September 18, 2021
Jeremiah 11.18-20; Psalm 54; James 3.13-4,7-8a;
+ Last Sunday morning a very important person in the life of the Episcopal Church, in in many of our lives, died.
Bishop John Shelby Spong, the former Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, died.
Bishop Spong was an influential person in the Church.
But he was also a very, very controversial person in the Church as well.
Bishop Spong was very much the personification of a “liberal” in the Church.
And through his many best=selling books, he laid some very unorthodox beliefs.
He denied such things as a fundamentalist view of the Bible, bodily resurrection, the virgin birth of Jesus, a theistic God, the traditional views of the afterlife, and the concepts of heaven and hell.
Now for some of us here at St. Stephen’s these are not all that controversial.
And many of us loved Bishop Spong.
When I first came to St. Stephen’s, there were a few people here who quoted him often in their sermons on Sunday.
One time, one preacher even just read a letter of Spong’s as their sermon.
I certainly respected Bishop Spong.
I voraciously read every book he published as soon as it came the press.
And Bishop Spong in many ways introduced me to the Episcopal Church.
I first heard about him when I was in my early 20s.
I was working at a United Methodist Church in Arthur, ND.
And the pastor there, Pastor Ray Baker, had a bottom shelf of Bishop Spong’s book on a shelf that were hidden behind the door to the office.
I remember borrowing his copy Resurrection: Myth or Reality? And was legitimately shocked.
I was floored to hear Bishop Spong say that when Jesus died on the cross, his body was taken down and thrown to the dogs, and that is why there is any empty tomb.
I never agreed with him on that one or many other theological points he made, which I often felt were sensationalist in certain ways.
But I was encouraged to pursue my interest in the Episcopal Church, knowing that there is a wide spectrum of belief here at that could enclose people to such an extreme as Bishop Spong on one end and conservative thinkers on the other, as well as those like me who were squarely in the center of it all.
In this past week, I can say with all honesty, that I am thankful for Bishop Spong and his voice in the Church.
But as you can imagine, someone like Bishop Spong also had a few people who did not agree with him.
Actually, there were a lot of people who were downright threatened by what Bishop Spong wrote about.
And as a result, he made a lot of enemies.
There is a very famous story about one of these people.
At the funeral for Bishop Spong’s first wife, Joan, who died in 1988, he was shocked when, during the service, he felt himself being pummeled.
He turned around and realized it was an old lady hitting him with her purse.
She was finally subdued and escorted out of the church.
As she left, she was heard to say, “I wanted to do that to that SOB for years!”
Sometimes…when one makes stands, who stand firm, or makes comments or takes positions that differ from others, you’re gonna have enemies.
Sometimes, just for standing up and saying “no” to people, you are going to have people dislike you.
Or sometimes, you just are not able to do for others what they need you to do for them.
And, as a result, they despise you for not being who they need you to be for them.
It’s extremely painful.
And sometimes, when those people are people you care for or who were close friends or family, it is even more painful.
But, let me tell you this: we don’t make it through this life without a few enemies, without a few people who just not going to like us.
Enemies in the Bible were dealt with differently, as we no doubt have discovered.
And often times, some harsh language was directed at those people who were considered enemies.
On those occasions, we do sometimes come across language in the Bible that we might find a bit—how shall we say—uncomfortable.
The language is often violent.
It is not the language good Christian people normally use.
We get a peek at this language in our scriptures readings for today.
Our reading from the Prophet Jeremiah is a bit harsh, shall we say?
“Let us destroy the tree with its fruit,
let us cut him off from the land of the living,
so that his name will no longer be remembered.”
For many us, as we hear it, it might give us pause.
This is not the kind of behavior we have been taught as followers of Jesus.
After all, as followers of Jesus, we’re taught to love and love fully and completely.
We certainly weren’t taught to pray for God to destroy our enemies, to “cut them off from the land of the living.”
And not just destroy our enemies, but our enemy’s children (that whole reference to the fruit of the tree).
We have been taught to pray for our enemies, not pray against them.
None of us would ever even think of praying to God to destroy anyone. I hope!
But the fact is, although we find it hard to admit at times, we do actually think and feel this way.
Even if we might not actually say it, we sometimes secretly wish the worse for those people who have wronged us in whatever way.
I like to think that, rather than this being completely negative or wrong, that we should, in fact, be honest about it.
We sometimes get angry at people.
We sometimes don’t like people.
And sometimes WE are the enemy to other people.
And let’s truly be honest, there are sometimes when we might actually just hate people.
It’s a fact of life—not one we want to readily admit to, but it is there.
Sometimes it is very, very hard to love our enemies.
Sometimes it is probably the hardest thing in the world to pray for people who have hurt us or wronged us.
So, what do we do in those moments when we can’t pray for our enemies—when we can’t forgive?
Well, most of us just simply close up.
We turn that anger inward.
We put up a wall and we swallow that anger and we let it fester inside us.
Especially those of us who come from good Scandinavian stock.
We simply aren’t the kind of people who wail and complain about our anger or our losses.
We aren’t ones usually who say, like Jeremiah, “let us cut [that person] off from the land of the living!”
I think we may tend to deny it.
And I think we even avoid and deny where the cause of that anger comes from.
Certainly, St. James, in his letter this morning, tries to touch on this when talks about these violent “cravings” which are “at war within us.”
It’s not pleasant to think that there is warfare within us.
For me, as a somewhat reluctant pacifist sometimes, I do not like admitting that there is often warfare raging within me.
But it is sometimes.
So, what about that anger in our relationship to God?
What about that anger when it comes to following Jesus?
Well, again, we probably don’t recognize our anger before God nor do we bring it before God.
We, I think, look at our anger as something outside our following of Jesus.
And that is where scriptures of this sort come in.
It is in those moments when we don’t bring our anger and our frustrations before God, that we need those verses like the ones we encounter in today’s readings.
When we look at those poets and writers who wrote these scriptures—when we recognize her or him as a Jew in a time of war or famine—we realize that for them, it was natural to bring everything before God.
Not just the good stuff.
Not just the nice stuff.
But that bad stuff too.
And I think this is the best lesson we can learn from these readings than anything else.
We all have a “shadow side,” shall we say.
I preach about this all the time.
We all have a dark side.
We have a war raging within us at times.
And we need to remember that we cannot hide that “shadow side” of ourselves from God.
Let me tell you, if you have war raging inside you, you definitely cannot hide that from God.
Sometimes this dark self, this war, is something no else has ever seen—not even our spouse or partner.
Maybe it is a side of ourselves we might have not even acknowledged to ourselves.
It is this part of ourselves that fosters anger and pride and lust.
It is this side of ourselves that may be secretly violent or mean or unduly confrontational and gossipy.
Sometimes it will never make an appearance.
It stays in the shadows and lingers there.
But sometimes it actually does make itself known.
Sometimes it comes plowing into our lives when we neither expect it nor want it.
And with it comes chaos
As much we try to deny it or ignore it or hide it, the fact is; we can’t hide this dark side from God.
It’s incredible really when you think about it: that God, who knows even that shadow side of us—that side of us we might not even fully know ourselves—God who knows us even that completely still loves us and is with us.
Few of us lay that shadow self before God.
But the authors and poets of our scriptures this morning do, in fact bring it ALL out before God.
These poets wail and complain to God and lay bare that shadow side of him or herself.
The poet is blatantly honest before God.
Or as St. James advises,
“submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and [God] will draw near to you.”
When these ugly things crop up in our lives, bring them before God.
Let us deal with them in humility before God.
The fact is: sometimes we do secretly wish bad things on our enemies.
Sometimes we do wish God would render evil on those who are evil to us.
Sometimes we do hope that God will completely wipe away those people who hurt us from our lives.
It is in those moments, that it is all right to pray to God in such a way.
Because the fact is—as I hope we’ve all learned by now—just because we pray for it doesn’t mean God is going to grant it.
I say this over and over again: God grants all prayer, correct.
But there are three possible answers to prayer.
And not yet.
And if you pray for bad things to happen to your enemies, God is probably gonna answer with a big fat “NO.”
But that doesn’t invalidate the prayer.
God knows what to grant in prayer.
The important thing here is not what we are praying for.
It is not important that in this Psalm we are praying for God to destroy our enemies.
What is important is that, even in our anger, even in our frustration and our pain, we have submitted to God.
We have come before God as this imperfect person.
We have come to God with a long dark shadow trailing us.
I have heard people say that we shouldn’t read these difficult on Sunday morning because they are “bad theology” or “bad psychology.”
They are neither.
They are actually very good and honest theology and very good and honest psychology.
Take what it is hurting you and bothering you and release it.
Let it out before God.
Be honest with God about these bad things.
Even if your anger is directed at God for whatever reason, be honest with God.
Rail and rant and rave at God in your anger if you have to.
Trust me, God can take it.
But, these scriptures teach us as well that once we have done that—once we have opened ourselves completely to God—once we have revealed our shadows to God—then we must turn to God and turn away from that shadow self.
We must, as St. James says, “resist the Devil.”
Hatred and anger and pain are things that, in the long run, hurt us and destroy us.
At some point, as we all know, we must grow beyond whatever anger we might have.
We must not get caught in that self-destructive cycle anger can cause.
We must not allow those negative feelings to make us bitter.
So, when we are faced with these difficult scriptures and we come across those verses that might take by alarm, let us recognize in them what they truly are—honest prayers before God
Let these scriptures—these lamenting and angry, as well as the joyful, exultant scriptures—be our voice expressing itself before God.
And in the echo of those words, let us hear God speaking to us in turn.
When we do, we will find ourselves in a holy conversation with God.
And, in that holy conversation, we will find that, even despite that shadow side of ourselves, God, who is Light, who is love, accepts us fully and completely for just who we are.
Let us pray.
Compassionate God, help us in the journey of this life to avoid becoming bitter and angry by the presence of our enemies and their efforts to undermine our efforts. Help us to love those who do not love us, to forgive those who hurt us and to live our lives in love and peace rather than in bitterness and frustration. We ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen.