The Woman from Shunem: Take 2 (or Yelling at God)

Sermon Preached on February 5, 2006 [see this entry for the initial conundrum]
Elk Grove Village, Illinois

We didn’t hear the whole story! That’s right. The story of the Shunemite woman and Elisha was incomplete. You see, our lectionary allows us to shorten readings when they are particularly long – and today’s was particularly long. So, we removed one of the sections in brackets. The lectionary itself includes the brackets – so it’s legal – we didn’t cheat. But here’s the thing. The story as we heard it this morning sounds like a story about great faith – she lays her son on the man of God’s bed and, next time he’s in town, sure enough – just like she expected – he, through some great miracle, resurrects the boy. Problem solved!

No. The problem is not solved. We left out the anger. We’ve all been angry at one time or another – angry that we haven’t gotten what we think we deserve or angry that we have gotten something we know we did not deserve or, like the Shunemite woman, angry that we’ve gotten something we never asked for only to have it ripped mercilessly out of our hands along with our hopes and expectations. The discernment process for me has been a bit like that. I didn’t ask to be called by God to be a priest. In fact, I ran the other way for quite a number of years convinced that I could outrun God’s calling. I was wrong – which is why I’m here – and today I am grateful. But in any event, I didn’t ask for this calling. So when I ran into some difficulties along the way with various diocesan committees, you bet I was mad. So, I did what many of the great Bible heroes and heroines before me have done – I yelled at God; I let God know I was not a happy camper.

The Shunemite woman is one such heroine. Here are the words that were between a set of brackets – the words we left out of this morning’s story:
“She went up and laid him [her son] on the bed of the man of God, closed the door on him, and left. “Then she called to her husband, and said, "Send me one of the servants and one of the donkeys, so that I may quickly go to the man of God and come back again". . . Then she saddled the donkey and said to her servant, "Urge the animal on; do not hold back for me unless I tell you." So she set out, and came to the man of God at Mount Carmel. . . . When she came to the man of God at the mountain, she caught hold of his feet. . . .Then she said, "Did I ask my lord for a son? Did I not say, Do not mislead me?" . . . . Then the mother of the child said, "As the LORD lives, and as you yourself live, I will not leave without you." So he rose up and followed her.”
Can you hear her yelling? She’s not alone. Job was a yeller. We often think of him as the patient man of faith, but no, he yelled – “I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul” [Job 7:11]. And what about the Psalms? One of the Psalms we read this morning provides an example. It is Psalm 142: “I cry to the LORD with my voice; to the LORD I make loud supplication. I pour out my complaint before him and tell him all my trouble.” And what about Jesus? Certainly not in today’s gospel reading, but there’s a story familiar to many of us about what he did in the temple. John’s Gospel describes it this way:
“In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple. . . He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” [John 2:14-16].
So, with all these scriptural examples of anger, why are we so reluctant to express it – or, when we do express it, why do we feel so guilty? The answer is, no doubt, complicated – related in part perhaps to what we see in the world around us – anger that quickly escalates into violence can, indeed, cause us to fear anger – our own and others. But this is anger that is left unchecked. There is a chapter called “Praying with Anger” in Jane Redmont’s book When in Doubt, Sing – some of you who are in the Wednesday night Spirituality group may have read it. In this chapter, Redmont writes: “Anger is. It is no ‘should’ or ‘should not’ in our lives, but a natural response to loss, illness, personal misfortune, and social injustice” [p. 130] and, she continues, “our anger is no burden for God. God can take it. Go ahead. . . Yell at God. God will still be there, God will still love you. The earth will not open and swallow you up” [pp. 132-3].

[Ad Lib here about the “recycling God”]
--- sorry blog-readers, you had to be there---

Yes, anger keeps our relationship with God alive in our hearts at a time when all else around us is falling apart.

Very often, in our personal lives, we express our anger and frustration to the person we love the most, the person who loves us most, because we trust that even through our anger, they will continue to love us. How much more so with God! Expressing anger is not sinful; expressing anger keeps us connected in times of vulnerability and deep pain. And expressing our anger at God can, in fact, be a great show of faith – after all, would you really be yelling at God if you no longer believed in God? And so it would seem that the story of the Shunemite woman and Elisha is still a story about great faith – even when - or especially when - we leave in the part about her anger.