Friday, October 12, 2012

19 Pentecost, Year B, 7 October 2012

Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

The Righteous, we are told by the psalmist this morning, will walk on level ground. “I have lived, and will live, with integrity.”

Sounds pretty good for the most part. Live the right way; do the right things (and avoid the wrong ones) and all will be well. Presumably that means in the opposite case, that the one who does not live righteously, who does all the wrong things and breaks the rules will be punished. We sort of like that idea—it certainly undergirds our notions of justice, and many of our modern public discussions (or battles) over a number of hot-topic issues. The deserving should be rewarded and the undeserving passed over; the good people should get the good stuff, and the wicked ones cast into outer darkness. We want (or we think we want) everyone to get what they deserve.

Here’s the problem: It doesn’t work that way. In spite of his protestations of right behavior, nevertheless the Psalmist is asking for God’s mercy. He (or she) pleads for a favorable judgment against foes and adversaries: “Give judgment for me, O Lord…redeem me and have pity upon me.” Something is already amiss; something has gone terribly wrong. How is it, that those who do the right thing often are not rewarded; or even worse (or so we think) that those who blatantly do the wrong thing are not punished?

It’s not FAIR! We screech in our best five-year-old temper-tantrum voice…internally or externally. I don’t deserve this—this sickness, this hardship, this unemployment, this struggle. And mostly, we are right to say so. Because mostly it’s not about deserving. Mostly, IT happens. IT happens to everyone. We can tell our own stories of when IT happened to me; we can tell other stories, of people we know and love, when IT happened to them.

This morning we begin to read the book of Job. Whom, we are told from the beginning, is a righteous man, who honors God and oversees the well-being of his family and those around him; who pays all his bills on time and gives generously to those in need; who goes to the gym every morning and works out, does his cardio workout and eats plenty of leafy green vegetables…and yet. And yet. In one day (the passage is omitted from the reading this morning) IT happens: Job loses all ten of his children in a terrible accident; he loses all of his livestock and slaves to foreign invaders; and now he loses health and strength and bodily comfort as well.

Thus begins the story of Job, written centuries before the time of Jesus. The book of Job is the closest thing we have in scripture to a theatrical play, with a cast of actors and dramatic speeches on all sides. It takes as its subject a sustained inquiry into the ways of God, which do not always make sense to us human beings. Perhaps there is a pattern, or a plan we can’t see. Perhaps God is intending something in all of this, which is yet beyond our comprehension. Perhaps it’s just random—as the bumper sticker has it, “Stuff Happens”, no pattern or plan at all. The fact is, we don’t know. It remains beyond our ability to know, in the sense of possessing sufficient factual evidence to construct a plausible scenario according to the rules of human logic. God is beyond human logic, as Job will find out.

When Job’s friends come to comfort him, they sit with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, in absolute silence. No one says a word… “For they saw that his suffering was very great.”

I have often counseled families who are in mourning, after losing a loved one, that they are now in the ding-dong zone. The Ding-Dong Zone is that emotionally fragile time where friends and neighbors mean to be comforting, but often try too hard and say things that don’t really help at all. They mean well…BUT.

For which reason, Job’s friends (in this at least) are a good example. They sit with him in silence. They don’t try to explain, or excuse, or make it all better. They do not fill the silence with chatter to relieve their own discomfort. They simply go to be with him. They are there to weep with him. And for then, that is enough.

When IT happens, all explanations are hollow.

Only later, when there has been silence, and weeping, and rage; when IT has been received and acknowledged and dealt with insofar as possible, can explanation and interpretation possibly begin to unfold. And that is what happens in this morning’s second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews.

It’s not really a letter at all—it’s a sermon or teaching document, looking at the ministry of Jesus, using the work and ministry of the high priest in the Jerusalem temple as an interpretive key. Over and over the writer (who was not St. Paul, by the way) contrasts the ministry of the earthly priest in the temple with the ministry of Jesus, understood to be the heavenly pattern and perfection of the earthly temple ministry.

The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is trying to make sense of what has happened: Christ died and was buried; Christ was raised, and was seen by many before his ascension and return to God. Who is this Jesus after all, and how are we to understand him? The writer makes significant claims for who Jesus is—listen again to the opening lines: (1:3-4)

“He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”

And yet…and yet. In spite of this magnificent beginning (from the beginning, IN the beginning, was the Word…echoes of the gospel of John, itself echoing the first chapter of Genesis), in spite of all these amazing credentials, nevertheless… “we…[have seen] Jesus, who for a little while was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”

Somehow that suffering, in his arrest and trial, at the hands of the Roman soldiers and as he hung on the cross had meaning in it, or perhaps meaning was found out later. “Christ died, and was buried; Christ rose, and was seen.” (I Cor. 15: 3-5) The suffering alone is only suffering, even for Jesus; when IT happened, IT required the others, watching and waiting, in silence, to discover that IT was more than just suffering. To see the resurrection on the third day, and thus begin to understand what could God be up to, in THIS?

In “tasting death for everyone”, Jesus participates fully in what it means to be human. There is nothing left out, from birth to death, that he does not undergo as part of the human experience. And so there is no part of our human experience that gets left out of his redeeming, saving work.

When IT happens in our lives—the deaths, the undeserved sufferings, the stuff that makes us look up and ask WHY?—we may not get the answer we’re looking for at all. Because mostly we’re not looking for explanations. We’re looking for someone to be with us. Someone to sit on the ground and weep with us. Someone to help us feel that we are loved, and that we have not been abandoned, and that we will be able to take the next breath, the next step. That light and life and love will come again, even into the midst of our own loss and grief and pain.

Our gospel this morning adresses a subject that has caused enormous loss and grief and pain in many lives. Every person in this room has been touched by divorce, either their own or that of someone close to them. It is part of the world in which we live. The Pharisees are looking to get Jesus into trouble—the verse immediately prior to the section we heard read tells us that they are back in Judea near Jerusalem. In their world, King Herod the Not-So-Great and his courtiers made a regular practice of divorce and remarriages for political advantage, at times between family members of blood kinship. So it may be that this passage is reflecting a political soap opera going on in the background. Again—we don’t know.

We do know that Jesus has been preaching the kin-dom of God from the beginning. He is always directing hearers in a consistent direction: That God, who created all things and called them good, desires the well-being of all the creation and everyone in it. That the world and all who dwell therein have one Maker, and share one source and one ultimate goal. And that when we lose sight of that, and start drawing lines in the sand and circles to keep one another apart, we’ve missed the point altogether. “What God has joined together” doesn’t just mean the bride and groom on their wedding day; it means you and me and all of us together in this world, along with the stars and the starfish and the sub-atomic particles. We are all part of one another, at the heart of things. We may try to divide ourselves from one another—and we do try. We may imagine that we can just walk away, not look back, you go your way and I’ll go my way—but life in God’s creation really doesn’t work like that.

One of my wisdom people, a great mentor and priest in New Jersey (who was himself divorced many years before I knew him) made the comment that “You can’t “un-marry” someone. You always have them with you, regardless.”

This gospel passage and others like it have been misused over the years, creating guilt and shame, to keep people in miserable and even violent relationships that had long since lost any quality resembling Holy Matrimony. That is no longer AS true as it used to be—although we could all tell stories about people we know, for whom that twisting of the Gospel is still operative. Although I suppose there are persons who thoughtlessly get married and then divorced, I don’t think I know any. (Well, maybe one. But he’s got much bigger issues that have yet to be addressed…) No one I know goes into marriage “unadvisedly or lightly” as the Prayer Book says, and part of my ministry as a priest is to help folks who are intending to get married to do so with the best possible preparation available, so that they can be successful in their marriages.

But sometimes IT happens there too. For whatever reason, under whatever circumstances may be operative.

And there also, in the midst of loss and brokenness and shame and anger and all the other attendant emotions that may show up, we look for God’s presence. We look for Jesus’ word to his followers on that Sunday evening in the upper room: Peace be with you. We look for the Holy Spirit to come with fire for cleansing and healing; with breath for life and renewal. We look for Grace, believing always that it is indeed holy, transforming, Amazing Grace that saves us, and restores us, and that will lead us home to God, who created us in his image and likeness and loves us always, even (especially) in the midst of the IT of our lives.

We don’t always get to know what God is up to, in our lives or in the lives of other people. Occasionally we get a glimpse—the tapestry gets flipped over for a moment, and instead of random threads going every which-a-way we see the big picture. But mostly we’re on the back of the tapestry, trusting that even if we don’t understand, even if we don’t see anything sensible in all this, that God is still God, and that we need not be afraid. As people of faith (and even just the tiniest little mustard seed bit of it some days; and some days we have to go next door to borrow some because we are all out ourselves), we hold fast to the belief that God is always present.

That Bidden or Unbidden, God will be there.

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