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