Text: Luke 18:9-14
Delivered on Wednesday, July 29, 2020
Like many, I saw Hamilton on its debut weekend on Disney+. I had been listening to the music off-and-on for several years and was anxious to finally see it. It didnâ€™t disappoint.
One of the highlights for meâ€”the song I’m still singing regularlyâ€”is â€˜Satisfied.â€™ RenÃ©e Elise Goldsberry’s performance is astounding.
The song begins with Angelica Schuyler’s toast at the wedding of her sister Eliza to Alexander Hamilton. She sings, â€œMay you always be satisfied.â€
The word satisfied triggers a flashback to the night she and her sisters first met Alexander Hamilton. Angelica was the first to speak to him. Hamilton introduces himself with what may have been a bad pick-up line: â€œYou strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied.â€ But a few seconds later her confesses, “You’re like me. I’m never satisfied… I have never been satisfied.â€
The theme of dissatisfaction that runs throughout the musical, seems nearly universal. Many of us find ourselves in a similar placeâ€”striving for the promotion, the raiseâ€”that milestone in life we know will change things for us. We’ll finally get the power and privilege; the respect and recognition we deserve. We’ll no longer be the poor, immigrant orphanâ€”an image Hamilton could never shake.
Then we get there, andâ€¦ wellâ€¦ weâ€™re soon looking forward to the next promotion, raise, milestoneâ€”never satisfied.
Not wrong to long
Soon after watching Hamilton, I began to prep for a podcast interview with United Methodist layperson, seminary professor and author Marlena Graves. Sheâ€™s written a new book called, The Way Up is Down: Becoming yourself by forgetting yourself thatâ€™s primarily about how God calls us to follow the example of Jesus, who â€œThough he was in the form of Godâ€¦ emptied himselfâ€ (Philippians 2:6-7). But all too often, we do the opposite. We, like Hamilton, try to fill ourselves with power, money, status, whatever, and find ourselves dissatisfied.
When I spoke with her, I mentioned how that theme of dissatisfaction is both in her book and Hamilton. She laughed and said, â€œYou know, you think youâ€™ve learned this lesson and then something else happens. You want somethingâ€¦â€
A few seconds later, she clarifies, â€œItâ€™s not wrong to long. But it depends what importance you give that.â€
In the book, Graves offers a prescription of sorts, for keeping our longings in their proper placeâ€¦
â€œWhat if we had an AA confession in our churches?â€ she writes. â€œâ€˜Hi, Iâ€™m ______ and I love money.â€™ Then we could follow up with, â€˜This is how it led to all sorts of evil.â€™â€
I think she is onto something.
Our best stuff
As a seminary student, I clearly remember Dr. Bryant Kirkland, one of my preaching professors, making an off-hand remark while commenting on another studentâ€™s sermon. â€œWhen the church wasnâ€™t looking,â€ he said, â€œAA took our best stuff.â€
Iâ€™m not sure I fully appreciated his point at the time, but then I served a congregation in small-town New Jersey that was better known in the neighborhood as a hosting site for AA meetings than any of our other ministries. The AA Halloween party consistently had higher attendance than our Christmas Eve and Easter worship services, and their weekly attendance rivaled the worship services.
Making myself available by finding excuses to be in the hallways of the church before and after the meetings, I started to understand what Dr. Kirkland meant. There is something about acknowledging and meeting together in our brokenness that has the power to heal us.
Of course, John Wesley stumbled onto this nearly 300 years ago. With the formation of the class meetingâ€”originally designed to help the Methodists pay off a mortgageâ€”he discovered that people gathering to confess their sin and watch over one another in love was key to their spiritual growth.
Somewhere along the way, however, we lost that and I donâ€™t know about you, but the idea of standing before my church and saying, â€œHi, Iâ€™m Joe and I love moneyâ€ or some other sin, is an anxiety-inducing notion. To be honest, Iâ€™m so afraid of the push-back that there are doubts, fears, anxieties and minor struggles Iâ€™m not really ready to reveal.
Hiding my sin
So every Sunday morning, back when we could actually go to church, I would put on my Sunday best and head out the door. For me, ”Sunday best’ never had much to do with my wardrobe like it did for my dad, the head usher at our church who had a closet full of Sunday suits. But the faÃ§ade remains.
Hide the ugly parts of my life. The struggles Iâ€™m having with my kids. The spat with my spouse last night. My fears about the health of my parents. Worries about job security, the economy, coronavirus, racial injustice. Put aside the nasty way I talked to (or about) my coworker to get ahead. Hide my doubts, struggles, insecurities and fears.
Then I stand before the congregation and with all the false sincerity I can muster, say or at least project, say, â€œHi, Iâ€™m Joe, and Iâ€™m a good Christian.â€ Even at times when I feel anything but.
Maybe you donâ€™t do that in church, but what about on social media? Do you have â€œChristianâ€ in your Twitter bio and try to keep appearances? Or maybe itâ€™s with family and friends. They know you work for the church, and so you bust your butt to keep them impressed with your holiness, to match their ideas of what it means to be a person of faith, to do no harm to the brand.
Or maybeâ€¦ itâ€™s just me who feels this.
On another podcast episode, I got to talk to Global Ministries missionary Eric Soard. He started a school in Tanzania by following God to the next, small, right step.
In the midst of our conversation, I asked him to share something he learned while living in Tanzania that Americans should know about. He said this:
I feel like one of the things we struggle with in major ways here in the U.S. is isolation, loneliness, lack of genuine, accountable relationships. We struggle here with letting people get too close, and yet we also struggle with not having people close enoughâ€¦
Pause there for a second. We struggle with letting people get too closeâ€¦ thatâ€™s uncomfortable. And we struggle with not having people close enoughâ€¦ generating loneliness.
After talking a bit about how in Tanzania the community may sometimes have too strong of a hold on individuals, keeping them from stepping out and following where they feel God is leading them, he followed up with this:
We [Americans] want to make sure we have everything figured outâ€”with our kids, or anything going on in our lives so that we donâ€™t have to rely on other people because that brings us too close to them, and we donâ€™t know what theyâ€™re going to do and how thatâ€™s going to affect us. Thatâ€™s not communityâ€¦ To have community you have to have trust.
To have community, we have to have trust between peopleâ€”not only with the best of us, but also the parts we are less than proud of.
Itâ€™s way more comfortable to keep people at armâ€™s lengthâ€”only let them see what we want them to see, and from the right angle.
We want to pretend we donâ€™t love money, rather than confess we do, as Marlena Graves reminds her readers. To pretend we have it all figured out, even when we donâ€™t, as Eric Soard told me.
So we say things like, â€œI donâ€™t see colorâ€â€”to prove weâ€™re not racist. We tell others how much fun weâ€™re having baking bread and tending the garden, instead of confessing our daily struggle with sadness while working from home. We dare not share our fears, doubts and struggles about sending our kids back to school. Or our decision not to send them back to school.
And the problem isnâ€™t just that this is what we project about ourselves. Itâ€™s that it can become what we actually believe about ourselves.
In Luke 18, Jesus tells this little parable about two people who go to the Temple to pray. The audience, Luke tells us, were â€œcertain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.â€ Good thing there arenâ€™t people like that around anymore. Right?
For years, I thought this parable was about prayer. That the Pharisee’s prayer offends God somehow.
But in his book Stories with Intent: A Comprehensive Guide to the Parables of Jesus, Klyne Snodgrass points out that the Phariseeâ€™s prayer parallels the prayer of sacrifice prescribed in Deuteronomy 26. In other words, itâ€™s what Jesusâ€™ first listeners would have expected to hear from a Pharisee praying in the Templeâ€¦ almost.
The difference between the prayers of the tax collector and the Pharisee isnâ€™t the prayers themselves, but the self-identity of the one praying. The parable opens, â€œThe Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, â€˜God, I thank you that Iâ€™m not like everyone elseâ€ (Luke 18:11 bold added). He then goes on to list all of his accomplishments that he believes elevate him in the eyes of God.
The tax collectorâ€™s prayer, on the other hand, contains an AA-like confession, â€œGod, show mercy to me, a sinner.â€ He might as well have said, â€œHi, Iâ€™m Steve, and Iâ€™m a sinner.â€
Jesus says the tax collectorâ€”the sinnerâ€”is the one who goes home justified. A conclusion the people gathered around Jesus would have found unbelievably shocking (Snodgrass).
It must be exhausting to be the Phariseeâ€”to do all of that work to feel like you are earning a place with God, to keep up the faÃ§ade of holiness to impress others and convince yourself. And somehow, when you live in that place, itâ€™s never enough. In the words of Hamilton, you will never be satisfied.
Hamiltonâ€™s dissatisfaction in the musical, led to all sorts of troubleâ€”he was dismissed by George Washington, plagued by jealousy of every officer assigned to command troops, and led him to choose work over his family, a choice that would lead to adultery. His need to prove himself right, led to a bizarre confession of his affair (again at the expense of his family) and his infamous duel with Aaron Burr andâ€”spoiler alertâ€”his death.
In the play, itâ€™s his wife Eliza who tries desperately to get him to find satisfaction. She urges him, â€œLook around. Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.â€ Later she sings, â€œWe don’t need a legacy. We don’t need money. If I could grant you peace of mindâ€¦ Where you decide to stay, and I could be enough. And we could be enough. That would be enough.â€
Like the tax collector, may you and I find that we no longer need to strive, no longer need to work so hard to keep up appearances, to prove to someone else and ourselves that we are worthy. May we instead, learn to face our brokenness, confess our worries, fears and sins to others, ourselves and to God.
And in it all, may we remember that we are in the presence of Godâ€”who loves us, who longs to grant us peace of mind, who asks us simply to abide, to dwell in the presence of the Almighty. And may we come to see thatâ€™s enough, more than enough, to be satisfied.
You have given all to me.From the Suspice prayer of St. Ignatius via Pray as You Go for 7/28/2020
To you, Lord, I return it.
Everything is yours; do with it what you will.
Give me only your love and your grace,
that is enough for me. Amen.
Preached during chapel service of the General Council on Finance and Administration.