Sermon for September 3, 2017: The power of emotion, the power of God (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)
This has been a very emotional week for me. It started last Sunday when, as you may remember, my daughter came up during the announcements to be blessed before leaving for her gap year on the east coast and I became a bit tearful. It is, of course, part of the job of a priest to be able to carry on through strong emotions – to put aside our own feelings in order to help our parishioners work through theirs, but, honestly, it is sometimes hard to hold it together, especially when there are a lot of potent emotions swirling around. That has definitely been the case this week – a week in which thousands of people lost their homes, possessions, and even their lives in the devastating hurricane and subsequent flooding in Texas; a week in which many families sent beloved young people off to colleges and “adult” adventures; a week in which we mourned the loss and celebrated the life of our sister Joyce Apostolo, and a week in which today we celebrate the blessing of our sister Jo-Ann and brother John’s fifty years of Holy Matrimony. That’s a lot of powerful emotions to manage.
If you think about it, even the most joyful emotional events – like John and Jo’s renewal – can be exhausting. Although we tend to think of “feelings” as somewhat abstract, non-scientific sensations, there is ample evidence that emotions are both rooted in our physical bodies and fairly predictable. Neuroscience tells us that when we “feel,” certain parts of our brain “light up,” producing specific chemical responses. “Each emotion sparks a distinctive physiological reaction, the body’s program for dealing with the different situations that arise in our emotional lives. Happiness cues the brain to suppress worrisome or negative feelings and increases the body’s energy level. Sadness does the opposite, slowing down its metabolism, and manifests itself most visibly in tears. Research has substantiated the age-old theory that crying releases harmful toxins by showing that tears of sadness have a different chemical composition than tears of joy or those caused by irritants. Cardiologists have also found that crying can reduce stress and the harmful physiological reactions associated with it. Anger floods the brain with catecholamine hormones that prime the body for action and stimulates the nervous system, putting it on a general state of alert.” In other words, when we feel dizzy with love, overheated by anger, or weak with sadness, we really are. Powerful emotions – negative and positive – can be overwhelming for all human beings – even prophets.
We know this because in today’s Hebrew Scripture we find Jeremiah struggling with feelings of anger toward God. He has tried to be a faithful prophet – reporting the concerns and will of God to his people as it has been shown to him – and yet he has been teased, tormented and even physically hurt by those around him. He’s had enough. He wants God to get back at the people who have upset him – and the amazing thing is that he’s not afraid to let God know about it, even going so far as to call God names. That’s because, despite his anger toward God, he never doubts their relationship. He knows that no matter what he says to God, God will not abandon him. Their bond is deeply loving, one “in which God’s overwhelming claim on Jeremiah’s life is delightful and devastating at the same time.” God did not create humanity without knowing the nature of it. God understands Jeremiah’s strong feelings – even the negative ones. God recognizes Jeremiah’s anger for what it is: a sign of love – because, really, “only those who love experience hurt, anger, and doubt. The indifferent are just fine.”
True love, what St. Paul calls, “genuine” love – or “un-hypocritical” love, as it is more accurately translated – is both complicated and very, very difficult. Because of the way the Greek language works, Paul’s long list of love’s attributes are translated as “Let love be,” but they can also be heard as, “love is.”Thus, love is un-hypocritical, love is ardent; love is patient – love is hospitable, humble, noble, and harmonious. “The type of love Paul describes here is energetic and profoundly optimistic.”
But it’s also practical. Paul understands that human beings are what they are. We may be created in God’s image, but we are not like God. In fact, it’s when we make the mistake of thinking that we know what God wants from us that we are most likely to get into trouble. We “are often confusingly confident with our claims upon God – and more so in our claims on God’s behalf.” That’s what happens to Peter in today’s gospel. In the portion of Matthew’s gospel we read last week we heard Peter correctly identify Jesus as the Messiah, one anointed by God. Jesus recognized Peter’s testimony as “the rock” upon which the church would be founded, and promised that the actions of his earthly followers would have repercussions for the kingdom of God. And yet in today’s gospel passage, just two verses later, Jesus rebukes Peter. Why? Because Peter contradicts Jesus when Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer and be killed. Jesus’s response to Peter seems pretty harsh, given that Peter’s is, I think, a pretty normal response to have. None of us want bad things to happen to those we love. “We hear Peter [saying] ‘God forbid it, Lord!’ This kind of suffering must never happen to you…You cannot go through the tears and the sweat, the blood and the muck of humanity, because you are God.”
But, of course, Jesus does. That is the core of the gospel, the defining principle of our savior – his willingness to suffer and die for those he loves. And he offers us the same opportunity – the chance to throw ourselves into the messy, scary, deeply difficult process that is living in relationship. In some cases that has meant and will mean dying for our beliefs – but for most of us it is enough to simply engage in the struggle that is loving our neighbors as ourselves. “Eternal living does not happen in a place of seclusion.” God’s mansion may have many rooms, but that doesn’t mean we will necessarily get a single – or be able to choose our roommates. Christianity is about community, about living in relationship with one another – and sometimes that is hard. St. Paul knew this. He did not simply say, “Live peaceably with all.” He said, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” He is telling his people not that they have to live in perfect harmony with one another – only that they have to try. Because no matter how difficult it may be to try to live up to Paul’s ideals for Christian community, it is far harder to be cut off from it. Scripture tells us that God lives within each one of us and, more importantly, among us. If we want to be where God is, then we need to be among God’s people. “Lord, I love the house in which you dwell and the place where your glory abides.” May we do all that we can to make this community that place. AMEN.
Alive Editorial@alive.com (April 24, 2015), Emotions and Physiology, http://www.alive.com/health/emotions-and-physiology/.
Angela Dienhart Hancock, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 7.
 Christopher R. Hutson, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 17.
Rochelle A. Stackhouse, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 16.
Dale P. Andrews, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 23.
Jin S. Kim, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 22.
Eleazar S. Fernandez, (2010), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 18.