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Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! -Luke 12: 51
This is one of those tough texts… all the more because this is actually Jesus speaking. This talk of fire and division doesn’t really sound like the Jesus we know and love, however, does it? Of course we think that Jesus has come to bring peace to the earth – isn’t that what the angels in Bethlehem promised?
It’s hard to hear this angry-sounding Jesus who is talking about something that sounds more like a scorched-earth policy than like grace. Division that doesn’t sound like the call to relationship that we are accustomed to hearing in the Gospels; it doesn’t sound like the mutuality and trust that marks so much of discipleship.
Granted, scriptures like this make a lot of Christian history make sense. Read something like this, and suddenly it’s much easier to understand the bloodshed that has marked the institutional church nearly since its very early years. Crusades, colonialism, dominant culture… we can see where acts like these are rooted, when texts like this come along. Still: it feels pretty horrible, hearing all of this from Jesus himself, as though he would have approved of all the violence of Christian history. It’s disconcerting. Disorienting.
Bishop Yvette Flunder, pastor of City of Refuge UCC in San Francisco, gave a talk once in which she reminded us that texts like this can not only be used to justify past violence, but can also be actively used to excuse the violence and oppression of the present time; to suggest to those who know oppression that life is just hard, and violence is simply a normal part of human existence. This world is full of trials, says the theology of oppressed communities (in Flunder’s example, the American Black churches). Hardship and oppression is the status quo, the human condition; therefore faithfulness means enduring the terrible things that life gives you, in order to achieve God’s Kingdom in the life to come. Moreover, faithfulness means not fighting back against that which signals the coming realm, for to do so is to work against God, and God’s plan for us; possibly even to forfeit your place in that realm.
Neither interpretation probably feels right, to many of us today. Yet I would argue that it is a failure on the part of progressive Christianity that we cannot easily articulate a more loving and grace-filled vision, even in a text like this one. It says a lot about the progressive church that we are left to our feelings of discomfort and disorientation, when Jesus speaks words like this. It says something about our continued reliance on uncomfortable theology. Yet it says, I think, even more about our failure of imagination when it comes to God’s realm – when it comes to peace or love – than anything else.
For peace is not the absence of conflict. The prophet Jeremiah, whose writing Jesus knew and quoted often, warned against those who preached peace in this way, saying, “they have treated the wound of my people carelessly”. For to understand peace simply as the absence of conflict is to put a bandaid on a gaping wound. It is the patch that smooths over but does not mend.
Nor is love complete agreement, as most families would, I think, understand. How many of us are in complete agreement even with those we love most? Rather, we love one another “even though”. Just a couple chapters ago in this same gospel, we read the story of the Good Samaritan – perhaps the prime example of loving-even-though.
That parable, so familiar yet so hard, placed just two chapters back from these disconcerting, disorienting words, serves as a reminder that context matters.
Because we can make the scriptures say a lot of the things we want to hear. We can make the Bible justify our thirst for violence and our acceptance of oppression, even from within… but only if we ignore the larger context. Only if we remove these passages from their place within the larger story, and allow them to speak for themselves, in a way that they were never intended to do.
Here, of course, the immediate context is Luke’s Gospel, which tells story of God’s love; love which gives voice to the voiceless, including women & foreigners. Love which crosses human boundaries, even unto our enemies, even unto Samaritans. Love which provides for all, no matter how seemingly insignificant. For just a few verses before this morning’s passage, we hear Jesus remind us that even the sparrows – sold 5 for 2 pennies – are not so insignificant that they are forgotten by God (12:6). We hear how even the ravens, those scavenging omens of evil (12:24); even the flowers and the grass, who have no consciousness, no will of their own (12:27, 28) are fed and clothed and nurtured and known by the God who created all things. Then the Gospel asks, if God so loves these, whom we would consider insignificant, how much more does God love us?
Luke’s Gospel tells story of God’s love: a boundless, uncontainable love, a love that doesn’t make sense in human terms. God’s love is a love that pushes back against empire, against our culture, against our comfort with oppression, and with inequality, and with injustice.
Luke’s Gospel and the portrait of God’s love that it paints, is actually a pretty scary thing, if we take it seriously. And it’s going to cause divisions – it already did, even in Jesus’ time! For giving voice to voiceless means hearing new things, things we have probably not wanted to hear before. Crossing human boundaries means seeing beyond ourselves, thinking as much of others as we think of ourselves. Loving-even-though means reflecting on our prejudices, biases; doing the uncomfortable work of self-examination and change.
To live into God’s love is not a choice to be undertaken casually. Christianity is not a half-hearted, feel-good movement, as much as we might wish it to be. Because the world we live in is not entirely the world that God created; it is of our making, and we did not build it on God’s love, but on human brokenness, on our willingness to live in fragments and to love within limits such as shared appearance or experience. To live into God’s love is to push back, hard, against the world. It is to put needs of many ahead of needs of few, even when we’re part of few. It is to listen without defensiveness to those who say they’ve never felt that their lives mattered. It is to grieve those whose despair drives them to senseless acts of violence; it is recognizing our own participation in a violent culture.
To live into God’s love is a counter-cultural act, and, as Jesus knew, a divisive one. For it calls us to reject what those around us – those we love – accept as the status quo, the human condition. It is to reject the systems in which we are told that it is God’s will (!) that some succeed, while some simply endure, and that questioning those systems remove us from God’s favor.
For I will push back, as Bishop Flunder pushed back, against the idea that the oppression of some and power of others might simply be the human condition; that the brokenness of this world is something simply to be endured for the sake of the hereafter. That remains view of those who would simplify love to agreement; that remains the view of the modern-day prophets who cry peace for the sake of making discomfort end, rather than for the sake of bringing justice; for the sake of the quasi-peace that silences dissent and lets wounds fester.
And I think Jesus would push back, too.
Jesus, who here speaks of love beyond divisions. Jesus, who reminds us not to fear. Jesus, who tells us time and again that God’s love is deeper than our divisions, that God’s love sinks all the way in, to root of our cracks, to our deepest fears and our deepest needs, to the stories and experiences that formed us… and there works healing, and peace, in our deepest selves.
That is, itself, a divisive notion indeed, as Jesus knew. It is divisive to commit ourselves to a discipleship that calls us away from this culture’s values and its judgments. It is divisive to live vulnerably, in a world that prizes security. It is divisive to live generously, in a world that prefers to see scarcity. It is divisive to live in the discomfort of self-examination in a world that tells us we’ve earned our comfort. It is divisive, because when we do our own work of self-examination, of justice-seeking, we call into question the choices of those around us – even those in our own families – and we can easily feel burned.
Division doesn’t feel like Good News. It doesn’t feel like grace. But the Good News has never been that discipleship is easy. It is never been that God’s grace enables us to allow harmful systems to persist because hey, we’ll be forgiven, so it’s all cool. The Good News has never been that there is a better life awaiting, once we’ve endured the horrors of this one.
The Good News is that even in the midst of division, even in the scary place of pushing back against the world for the sake of God’s realm, we are not alone; we are seen, and known, and loved. The Good News is that those who cry for justice are beloved, and we who hear those cries, and respond in love – even if it seems to cause division – are bringing God’s realm. The Good News is that, as scary as this work can seem, as much as it might seem like walking through fire, the true work of discipleship is not a patch job on the divisions the world imposes, but rather the deep, systemic work of love that builds enduring bridges and fills in the broken places. And we come through the fires tempered, stronger, made new in God’s love.
The Good News is that the God who knows each sparrow, who feeds the raven, who clothes the grasses of the field in splendor, created each of us, and blessed us so that we, fearful and broken as we might be, are still enough: to change the world, to walk through the fires, to bring God’s realm with life-giving love and enduring peace. Thanks be to God. Amen.
“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” Matthew 16: 24-25
This text from Matthew is, in my opinion, one of most abused scriptures out there. It has so much baggage that several pastors I know, as we were looking at this week’s lectionary, wondered how on earth they might preach this one. How could they preach a text that had been so entirely conflated with the popular phrase, “it’s just your cross to bear”: the ultimate phrase of victim blaming and abuse ignoring, laid especially upon the powerless, and notably upon women. It is a phrase we hear colloquially, repeated in sometimes well-meaning ways in the face of illness, abuse, suffering; it is a phrase, however, that can keep people from seeking recourse to end their sufferings.
“It’s your cross to bear” glorifies suffering for sake of suffering; it suggests that Christianity is incomplete without suffering, while ignoring the underlying reasons for pain. So many, clergy included, hear that phrase, or the one from this morning’s lesson – “take up your cross” – and understand it to mean “grin and bear it”, or simply, “get over it.” They hear dismissal, and silencing.
But really, none of those understandings sound much like Jesus to me. Jesus, who healed the ill and the infirm; Jesus, who stood up for the outcast, who questioned the status quo… that Jesus doesn’t seem like someone who would turn to us now, and tell us to just “get over it.”
So if that’s not what he meant, what’s all this “take up your cross” business, anyway?
We, who see crosses on a daily basis, have a very particular understanding when we see that symbol. But it is important to remember, as we read this morning’s text, that the disciples to whom Jesus was speaking had a very different image in their heads when the cross was invoked. For we are, in this text, still in a time before Jesus’ crucifixion; before the cross came to mean redemption, and triumph, and Christ. As Jesus spoke this words to his disciples, the cross was still a sign of the Roman occupation: a sign of humiliation, as the condemned was forced to carry the heavy, torturous instrument of his own death. To invoke the cross, in that moment, was to invoke the boos, jeers, and catcalls of the crowds that would gather to watch the execution. It was to call to mind the degrading, dehumanizing treatment that a criminal would receive before death – and the jeering superiority of the crowd adding to the humiliation. Crucifixion was the treatment reserved for the lowest of the low, the worst criminals who would seem to deserve all of the added torture and misery heaped upon them before they died.
That would have been the imagery in the disciples’ heads, as Jesus spoke. That was the imagery that Jesus turned on its head, as he was so good at doing, to teach us all a lesson in discipleship.
Because Jesus was not talking about forced humiliation. His phrasing is clear: deny yourselves and TAKE UP the cross. Do not wait until it is handed to you, or laid upon you, but take it up yourself. Choose it for yourself. Choice is essential in this, and in all of Jesus’ lessons about discipleship and witness. We must choose, freely and without coercion.
And what happens when we choose the cross? when we choose to stop thinking of ourselves as “better than this”, stop resenting that we “don’t deserve such treatment”? What happens when we stop feeling smug about ourselves because we’re so obviously better than that scum criminal who must deserve the humiliation of punishment? What happens when we choose to be identified with those who endure regular humiliation or dehumanization? when we strip away the ego that constantly compares Us to Them; the human judgment of who deserves what suffering, what joy, what fate; the self interest that keeps us looking after our own first, even if others get hurt; the self-protection that allows some to become “others” in the first place?
What we are left with, when we have stripped away all human vanity is not humiliation, but humility: the self denial that allows understanding that we are simply dust, made in God’s image; that we are the same dust, all of us; made in the same image, and animated by same spirit. We are left with the understanding – in our hearts and souls as well as our heads – that *our* selves are no more worthy, no more beloved, than any other, and that when some of this dust suffers, we are all made weaker; we all suffer, all of us who are this dust of God’s creation, this image of God made manifest in the world.
The Jesus I know – the Jesus of the Gospels, the one who did, in fact, take up his cross – would never have told an abused wife “it’s your cross to bear”. The Jesus I know wouldn’t tell thousands on hillside to go hungry after a long day of preaching “because you all really should have thought ahead.” The Jesus I now wouldn’t refuse healing to an outsider, whether a Syro-Phonecian woman worried about her daughter, a Samaritan woman at a well, or the slave of a Roman centurion.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t dredge up someone’s past misdeeds, or indulge in victim blaming, to excuse a blatant act of racism or sexism.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t turn anyone away from that font, or this table, or any gathering of God’s people.
The Jesus I know wouldn’t love the sinner and hate the sin; in fact, he wouldn’t hate at all. Because the Jesus I know – throughout the complex contradictions of the Gospels – consistently tried to teach us to love one another, and not just give lip service to love, and compassion, and relationship. I suspect he would have quite liked Paul’s instructions, in Romans, for living in community, which call us to care for the whole community more than for any one individual; to the setting aside the ego, the “me”, for the sake of the “us”. Paul, like Jesus, here calls us to denying our selves, even if it costs us something; whether that cost is our self-interest, or the satisfaction of revenge, or our human sense of fairness.
And it may well cost us.
It is a frightening proposition to set our selves aside; to let go of our self interest, of the self protection that gives us a sense of power and control in this world. It makes us feel a fear akin to humiliation when those who were previously derided or despised, jeered or booed, are those whom we now need to love – really love – in order to be in right relationship with God. It makes us fearful, disoriented, when those who have borne the brunt of humiliation seem suddenly to be more important, to get more attention, than we who have been beloved and not shamed… and we hesitate to ask why we felt so important and deserving that we resent sharing this love that we have known.
It may cost us, when we live and love as Paul counsels, when we seek the utter humility of choosing the cross; choosing to live by Christ’s love. It may make us feel powerless. But that probably means we’re doing something right. Because love doesn’t offer self-protection, it doesn’t work for our self interest: love makes us vulnerable. Love opens us to the pain of others – the humiliation, degradation, and dehumanization that many endure on a daily basis. Love opens us to fearful understanding of our interconnectedness, and the overwhelming needs of this world.
Choosing love may cost us, because love doesn’t make any one of us powerful, but strengthens us all, so that, forsaking our selves – our self-interest, our self-protection, our self-centeredness – we may take up our cross and our humility, exchanging our power for God’s.
May we so choose. May we lay down our individual needs, for the love of all who share in our dust, who share in God’s image, until we can stop asking, “what about me”; until we can stop judging one another with our very human values, and begin loving with God’s love.
May we so choose.
Let us take up our cross, despite the jeers, the boos, the catcalls, the derision.
Let us take up our cross, not so we may be abused or condone abuse, but so that none ever shall be again.
Let us take up our cross and lay down our lives, so that love might triumph over fear, over death.
Let us take up our cross, in full view of this world, and follow the one who calls us to abundant life and immeasurable love.
“The angel of God called to Hagar from heaven, and said to her, ‘What troubles you, Hagar? Do not be afraid; for God has heard the voice of the boy where he is. Come, lift up the boy and hold him fast with your hand, for I will make a great nation of him.” -Genesis 21:17b-18
You’ll hear it over and over again: common wisdom holds that the Old Testament God is vengeful, heartless, bloodthirsty; while the New Testament God is one of grace and peace and love. As though they weren’t one and the same. It was a way, once upon a time, of creating distance between the Jewish community and the Jesus-followers, later Christians – identity formation often relies on “othering”, after all. Yet such broad generalizations, especially when they are as untrue as this one, only do us a disservice, we who use both as our sacred scripture. Such “common wisdom”, taken as infallible truth, closes our eyes to all but the most superficial readings of a Bible passage; closes our ears to the ways in which even ancient stories might speak to our lived reality today.
Unfortunately, it sometimes seems as though our revised common lectionary – the basis of so many sermons preached weekly on these very texts – are set up with these very biases at the core. As we read these snippets of text each week, we are tempted to take them out of context. In many ways, the structure of our lectionary – and the biases of a culture that divides narrative into “fiction” or “non-fiction” – sets us up to do some pretty serious mis-reading. It sets us up to read Genesis – and the Gospels, for that matter – as history rather than as a series of lessons about who God is, and how our relationship with God began, from a time when that relationship was just beginning. Reading in neat little chunks of text makes it easy for us to miss discontinuities pointing us to the larger themes, the ones that continue to speak to us today: we miss that Ishmael was already 13 a couple chapters earlier, yet his mother here carries him on her shoulder and casts him under a bush to die. We forget that Abram was promised descendants several times over, through multiple chapters. We lose the significance of Hagar: one of rare women to talk to God, and the only one to name God – and she was a foreigner, and Egyptian, to boot!
Significantly, we miss that this story isn’t really about Hagar or Ishmael. It’s not even about Abraham. This text is really about Sarah, and about God’s grace – yes, even in the Old Testament.
It doesn’t seem that way, from the few verses we read. It seems to be about a heartless God. At best, it seems to be about Abraham, and the development of the covenant: Abraham, who many chapters back, was promised offspring; was brought into relationship with God, even before the covenant was so painfully sealed. But in this story, it is Sarah’s role that ends up being the crucial one: Sarah, who hears the promises of children, but knows herself to be already old, so she deems God’s promises to be impossible. It is Sarah who takes matters – and common sense – into her own hands, sending Hagar to be the mother of that promised offspring. It is Sarah who takes action around God’s promises, which would seem to be a demonstration of her faith, but it is not. For it is not faith in God’s power, or faith in God’s abundance. Perhaps Sarah had heard the gospel according to Ben Franklin, that “God helps those who help themselves”… but that was not God’s word then, any more than it is in our Bible, or even our theology, now.
Sarah, consistently throughout these chapters of Genesis, sees things in human terms. She sees, not God’s knowledge or power, but her own age and the improbability of childbearing. She sees, not God’s breadth or abundance, but the practical impossibility of there being enough inheritance to go around, to support both Ishmael and Isaac. Sarah’s faith is in that which she can see, and touch, and understand with human perception and wisdom. And she refuses to be open to any larger possibility.
This story is about Sarah, certainly. But it is just as much about us.
We who so often judge by wealth; we who have lived so long in this materialist culture, believing in the American dream to the point where such a concept no longer seems weird: we who see even certain children as an inconvenience to be rid of; we are Sarah. We, who store away material needs for “just in case”, who live in the fear that there can never be enough, and that God’s promises require our manipulation, our negotiation, our assistance: we are convicted by this story, every bit as much as Sarah herself.
“I’m reminded that I live most days oblivious to my own wealth, comparing my standard of living to the standards of my upwardly-mobile friends and not to those billions of people worldwide living hand to mouth… For American consumerism thrives on a simple message – that what we currently have is not enough. Not big enough, not nice enough, not fast or hip enough. Not enough is hte matra of capitalism. At the same time, when it comes to my own economic habits, I can’t simply blame the capitalist machine. Pop culture may entice me to buy things I don’t need, but the truth is I like taking the bait. I like buying books instead of borrowing them from the library. I like new music and cardigan sweaters. Not enough is my mantra, too.
“But I’ve been thinking about the fact that the more I’m driven by an impulse to accumulate, the less free I am to meet the needs of other people… the more I need – or think I need – the less I’m able to love my neighbor with my wealth. If each morning I need an Americano from my local coffee shop, I’m not necessarily greedy (or am I?); I’m just less free to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to live responsibly towards my fellow human beings.” (p. 48)
In how we live, in how we understand ourselves and our place in this Creation, are we free to be in relationship with God? Have we so bound ourselves in fear and anxiety that we have entirely lost sight of everything but our own human needs, our own human senses and understandings? We are faced with God’s promises of life and of love in abundance beyond all comprehension… and our responses would seem to harken back more to Sarah than to Abraham – or to Hagar.
The authors go on:
“At least two things must be said: First, when it comes to caring for the poor in our localities, the sheer magnitude of the task can tempt us to apathy. However, on this point the Scriptures are clear: neglect those among us who have material and physical needs, and our rituals are meaningless… Second, many church leaders take this issue quite seriously. And each congregation has its own financial challenges, its own burdens to carry. But if God’s provision is going to meet the poor where they live, we must honestly assess what our church budgets say about our true priorities. Is meeting the needs of the marginalized a central or peripheral concern? What material and aesthetic comforts are we addicted to, and what sacrifices must we make so that all people have their basic needs met. Is the gospel we preach good news for rich and poor alike?” (p. 88)
In this culture, in this nation, in this church: are we preaching God’s grace, or human guilt? Do we trust, as Sarah couldn’t, in abundance? That there is, in fact, enough – enough resources, enough space, enough love, enough God to go around… and then some?
Do we, like Sarah, tend to our own needs first? Do we keep what we have for ourselves and our loved ones, do we live in that constant and abiding fear? Do we, as Sarah did, cast aside the inconvenient bodies so that our own might be better served?
Are we as absurd now as she was then?
God instructs Abraham to let Hagar and Ishmael go, as Sarah instructs, not because she is right in her actions, and certainly not because God is ruthless or cruel or uncaring – that’s us. This is the reminder to us that God considers all people, all bodies, beloved and worthy of life. This is the reminder that it is not God, but humanity who put not only grace and love and hope on the line, in all of our interactions and all of our understandings about this world, in our tendency to keep the very best things for ourselves. But we put on the line God’s very presence here among us in this creation, when we refuse to embody it ourselves and to live into it in everything that we do and every interaction in which we participate. It is not God but humanity who is willing to do harm to Christ’s very body, sacrificed, not on the cross, but on altar of scarcity which we ourselves have created, victim of our fears and our faithlessness.
Yet despite our blinding, heart-closing fear, this story is a demonstration of God’s grace, as God provides for Hagar and Ishmael in the wilderness, as God reassures Abraham of his son’s worthiness and well-being. It is, throughout these chapters of Genesis, a demonstration of God’s abundance and God’s grace – yes, even here in Genesis, even in the Old Testament, it is the demonstration of the God who has not changed since creation dawned. God, who gives with such generous to the stranger in a strange land, to the Egyptian slave woman, used and discarded by fearful humans. God, whose love encompasses beyond the covenant with Abraham and Isaac; whose abundance is so much more than we can comprehend, even we who still cannot count the stars! God, whose inheritance is big enough (and then some!) for both boys to become great nations in their own right.
God, is not like Sarah, is not like us. God does not measure on human scales of scarcity and need, but offers abundance to all: all, without measure; all, without restrictions; all who are willing to trust, and to be in relationship with God. What we see here in Genesis is what we see throughout our scriptures, lectionary notwithstanding: a God of grace, then and now and always with whom there will always be enough, if we can simply get our acts together, and learn to set aside fear, and to live in trust: of the promises made with such incomprehensible abundance.
When Jesus heard this, he was amazed at him, and turning to the crowd that followed him, he said, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” When those who had been sent returned to the house, they found the slave in good health. -Luke 7:9-10
I think there are certain passages in the Bible that we would prefer to skip, as we read through it; and it strikes me that this is probably one of them. This is one of those passages that we have a hard time dealing with – that is easy to dislike – because I don’t think there are many people who have not had some experience, either in their own lives or with a loved one, with this kind of illness. And so to hear about the grief and the desperation that drove the Centurion to seek out Jesus’ help – that makes sense to us. Yet we feel this is unfair – a Centurion, a Roman soldier, occupying force within Galilee and Judea, not part of the in-crowd around Jesus, not part of the group we usually root for in the Bible, this is the guy who gets his servant healed. And all of us, with our own experiences of grief and loss and desperation are left feeling rather deflated and hopeless.
Why can’t we have miracles now? Why can’t we have these shows of power, of God’s holy and healing presence among us, that would make those whom we love so dearly rise, and walk?
There are those, here in this country and around the world, who do believe that by acts of faith we can restore the health of a human being. There was a couple in the news just recently – now, in 2013 – a couple in Philadelphia who were jailed for the death of their second child from bacterial pneumonia, who had not sought medical attention although they had seen this illness coming. They had, instead, prayed that the child might be delivered from his illness, and that didn’t work out so well.
And we would like to believe that people like this are outliers, part of a minute fringe group that does not have a great presence, but in fact this is a good-sized faith community in Philadelphia. It’s a church that encourages its adherents to this level of faith healing. And so they’re caught between a rock and a hard place. Seeking medical attention for this child might have meant being turned out of this community that they knew, and that held them, prayed for them, prayed with them… But as it was, they not only lost their child, but the very community that they had counted on, being told that they had not prayed hard enough, that the child’s death marked them as sinful people who deserved, somehow, to lose their child.
It’s a no-win scenario.
I wish that in 2013 stories like this were relics of the past. I find myself being glad that this couple is being prosecuted for the deaths of their children. I find myself glad that they are being held accountable. I don’t know if that makes me a good Christian or not, but it’s how I feel. And yet, I’m left very uncomfortable with the juxtaposition of these two stories, in the news and in the Bible, as they come out so close to one another, and leave me unsettled. Because it doesn’t take a lot to hear in this Gospel story just what that couple heard, just what their community would have them hear: “Have faith and your loved one will be healed.” Doesn’t it sound like it’s all right there in front of us? And I think it’s especially uncomfortable to so many of us Christians who wonder if we are walking the line of faith correctly: if we are really putting our faith in humanity more than we are putting our faith in God, if maybe we ought to be just a little more faithful, just a little better at this Christianity thing.
You’re not getting that answer in this sermon. I don’t have it yet, sorry.
I do have a story for you, though. You’ve probably heard it before, it’s made the rounds in some form after most major recent disasters. There’s a flood – a huge, rising flood – and it threatens to swamp a man’s house. He goes up higher and higher in his house as the waters rise, until finally he’s sitting on the roof. And he shouts out his prayer: “Okay, God, I have faith in you, and that you will rescue me! Please come rescue me!” At that moment a guy in a canoe comes paddling by in the flood, and calls out, “Hey, you look pretty stuck – let me take you to higher ground!” But the man on the roof refuses: “No, thank you, my God will rescue me.” So the guy in the canoe goes on, and as the flood waters rise higher, the man on the roof prays again, “Oh, God, I have faith in you and that you will rescue me! You can come on down and rescue me now… please! Please?” And a woman comes by in a motorboat and calls to the man, “Hey, you look like you’re pretty stuck up there – come with me, I’ll take you to safety.” But again, the man on the roof refuses: “No, I’m fine. I have faith in my God, and my God will rescue me.” The woman shrugs, said, “Have it your way…” and goes on her way, looking for others who were stranded. And the flood waters keep rising, until the whole house is underwater and the man stands on his roof, knee-deep in the flood, shouting to the heavens, “Okay, God, now would be a really good time! Please God, I have faith! Come down and rescue me!” And as he is looking up to the heavens, he sees a helicopter descending, and a police officer sticks her head out and shouts, “Here, catch hold of the rope and we’ll pull you up! We’ll take you to safety!” Yet again, the man refuses, insisting on his great faith in God and his certainty of divine rescue. So the rope gets pulled back up, the helicopter leaves… and the inevitable happens. The man gets swept away in the rising flood waters and drowns. And when he finds himself in the afterlife, face-to-face with God, he gets pretty annoyed. “Alright, God,” he says, “What happened down there? I had faith! I never doubted that you would come rescue me! I waited for you! and you let me drown?!” And God responds, “Look, I sent you a canoe, a motorboat and a helicopter. What more did you want?”
The passage in this morning’s scripture lessons says more about our views of illness than about our views of faith. Specifically, it says more about our ancient views of illness than about ancient practices of faith. Because when illness is caused by demons and sin, of course you’re going to pray. And of course you go to your local prophet to be your healer, and if the Son of God happens to be wandering around your neighborhood, so much the better. But the thing is that we don’t live in that kind of a world anymore. In the words of John Polkinghorne, Cambridge astrophysicist and Anglican priest, we do not live in a world in which a Divine Being snapped Divine Fingers and create a world that was then exactly as it is now. Rather, God created a world that continues to create itself; that would continue to involve us in an ongoing Creation. And as we continue to create ourselves and we continue to learn about this world, we discover that it is not, in fact, demons who cause illness; that the things that cause illness cannot necessarily be prayed away. We know now about microbes, and germs, and little malignant cells with no sentience and no malice, and no idea what they are doing to the sentient beings that they are inhabiting.
So we don’t go to our local prophet. And we don’t take our ill relatives to our local pastor (for which I am grateful). We go to those who understand – with our current knowledge of illness – germs, and cells, and human biology and physiology. We go to the people whom we know can help, in whatever capacity that looks like. In other words, really, we do exactly what the centurion did.
Because, it’s funny, but this isn’t really a story about prayer. This isn’t really a story about one man being particularly “in” with the Divine – having such a good relationship with God, having such a powerful means of prayer that he could effect the healing of his slave.
Rather, it’s about a man in relationship with his community. This is about an outsider – a Roman, an occupier – who came in and did not see the occupied as inherently “other”, or as less-than, or as necessarily even different, but who came in respectful of those whom he served near. He came in serving them, helping them to build a synagogue. I think it’s worth noting that this man – this manifestation of the occupying force – managed to have two sets of friends that he could send ahead, to see Jesus on his behalf; the first set being the Jewish elders of the town, who pleaded in a totally unscripted moment on behalf of the occupying power. “This man is not one of us, Jesus, but he is a good man, and he is a loving man, and he is worthy of your attention.” We see in the centurion not a man who sits idly by his servant’s bedside, head bowed in prayer, sweating with the intensity of his praying. We see a man whose prayer is in his very action, in his choice to send his friends out to Christ. We see his prayer in the choices that he makes – to ask for the help he needs – and in the relationships that he has formed. We see this story as the story of one who recognizes that answers to prayers do not necessarily come in a divine flash of lightning that ZAP! heals the slave – in the way, perhaps, that we would want it to happen – but that healing and answer to prayer and divine presence come more often through human hands. This is a man, probably, who would have gotten on that canoe – let alone the motorboat or helicopter – as the flood waters rose.
And that faith, that Jesus commended so highly? That faith that he had not seen, even in Israel? I wonder where he heard it. Was it in the second message, a verbatim message from the centurion, delivered in the first person and saying, “We’re a lot alike, you know. I have authority over the men that I lead, you have authority over the powers of this world. We’re similar, you know that, Jesus? So I think you can help me out here.” Or is it in the inherent similarities that the centurion leaves out? The similarities in their perspective – in not looking at people as “other”, the implied statement from the centurion that he is friends with the Jews, to the point of helping them build their synagogue; the implication that “I am going to you even though I am not one of yours, because I don’t look down on you. I am asking for help from my slave, because even though he is ‘lesser’ than I am, I see him as a full human deserving of healing and deserving of love.”
Does this remind you of anyone? Maybe? Just a little bit?
This is a story of Jews and Gentiles coming together. This is a story of free men and slaves coming together and seeing one another as human and seeing one another as made in the divine image.
This is a story of someone who really gets it, very early on in Jesus’ ministry.
And we – most of the time – pretty much get it. We hope. This should be – this is! – very helpful to us as we read through an otherwise rather difficult text. Until we remember once again that God’s not so into these feats of power and these displays of miracles that show off what a great God we have. But that’s kind of Luke’s point, throughout the entire Gospel: we have to remember that Luke himself was a Gentile, writing to Gentile audiences, and that the underlying argument throughout the Gospel is that the God of Israel is a way-more-powerful God, and a way-more-worthy God, than any of those piddling little gods that the Greeks and the Romans and everyone else in the Mediterranean basin are currently worshiping. So everyone really ought to convert to this new Christianity thing.
We don’t really need that now, though. We don’t get the same displays, we don’t get the same emphasis. The whole divine healing thing is a rarity, at best. But in this moment of worry and fear, of wishing for those miracles, we are in great danger of being stuck up on that rooftop, letting the help float past us; refusing the very relationships – the experts and the friends – that actually will bring us the healing that we’re seeking.
And it makes me wonder: if those parents in Philadelphia had just taken the help that is out there – there’s a lot of help out there, for little kids who are sick – might they have experienced the very healing presence that they were so ardently praying for, in the hands, and in the smiles, and in the compassion, and in the wisdom, and in the knowledge of the doctors and nurses who could have restored life to their child?
For it is actually faith in God – not the lack thereof – that gets us to put ourselves and our loved ones into the care of those who are actually called to be healers; those people in whom we see the compassion and the presence by which we recognize God in this world. And we remember that we cannot always separate faith in humanity from faith in God – that only suggests that God can’t work through us, which we all know isn’t true. And it strikes me, from what I have seen, that there is a whole lot more presence in the hands of a nurse, or of a doctor, or of any compassionate person, than there was in the church that cast such judgment upon those parents; the church that would put the grief of parents aside, and cast them out of community.
And it strikes me that there is more healing presence in this space and in this time here today – in the letters and notes that I know you send to one another and to our loved ones; in the calls and the visits to those who are ill or grieving; in the prayers that we offer here every single Sunday as a community and that we carry in our hearts throughout the week. I know there is more presence here in the healing that we can – each and every one of us – offer, whether it takes the form of a canoe, or a motorboat, or a helicopter, or whatever the situation calls for. There is presence, and there is healing, right here.
And there is one more thing I know: that centurion’s slave, who was healed by Christ and by faith, is not still walking around Galilee and Capernaum. It’s two thousand years later – you know he didn’t make it that long. You know that the life that Jesus gave to that poor slave only extended a life that must, still, necessarily end. Jesus did not grant immortality to anyone. But I know that the love that is palpable in this story continued to be present. That the community that surrounded the centurion, and that went out seeking healing on his behalf, that same community gathered around him when, inevitably, he grieved. What survives, in these miracles and in this healing presence; what survives to this very day is that love and is that community and are those relationships that make God’s healing presence known to us, here and now. In this very place and in this very moment, in the sacred meal of which we will partake, and in the coffee and the cookies that we’ll have after that. In the parking lot on a Sunday, or on the rooftop, with the floodwaters rising. For as long as love prevails, God’s healing does as well.
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” John 10: 24-25
I think it’s safe to say that this has been an incredibly tough week for everyone. This has been a week when the unthinkable happened, close to home. This has been a week of grief: a week in which we lost a little bit more of our innocence. I think that all of us wanted to believe, in those first minutes and hours, that this was an accident, that the manhole covers had blown up, as they had in Harvard Square a couple of years ago. But the words came up, as they were going to; not as much on Monday but over the course of the week. This was an act of terror, with all of the baggage that the word now has attached to it, whether or not we ever wanted it to, about race and ethnicity and nationality and motivation. But this was an act that did, in fact, terrify us; we who live close to Boston, who have ties to the city, many of us who knew people who were at the race.
But by far the most terrifying thing, to me, at any rate, was listening to the rampant, unbridled speculation in which every noise was the next bomb, and every backpack was suspicious, and every nerve was kept on edge for as long as possible. Over the course of the week every possible motivation was aired, and everyone who looked suspicious was wrongly accused.
We don’t do well with not knowing. We are vry curious creatures, and there are days when I wonder if God knew what God was doing when adding “curiosity” to the human mix. I wonder if God realized before we ate the fruit off that tree in Eden just where curiosity would lead us. BEcause you can’t really blame the snake for that one – human beings would have eaten that fruit eventually because we just had to know what it was that was so cool that we couldn’t have it. We have to experience things first hand. We have to touch and grab and taste, and if you don’t believe me, think about this: how many times have you taken a bite or a sip of something and said to the person with you, “Oh, this is so awful, you have to taste it!” And the thing is, we do.
We have to know, we have to experience.
Curiosity isn’t all bad – it isn’t all bad tastes and experiences – it got us this far, for better or for worse. We are innovative, creative people who build beautiful churches, lighted with electricity, with sound amplification and everything. We are constantly asking, constantly seeking, constantly striving, and that is not always a bad thing. But we’re like toddlers, inevitably asking “but why? but why?” I think the reason that the continual toddler questioning drives us so crazy is that we want to be doing the same thing; we’ve just learned how annoying it is. It’s not annoying because we don’t want to know, ourselves, but because we don’t have the answers despite the curiosity. It reminds us of all the things that we don’t know. Sometimes the constant asking “why” is a good thing: it allows us to get to know one another better, it allows us to get to know our environment. But sometimes it’s not quite the right question; sometimes it’s that we’re too impatient for an answer; or more likely, that the answer we get does not fit our own worldview. All too often, we pit our intellect against emotion and experience, weighting one more heavily than the other, as we seek the answer. And inevitably, we do ask why, but equally inevitably, we answer that question within our own minds and our own hearts, and those answers can be very hard to change.
Jesus is in the Temple on Hanukkah. That’s what the Feast of Dedication is, in case you were wondering, in case that helps you locate this text, within the Gospels. Hanukkah is the feast in which we celebrate not only the liberation of an occupied city – because Jerusalem was occupied, and the Temple was used to worship gods other than the God of Israel – it was totally desecrated, according to the Jews. Can you imagine how violating that must have felt? And then a rebellion, lead by Judas Maccabeus, drove out the occupiers, and they were able to cleanse and rededicate the Temple. That is what Hanukkah celebrates, that’s what Jesus was in the Temple to celebrate, and that’s the context for the question he was asked. And within all of that is the fear that prompted the question in the first place. Remembered fear, re-experienced fear, is every but as real as current fear, and we have the same responses to uncertainty and not knowing: this time, shouldn’t we be able to do something? Shouldn’t we somehow be ready?
That is what was running through the heads of those Jews in Solomon’s portico, face to face with Jesus: these Jews in an occupied Jerusalem, worrying that once again, their Temple might be desecrated, might be destroyed again. Wondering who might rescue them this time. So: Jesus, tell us plainly, are you the next Judas Maccabeus? Because we’d really like it if you were. Could you go on, get a move on, get the Romans out of Jerusalem, maybe before the Temple gets desecrated this time? They don’t know the answer to their question: they hope, they desire, but they don’t know. The problem is that there is still a correct answer to their question, even though it wasn’t the one Jesus gave.
This text was very much stuck in my head all week. It’s not a totally uncommon thing to have happen, I do read the texts through several times during my sermon preparation, and during Bible Study… but I think it goes deeper than that. Because it resonated, this week, as I followed the news cycle, as I listened to the press conferences, and to what people were saying about what happened this week, and as time and time and time again people asked, “Why?” And it occurred to me that when we ask “why”, when we ask questions like that, we’re not really asking questions. What we’re saying when we ask “Why”, is “Well, isn’t it because…”; we’re suggesting answers, and giving leading questions that only really serve to display our own biases for all the world to see. And we become angry when we don’t hear what we expect, when we don’t have our own biases and opinions confirmed. Every press conference, all week long. Every interaction on social media, all week long. And it shouldn’t surprise us. This is not a new, human reaction to the events of this one, past week. We’ve been hearing these same, leading questions; these same, expected answers, for the past several years around climate change. All those climate scientists who have been questioned, and poked, and prodded, and held up to ridicule and scorn among those who want human ingenuity and human innovation to be always good and never bad – we didn’t mean any harm, after all. Among those who do not want to give up the comfort and convenience that this modern life can offer us, for the responsibility that might be involved in actually hearing those scientists. It’s the same thing we heard from those who questioned Jesus; when his own answer didn’t satisfy them, in the next verse – the part we didn’t read – they took him out to stone him. It’s a pretty gruesome, horrible scanario: “we didn’t like your answer, we’re going to kill you now.” It sounds like overkill, but how many stones have we cast upon climate scientists? And how many stones have we cast upon the media, when we, ourselves, have forced them in to a rapid-fire, twenty-four-hour news cycle, where being first is far more important than being accurate; where the reporting is fraught with cynicism, with biases showing from every which way, where rumors are what are reported until they are proven entirely false. And heaven forbid we do not hear what we want or expect to hear.
So what do we hear?
What do we hear in those moments when we actually sit, quietly, and listen? What do we hear in Jesus’ response to those who would have him be the next Maccabeus? What do we hear, but the still, small voice of God who is still speaking, calling us to open our hearts and our minds to the movement of God right here and right now. We hear a reminder that God is present among us, right here and right now; that God is always present among us. That when we don’t know, when we don’t understand – which is frequent – that it might be because we are asking the wrong question, and that we are more intent upon ourselves than upon God.
Maybe the question isn’t whether the climate is changing, but whether we are treating the Earth as we would treat God incarnate. Maybe the question isn’t whether the climate is changing, but whether we are honoring our relationships with one another, humans and non-humans, really holding those and honoring those relationships, and only using that which we really need, rather than that which we simply desire.
Maybe the question to be asked is not “So, where were you on Monday anyway, God?” although that is one being asked. Maybe the question is what it is that God requires of us, on a day like Monday. Because I think that we’ve all come to the point now where we are learning to see God present in moments like that, to see God in the flashing lights and the first responders and the many, many people who ran towards the danger. To see God present in those who finished a 26.2 mile marathon and then kept on running to the hospital to give blood. But if we’re all affected, and I think we all were, this week, doesn’t that make each and every one of us first responders? And doens’t htat call into question where we see God?
Maybe the question isn’t, actually, “Why?” Maybe the question isn’t, actually, “Why would anyone do this?” But the question is how any one person could get to such a deep place of pain and isolation. The desire to inflict pain can only come out of a place of pain and fear. It is easier to dehumanize the perpetrators; it is easier to see them as monsters, to see them only as they currently are. But I defy any one among you to look into the eyes of a baby, and to claim that they are a monster and born that way. I defy any one among you, sitting here with Christ as our head and cornerstone, and say that any one human being is irredeemable. Because that’s what you would be saying, if you said that these men were nothing but monsters.
It is a lot easier to create a category of “other” – of “not like us” – by virtue of race or ethnicity or immigration status. To make these people different. It is far easier to do that than it is to love our neighbors as ourselves. To weep for their fear and their pain as we would for our own, even when we don’t understand it. But let’s face it: who else really does understand our fear, or our pain?
It is easier to say that they don’t deserve our love; that they don’t deserve our prayers, that they don’t deserve even our system of justice. All of that has been said this week. But God doesn’t see things the way we do. God doesn’t act on merit. If God did, we would not be sitting here right now. We would not be Christians; there would be no Christians, because there would have been no Christ, sent to a people who we cannot say deserved to have love incarnate walk among them.
Maybe the question is not, now, how we keep ourselves or our own cities safe. But it is the same question that it has always been: how do we love our neighbors.
Maybe the question is not, now, about national security – that’s not our job, after all. It is not about how we intercept the next plot. Because maybe the question is not about this realm at all, and never has been. Maybe the question is about bringing God’s realm – that is our call, that is our discipleship. Maybe the question is about how we fill the next broken heart, how we soothe the next wounded spirit. Perhaps it is the one sitting next to you, today.
Maybe the question we should be asking is the one for which our scriptures give the same answer over, and over, and over, and over, until you’re sick of hearing it preached from the pulpit every single Sunday. But maybe it’s the answer to the question that we should be asking. And if we listen, then the Kingdom might be a whole lot closer than any of us know.
When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs. -Mark 13: 7-8
This is not an obvious Thanksgiving lectionary.
Suffering! Death! Destruction! Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!
The only good Thanksgiving-y aspect to this lesson is that it gives us guilt-free seconds on the pie. Because if the end is really at hand, then who cares about our waistlines?
It’s an odd lesson. It’s an odd lesson in the Gospels, frankly; it’s not what you expect to hear in that context. It’s what you expect to hear in Revelation, which is much more descriptive as narrative than the Gospels tend to be. So I think it behooves us to take a step back from the text, to remember that there are several things going on here all at once. And that if we take this at face value and just freak out, it’s not going to help anyone.
So on the one hand, you have Jesus, who probably did say at least some of this. It’s attested in all three of the synoptic Gospels, in Matthew and Mark and Luke, pretty much word-for-word, which is a little unusual. But you also have to take into account that when this was written down, it was not Jesus writing. It was someone writing about thirty-five years after Jesus’ crucifixion, someone we’re calling Mark for the sake of attribution. And he was not just writing down what Jesus said, he was writing to his own community. There are already two layers here, and I think that’s important to remember, when you’re faced with a text like this one.
We start with the prediction of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. And I’m guessing Jesus actually said this part; this is my own little bit of interpretation, but we have, in the passage immediately before this one, a story of Jesus actually sitting in the Temple compound. It’s the woe-to-you-scribes-and-Pharisees passage; Jesus is sitting in this place of worship, this holiest site in Judaism, and he is shaking his head – at best! – probably muttering a few things under his breath and telling everybody that they’re not doing it right. So as he leaves the Temple precinct, that’s where we are at the beginning of today’s lesson: Jesus leaving for the Mount of Olives, with his disciples who look back and say, “But wow, isn’t it pretty?” And Jesus, who just looks at them and replies, “Do you not understand? This isn’t going to last. There’s no way this can last.” Think about it: it’s corrupt, it’s done.
Look as well at the larger context: they’re in Roman-occupied Judea. This is not the easiest of times. And the Temple, more than any other site, is charged. It is charged religiously as a site of intense holiness – as God-on-earth in its very core: it is charged in its corruption of the very Jewish practices that it is supposed to be holding up. But it is also charged politically. Because this is not Solomon’s Temple, it is not the original. This is the one that Herod built – remember Herod? we’re about to start hearing a lot about Herod, these next few weeks. Herod built this Temple. Herod, the Jewish king imposed upon the Jewish people by the Roman occupiers. This is a peace offering between Rome and Judea, to the extent that such was possible.
This is an intensely charged site. And for Jesus to turn around and say “This is not going to last”? Yes, it is prescient, and yes, this is a prophecy, but Jesus was a really smart person, and it probably wasn’t a huge stretch to imagine that the Temple would be the first thing to fall when the Jews rebelled, which eventually, they had to.
So we are in a time of transition, and Jesus knows that. We are in a time of intensely charged meaning. But we are in a similar time thirty-five years later, when Mark is writing. When it is beginning to be disseminated. When Jesus has been crucified and resurrected, but not much has changed in day-to-day life in Jerusalem. Except that there is this new, little group of people, they’re not even called Christians yet, they’re just a sect of reform-minded Jews. The Jewish establishment doesn’t much like them, for what I think are obvious reasons – they’d managed to have the leader of this movement crucified, so the followers aren’t feeling much love. But Rome doesn’t like them either, because what they’re talking about sounds too much like temporal power, like sedition, and they’re thinking, “Hey, if the Jews are starting to act like this, we’re in serious trouble.” These new Christians are getting scapegoated on every side, they’re getting run out of Jerusalem on a pretty regular basis, and into that mess, Mark writes his Gospel. He writes because they are getting run out of Jerusalem. He writes because the message has to get disseminated out beyond this one, restricted geographic location. Writing wasn’t the obvious thing back then, this is a big deal. And as these proto-Christians, as they went off to Antioch, into what is now Turkey, and into Egypt, they brought this Gospel with them. They went because they were scared, and Mark wrote his Gospel as a comfort. As a reminder of Jesus’ message, certainly, but also as a comfort and reassurance to this scapegoated and fearful community.
That’s the context of this passage. This is a passage of comfort and reassurance. Didn’t you get that on the first reading?
This is a passage of comfort and reassurance for a people who are having to flee the center of their religious universe, and who are wondering if Jesus is still with them; who are wondering if they are on the right track, if they’re still doing the right thing. They are wondering if all of this, and all the suffering that they are undergoing, might mean that the end is at hand and they will get, finally, to stop suffering. Comfort and reassurance.
I think this is a scarier passage for us now. It’s scary for us as prophecy, certainly, but it’s far scarier as history. Because it’s true. Two thousand years later, it’s true: Nation will rise up against nation, there will be wars and rumors of wars. Two thousand years: and that’s been true in every single one of them. And so this is a frightening passage to me; it makes me look back and think, “Are you kidding me? When is this supposed to end? What is up with two thousand years of war, and two thousand years of bloodshed?” This passage rings a little too true. It’s a little too familiar to be comfortable, to be comforting. And this is still the birth pangs. A two thousand year labor to give birth to… something. Most of us aren’t even sure what.
We read this passage and realize how easy it is to be led astray. We realize how easy it is to become corrupt, even in the name of good. We realize how easy it is to see, and to seek, signs and symbols of God. We do this even now, in this supposedly enlightened and scientific time. We realize how easy it is – we all know it – to be sucked up into drama. How easy it is to give in to the fear-mongering that is so present – and that has been so present, because this is not a new thing in our day and age. Or on the other hand, how easy it is to become entirely blasé about everything, to become so cynical that nothing retains any meaning anymore.
Jesus and Mark were each speaking to a specific time, and a specific community – the earliest disciples, the earliest Christians. But this is the UCC, so I can easily say that this isn’t just a historical book: God is still speaking to us, in these very words. We are reminded that this discipleship thing that we’ve embarked on is quite the tightrope to walk. We are called to be discerning, and we are called to be mindful, as we negotiate our path. We are called to be in this one moment, yet not alone: in one moment but not in one place; in one moment but still in community.
We are called not to be distracted by war and the rumors of war, but to recognize that war matters. It should matter that there is famine and drought. It should matter that there are disasters – we had a recent reminder of that. It should matter, and it does matter, because suffering matters. Because we are called, as disciples, to love one another. To love one another as God loves us, and as we profess to love God. So suffering does mean something. It does not mean anything in and of itself, it does not mean anything as a sign and symbol of what is to come. It has meaning in how we react to it, and in how we treat one another as a result.
There will be wars, and rumors of war, but God does not, in fact, take sides.
There will be suffering, some of it caused by “acts of God” – be skeptical, please – but God does not rejoice in suffering.
These are not signs that God’s kingdom is any closer to us than it was before. God grieves all death. God Grieves at all suffering. And God calls upon us to do likewise, and to do so not in some distant kingdom future, but right here, and right now.
So yes, this is still the birth pangs. The two thousand year labor that reminds us that God’s time is not our time – it’s nowhere close – and that maybe it isn’t our concern, either. It is a reminder to stop looking ahead, to stop trying to read the tea leaves, and stop trying to predict. It is a reminder to be right here, right now: in a relationship with one another and with God.
The rest? Yes, it does matter. War matters. It demands our attention here and now, not because of the potential of great future suffering, of dirty bombs and chemical weapons and the horrors that human imagination can invent, but because people are already suffering, and have already died.
Climate change demands our attention, not because of the impact that it might eventually have upon millions of lives as the coast changes and droughts become more persistent and habitats shift and shrink, but because of the impact that it has already had upon thousands, many just a couple of hours from here.
The myriad of social justice issues that face us as a nation and as a world demand our attention, not for the sake of future generations, but for the people who are currently without healthcare, without homes, without education, without equality, and without food. Because these are not signs and symbols. This does not mean the end is at hand. This is our call, right here and right now. Because there are no signs and no symbols that matter at all when there are real lives at stake: real people who need our love and our relationship right now.
The future should not be our distraction. Heaven knows we have enough on our plates without worrying about the future, too. It is enough that when the future comes, we might be able to say that we have given ourselves entirely to peace, to love, to God.
And when we can say that, then we’ll know why this was the best Thanksgiving scripture we could have asked for.
“Who is this who darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.” God, speaking to Job. 38:2-3
Tell me if these phrases sound familiar, especially recently: “It’s the moral thing to do”, or “it’s a moral choice”. We’ve been hearing those a lot, especially in terms of the upcoming election. Yet it strikes me, time and again: I’m not sure what people mean by “morality” anymore. It all just seems fuzzy.
It’s been argued, certainly, that morality is simply a means of keeping powerful people in power; that the qualities of the social élites are deemed “good”, and that that value judgment is codified into law. This was more likely true before the separation of church and state – which may be why “morality” seems a bit fuzzy now – but it certainly held quite a bit of truth in Job’s time. And Job followed the law to the letter: that legal-religious code that was the basis of all morality in his day. Job followed it so well – and everybody knew that he followed it so well – that the devil himself came and made a bet with God. The devil himself was willing to bet that he could get Job to curse God. And God had such faith in Job that God’s took the bet.
That’s a scary notion, isn’t it? That God would bet Job’s faith on whatever the devil could throw at him. And the devil threw everything. Killed off Job’s family, laid his crops waste, decimated Job’s herds of livestock and reduced him to dust. When that didn’t work, the devil turned on Job’s very body, inflicting him with every ailment known to the ancient world. He turned Job’s friends against him, too: there’s a whole Greek chorus of friends who, throughout the book (it really is a fascinating book) keep asking, “Hey, Job, is it really worth it, man? Look at all the bad stuff that is happening to you! This is either divine retribution from some sin, or your God isn’t worth it.”
Job, despite it all, followed that law, followed that moral code to the letter. He knew that he had never, in his entire life, transgressed that law. He knew that he had dotted all his i’s and crossed all his t’s. He knew that there was no question that any of what was happening to him could be divine retribution for anything that he had done. So he held fast in his faith. Job was absolutely sure that he was okay, and that God was on his side.
Now, wouldn’t you think, if you came face-to-face with that, if you were God and looked on Job’s faith, you might say, “Hey, good going, there, Job! Well done, good and faithful servant.” That is, I think, what I would expect, at least.
But what we get, instead, is a divine temper tantrum.
God is yelling at the good guy. And that should make us all just a little bit uncomfortable.
Because we are all Job.
Most of us sitting here today can say with some degree of certainty that we haven’t broken the law. Most of us can even say that we have followed, not just the letter but the spirit of the law. So if everything went suddenly, horribly wrong, might we, like Job, demand a reckoning? Might we have such confidence in our own worthiness that we could judge such treatment to be unfair? Might we stand up before God and defend ourselves as good and moral people? And is this the response that we would want? Is this the response that we would expect? This divine – pardon the expression – snark-fest that God lays out on Job?
“Gird up your loins like a man!” says God. I’ll leave it to your imaginations to come up with the current colloquial expression for this sentiment. There is a section, just a little later in this chapter where Job, having alluded earlier to his years and his wisdom, gets smacked down by God who essentially says, “You think you’re so old, do you? You think your years make you wise there, Job, do you? Are you that old? Really?”
You have to figure that Job is standing there, as stunned as we are, wondering why God is annoyed, when we haven’t done anything wrong.
As I tend to do, when my radio listening is interrupted by small voices, I go on NPR’s website to read the stories that I couldn’t hear on the radio. And this week, I found an interesting one: the story of a truck driver. He drove a big rig, and had just stopped at a truck stop – one of those huge ones that are like small towns on the side of the highway. He had just pulled in, just parked the truck, when – as often happens in such places, although we don’t like to think about it – there was a tap at his window. A couple of girls. He knew what they wanted: badly made up and scantily clad, it wasn’t hard to figure out. He sent them on their way. He didn’t break the law, he didn’t do anything wrong. And then he looked at them, as they walked away. And he realized how young they looked. So he called the police, who came and found the girls: fourteen and fifteen years old, kidnapped six weeks earlier and pressed into service. Because of that truck driver, those girls were returned to their parents.
Think God would yell at him?
It didn’t take long, sitting at our dining room table the other night, for more stories like this one to emerge. I would imagine that if I asked, you could come up with several as well. Among the ones we thought of: the Danes, in 1943, under Nazi occupation. Nazi law had not yet come into effect in Denmark, it wouldn’t until Rosh Hashanah that year. But they found out what was coming. They found out what Rosh Hashanah had in store, what the Jewish New Year would bring. And Christian Danes smuggled their compatriots into neutral Sweden, seven thousand Jews. When Hitler’s forces swept into Denmark, there were no Jews to be found. After the war, the Jews returned. Likewise, after the war, the American Friends Service Committee – the Quakers – descended en masse into Germany and Poland, setting up camps to take in refugees from the concentration camps. To feed them and to clothe them and to attempt to repatriate them, in the midst of a chaotic and broken Europe. The Quakers are known for being peaceful people; I doubt whether more than a handful of them had fought in that war. They had no guilt to atone for, after World War II. They had no blood on their hands. They had no compelling reason to do the work that they did.
How do you explain it, then?
How do you explain the busloads of northern students, black and white, flooding into the South in the 1960s, registering people to vote, bearing witness to the violence that was happening – much of it legally?
How do you explain the mechanic in suburban Virginia, outside a college town, spent $10,000 of his own money to restore the car of a college student? The car had been keyed so frequently with homophobic slurs that the student was afraid even to set foot outside his dormitory, for fear that what had happened to his car might happen to him.
None of these people did their deeds in atonement. None of these people did their deeds in repentance. None of these people had done anything wrong.
But these were the people who knew: it’s not enough to not be the bully. It is not enough to simply follow the law. It is not enough to not do anything wrong.
And so God says to Job, “You think you’re all that and a bag of chips, do you? You think you know when it’s enough?”
And we are Job.
And we can learn from Job.
Because it is not enough to keep our own noses clean and to work for our own individual salvation. To think in that way is to teeter, as Job does, right on the very brink of idolatry.
It is not enough to recognize that there are moral issues in this election, that there are moral issues that this country faces, it is not even enough to complain about them, if we’re not willing to do something.
It is not enough to recognize that there are 16.7 million children in this country who will go to bed hungry tonight.¹
It is not enough to know that there are 5.1 million children in this country, the richest country in the world, who have no health insurance and are lacking in basic care.²
It is not enough to know that 20% of returning veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD – one in five – a number that does not include the thousands who are suffering from physical ailments and traumatic brain injuries.
We didn’t cause these, did we? Not a one of us here has blood on our hands. Not a one of us here has done anything wrong. We have broken no law, we have impinged not even on the morality of our day. Except insofar as we have chosen silence. Except insofar as we have chosen inaction. Except insofar as the actions that we do take are scraped from our leftovers. From the crumbs that fall from our tables. And we all do that, don’t we? We see a need and we squeeze out a little from the leftover, end-of-the-month budget. We see a need and we open our wallets and we think, “Well… I still need to be able to get coffee later…” We pay, first, for all of the things that keep us comfortable, before we remember that other people aren’t so lucky. What is comfort, when there is hunger?
“You shall love your neighbor as you love yourself,” says God. So what do we do? If what we give to our neighbors is indeed what we would give to God then shouldn’t it come first each month?
“Have you done no wrong?” said God to Job. “Are you so sure about that? How do you know? How can you be sure?”
We stand with Job, but it is not enough.
We stand with Job, learning that morality and legalism is only the beginning, it is only the catalyst that spurs us.
We stand with Job. We stand before the one who created all, who loves all, and who requires that love from us.
We stand with Job. Indeed we do. But standing is not enough. And God awaits our first step forward.
¹USDA ERS report on food security, 2012
²US Census Bureau Report; aggregate data 2009-2011