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September 14, 2003

"Wrestling with God in Grief" - September 14, 2003

Proper 19, Year C
Isaiah 50:4-9; Psalm 116:1-8; Mark 8:27-38

When I was a child, I loved the book Horton Hears a Who. I knew every word on every page, from the dedication to the very end of the story, and I think that’s why I loved it so much. Every now and then, my mother (who I think could recite the book from memory to this day) would try to shorten the story, or she might have changed something to see whether I was still awake, and whenever she deviated from the story I knew and loved, she got a sternest reprimand a child could muster.

Peter grew up with stories too, and chief among them was the epic story of Israel’s relationship with God. Peter knew stories about high priests, anointed to offer pure sacrifices, to restore and keep a Temple according to God’s word, which had been received by Moses and passed down the generations to the present. He knew stories about kings anointed by God to rule justly and lead Israel to victory in battle over her enemies.

And Peter knew that where Israel was in his own lifetime was not where it was supposed to be – but this too was part of the story. Israel, and particularly kings and priests, do go astray. And then God sends prophets. That’s what happens in the middle of the story. But that doesn’t go on forever – there’s an end to the story, and here’s how it goes. God is going to anoint the kind of high priest we’ve always wanted – one who will establish a line of priests that won’t go astray – not ever. And God is going to anoint the kind of king we’ve always wanted – a king like David, only without that regrettable weakness for adultery and murder. A king anointed by God to take the Holy Land of Israel for the people of Israel. And the story ends with that anointed king and his sons ruling from Jerusalem forever, while that anointed high priest offers sacrifices the way they’re supposed to be offered.

That’s the story Peter knew. And while he had heard it ever since he was a child, it wasn’t just a children’s story. People had fought and died for this story. Peter himself had left his family, his village, and everything he had because he was convinced that Jesus was more than a prophet to try to move the story along – that Jesus was a messiah – that’s the Hebrew word – or a Christ – that’s the Greek word for the same thing – both mean “anointed.” Peter thought that Jesus was anointed to wrap this story up, to bring in that long-anticipated ending – the end that the prophets told, the end where God’s justice is the law of the land, where everyone who lost their livelihood, their friends, their family, or their lives would be paid back in full, in joy.

Or let me put it in Lord of the Rings terms: Peter might have been wondering whether Jesus was anointed as the wise priest, like Gandalf, or the true king, like Aragorn, but Peter thought that this was the last volume in the trilogy, Return of the King – the final chapter of Israel’s saga, the final defeat of evil, the final vindication of the long-suffering good guys, the happy forever after. That’s what Peter is saying when he tells Jesus that he is Christ, the anointed.

And then Jesus burns the script. Our translation says he “sternly ordered” his followers not to proclaim him as anointed. The English loses some of the force of the Greek, which in effect has Jesus saying, “SHUT UP – that’s enough of that kind of talk.” Jesus is not willing to cast himself in the role that others have for him.

Now the story we’re most familiar with here is the one from the Gospel of Mark, not the story of the conquering messiah with which Peter grew up, so it’s not always easy for us to sympathize with Peter. But I want to take a moment today to connect with where Peter is in today’s reading.

We’ve read the end of the book. We know Jesus is right. But right here, right now, Peter doesn’t know that. I’m not sure he’d feel much better if he did know that. He’s disappointed. More than that – he’s got to be hurt, and confused, and angry. He gave up everything he had to follow this man, and right now, he’s got to be feeling that Jesus was leading him on. I can hear him thinking: It’s not supposed to be this way!  You know, you do everything right – OK, not everything, but what more could I do? You said you were ushering in the KINGDOM OF GOD, and now you’re saying that we’re headed for suffering, death, and disgrace. And yes, I said ‘we’ – what do you think will happen to us if that’s where you’re headed?

Peter was angry – at least as angry as Jesus was – with the kind of anger that comes from losing something that matters. And I know that feeling. I’ve felt that way about my brother’s death in 1996. He was two years older than me, and that year he was 28. He was handsome and charming – a bit of an underachiever, floundering a bit like a lot of us do in our twenties – but he had the rest of his life to get it together, to get married, have kids … he was going to be a writer, but I always thought he would end up in politics. That’s how it was supposed to be, anyway. Not all of the details of his story were solid in my mind, but I can tell you that leukemia was not in the plan. And there was no time to make an alternative plan – nobody, including him, had any idea that he was ill until after he’d died. How much sense does that make? Where is God in that?

And here we are, two years after September 11th – the September 11th – and still, when I think about it, and when I’m deeply in touch with how I feel about it, I’m still angry. I’m still grieving. I went to a memorial webpage this week, where I saw row upon row of faces, and I read stories and notes from people who loved those who died, and people who were still asking why. I’m still grieving for them. And I’m grieving for something else – for the loss of that story I knew, the story I told myself was my life, in which violence felt predictable, something I could avoid if I exercised good sense.

I think it feels even worse in a situation like Peter’s, when you feel that you’re in this painful place specifically because you’re following Jesus. I know that there are people in the church who feel that way about the General Convention vote to confirm the election of an openly gay bishop. There’s a real sense of loss, real grief, and real anger coming out of grief. Having experienced that kind of grief and anger myself, I can say that sometimes it just doesn’t help to hear a rational or theological explanation, any more than I found it comforting when someone would say that my brother died because God needed him as an angel, or that God’s plans are always good. It wasn’t comforting. It didn’t diminish grief in the least.

If we are blessed to live long enough, and to love deeply enough, we will at some point experience grief. And if we love and trust God, at some point we’re going to be disappointed and angry with God, as Peter was with Jesus. For me, it hasn’t helped when I’ve been grieving to hear about how God is really right, this is for the best, and I should just get over it. What has helped has been looking at passages like this, or the psalms, or Job, and letting myself do what those grieving people did.

They rebuked God. Maybe they weren’t right, but that’s where they were. They were angry, and they let themselves be angry. And God took it. That’s part of who God is.

And God understands who we are and how we struggle. The name “Israel” comes from when Jacob wrestled with an angel in the book of Genesis. Jacob wrestled with that angel until the sun rose, and he left that encounter with a dislocated hip and a new name – “Israel,” meaning “the one who struggles with God.” And he left with something else – a blessing. “Struggles with God” is the name God gives to God’s people, and God blesses us even as we contend with God. God can take our anger, scary as it might be to let loose with it.

It can be scary to be in touch with being angry with God. It was frightening for us as children to be angry with our parents, for at least two reasons. Children can be so overwhelmed with their experience of anger that they fear it could erupt in a literal way, like a volcano, and annihilate the ones they love. When we experience intense anger even as an adult, it brings up some of those old fears, and we’re tempted to deny or rationalize our anger or to project it someplace else. On top of that, we grew up with parents who were very human – as human as we are – and sometimes they had just as hard a time with anger as we did. Children can see how adults in their lives sometimes pull away when confronted with anger, and they get scared that those adults upon whom they depend to care for them will abandon them if they express anger. Sometimes, we harbor remnants of those fears in our dealings with God. We’re frightened of being angry with God because we know that we need God and God’s love. But God’s love is never at risk. We can rail at God and God won’t run from us, won’t love us any less. When we take the risk of being open with God about our anger, we may find God being open with us about ways we need to grow, but we will also discover that God can and does receive us as we are. Jesus responded to Peter’s rebuke with some hard words of his own, but he stayed in relationship with Peter, demonstrating a constant love and infinite patience Peter could not have found anywhere else – the kind of love and perseverance that would sustain Peter when he was ready to take in what Jesus was saying and take up his own cross. God gives us the love we need in the midst of anger to begin to heal, not ignoring the pain, but staying connected through it.

Healing is what we need, and willingness to acknowledge both the pain we experience with loss and our need to stay connected through it is how the healing starts. If we grasp too quickly for an explanation or a course of action that will resolve everything in painful times, we’re rushing for that final chapter in a way that risks losing our place in the story. And while the details of the story may not all be mapped out, it’s a good story. God is author of our salvation, the story one of redemption, of a love so powerful that it can and will eventually transform the world and everything in it. It’s the story of a loving God who shares our righteous anger, and who receives our childish anger with as much grace as the childlike love we offer. That’s the story we live whenever we can live in the moment we’re in, when our own heights and depths serve to reveal the height and depth of God’s love.

Thanks be to God!

September 14, 2003 in Mark, Ordinary Time, Pastoral Concerns | Permalink


I love this article. Right now I am very angry with God. I feel abandoned by him but this article really has me thinking about not turning my back on him.Thanks for that.

Posted by: Brenda | Jul 29, 2011 9:26:08 AM

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