Sunday, March 24, 2002

Another Look at Disappointment

Asbury First United Methodist Church

Text: Matthew 21: 1-11

This Week

It may be, in the odd mystery of all things, that we are truly ready for Holy Week 2002 in a way we have not been for many years, perhaps for more than a generation. It is in Jesus Christ, whose life is salvaged and named in full this week, that the tongue needed for the past year is found. Now, perhaps, more than at other times, we can hear the poignant cadence of the steps along the Via Dolorosa.

Over several years this church has developed a pattern of worship for Holy Week of which you may be justly proud. Depth, pathos, crie de couer-all are here for you. Every step along the way is a teaching moment. In fact, everything we truly know about Jesus is taught in this one week. He stands among us, clothed already in cross and resurrection. He enters the city today not only as mystic, teacher, and healer, but as eschatological, apocalyptic prophet. Thus He disappoints both the Jewish and perennial religious hope for an earthly warrior messiah and also the Greek and perennial philosophic desire for a soothsayer. He upends tables in the temple, disappointing for all time any more than penultimate estimate of religion. He withers a fig tree, a frightful and discomfiting cautionary tale. Like Jacob, who wrestled with an angel, like Jacob who thought he had taken Rachel and woke with Leah (more on this later), he encounters unexpected sorrow. He disappoints those who seek to corner his authority. He has anguished things to say about fruitless vineyards and those who do not remember the poor. He mentions the mortal disappointment of a poor sap who merely forgot to bring the right garment for a wedding. He gathers his company in a borrowed upper room for a simple meal, in secret and in hiding. He himself is disappointed, though apparently not surprised, by the betrayal of Judas. He is even more disappointed, though apparently not surprised, by the predicted denial from Peter. The ignominy of his death, hung on a tree, is as lasting a disappointment for any who have loved Him as ever there could be, the stunning event of Easter to the contrary notwithstanding. He is buried in a tomb, shut out from life and sent down into death, disappointed to be a disappointment. This week that begins with the sunshine of the palms, ends with the stark shadow of Golgotha, the place of the skull. Sol y sombra, as the Spanish say. We will not want to miss any step along the liturgical path this week.

The dismay of Holy Week appears in Matthew's appropriation of His word as well. Hear the disappointment in His voice: To the temple leaders: "You make my house a den of robbers"…To the fruitless Fig tree: "May no fruit ever come from you again"…To the teachers: "Neither will I tell you by what authority I do things"…To all: "When the vineyard owner comes, what do you think he will do to those tenants?…Cast him into the outer darkness, there men will weep and gnash their teeth"…To the disciples: "He who is greatest among you will be your servant"…To the clergy (we will revisit this verse after Easter): "You are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within they are full of dead men's bones and all uncleanness"…To his home and kindred: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not."

We meet Jesus today, only and always, as He stands in the Gospel. He meets us dressed in his native raiment, of cross and resurrection. We have no access to him apart from his announcement in the gospel. Only the barest skeleton of a historical outline for his life is available to us anyway. The Gospels preach his death. Whatever they teach of his life is only there to preach his death. This is as true of Mark as it is of John. If we try to pull away his clothing, this cross and this resurrection, we invariably also begin to pull flesh and bone from his being, and we fantasize a Jesus that we might see in a room full of mirrors: we see ourselves. What history we have of Him meets us in the liturgy of Holy Week, as he moves along the Via Dolorosa, the way of disappointment.

If nothing else, the pattern of worship in the coming week will underscore for us the utter dismay out of which came the faith of Jesus Christ, the new creation of the church, and the hope of the world in which we stand. Astounding is this verifiable history: the early church blossomed out of the rocklike disappointments of the crucifixion, the failure of the mission to the Jews, and the infinite delay of the parousia. How was this possible? This Holy Week gives us a good look at disappointment.

This Year

After last Sunday's evocative cantata had pronounced for us again the Gospel of the Cross, I found myself later in the evening browsing through the newspaper. The paper reported, movingly, about the last stages of excavation at ground zero. Those who have formed over this year a community of salvage and identification (one thinks of the church in these terms too), now are finishing their work and preparing to go home (one thinks of going home, in many senses, at Easter). Only some of the lost and dead have been identified, and, hence, there is profound disappointment for those whose work has ended but not been completed. They hurt with the hurt of loss, these workers in that formed community of identification and salvage.

This year has given us a look at disappointment. A preacher of the Gospel tries to overhear what is unsaid or said softly in the life of the people of God, like Kierkegaard's anecdote about overhearing the gospel. We are still a people drenched in disappointment, following 9.11.01. The newspaper account about the end of salvage and identification work at ground zero left so much unsaid, perhaps because in the language of our culture at large, there are not available, in full measure, the chords of existential lament, of spiritual despond, of personally profound loss that would, perhaps, begin to articulate, de profundis, this year's anguished disappointment. For these, we need the church and her Christ. As a preacher, I sense that we have been waiting again, waiting these eerily warm winter months, waiting together religious and secular alike, for the narrative and event of this coming week, to provide us salvage and identification for our disappointment. We, too, are coming to the bottom of the heap.

Like Julia Ward Howe, we can see Him in the watchfires of a hundred circling camps where they have builded Him an altar in the evening dews and damps. In the dews. In the damps.

Can you cleansingly name your disappointment? It is disappointing to sense that a great portion of the world takes a dim view of the country you love. It is disappointing to feel and hear the scorn with which many, particularly some of the most impoverished, view the land of the free. It is disappointing to sense that a decade after we took up arms against Iraq, we may feel forced to do the work all over again, with great danger and potential loss of life. It is disappointing mentally to revisit the carnage of 9.11.01.

I remember in 1988, when Pan Am 103 went down with some 200 students, most from Syracuse University. Then Chancellor Melvin Eggers, who spent his later life building buildings for that school, including the Carrier Dome, expressed dismay at the tragic loss of those young people, a precursor of our latest loss, which itself, we must face, is potentially the precursor of future losses. 200 becomes 2000. 2000 may become 20,000. I think 103 broke the Chancellor's heart. He was never the same, and died a few years later (more on this later).

By apocalypse, this year's trauma seems to have unearthed and spotlighted other anguish. The larger disappointments have accentuated others, both smaller and closer. We feel all too keenly the disappointment of losing a job after giving selflessly to a corporation. We recall all to promptly the disappointment of errors made in family life. We grieve and hurt, years later, over the profound disappointment in clergy who have done wrong, in leaders who have not kept faith. We find ourselves caught up in disappointment with our church, when something about which we feel strongly seems to go the wrong way. The wrong spending of a dollar, the wrong placement of a symbol, the wrong parsing of a sentence, the wrong choice of a program: onto these we may project some of the emotion of more inchoate anguish. Sometimes, it can happen, that deeper and harder to name disappointments become projected onto the screen of anguish about reachable people and institutions. Bill Barnett, my colleague at LeMoyne, said nationally through Gannett news service, regarding a survey he and John Zogby have just done of Catholics around the country, that many are "sad and annoyed" even as they "stick by their church". Let us readily confess that as with every religious institution, we too have clay feet, and know the sting of being described as "whited sepulchres". What is true of the catholic goose is in some measure true of the Protestant gander.

It is disappointing to sense others' disagreement about issues that matter. When it comes to debating the use of force in history, every church with any breadth at all will involve people who are disappointed that others do not share their pacifism, on the one hand, and people who are disappointed that others do not share their sense of the tragic necessity of just war. "Why did he not say…" "Why did she have to say…

Further, economically, we in the North are hurting. I heard our mayor state, in a radio clip, that the real property total value in the city of Rochester, on which the tax base rests, has fallen from $5.2 billion in 1990 to $4.2 billion today. I was trying to identify the emotion behind his now familiar, husky voice: It was something like disappointment.

I sat with a 75 year old whose voice I trust. He is wrestling, this year, as he puts it, with the question of "What went wrong". "We came out of the second war so optimistic, so hopeful, so ready to seize the future. I just don't understand what went wrong. It is disappointing."

If nothing else, this year, the months since we last entered Jerusalem waving palms to the donkey carried Christ have given us a good look at disappointment.

This Cross

I am a Christian more for the cross than for the resurrection. I believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. But it is the cross that makes me His. You have had a look at disappointment this last year. You will have a look at disappointment this week. But we need to take another look today.

Another look at disappointment-take another look today. Faith is the capacity to endure disappointment, and that in every possible measure. More than that, faith is the capacity to sense in the depth of disappointment the truest seed of its opposite-the prospect of another day, another chance, another possibility. It is this gift that comes from Christ, and Him crucified, the One who loved us and gave himself up for us. This world needs to take another look. This country needs to do the same. You and I do as well. The cross, the only symbol fit for the faith of Jesus Christ, provides another look at disappointment. The way of the cross, the wisdom of the cross, the word of the cross, announce again that disappointment does not have the last word.

Jacob woke up, married to the wrong sister. Yes, he could have Rachel if worked another seven years. Imagine that-only after seven years receiving what you were originally promised! They had a custom that the older had to marry first. So he was deeply disappointed. But did that kill him? Did that end his journey? Did that make him celibate? He worked the seven. "And they seemed to him but a day, for he loved her so." Why, his utter disappointment was the surest sign of his love. Sometimes you only know what you have by losing it. Disappointment, ironically, is the surest sign of hope, faith, and love. Only one who hopes for nothing is never disappointed. And it is our hope that defines us: "The reality of a vessel is the shape of the void within it" (Lao-tse).

Chancellor Eggers gave a newspaper interview after 103 crashed. He contrasted all the building he had done with our inability to protect young students from terrorist evil. He despaired in print. He also expressed sadness and annoyance that the chapel program did not seem to do more for him and others. For years I carried that interview as a rebuke of religion, Methodism to boot, which in fact it was, a real disappointment. I see now 14 years later, something deeper. The Chancellor was so disappointed because he could feel that for which he deeply longed, the faith that endures, names, cleanses, outlasts disappointment. And his public naming of that longing was, in retrospect, as pure an affirmation of faith as one could ever desire from an electrical engineer and school president, far truer than many sermons.

The way of Christ is the Via Dolorosa, the avenue of dismay. A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. There is not a loss, not a hurt, not a cataclysm, not a tragedy, not an inexplicable horror that can stand alone any more. Christ has made loss his home, his place: foxes have holes and birds nests, the Son of Man has no place like home. His way among us is the way of disappointment. "If anyone would come after me let him deny himself and take up his disappointment, and follow." Christ has entered and suffered our condition, not at its sunny height, but at its shadowy depth. Where we have fearfully trod, he has already been, and in the nameless, unsalvaged, unidentified dust of all pain and all anguish and all dismay, there stands Jesus Christ, and him crucified. It is only the presence of Christ in cruciform that can give the courage to take another look at disappointment. On the way of dolor he is present. In the hour of accident, in the day of terror, in the moment of death, in the circle of pain-these he has chosen to take upon himself. Our disappointment over what we should not have been and should have done he has taken upon himself.

The wisdom of Christ is the wisdom of the cross as well. Disappointment, even the primordial disappointment of the cross, does not and cannot have the last word. Faith is the capacity to endure disappointment and to find the wisdom to move forward, after loss. Faith comes into its own in the wisdom of the cross. Remember this. Disappointment can only occur for those who hope. One who expects nothing is never disappointed. Only those who see what might be, what could happen, what possibly may emerge, what freely we might be able to do, only these are disappointed. The very gut wrenching anguish of dismay itself proves the potential for a better day to come. In an ironic way, it is the very cruciform experience of disappointment itself that points most tellingly to God. Who hopes for what he sees? We hope for what we do not see, and wait for it with patience. The earliest church admitted candidly its disappointment at the cross, its disappointment in failure to win the hearts of the Jews, its disappointment that Christ did not return suddenly and soon. And somehow, out all these unsalvaged and unidentified ashes, there came the church, the new creation, the kingdom of love and light. We can fully and openly admit our disappointments too, as Matthew's community clearly did, and recognize in them the very hint of a better way, another day, a new creation.

But it is the word of the cross, most of all that forces us to take another look. Christ Jesus did not come to us, heal us, teach us and die for us in order to offer some pithy word games among us. He came to save us from our sin, our worst selves, our most benighted, our mortal frailty. If we lived in another world, one without any possibility of 9.11.01, we would not need a crucified savior. If we sinned not, we would need not. If we died not, we would need not. Christ is calling us to take another look, at and through our year of disappointment, by walking the way of disappointment himself and by reminding us of the strange, uncanny, ironical hint buried in the tomb of disappointment, the hint of a better day, and by announcing his presence and calling us to himself. And he is calling. I was reminded this week that a calling is more a matter of when than what. "I knew the moment I saw you that we should be married." "Then why did you take seven years to propose?"

You can carry your past. You can handle your dismay. Faith is the capacity to endure disappointment. Faith is life after death. But to say more than this we will need to wait for Easter.

You will take your nourishment as you find it, day by day. As that quintessential romantic A Herzen wrote, "Art and the summer lightning of individual happiness-these are the real goods."

Disappointment-you can live with that.

I close with a little song. After a lifetime of loss and disappointment, and the recent deaths of their spouses, two very elderly folks fall in love at the end of a current musical (I Love You. You're Perfect. Now Change.) In the song, SHE SPEAKS, and he answers:

Well at our age that's understood
Flairs up in June
I'll get that soon. No matter. I can live with that.
Well I've had two
It looks nice blue
Well, people change. I find you sexy
No matter. I can live with that.
Sometimes I have to reminisce
It still does hurt, but not as long
Mine never leave
I tell tall tales
I drink skim milk
No matter. I can live with that.
I've got a garden, I grow some squash
I wake up late
No matter. I can live with that.
Next to my Sue is my gravesite
Someday I'll die
And I my Sue
You think I do?
(Together): No matter. I can live with you.

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