Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Sermon: B 19 Pentecost 22 Proper 7 October 2012

Job 1: 1, 2: 1-10; Ps 26; Heb 1: 1-4, 2: 5-12; MK 10: 2-16

This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice…   AMEN

Again this Sunday, as we race towards the end of this long teaching season of Pentecost, we hear readings with ominous testing and more testing. Additionally, it’s a bustling season of many things going on. Look around to see much loved creatures with their faithful humans, so it must be St. Francis Day. It’s also Dignity’s 40th Anniversary of Solidarity Sunday; we join their celebration of their work and progress. It would be a fine Sunday like Paradise, if all experienced welcome, here and throughout their lives, work, and worlds.

Additionally, it’s our Cathedral’s 100 Anniversary. St. Paul’s was a parish church and was selected for the cathedral for its easy access by already existing and criss-crossing subways from all directions, rather than Trinity Copley Square and its ample room for carriages, but limited public transportation from the west only. The subway system was and is a genuine link to people of all resources, St. Paul’s preferred that invitation to people from all around the diocese, rather than just to people of means. The Cathedral had hoped to have the glorious new pediment installed now, but the artist is running a little late…The Cathedral is calling back people baptized, confirmed, ordained, and even married there, and to talk about some of its activities and achievements, The first African American Bishop of modern times, John Burgess, had his See here, as did the first woman elected Bishop in the Anglican Communion: The Rt. Rev. Barbara Clementine Harris. A vibrant Chinese ministry occurs there, as well as hospitality to a Muslim Prayer Group and a large Monday feeding program and its new programs, including a client-written and produced magazine. We’re all asked to show up at 2 for pictures if we’re in any of those 4 categories, and at 3 for the Service of Rededication. Do walk over with me (and help me bring them some cookies, etc.) It’s a big day for celebrations, but an ominous one in lections.

Satan starts in on Job to test the Holy One and Job—essentially because that’s what Satan does. “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” We know, because we’ve heard the story before, that the Great Tempter will keep testing Job. (We’ll hear Job read three more times, so this is just the beginning of his troubles.) That lurking threat shadows us in hearing this piece of Job. It threatens us when we hear a little worry, and then we often puff it up to a paranoid huge fear. Starting Sunday lessons with Job sets us onto an anxious edge of something worse. As we listen to Job each time though, I think we hope the testing will stop and we’re curious about what that would that take. It’s not about Job—there’s nothing he can do other than hold his ground, but it’s all so unfair or mean-spirited—just what Satan can provoke. I’m ever curious too about why the Lord takes Satan’s challenge with only this limit, “Job is in your power, only spare his life.” Why does God want the test?

The Psalm starts off with an invitation, “Give judgment for me, O Lord, for I have lived with integrity; I have trusted in the Lord and have not faltered.” Have any of us done so well, so surely that we would invite the Lord’s judgment? Maybe we can say we wash our hands in innocence, but I’d guess I wash my hands striving, hoping, or aiming for innocence, but not being there yet. I’m ready to say earnestly to the Lord, “Do not sweep me away with sinners.” It’s a plea of hope, one I imagine we each make on bad days. We each hope that we’ll be able to live with integrity, and that we’ll stand on level ground and continue to bless the Lord.

Job and the Psalmist both recognize their vulnerability and persist in hope that they can avoid sin. They must have been curious about what it would take for the Lord to support them and end the testing, “Test me and try me, examine my heart and my mind,” but when is enough, enough? How much more must Job endure, or can we trust ourselves to live through to maintain our integrity.

We are primed with these questions, and then we hear the Pharisees testing Jesus, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” Of course, it was and was common. Torah (Deuteronomy 24:1) says: “A man may divorce his wife simply by handing her a certificate of divorce and sending her away.” Factions among religious Jews argued over the grounds for divorce— whether it was only for sexual misconduct or less restrictive grounds. They were trying to trap Jesus into being on one side or another of a rancorous debate. Jesus instead said that Moses’ law’s demonstrated man’s hardness of heart permitting only men to divorce their wives, with a simple sending away. Deuteronomy at least guaranteed her a certificate of divorce, a merciful action, giving her the freedom to marry again, rather than subsisting as abandoned— not freed to marry. Jesus wanted none of these legal distinctions, but recognized that marriage could be seen as part of the order of creation, God creating them male and female…”and the two shall become one flesh.”

In private Jesus says to the disciples that in that light, remarriage could be understood as adultery. Jesus lived in a society that held marriage to be principally a legal arrangement. By his asserting that marriage was an aspect of creation, he changed to talking about marriage in the Kingdom of God, not in its daily lived out life. Here he’s outlining a standard for idealized human life, not rules for actual lived lives. The focus of the whole discussion, though, was to test, even embroil, Jesus. While he knew the contentious aspects of some Biblical laws, he also understood the ideal. His teaching was about the realm of God, and ways to understand it and help bring it about. Nothing about rules for divorce allowed Jesus to focus on his work to bring about the kingdom of God.

Jesus therefore shifted the image of how to enter the realm of God. No divorce bickering, legal fine points, or dealing with human frailties would show ways for people to live to be able to enter God’s world. “Jesus said, ‘Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly, I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.’ And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.”

Much of the tradition about this statement sounds treacly and absurdly romanticized. Jesus is not highlighting the cuteness or charm of children. The children he’s demonstrating with are young and small, because he can heft at least two at a time. I see one such child frequently. They are full of hope and curiosity, playfulness and guilelessness. They run for the door when they hear it opening. They’ll try almost any food, and play endless games of what’s under the cloth, and who’s behind the door testing their hopeful curiosity constantly. They’ll play with anyone who offers them attentive games repeating where’s the whatever—run and jump, go up up up, or anything that’s interactive and fun. Over and over and over. They trust the action is to build a relationship and be fun, not to trick or harm anyone or anything, but to be together entertainingly. They trust if they want milk and show that, milk will come. They trust if they’re tired, sleep will be arranged safely. Children learn cynicism and the wariness about the snatching-of-the-ball-before-it-can be-kicked later. They give and expect limitless care and love. Neither legalistic nor philosophic concerns shape their capacity for undemanding, unconditional love. Anyone who’s spent time with such learning, growing, cared for children, sees their shadowless hope and curiosity testing out their safe limits in the wide world. They find their worlds secure and beautiful, nurturing and ever imaginative, difficult and energetic, and full of infinite and good possibilities. That’s what God created in the world, offered in its spotless form in the Garden of Eden. The snake’s, Satan’s, or evil’s presence, lead to humans conditioning and hedging relationships, actions, and much of life, because of the ever present “what if” threats lurking in the promise of every good thing, like a snake’s in the garden. Jesus is reminding his disciples and us, not that children are sweet and loveable, which they may or may not be, but that when they’re young and trusting, they live into their relationships trusting in unconditional love, to give and receive. Their hopes and curiosity are untainted by fear or suspicion, and they can live into and accept the well being in the care offered them. Spend some time with a young toddler, and you’ll be able to recall what that relationship of care and trust looks like. As people experience breaks in that trust-bond, it’s both harder to give blind acceptance and obedience and to accept the well-being security offered. Jesus holds up children to show tangibly what God gives us and wants from us: God’s realm. It’s not sentimental, but trust based in the reality of experience with an ever-creating God of unconditional love in hope and curiosity in Paradise, in eternal life with Jesus: Good News.

©  Katharine C. Black   7 October 2012    St. John’s, Boston.