Year B, Proper 23 October 11, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
Let’s just pause for a moment and let that gem from the gospel echo a bit longer… “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God…But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Let’s pause for a moment and let the words of St. Paul echo a bit longer… “The word of God is living and active, sharper then any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.”
And from our brother Job, let his words linger as well:
"If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; On the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!"
Add the 22nd Psalm, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” I don’t know what you call a four-part trifecta, but we’ve got that is our lection for this Sunday, Year B, Proper 23. No one is left unscathed by these slivers of the Word of God. And even the Collect of the Day, “Lord, we pray that your grace may always precede and follow us, (and why?) that we may continually be given to good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord…”
This scripture is piercing. Hard hitting. It hits us hard, especially those of us who live privileged lives. These readings reminds us of the injustice of privilege, or even harder, that privilege, ability, wisdom even are no insulation from the viscidities of life. This is hard scripture for a lovely October day, but life is hard. This week, wheh… hard. There is something going on downtown that is hard, someone is on the knifes edge of death down on Olive and Broadway. There is stuff here at church that is hard, community is hard, our budget for next year is going to be hard. The light is fading which makes the chickens lay less than we’d like; so does the fox that’s been hanging around. Life is hard.
And speaking of hard, how is your homework going, reading Job. Pretty hard, no? That Zophar is a pitiless one. I read pretty closely up through today’s reading, chapter 23, the first two rounds between Job and his three friends. “Have confidence in God,” says Elifaz. “God’s justice is unswerving,” says Bildad. “Acknowledge God’s wisdom,” says Zophar. And Job? Job maintains that he does not understand the workings of the world, he does not understand the workings of God, but that he didn’t do anything like his friends are assuming he did, and he wants to know why he is suffering so. Any thoughts? Do read it.
I’ve had a few conversations with folks about Job which are quite related to our gospel reading today. I don’t know if concerning, is the word for these chats, but we just need to lift them up. Certainly here, I think for Episcopalians most places, probably for the mainline protestant churches in general… God, faith, faith in God, reliance on God, our understanding of God’s place in our lives… it seems very different here and now that it seems to have been for the author of Job 2500 years ago, or for St. Mark in the middle of the 1st century. I have been in ministry in one form or another for 15 years now, and only once in those fifteen years has anyone ever asked me the Job question: “Why is God doing this to me?” And wouldn’t you know it, that question was posed to me 14 ½ years ago as an ignorant and scared Unitarian volunteering at a little rural hospital in Western Massachusetts. I had nothing to fall back on for this young woman in a terrible situation; there was a suicide attempt, drugs, kids taken, terrible. And that is what she asked, “Why is God doing this to me?” And now, with the benefit of years of having a Christian faith, years of a relationship with God in Christ and a life a prayer and being part of communities of faith, years of education and training and experience and the mystery of ordination to Holy Orders, I would still give the same answer to one of you today that I gave her back then: I don’t think it is God doing that to you, and then like Job, we’ll sit in silence in the wake of your lament, sit in the pain like Job would have done with his friends had they not started poking at him. But, as I said, I’ve only heard that question once.
It is a lot like the lead in to St. Mark’s story today. What did the man ask as he ran up to Jesus? “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” How do I get saved? How do I get to heaven? That question has occupied a lot of time, for a lot of people for a very, very long time. It still does. I’ve never had that question posed to me. Either folks aren’t asking me that question, or it is not something on your all’s minds. I am guessing that it is the latter.
As I said last week, the Book of Job is not about the suffering of the innocent or even about just plain old suffering. Job is about talking about God in the face of the suffering of the innocent. How can we talk about God being good in a world full of so much evil? How can we have faith in the goodness of God in a world full of so much suffering? That is Job’s question, what our reading for today from Job 23 drills right down to. “I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me…” but that is not what he is getting, what he is getting is nothing, what he is getting is silence. “If I go forward he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but cannot see him.”
My question, about Job’s question and the man’s question to Jesus about getting to heaven, is that I don’t know how live these questions are for us in this room. One person told me about a Job class offered here years ago that freed her to be disappointed in God, freed her to rail against God, to be angry with God and that God could handle her anger. That is patently true; God can handle our anger and a whole lot more. But again, this is one of a couple of times, lik two or three times that anyone has talked to me about being angry with God.
Now of course, this could all be because we are Episcopalians and we don’t talk about things like this; you know, about our relationship with God. We’re all chained to the altar rail together and we might be horrified by what the person next to us actually believes so it is better for everyone to just practice our faith together rather then talk about it. It’s private, thank you very much. Seriously, besides the trouble that preachers get into not knowing what needs to be preached about, this is one of the deep gifts of the Anglican way to the body of Christ, ours is a practice based form of Christianity, not belief based. Our gathering, our common Prayer, our sharing of the Sacraments, clothed in the Word and songs and children, sometimes incense and bells, the bread and wine each week bring us to God, not closer to God, but to God. If you are here and you keep coming back, you know of this.
For ours, here is a particularly active faith. Active in the practice of our religion, not only in our sacramental life together, but also in our faith with works life together: the second Sunday breakfast, Home Starter Kit, pastoral care, religious education. Our faith is active. I am very active. Here in church: busy, busy, busy. Out in the community? Same same. And I know how active, how busy so many of you all are. Doing good works of every conceivable type. From a ride to the dentist, to holding someone in prayer year after year, to opening up that check book to keep these doors open and me in this pulpit. And I feel threadbare sometimes. Worn down by the suffering I witness. Worn down by the relentlessness of maintaining systems, be it assisting in keeping a homelife functioning or helping a parish stay on track, like keeping the coffee hour rota filled. Wears one down. Worn down by the surprising frequency that Sundays come up. You all know what I am talking about, no one in this room is sitting around doing nothing, wasting time. You all are busy, too busy, we all are, our whole society is busy, too busy for our own or anyone else’s good.
And then I come back to scripture. I read Job. How can I talk about God in the face of such suffering? And I read St. Mark, “…what must I do to inherit eternal life?” I come back to scripture and encounter these ancient questions. I have to confess, those are not pressing questions in my life. They are not. As far as I can tell, those are not pressing questions in your lives, not most of them. But that does not mean that they shouldn’t be. That doesn’t mean that they couldn’t be. That doesn’t mean that those questions are irrelevant or dated or anything but extremely useful and even necessary for living a life of faith. “The word of God is living and active, sharper then any two edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” It does and it will help you do so, too.
Parents, you are the first catechists. That’s the first of what I am sure will be many things I learn from Stefani our new Director of Children and Youth Ministry. Ponder these questions with your children. (And even at age 50 they are still your children). There is no right answer. Christians, you were ordained in your baptism as priests in the priesthood of all believers. Ponder these questions in your heart. You have everything you need to do that; there is no right answer. We can’t save ourselves, not here or in the age to come; that much is abundantly clear, just ask Job or Jesus. But these questions of old… they might not seem that pressing to us right now, but how much closer to God might pondering them bring us? Read ahead, it worked for Job. For the rich man kneeling before Jesus? We can only hope. AMEN