, about our world, about ourselves—is painful, but it is not necessarily something to be regretted. Perhaps the philosopher and novelist, Iris Murdoch was right when she said: “We live in a fantasy world, a world of illusion. The great task of life is to find reality.” Disillusionment gives us the opportunity to find the God beyond our illusions.
Disappointment offers us the chance to set aside the lies about God that we have taken to be true.
Our understanding is limited, our knowledge is partial. At our best in the Congregational tradition we have long been aware of this. Many in our tradition have taken as a motto the words of John Robinson to the Pilgrims as they departed Holland for the New World: “The Lord hath yet more truth and light to break forth from God’s holy word.” God, we sense, is still speaking.
Clinging to old truth—or old images of God—has never been the Congregational Way. To move beyond our disillusionment and disappointment, we seek the growing light of God, we listen for the continuing word of God.
So it’s said that “For those willing to keep heaving themselves toward the light, things can change as we turn away from the God who was supposed to be in order to seek the God who is. Every letdown becomes a lesson and a lure.
“Did God fail to come when I called? Then perhaps God is not a minion. So who is God?
“Did God fail to punish my adversary? Then perhaps God is not a policeman. So who is God?
“Did God fail to make everything turn out all right? Then perhaps God is not a fixer. So who is God?”
Every time God fails to meet our expectations, another idol is exposed. Every time God lets us down, we have another opportunity to draw nearer to the living God beyond those idols.
One of the greatest stories of disillusionment and hope that we have is the account of those two disciples traveling to Emmaus on the Sunday after the crucifixion of Jesus. Hopes were dashed. The One whom they thought would redeem Israel had been killed. In their despair and disillusionment, they don’t recognize the One who walks with them.
But as the Risen Christ takes bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them—their eyes are opened once more. With the dim mirror of shattered illusion, they see God’s resurrection power.
One person put it this way, “[The] Revelation [of God] happens not when we are secure—when our world is whole and fully painted with meaning. Revelation happens when we break—when despite ourselves, a space opens up—an emptiness that we cannot fill.
Any time we ask questions like
“Where is God?”
“Does God care about this world?”
“Does God care about me—or do I not matter?”
The risen Christ draws near to us,
hears our doubt and despair,
listens to our confusion as we search for direction and purpose.
Much of the time this is difficult to believe—which makes this story so real and so relevant.
Much of the time this is difficult to believe—and yet even in our unbelief Christ is present in our lives.
There is an analogy to be found in the “averted vision” of astronomy. If you want to see a very faint star, you should look a little to the side because your eye is more sensitive to faint light that way—and a soon as you look right at the star, it disappears.
Isn’t that the way it seems to go? We get some small sense of God’s presence, some vague realization of meaning and purpose—even in difficult times—and it is gone.
So instead of looking directly, we take bread and remember a life broken that we might be made whole. We take the cup and remember a life poured out that we might be full.
We hear again the good news: “This is for you—in your brokenness, in your emptiness. Suddenly we find that we are, each of us, being called by name.
We are called to our senses so that we can understand our lives and our commitments in new and fuller ways.
Our eyes are opened.
It happens at this table, but not only here.
It happens whenever we extend hospitality: feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, caring for the sick. It happens anytime we reach out in simple or difficult acts of friendship or compassion.
The risen Christ comes to us—even in our despair and disbelief
Listening as we speak, as we search for meaning in the rubble of our lives.
Receiving our doubt and our grief
Accepting our invitation to stay a little longer when the darkness seems to be closing in around us.
Once again our eyes are opened. By the grace of God we recognize the risen Christ. And we are called out of darkness into light, out of bitterness into love, and out of death into life.
Yes, we can feel let down; we can feel disappointed.
Even then—maybe especially then—we are closer to God than we might imagine.
And more importantly, God is closer to us,
still calling to our hearts with the promise of blessing,
still looking upon us with favor
and granting us peace.