Tuesday, June 1, 2021

What can we say October 10? 20th after Pentecost

   Job 23:1-9, 16-17. It’s hard to lop off a small section of the mega-drama that is Job. {I wrote a short commentary (just 23 pages!) on the whole book of Job - and it is a whole, not just parts! - for the Wesley One Volume Commentary. Check it out!}

But chapter 23 could serve well if we establish the context of unjust, unexplained suffering. Job’s plea: does he not express the human condition people bring to church? Not sunny cross-stitchable platitudes, but that God just can’t be found. He hides on the left, can’t locate him to the right. “If only I could vanish into darkness.”

   A few thoughts, beyond the underrated virtue of simply opening up the agony of the human situation in God’s presence. Remember Job here is responding to Eliphaz, one of his fake friends, who blame, explain away, and justify his suffering. William Blake captured their finger-pointing! Preachers must warn and cajole our people not to do this!

   Also: in Job’s reply to Eliphaz, we overhear his relentless pursuit of God, seeking God any and everywhere. Seeking but not finding God can be a good thing. The Cappadocian Fathers understood that the marvel of the Christian life is in the seeking, not the finding. Like young lovers missing their beloved, we aren’t intended to find and possess God, but always to be yearning, grasping – and even when we apprehend God in some small measure, we only realize then how much of God we have not understood at all, and so the seeking is all the more intense.

   But Job gets nothing except affliction from God. St. John of the Cross contextualized this by suggesting this “dark night of the soul” is precisely the way God “strips the soul, leaving understanding in darkness, the will in aridity, sometimes in bitterness and anguish.” So stripped, we might gravitate toward a less naïve, simpler faith.

   Job reiterates his most passionate desire: not that God would fix everything, but that “He would surely listen to me” (23:6). This is humanity’s deepest need: to be heard, to be understood. But entirely in vain, Job looks for God in all directions, east, west, north and south – wishing for but not finding the tender, comprehensive kind of love spoken of in W.H. Auden’s poem (popularized in Four Weddings & a Funeral): 

“He was my North, my South, my East and West.” Job is sure that God knows where he is. And why? Apart from God’s omniscience, it’s also that “My feet have stayed right in his tracks. I have kept his way and not left it” (23:11). He knows he’s close to God! It’s required much courage though: Job feels spooked, even terrorized by God (23:15); the proper “fear of the Lord” has, for Job, been perverted into something sinister.

   Hebrews 4:12-16. If I chime in with Hebrews and say “The Word is alive,” etc., the pious will nod, skeptics will whisper to themselves, Yeah, prove it. Fascinating: this Word is “piercing,” not “comforting.” How to redirect people’s expectations of what they’ll find, and so what they might look for in Scripture? I’d like to be pierced, please. No hiding. All is laid bare: this is Scripture’s surgical work.

   I think I’ll tell people it sounds like being flayed alive – but the priest with the piercer is the pierced one, the one able to sympathize with our weaknesses. Weakness, as I probe in Weak Enough to Lead, is simply reality, not something to be cured, overcome or repaired. I want to be weak. I am already. My toughness is all faked, superficial. Faith is weakness before mercy, not strength in front of God. And so we approach the throne “with boldness.” Worth reiterating: it’s a bold thing, praying, living for God, not casual, chatty, presumptuous or entitled.

   Some day I’ll devote a whole sermon to this “time” quote, as lots of those corny half-truths people are fond of involve time: God has his own timing! God’s an “on time God.” And so forth. God’s not watching God’s watch, waiting to intervene, then dipping that divine finger into the world to dazzle us with a quick miracle or a wink. The time of need? Like now. Or now. Isaac Bashevis Singer said “I only pray when I am in trouble. But I am in trouble all the time.” It’s not time for God. Time is God’s. All of it. And beyond.

   Mark 10:17-31. As texts speak to clergy (hopefully) long before they morph into sermons, let’s recall Karl Barth’s humorous and spot-on remark: “Can even the clergy be saved? With the clergy, this is impossible. But with God, all things are possible.”

   On heels of welcoming children, being childlike (context, context!), Jesus is approached by a grownup, mature, religious, successful, and way more clueless than the little children about being with Jesus. He asks: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Inherit? When we inherit money or property, it’s a gift, sure, but really it’s an entitlement. Watch someone not inherit what he thought he had coming! Children don’t understand stuff like inheriting. They just relish gifts.

   He thinks it’s a matter of doing. Jesus sets him up by asking about the commandments, prompting a funny (to us, not him!) reply: “I have kept all these since I was a boy.” Who among us has avoiding coveting, who’s observed Sabbath, no other gods, and if Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is any clue, avoiding adultery and murder (since for Jesus these are lust and anger)? Jesus doesn’t chuckle or admonish. Instead, “Jesus looked at him.” How tender, how personal. “And he loved him.” A total stranger, confused. “Jesus loved him.” Sarah Ruden renders this “Looking intently at him, Jesus felt affection for him.”

   Peering into the depths of his soul, Jesus says “One thing you lack.” Or Ruden: “You’re missing one thing.” Just one? Easy! Thought it might be a dozen or a hundred. To Martha, busy with entertaining, rushing about doing many things, Jesus said “One thing is needful” (Luke 10:42). Here, the “one thing” is really the same: “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, then come, follow me.” We focus too much on the giving everything away, which seems foolish or impractical, although St. Francis of Assisi, Millard Fuller (founder of Habitat) and many have done just this.  

   I’m reminded of David Wilcox’s funny routine on when someone gives you directions and adds “Go down the road till you reach the really big blue Poodle and turn right. You can’t miss it,” “which is the kiss of death. Because then I’ll be driving and driving and I’ll think I must have missed it. Like love. I asked my parents, How will I know when it’s true love? They say Oh, you’ll know. Imagine, 85 years old, and I’m still looking for the big blue Poodle.”

   The point is “Come and follow me,” which this man can’t do because he’s enmeshed in his pre-exiting life, he can’t extricate himself, he has other priorities. Remember those first disciples dropped their nets, their business, and followed. Mary, unlike Martha, dropped her busy-ness to sit at Jesus’ feet. “The man’s face fell, and he went away sad.” Jesus makes you happy? He made this man sad.

   How hard is it for the rich to be saved? “Harder than a camel passing through the eye of a needle.” You may have heard there was a low gate in Jerusalem camels had to crawl through on their knees. False. Never was such a gate. It’s not really hard to be saved. It’s impossible – except with God! I love Frederick Buechner’s paraphrase: “It’s harder than for Nelson Rockefeller to get through the night deposit slot of the First National City Bank.” Camels were the largest living creatures Jesus’ listeners ever saw, and the needle’s eye was the smallest aperture they could imagine. What must we do to inherit eternal life? Forget the doing. It’s all gift, not entitlement or earning. But to receive it, notice how full your arms are already…

  St. Augustine’s words can’t be improved upon: “Riches are gained with toil and kept with fear; they are enjoyed with danger and lost with grief. It is hard to be saved if we have them, impossible if we love them, and scarcely can we have them but we shall love them inordinately. Teach us, Lord, this difficult lesson: to manage conscientiously the goods we possess.”

   Unrevealed Until its Season, my new book of theological reflections on familiar lines from familiar hymns, has just come out! This would make a great group study for Lent, and might feed your preaching, and the connections between preaching and the rest of worship. Check it out!

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