Our Selves, Our Souls & Bodies

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
July 15, 2018

2 Samuel 6:1-5, 12b-19

I have a personal favor to ask of all of you. The final game of the World Cup between France and Croatia is this morning. I am going into media blackout so that I can go home this afternoon and watch the replay in blissful ignorance of how it ends. So please, if you know the score, do me the favor and don’t say a word.

You all know that I am big soccer fan. I come by this honestly. My grandfather was full-blooded Italian. And I remember watching Italy play in the 1994 World Cup final in the Rose Bowl. From his house up in the mountains of Los Angeles, we could hear the roar of the crowd from the stadium.

Italy lost that day, breaking my grandfather’s heart. But soccer, football, had put its claws into me. See, it’s a beautiful game of movement. There’s a real ebb and flow to it. The players, they run, they jump, they slide, they kick, they head. Baseball is chess with sunflower seeds. Football is brute force. But soccer, soccer is a dance.

And that’s where I want to pick up for today. Dancing. Dancing is using your whole body to express yourself. You feel something inside your soul and you show it with your body. You dance at prom to impress your date. You dance at your wedding to celebrate your new life together. You dance at the Astros game because you want to be on the Jumbo Tron. You dance to express yourself.

It’s what King David is doing in the Old Testament, too. Remember, this summer we’re making our way through the long stories about kings Saul, David, and Solomon. Here’s where we are now: Saul has died and David has been anointed as King of Israel. David takes the city of Jerusalem and makes it his capital city. Part of what he does is to bring the Ark of the Covenant into Jerusalem. Remember, the Ark contained the tablets of the ten commandments.

As they are bringing the ark into Jerusalem, the story says that “David and all the house of Israel were dancing before the Lord with all their might.” Dancing before the Lord with all their might. They were using their bodies to express what they felt in their souls. They were joyful that the ark was finding a permanent home. They were exuberant because they had received the promised land. They felt all of that in their soul and they expressed it with their bodies.

A life with Jesus, a life with God, expressing our praise of God, is something that goes beyond the words we say. We praise God, we express our thanksgiving, with our whole bodies; not just in the thoughts we think or the words we say.

This is a foundational Christian teaching. One of the most basic tenets of Christianity is that bodies and souls are united. It is body and soul together that makes a person. You are not a soul kept in a jar of a body, waiting to fly off to heaven. No, you are soul and body, knit together. This is what we learned from Jesus. Jesus did not come to us as some spirit. No, Jesus was born like you and me, he had a body. And Jesus died for us as a body, he bled real blood. And then Jesus rose from the dead, not as a ghost but as flesh. He shows his wounds and his scars to the disciples, he eats with them. This is the teaching of the Incarnation – God made flesh. Bodies, flesh, are not bad things. The Church has a difficult history with this teaching. All too often we’ve said that what matters is the soul and the body is evil.

But, our bodies, our flesh, these are good things because they are gifts from God. And with our bodies we can praise God. It is in the body that we fully express what we feel in our hearts. Think of what it means to get a hug from old friend. To make a deal with a firm handshake. To feel tears run down your cheeks at a funeral. To kneel in prayer. To kick that goal that wins your country the World Cup. Or to dance before the Lord with all our might. Our bodies are how we express what is going on in our souls. 

So a life with God, following Jesus, is more than just taking care of your soul. Yes, we need to pray every day, to be regular in Sunday worship, to acknowledge our faults, say our prayers. But a life with God also means taking care of your body. To be better disciples of Jesus, to be good stewards of what God has given us, to honor God, we must also care for our bodies.

Yes, I do think that part of following Jesus is having a healthy lifestyle. To eat a balanced diet. To exercise and move our bodies to stay strong, balanced, and flexible. To see the doctor and the dentist when we can. These are not add-ons. Look, I expect that each of you have a discipline of prayer to keep your soul in tune with God. And I also hope that you have a discipline to keep your body healthy. When body and soul are healthy and working together, the Spirit of God flourishes within.

And I do not mean to shame anybody. There is too much of that going around already. I want to approach caring for our bodies from a positive perspective. I want us to look at our bodies theologically and spiritually. David danced before the Lord. Jesus came to us in the flesh. We Episcopalians know that we worship by kneeling, standing, sitting, eating, and drinking. I want us to think about flesh and blood in terms of stewardship – caring about our relationship with God means caring about what God has given us. 

You’ll have noticed that we are trying to embody this at Holy Comforter. It’s great to have something to eat on Sunday morning, but it doesn’t have to be a donut. Sometimes I think the Church gathers for the purpose of eating; rather than gathering for the purpose of being with each other. And we are making positive steps, too – one of our parishioners hosts a free Tai Chi class on Friday mornings. We played pickle ball the other week. I am not asking anybody to run a marathon or to play soccer or even to dance in front of the altar. But I am asking that you care, insofar as you are able, for what God has given you.

I understand you probably did not come to church on Sunday morning expecting to hear what your cardiologist is already telling you. Be that as it may. But since I live with a chronic disease, I have an acute awareness of what this all means. And I call you, from my own daily experience, how I care for my body affects my soul. I understand that caring for my body is part of how I follow Jesus. I wish Type 1 Diabetes upon no one, but it has taught me that my body and my soul are tied together. When I’ve eaten bad food and haven’t exercised, when I haven’t take care of my body, I can’t take care of my soul. When my body feels bad, I can’t pray. It’s the honest truth. But when I am on top of my health, when I’m exercising, when my body feels good, connecting to God comes naturally. It’s simple, but it’s not easy.

What is simple, is that God already loves you – heart, soul, mind, and body. But the path of discipleship is not easy. Offering your whole self to God means just that, you whole self. Commit your heart, your soul, your mind, and your body to the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be on the path to find God.

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The Carpenter

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Seventh Sunday after Pentecost
July 8, 2018

Mark 6:1-13

The Carpenter

About a month ago, we at Holy Comforter took a survey about our spiritual life and discipleship. The answers you gave were fascinating. There was one question in particular that provided some truly interesting responses. The question was about the role of Jesus in your life. We got all sorts of answers. Guide, leader, Lord, example. But I’ll admit, I was disappointed because no one, no one said, not a single one of you wrote down what the New Testament calls Jesus. No one in this church called him, “carpenter.” I expected at least one of you to give the technical answer.

See, Jesus comes again to his hometown of Nazareth where had been a carpenter. He teaches in the synagogue and the people are astounded by his wisdom. And not only can he preach, but he can cure the sick and cast out demons. But the people, the people don’t like it. They say, “who does this guy think he is? We know his family. We know his people. We watched him grow up, we watched run around in diapers. And now, now he comes to us like a big shot. Jesus is not some sort of prophet, he’s just a carpenter.” And so they took offense at him. They were scandalized by what Jesus did, by what he said, and by who he was.

See, those people in Nazareth, they thought they knew Jesus. But they didn’t know him at all. And notice, notice that the people who were offended at Jesus were the ones in the synagogue. It was the pious, religious sort that was most offended by Jesus. They sat in their holy place and said, “bah, he’s just a carpenter.”

As it was the synagogue two thousand years ago, it can just as easily be the Church today. We tell Jesus who Jesus can be. No one gets off the hook on this. The Church is sorely tempted to tame Jesus, to make him palatable for modern ears. We pay attention to Jesus when it suits us, but then he says something inflammatory and, “bah, he’s just a carpenter.”

For instance, you know that Jesus talks more about money than he talks about heaven, hell, and marriage. But what do we get excited about? Heaven, hell, and marriage. And then, when we do talk about Jesus’ view on money, we tone it down to make it palatable. Because if we really listened to what Jesus said about money, we’d be scandalized. Give to everyone who begs from you. Forgive the debts of people who owe you money. You cannot serve God and money. We say that Jesus is our Lord, our guide, our mentor, our role model, but not when it comes to our money. Then, he’s just a carpenter.

We also do this in art, too. Think of the images of Jesus you’ve seen. Jesus has perfect teeth. Flowing, beautiful hair. He’s well-manicured. His hands are clean. I mean, when was the last time you saw an image of Jesus that looked like a carpenter from the Middle East? Somebody who had worked his whole life? Sunburned, weather beaten, with callouses on his hands? That’s not who we depict because that would offend us. Let’s be honest – we make Jesus in our own image. Anything other than that, and the Church is scandalized.

And the world can smell our hypocrisy from a mile away. And the  church wonders, we wonder why fewer people across the country are going to church. They do believe in God, you’re seen the stats. The same percentage of people in the US believe in God as they did decades ago. It’s just, they don’t go to church. I tell you it’s not because some churches use a hymnal and some sing off a screen. It’s not because some pastors wear hip jeans and some priests wear fancy church clothes. All that is just window dressing.

No, I think fewer and fewer people are coming to church nowadays because even though we say Jesus is our Lord, our guide, our example, we act like he’s just a carpenter. We say that we follow him, but really we only do so when it’s convenient. We say that we offer our whole hearts to God, but it’s only part of our hearts. We say that we read the Bible, but all too often we’re scandalized, offended by what Jesus actually said. We treat our neighbors more like Caesar would have us treat our neighbors than how Jesus would. We create Jesus in our own image so that we can feel good about ourselves. Myself included. Because if that was us in the synagogue of Nazareth two thousand years ago, I would have been the Pharisee. I am certain that Jesus is astounded at my unbelief. At my unwillingness to follow. 

The Church, as a whole, is having a reckoning. We are reckoning with ourselves. We are reaping what we have sown. We, the Church, ought to be Jesus’ hometown. And yet, even here, our prophet is without honor. 

I realize these are hard words, difficult words. But I do not think that all is lost. As is true in every generation of the Church, there is also great potential. To pause, to put away our preconceived ideologies, to break open our hearts, and listen again to Jesus.

This is a crucially important lesson for Holy Comforter in this time. You know, that every day tens of thousands of people see our new church being built. I’ve already heard their stories. Of people who have stopped and watched and wondered at what is going on. They have driven by and said, “I never even knew there was a church there.” All of that is great and wonderful and holy.

But when they actually stop in, when they muster the courage to darken our doors, what will they find here? That is the pressing question. What will they find at Holy Comforter that is beyond bricks and pews and windows? Will they find Jesus? 

When they see images of Jesus in art at Holy Comforter, what will they see? Will they see Jesus for who he is, or Jesus in our own image? Will they see us using our money as he said to use our money? Will they see a community that follows Jesus or is scandalized by Jesus? Will we love our neighbor as ourselves, or will we just try to love ourselves? Yes, we are building a church that can be seen from all around. You can even see it over HEB. And that’s a big deal. But the real question is what will they find inside. Because I tell you, if we treat Jesus as just some carpenter instead of our Lord, we could build the most beautiful church in all of Christianity but it would only be a monument to hypocrisy.

Brothers and sisters of Holy Comforter, I am not calling us to be perfect. I am only calling us to be true. To be true to our words, true to our prayers, true to our confessions, true to our creed, true to our sacraments. True to Jesus in absolutely everything we do and say, I pray that we first ask if Jesus would have us say it. And I pray, I pray that the church building out there stands as witness for us. I pray that it stands as a reminder to us, that we are to live better lives. That our church is to live together in holiness. Our friends, our neighbors, our community should notice this church not for its tall roof and beautiful architecture, but for our love, for our faithfulness, for our devotion, for our care for one another, and for our service to the community. I tell you that the people who stop in to this church will not be coming for new pews, or a beautiful space, or bright windows. No, they are coming to see Jesus. And I ask you, will they be amazed at our unbelief or our belief? Will they find a carpenter or will they find the Lord of all?

A Lament

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
July 1, 2018

2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

On the wall behind our kitchen table, Maggie and I have hung pictures of our family going back a hundred years. We have pictures of my parents when they got married, a picture of Maggie’s parents when they were dating. We even have a picture of my great-grandfather meeting President Franklin Roosevelt. We fondly remember our family, those whom we love. 

But I’ll be the first to admit, we don’t have pictures of everybody in our family on that wall. There are some people in our family that we have conveniently un-remembered. You know what I mean. Sometimes the disagreements have been too bitter, the history too intense, that we keep those pictures safely in a box, in the attic, conveniently un-remembered.

Family feuds are always the worst because they turn love into hate. It’s always been that way. Take a look at what’s been happening in the Old Testament over the past few weeks. Just a refresher. Saul had been anointed King of Israel. But Saul turned from God and God anointed David as King of Israel. But to make matters more complicated, David married Saul’s daughter. David’s best friend was Saul’s son. But both Saul and David had been anointed as King of Israel. So the followers of Saul fought against the followers of David, they fought over who would be king, they fought a civil war. I doubt that Saul would have wanted his rebellious son-in-law’s picture at his kitchen table. I bet that David would have preferred to keep his father-in-law’s picture locked away in the attic. Family feuds are the worst.

But the Bible always manages to surprise us. See, Saul is surrounded by an army of Philistines, the arch-enemies of the ancient Israelites, and Saul uses his sword on himself. Right before what we read this morning, David gets word that Saul, his own father-in-law whom he had been competing against to be kind, is dead. Now, a normal person, who wants to become king, someone with their eyes set on a worldly prize, someone like us, would be happy that their opponent is dead. We would expect David to rejoice, to sing and clap his hands. “That bum Saul is dead and now I’m king!”

But that’s not what David does. He mourns. David cries out, “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon your high places! How the mighty have fallen!” That’s where that phrase comes from. Imagine that, Saul had been trying to kill David. But it’s Saul who dies, and instead of celebrating, David mourns. Instead of hiding that picture of Saul in his attic, David puts it right smack in the center of the wall. 

Now, I am not suggesting that you drag out all the pictures of your estranged relatives and put that on display. The real pain, the abuse, and the neglect of some of those relationships are definitely best left in the past. But that’s not the pressing lesson here. 

When Saul took the low road, David took the high road. That’s the crux of this story. There had been many instances when David could have killed Saul, but he didn’t. When Saul died, David could have thumped his chest in pride. We expect war stories to be about macho men parading around when their enemy dies. We expect family feuds to end with one side trashing the other. But David took the high road.

Like I said, the Bible always manages to surprise. Jesus said to pray for your enemies and those who persecute you. Pray for them. Jesus does not say to strap on your sword and show them who’s boss, but to pray for them. To pray for your enemy. To pray for that person whose picture you keep hidden away in the attic.

It’s a tall order. But the whole landscape of our world would be different, it would be lovelier, if we took this to heart; if we did what Jesus told us to do and prayed for those who hate us; if we learned from David that we can lament for our enemies. If we hung up pictures of those members of our family. Not to celebrate them, or to say that they weren’t that rotten after all, but simply to acknowledge the pain of the broken relationship. With David, to sing a song of lament. And maybe that’s all I’m asking for. Is that we – as a church, as families, as a society, as individuals – have the courage to acknowledge pain instead of covering it up. To pray instead of thumping our chests.

Don’t hear what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that your estranged family members aren’t that bad after all. Remember, Saul is described as a man who turned away from God. David’s song of lament isn’t making a judgment on Saul’s righteousness or unrighteousness. And if you remember your Bible, David wasn’t all that great either. David’s song is simply acknowledging the human pain and suffering caused by this broken relationship.

It’s true in family feuds, and it’s true in war. Which is really just a big family feud because we are all children of God. War does something to us, it wears us down, it hurts us in one way or another. I think about my peers, the kids who graduated from high school with me. For us, the United States has been at war for over half our lives in Afghanistan and Iraq. We’ve had friends die over there, they’ve come back wounded, with PTSD, they’re still over there. Veterans take their own lives at an astonishing rate. I am not making a comment upon the war other than to say it has caused suffering in more ways than one. Hearts have become calloused, marriages destroyed, precious lives taken away. And like David, sometimes I just want to sit and weep at what we have lost. To weep instead of beating my chest. And I think the way forward – the way of peace, to care for our veterans, to help repair broken families – is to acknowledge the pain, to hang the picture on the wall, instead of keeping it hidden in the attic.

Yes, I look forward to celebrating Independence Day with fireworks and BBQ and God Bless America. But I will also take a moment to reflect on the unholy trinity of pain – the pain we have inflicted upon others, the pain we have inflicted upon ourselves, the pain that has been inflicted upon us. I am going to take a moment, like David, to mourn for those souls who have been chewed up and spit out by it all. By no means am I going to hang up pictures of all the evil dictators of the world on my wall, but I will weep for a moment, I will weep for just how broken the world is. I will weep at the mere fact that humanity has been singing these songs of lament since the time of David. 

This is a day and age of triumphalism, of refusing to back down, of never admitting fault. But that’s not the path of Jesus. What I ask you to do this week, is to take a moment and pray for our enemies, big and small. Pray for our enemies around the world. Pray for those family members of yours that you haven’t spoken to in years. You don’t have to pray that one day you’ll hold hands with them and sing Kum-Bay-Yah. Just, hold them up to God and weep for this broken world. 

We, the followers of Jesus, have the unique capacity to hold space in our hearts and in our prayers for our enemies. We learn this from the Lord himself, who forgave those who crucified him even as they crucified him. We are the ones who can hold space. We can give the world a refreshing break from all that hardness and chest thumping. In our baptismal promises we promise to God that we will respect the dignity of every human being. Every human being. And that includes the very people who have wronged us, and wronged us deeply.

We, as the followers of Jesus, can take out all those un-remembered memories from our collective attics. Not to forgive and forget. But to forgive, to remember, and to pray.

Casting Lots

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 13, 2018

Acts 1:15-17, 21-26

“And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.”

This ritual that we read about from the Acts of the Apostles is ritual not unlike one that is played out every day on golf courses across the world. Your group stands on the first tee box, and to decide who hits first, you flip a golf tee into the air. And whoever the golf tee is pointing to, has to hit the ball first.

Now, some people like to hit the ball first. I call them maniacs. I’m too much of a head case to go first. So when that tee is flipped and spinning in the air, I’m begging, just begging that it points to somebody, anybody else. Like Moses said to God, “O Lord, send someone else!” But when the tee lands, and the tee points to you, you have no choice. You are the chosen one. 

“And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” 

Maybe this is actually an insight into the psychology of men. We all pretend to have self-confidence, but really, we’re much more comfortable flipping a coin when we need to make a decision; sort of plausible deniability of responsibility. Who will kickoff the football game? Flip a coin! Who should tee off first? Flip a tee! Who will become the twelfth apostle? Cast lots!

Now stand there with Matthias. Everybody in the entire world who follows Jesus is right there. Imagine this moment, this precarious moment in the life of the Church. This is just a few weeks after that first Easter. One of their own, Judas, who had been with them for the entire ministry of Jesus, betrayed them all and is now dead. To make matter worse, they are publicly professing faith in a man who was executed as a criminal. Sure, Jesus has told them that something better, something more is coming. But it hasn’t come yet.

It was a troubling moment, a precarious moment in the life of the Church. It was a moment when things could have easily fallen apart. It was a moment when the disciples could have all called it quits, packed their bags, and headed home. The dream could have died right there.

For them, the pressing concern was that, without Judas, there were only eleven apostles now. And twelve, twelve represented fullness. Completion. Twelve apostles represented the renewal of God’s people.

“And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” 

It is still, and always will be a precarious moment in the life of the Church. Whether it’s a few weeks or a few thousand years after that first Easter. Things can easily fall apart. Seduced by the powers of this world we too have the capacity to call it quits, to pack our bags, to head home. We can all too easily forget the promise that something more, something better is coming. I think this is much of what we are seeing in our culture today. Cynicism has become a virtue. We tell ourselves that the problems are too big, the obstacles too much. We tell ourselves that we are too small, too busy, to do anything about it. And so our faith becomes a shell of what it means to follow Jesus because we choose not to believe in anything more, anything better.

And when cynicism is born in our hearts the dream of God’s Kingdom dies. Because what cynicism really does is that it crowds out the Holy Spirit. In the face of many tasks and work in front of us, we are content to simply entertain ourselves. Our toys and our gadgets take our minds off the reality to which God is calling us to consider. We tell ourselves we don’t have it in us because it’s just easier that way. Rather than following Jesus, we follow our own bitterness.

But as it was for Matthias just a few weeks after Easter, so it is for us. The lot has fallen to you. The Lord knows each of our hearts, and the Lord has selected each of us. I know there is something in your life in which God is calling you to work for God’s Kingdom. The lot has fallen to you. The tasks in front of you may seem too big, too hard. The mountain in front of you may look insurmountable. You will tell yourself that you do not have the powers, you do not have the right tools. The seductive voice of cynicism is always just right there, trying to convince that it’s not worth sticking your neck out for. Cynicism is telling you that if God really wanted it done, then God would have chosen someone else, anyone else.

But I tell you, there is no one else. The lot has fallen to you.

I think about this every Friday as I drive over to Salyers Elementary School to mentor my student. What is one hour a week with one kid going to do when millions of kids are in need? When millions of kids can’t see a doctor or get a meal? As Saint Paul sees, it feels as if I’m boxing against the air. I should just turn my car around and go home and spend my time doing something more productive. I think about this every day when I look outside at that giant, messy, construction project. How can we, this little community called Holy Comforter, pull off something so enormous? How are we going to continue raising the money, staying diligent, staying focused on our mission to share the gospel? We could just pack it up and call it quits because it’s just too big for us.

“And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.”

It is, just as it ever was, a precarious moment in the life of the Church. And the lot has fallen to us. It is our lot, in this hour, to be witnesses to the gospel in Spring, Texas.

We must not say that somebody else will do it, or that another, a bigger church should do it. No, the lot has fallen to us. And yes, the task in front of us is enormous. Hundreds of children at our school could use a mentor. Hundreds of residents at local nursing homes would love to see a loving, familiar face every weekend. The task in front of us is enormous. And to be clear, the task of continuing to raise funds for this new church building is enormous. Just as they have only begun laying the foundation, we too have only begun raising money. It will take each of us, bearing witness to the gospel, to accomplish the task set before us.

But perhaps that’s actually the whole point. The work before us is enormous, and that is why I think it’s God calling us to do it. I don’t think God cares much for little things. I believe that God wants wholesale renewal, recreation, re-imagination of the world. God doesn’t tinker around the edges, God makes all things new. Imagine if you only ever tried to accomplish tasks that you knew you could complete without any help. We would lead drab little lives. The world would never be changed. And then cynicism would achieve its final victory over us.

It is a precarious moment in the life of the Church, just as precarious as it was two thousand years ago. Just as precarious as it will always be in the church. We can choose to call it quits, to pack our bags, to go home. We can say that we have given some, and will give no more. We can say that there are simply too many kids, too many hurting people. But do you really want to live that kind of drab, little life? A life of just caring about yourself, an empty, shell of a life? The lot has fallen to you. It was another man, the great Episcopal preacher Philips Brooks who said it best: He said, “O, do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men [and women]! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks! Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come in you by the grace of God.” (taken from “Going up to Jerusalem” by Philips Brooks)

Lament for a Root Beer Float

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Third Sunday of Easter
Sunday, April 15, 2018

Psalm 4

When I was a young boy growing up in Los Angeles, every so often we would drive to visit my great-grandfather in Ventura County. I loved going to see him because it was our tradition to have root beer floats together. But I remember how tediously long that drive was. Up and down the rugged hills of southern California, winding through valleys, and along the arroyos. And in time-honored tradition of all family road trips, I would ask my parents, “are we there yet?” And no matter how long we drove, it seemed that my great-grandfather’s house always “just around the next bend.” The ice cream in the cooler, the root beer in the trunk of the car, was sorely tempting to me. 

Though I’m a bit older, I’m still asking myself that question. Are we there yet? It’s just that the “there” has changed. It was graduating high school so I could go to college. Graduating from college so I could go to seminary. Graduating from seminary so I could be a priest. Finding a church so I could be a rector. At every stage, I’ve felt this pull onward, to keep driving around the next bend in the road, because I’ve wanted to get “there.” I’ve wanted that proverbial root beer float at the end of the drive. 

Have you felt this, too? This deep, almost restlessness that keeps up moving, because we think that whatever is coming next must be better than what we have now? You’ve felt that, right? That feeling that when I get “there,” then it’ll be okay.

It’s rooted in who we are as Americans, too. Think of that memorable phrase from the Declaration of Independence – “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” That’s it, the pursuit of happiness. The root beer float at the end of the road. We have this base level, culturally intoxicating desire to be happy. For whatever reason – we think that we shouldn’t have to suffer, that everything should be easy, that everything should be fast, that everything should make us happy And that our whole lives ought to be the pursuit of this happiness.

As I look out onto the world from this pulpit, it seems that we’re missing something. What we’re missing is lament. Since we’re all so addicted to happiness, we don’t know what to do with sadness. We get confused with darkness and sadness because we’ve believed the lie that we should just be happy. So, I think one of the gifts that the Church can give to the world is to sing a song of lament. We can help the world understand how to be sorrowful. For you musicians out there, it’s as if what the church can do for the world is sing in a minor key. 

So often the church just hands out empty platitudes. And we’ve done even worse than that – the church has been guilty of saying that if you’re not happy, it just means that you haven’t been faithful to God. We’ve weaponized happiness, and used it to coerce people to follow Jesus. And I don’t think that’s worth it. And I don’t think it’s true, either. What we really need is a way to express sorrow. What we need is some God-given language around sadness and darkness.

And it’s the psalms, I think, that give us this vocabulary of sorrow. It’s one of the reasons that we always include a psalm in our worship services.

Look at what we just said together: “Answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause; you set me free when I am hard-pressed; have mercy on me and hear my prayer.” This is the not the prayer of one who is happy. This is the honest prayer, an authentic plea to God from someone who is woefully aware of their own shortcomings and trials. This is someone crying out to God, not asking God to make them happy, but asking God to simply deliver them from their misery. This psalm is an evening psalm, a psalm for anyone who cannot sleep because the worries and the stress and the anxieties of the world and their life are crushing in on them. It’s a psalm for our time.

It goes on, “many are saying, ‘oh, that we might see better times!’” I know that you have said that in one way or another, because we’ve all said it. Oh, that my ex-husband would not have taken all the money! Oh, that I would not have been laid off! Oh, that my parents would actually love me! Oh, that life wouldn’t be so hard! Oh, that we wouldn’t be going to war again! “Oh, that we might see better times!”

As the church, we cannot comfortably sit here and say that everything is and will be okay. Because it’s not. The role of the church is to weep with those weep, to mourn with those who mourn, to struggle with those struggle. To sing a psalm of lament with those who are lamenting.

Lamenting like those disciples who watched Jesus die on Good Friday. You can think of those disciples who saw Jesus crucified, they went to bed that Friday night crying out to God, “answer me when I call, O God, defender of my cause!” You can hear those disciples crying with each other over the death of Jesus, “oh, that we might see better times!”

But the lament is Psalm 4 is twinged with hope. This an Easter psalm because it ends with confidence in God. Not with confidence that God will make us happy, but with confidence that God will not abandon us. Confidence that God will not abandon us. And that is the Christian message. The Christian message is not so much that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. No, the Christian message is that whatever comes – pain or joy, catastrophe or grace, life or death – God will not abandon us. So we’re free to sing songs of lament, we’re free to be sad, we’re free to be happy, we’re free to experience the whole range of human emotion because God is present in all of it. This is an Easter psalm, because it’s a radical reminder that, at the end of the day, in joy or sorrow, God is present.

“You have put gladness in my heart, more than when grain and wine and oil increase,” Psalm 4 says. It is God who makes our hearts glad, it is God who makes us happy – not the stock market, not the new car, not the bottle, not the pain pill. And be careful, it’s not even other people that make us happy. This psalm is a warning – whatever or whoever it is that you are using to make you happy will always disappoint you. Not one thing or person can bear the heavy load of making you happy, only God can.

And it says, “I lie down in peace; at once I fall asleep; for only you, Lord, make me dwell in safety.” It’s not the sleeping pill, it is hope in God that settles our hearts and settles our minds to fall asleep. And the locked door, the home alarm system, whatever it is you have at home that you think is keeping you safe, it is an illusion of security. No thing on this earth can guarantee your safety. And security that this world offers is a lie, it’s like happiness. Because the world’s definition of safety and happiness will always be just around the next bend in the road, and you will never get there. It is God and God alone who desires our safety. It is God alone who sees to our safety and security even through death.

This little psalm packs a punch, doesn’t it? And I realize that you may walk away from this sermon not feeling especially fulfilled or happy. But then again, that’s the whole point. A life with Jesus is not some drug that masks our pain. No, a life with Jesus helps us become fully human, because that’s who Jesus was; the fullest human ever. And in this life with Jesus we ought to expect heartbreak and joy, darkness and light, sadness and yes, even happiness. In other words, we will experience what Jesus experienced, too.

As we drive along this road of Eastertide, and we leave behind in the rearview mirror the pain and agony of Holy Week, the world will tempt us once again to care only about happiness. Resist the urge. Because if your goal is the world’s definition of happiness, you will never get there. And you know what? Like the root beer, the world’s definition of safety and happiness are just empty calories. Rather, ask God to give you a full human heart, and then, then you will find more than happiness. You will find Jesus.