Saturday, October 24, 2009

unpreached sermon #3

Pentecost 21 (Year B) * October 25, 2009

Job 42:1-17
Psalm 34
Hebrews 7:23-28
Mark 10:46-52

I wasn't going to write a sermon this week. I didn't like the lectionary, and the daily lectionary wasn't helping, and I don't have the grounding in church history to want to preach Reformation Sunday, and I'd already written a vision of the church earlier in the week.

But then, before Wednesday night church service, I heard Leonard Cohen's song "Hallelujah" -- which I've heard enough times to recognize at about the second note -- and as I listened, I was particularly struck by the line, "It's a cold and it's a broken alleluia."

Love is an utterance of rejoicing, even when we don't appear to have any reason to, even when we ourselves don't want to. There is something in us, deeper than all that pain, deep in our bones, in our souls, in whatever it is that makes us "us," or maybe even deeper than that, the Ground of Our Being as Tillich would say, that KNOWS this love, even when our minds cannot fathom it and our hearts cannot feel it.

I've been reading Emil Fackenheim for class this week. He's writing in 1987, about What Is Judaism after the Holocaust and after the establishment of the State of Israel.

One of the first things that really struck me in his book is that our source text for the Christian hymn "Great Is Thy Faithfulness" comes from the book of Lamentations. If I were crafting the worship service to go along with this sermon I'm not preaching, I would have us sing that hymn -- because it's been in my head recurrently since I read that passage in Fackenheim's book.

Summer and winter and springtime and harvest.

Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth.

Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow.
The thing that has stuck with me even more, though, is his discussion of that part in the Exodus story where we read: "And God heard their groaning, and God remembered the covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob." (Exodus 2:24) This begs the question: Did God forget? Fackenheim mentions various attempts to make meaning out of those four hundred years of suffering, assorted Midrash and such. And he talks about reading the story as a Jew today, in the wake of the Holocaust. He says that for such a Jew (and I apologize for Fackenheim's male-default language):
all talk about meaning in those grim four centuries is wiped from his lips. Instead, as he reads the Tanach itself, he has nothing but that bold, powerful, magnificently anthropomorphic phrase: "And God remembered." That and nothing else.
"And God remembered."

I think sometimes that the only message I have to preach is that God is with us always. That God loves us and abides with us -- from before our conception through beyond the grave.

Our lectionary passages this Sunday are on the greatness of God -- the powerful greatness of God; God is great and greatly to be praised. With a problematic implication about our inherent unworthiness. At least, that's how I summarized them when I reread them Wednesday night. But on rereading them, I realized there was a lot I was eliding.

Let's recap the lectionary:
  • Job says to God, "You're right. I know not whereof I speak. You win." And God turns to Job's "friends" and tells them: "You have not spoken of me truly -- as Job has. Make some sacrifices, and Job will pray for you, and then we'll be okay." And God restores Job's fortunes umpteenfold.
  • The Psalm praises God -- for providing for and comforting the righteous.
  • We continue to read in Hebrews about the blameless high priest.
  • And we read in the Gospel of Mark about Jesus healing a blind person, saying, "Your faith has made you well."
In trying to summarize the Job passage, one thing struck me. Hear again God's words to Eliphaz:
"My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept Job's prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done." (v. 7-8)
And my servant Job shall pray for you.

For I will accept Job's prayer.

God won't listen to their prayers, but God will listen to Job's.

Which presages the Hebrews passage, the high priest whom God will listen to.

But my first thought wasn't that connection -- it was the call to pray for others. Including (and perhaps especially) those who have wronged us. These three told Job that Job's suffering must be because Job had displeased God. Which is not only an untruth about Job's righteousness but also an untruth about how God operates.

If you were sick and in pain, and all your worldly possessions were gone, along with all your family, would you want to hear anyone suggest to you that you somehow "deserved" this? Of course not. And if someone with power was upset at how these people had spoken, would you intercede and say, "No, do not deal with them according to their folly"? Okay maybe you're a better person than I am, but I suspect I would feel like, "Yeah, see how it feels now! Does it comfort you any to know that you deserve this? Doesn't it just suck?"

But God calls us to intercede. God says, "Yes, justice would demand that I punish these people, but there are things that trump justice. And to help you internalize that message, I want you to pray for these people, to pray for grace and mercy rather than justice and punishment for them."

And God also calls those who have offended to offer sacrifice -- you don't just get to rest secure in the knowledge of God's grace. Just as the one who has been wronged is called to let go of desires for vengeance and extend a hand of reconciliation, so the one who has wronged another is called to sacrifice from one's own abundance -- both to be in solidarity with the one who has not and also to be reminded that all that we have is not ours but rather is entrusted to us by God.

"And God restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends."

Job is still suffering when he prays for these people. I first read the timeline differently -- that Job's fortunes had already been restored when this event happens, but no.

The last thing Job has said to God is, "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes" (v. 5-6), so we don't know if Job even expects to be rewarded by God at all. I mean, he had called God out, and God gave him a long long speech reminding him how tiny and finite he is compared to God, so if I were in Job's position I don't think I would be particularly expecting much of a reward.

It's much easier for us to be gracious when we're doing well -- even if we have been wronged, we can feel much more kindly to those who have wronged us if other forces have helped to heal the effects of that wrong.

But this passage tells us that before we receive any comfort we are called to pray for mercy for those who have wronged us.

I would argue that it in fact implies that in order for us to receive any comfort, we must pray for mercy for those who have wronged us.

We talk a lot about the Kindom of God -- that Kindom we are called to help bring forth on Earth. That Kindom at which ALL are at table together. That Kindom in which ALL of Creation is redeemed and restored. Really truly accepting that "All means all" is HARD, though. But the work bears fruit.
And God restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and God gave Job twice as much as he had before. Then there came to Job all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that God had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. (v. 10-11)
Now the relationships are restored. Job's relationship with his friends has been mended, and his family has come to his house and is sharing a meal with him and offering him sympathy and comfort (those things his friends had failed to provide) and also offering him tangible goods. For God does not magic things into our possession but rather works through human beings. We in the world are called to be God's helping hands, and marching feet, and shoulders to cry on.

Now let us turn to the Gospel.

Jesus' statement that "Your faith has made you well" can be really problematic because it implies that if you are NOT well you just don't have faith.

But I like to think that it suggests that we can find healing in our faith.

Hear again the Gospel:
They came to Jericho. As Jesus and the disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus, child of Timaeus and a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. Hearing that it was Jesus of Nazareth, Bartimaeus began to shout out and say, "Jesus, Child of David, have mercy on me!" Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, "Child of David, have mercy on me!"
     Jesus stood still and said, "Call him here." And they called Bartimaeus, saying, "Take heart; get up, Jesus is calling you." So throwing off his cloak, Bartimaeus sprang up and came to Jesus.
     Then Jesus said, “What do you want me to do for you?"
     Bartimaeus said, "My teacher, let me see again."
     Jesus said, "Go; your faith has made you well." Immediately Bartimaeus regained sight and followed Jesus on the way.
I believe it was Bartimaeus's faith that enabled him to be so bold as to cry out to Jesus, even as those around him were telling him to sit down, shut up, and not make a scene.

If someone comes into our lives whom we know can offer us healing, we are called to, well, call out to that person -- rather than merely hoping that they will see us, will see our need, and will stop to help us.

And it is in these interpersonal connections that we can find healing.

I've encountered a number of times recently the reminder that "credo," from whence our "creed," means "to give one's heart to." We give our hearts to God. I've read Marcus Borg on this, and I still can't explain it. I can say, however, that it makes me think of a poem by e. e. cummings, which opens:
i carry your heart with me(i carry it in
my heart)i am never without it(anywhere
i go you go,my dear; and whatever is done
by only me is your doing,my darling)
I love this imagery of interconnectedness, of at-one-ness. We don't always like the word "atonement," with its implications of a requirement of blood and death and suffering in order to effect reconciliation, but the word itself sans all baggage is simply at-one-ment. God desires to be at one with us.

That Leonard Cohen line I quoted at the beginning? The full line is: "Love is not a vict'ry march. It's a cold and it's a broken alleluia."

Love is not a victory march.

God is not about defeating people by force but rather is about reconciliation, is about joy and trust even in the midst of pain.

Go now, to love and serve God.

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