[Pentecost 20 (Year B) - October 18, 2009]
Can I just say how much I love that the semi-continuous Old Testament reading is from Job? Job is HARD stuff. God and the Devil are having a beer, and the Devil says, "Betcha I can make Job give up on you," and God says, "Betcha you can't." And the culmination, the great theodicy (justification of God in the face of human suffering) is: "Were you there when the world began? Yeah, I didn't think so."
But this simplified version of the story elides a lot of the richness.
God's speech to Job begins: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?" God is greater than we are. God knows more than we do. I'm not invested in whether God is entirely Omniscient or Omnipotent, but I think we can agree that God is vaster than our comprehension can encircle.
"Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?— when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band." Even in this modern age when many of us have flown over oceans and through clouds, it's still difficult for us to really grasp the immensity of the oceans and the lands and sky that bound them, nevermind the God whose hands formed all this.
This Job passage tells us over and over again that God does great and beautiful and generative things. As does the Psalm.
I read the Epistle and thought, "Wow I don't know what to do with this Hebrews reading." And then I read the Gospel, and I had a way in. Both of these New Testament readings are about submitting oneself to the will of God, even at the risk of injury or even death to oneself. And about how doing the Will of God often leads to suffering and even death.
But lest we fall into believing that we are CALLED to suffer, the Old Testament readings remind us of God's creative energies. (How's that for irony? The New Testament readings are doom and gloom, and the Old Testament readings are life and abundance.)
Let's start with the Gospel. Some of Jesus' followers say, "We want to sit on either side of you when you come into your glory." When the Kindom of God breaks through and this broken world is redeemed, we want front row seats. We want to sit at the high table and say, "We saw this coming. We were on the front lines. You thought we were crazy, but look, we were on the right side the whole time."
And Jesus says: Wait a minute there. You don't know what you're saying when you talk about being on the front lines with me. You think it's all going to be like when John baptized me, when the Holy of Holies breaks open the sky and declares the Truth in a shining moment. It's not gonna be like that. You're going to have to work. And you're going to have to work for people you don't like.
"You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Child of Humanity came not to be served but to serve, and to give her life a ransom for many."
The writer of Hebrews says, "And one does not presume to take this honor [this high priest honor], but takes it only when called by God, just as Aaron was." I'm not so sure I wanna be called by God.
We all know what Jesus says in that passage in Matthew 25 -- "Whatever you did for the least of these, you did for me." Feeding the hungry and thirsty. Clothing and sheltering the naked and homeless. Caring for and visiting the sick and imprisoned.
When's the last time you did any of that? When's the last time you saw someone hungering and thirsting for justice or for mercy and did something about it? When's the last time you saw someone wounded or oppressed and cared for them? This is one of those passages that does not get easier when we make it non-literal.
We are called to be servants. Servants of God and servants of the world.
And this servanthood doesn't always look like what we want it to look like.
A woman anointed Jesus, and one of Jesus' disciples cried out, "But we could have sold that expensive ointment and given the money to the poor." Sometimes we are called to radical acts of generosity that seem to make no sense.
And we do these actions out of a powerful conviction of love.
I was talking to my friend Megan while I was writing this sermon, and I said that I was mentally running through stories of how Jesus served others, and that the first thing that really struck me was actually a story about someone serving Jesus. Megan said, "In a way, though, that was Him serving her. He gave her the honor of feeling important, as if her attention to Him was valuable. Because nothing sucks quite so much like being politely rebuffed by someone you are wildly desperate for."
How often do we act out of a desperate love for God? Not a desperate craving for approval or acceptance or salvation, but a desperate love. Do we have a desperate desire for a deep and abiding connection with the one who Created, Redeemed, and Sustains us?
Jesus is constantly exhorting us to give of our abundance to care for the poor, and yet in this story, Jesus rebukes the disciple who says, "But what about the poor?"
I think this is because the woman acted out of love for Jesus, and God cares most about what is in our hearts. Now to be sure, God gave us brains for a reason, and our good intentions should be matched by a thoughtfulness, with an attention to unintended consequences and all those other important pragmatic concerns -- but the driving force should be love.
In the Gospel lesson last week, a rich man who had followed all of the commandments asked Jesus, "What must I do to share in everlasting life?" and Jesus said, "Sell all that you have and give the money to the poor. Then come and follow me."
The rich man had followed all of the commandments, but rules are not sufficient for life -- life requires relationship. And there are so many things that keep us from relationship with the One who calls us to follow Her, to walk with Her through all that life has to offer. And so we are called to let go of those things -- those things that tie us down when the Spirit is calling us forward, those things that pull our attention and energies away from the Kindom of God.
We are created in the image and likeness of God, and we are called to be co-creators with God.
The Psalmist says, "You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart." (v. 14-15)
We are beloved of God, and God wants to bless us abundantly.
And we are not the only beloveds of God.
The Psalmist also says, "Yonder is the sea [...] There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it." (v. 25-26)
The Leviathan is a big scary monster. It is not spoken of fondly elsewhere in the Bible. And yet we hear that God formed it specifically to sport in the sea.
We are called to live in peace and abundance with ALL of God's creatures -- with the people we don't like, with the people we don't see who are affected by our consumption, with all the links in the food chain, with ALL of Creation.
As the song says: "God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy."
Go now, to love and serve God.
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