Satisfied: A sermon

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 didn’t disappoint.

One of the highlights for me—the song I’m still singing regularly—is ‘Satisfied.’ Renée 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, “May you always be satisfied.”

The Schuyler sisters. Image by Disney+

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: “You strike me as a woman who has never been satisfied.” But a few seconds later her confesses, “You’re like me. I’m never satisfied… I have never been satisfied.”

The theme of dissatisfaction that runs throughout the musical, seems nearly universal. Many of us find ourselves in a similar place—striving for the promotion, the raise—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 orphan—an image Hamilton could never shake.

Then we get there, and… well… we’re soon looking forward to the next promotion, raise, milestone—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. She’s written a new book called, The Way Up is Down: Becoming yourself by forgetting yourself that’s primarily about how God calls us to follow the example of Jesus, who “Though he was in the form of God… emptied himself” (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, “You know, you think you’ve learned this lesson and then something else happens. You want something…”

A few seconds later, she clarifies, “It’s not wrong to long. But it depends what importance you give that.”

In the book, Graves offers a prescription of sorts, for keeping our longings in their proper place…  

“What if we had an AA confession in our churches?” she writes. “‘Hi, I’m ______ and I love money.’ Then we could follow up with, ‘This is how it led to all sorts of evil.’” 

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 student’s sermon. “When the church wasn’t looking,” he said, “AA took our best stuff.”

I’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.

West Creek UMC

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 meeting—originally designed to help the Methodists pay off a mortgage—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 don’t know about you, but the idea of standing before my church and saying, “Hi, I’m Joe and I love money” or some other sin, is an anxiety-inducing notion. To be honest, I’m so afraid of the push-back that there are doubts, fears, anxieties and minor struggles I’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 façade remains.

Hide the ugly parts of my life. The struggles I’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, “Hi, I’m Joe, and I’m a good Christian.” Even at times when I feel anything but.

Maybe you don’t do that in church, but what about on social media? Do you have “Christian” in your Twitter bio and try to keep appearances? Or maybe it’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 maybe… it’s just me who feels this.

Too close?

Eric Soard is a United Methodist Global Ministries missionary.

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 enough…

Pause there for a second. We struggle with letting people get too close… that’s uncomfortable. And we struggle with not having people close enough… generating loneliness.

That’s profound.

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 out—with our kids, or anything going on in our lives so that we don’t have to rely on other people because that brings us too close to them, and we don’t know what they’re going to do and how that’s going to affect us. That’s not community… To have community you have to have trust.

To have community, we have to have trust between people—not only with the best of us, but also the parts we are less than proud of.

It’s way more comfortable to keep people at arm’s length—only let them see what we want them to see, and from the right angle.

We want to pretend we don’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 don’t, as Eric Soard told me.

So we say things like, “I don’t see color”—to prove we’re not racist. We tell others how much fun we’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 isn’t just that this is what we project about ourselves. It’s that it can become what we actually believe about ourselves.

Two prayers

An icon representing Jesus’ parable.

In Luke 18, Jesus tells this little parable about two people who go to the Temple to pray. The audience, Luke tells us, were “certain people who had convinced themselves that they were righteous and who looked on everyone else with disgust.” Good thing there aren’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 Pharisee’s prayer parallels the prayer of sacrifice prescribed in Deuteronomy 26. In other words, it’s what Jesus’ first listeners would have expected to hear from a Pharisee praying in the Temple… almost.

The difference between the prayers of the tax collector and the Pharisee isn’t the prayers themselves, but the self-identity of the one praying. The parable opens, “The Pharisee stood and prayed about himself with these words, ‘God, I thank you that I’m not like everyone else” (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 collector’s prayer, on the other hand, contains an AA-like confession, “God, show mercy to me, a sinner.” He might as well have said, “Hi, I’m Steve, and I’m a sinner.”

Jesus says the tax collector—the sinner—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 Pharisee—to do all of that work to feel like you are earning a place with God, to keep up the façade of holiness to impress others and convince yourself. And somehow, when you live in that place, it’s never enough. In the words of Hamilton, you will never be satisfied.

Look around

Alexander and Eliza Hamilton. Image from Disney+

Hamilton’s dissatisfaction in the musical, led to all sorts of trouble—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 and—spoiler alert—his death.

In the play, it’s his wife Eliza who tries desperately to get him to find satisfaction. She urges him, “Look around. Look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now.” Later she sings, “We don’t need a legacy. We don’t need money. If I could grant you peace of mind… Where you decide to stay, and I could be enough. And we could be enough. That would be enough.”

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 God—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 that’s enough, more than enough, to be satisfied.

Closing prayer

You have given all to me.
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.

From the Suspice prayer of St. Ignatius via Pray as You Go for 7/28/2020

Preached during chapel service of the General Council on Finance and Administration.