Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Sermon: B 20 Pentecost 23 Proper 14 October 2012

Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Ps 22: 1-15; Heb 4: 12-16; MK 10: 17-31

Loving God, grant that your grace may always precede and follow us. Amen.

The days are getting shorter, the nights longer, and the readings minatory (again.) There is a tone of increasing desperation and self-accusation. “But as for me, I am a worm and no man, scorned by all and despised by the people. All who see me laugh me to scorn; they curl their lips and wag their heads, saying, ‘He trusted in the Lord’ let him deliver him; let him rescue him, if he delights in him.’” Perhaps this seems more comforting, “The Almighty has terrified me; if only I could banish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face.” Maybe, since this is less personal, not in the first person, this sounds less frightening: “The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” None of this is comforting, and none sounds particularly hopeful, and there’s the Mark reading to come.

There are a couple of positive lines leading towards this Gospel though. Job says, “I would lay my case before the Lord, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me.” Job acts as an upright sentient adult. Quoting Rav Schwab’s Job Commentary, “Here he asks that not only may God give him an answer to his question, but also that he be allowed to understand God’s answer to his question. He is aware of his limitations as a human being, similar to an ordinary person asking a great physicist for an explanation of the meaning of some esoteric concept, say, that of ‘anti-matter.’ Even if this scientist would give an explanation, the ordinary individual who is unschooled in advanced physics would not understand it. So, in view of his human limitations, Job begs for an understanding of God’s purpose in all of this… This is why I am so confused. On one hand, I recognize that God in His Uniqueness has inflicted suffering on me for reasons known only to Him. But on the other hand, in my desire to come closer to the Holy One, I have pleaded with Him to allow me to understand His purpose in my suffering, but my pleadings have been so far ignored.”

The author of Hebrews tries to explain, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Of course, Jesus was never the High Priest in the Temple of Jerusalem, so never went in to the Holy of Holies; the author of Hebrews was using metaphorical language. According to Marcus Borg, Hebrews’ author was subverting the idea that only through the temple is reconciliation with God possible. The metaphorical meaning then is radical: God through Jesus has taken away whatever you think separates you from God. The “once for all” sacrifice has been made.

Together these first two readings are saying that Job has questions about God’s unfairness to him. He both wants to ask God, and to understand God’s explanation. The Hebrews’ reading reminds readers that in Jesus, God lived a human life, understanding human questions, and the necessity for answers for humans from God. Jesus is shown as the One who could understand both Job’s unfair suffering and God’s need and ability to answer. It still makes it hard to understand any good reason for Job to be tested, or any good reason for God to test this blameless person, described as a real person from the very beginning of this biblical work. An underlying worry or reality for us is always this: “Job was a good man, and look at the way God tested him; I’m not in that rank of blamelessness, so what can and might God do to test me, show me off, or make me more miserable even than Job. The collect said in its earlier form, “Lord we pray you that your grace may always prevent and follow us, and make us continually to be given to all good works, through Jesus Christ our Lord.” It’s now translated to read, “We pray that your grace may always precede and follow us.” The image that the collect prays for is that we walk on the road of God’s grace, before us and after us, to make us given to good works always. (Here “prevent” means “go/come before,” as advent is “go/come to.”)  The idea of God’s grace being our walking road, our living path, and our underlying life’s reality always, can get us from Job’s world to ours. We are no longer subject to God’s quixotic testing, as was Job, because God’s work in Jesus led to new sympathy, understanding, and empathy with and for us humans.

Then the Gospel begins with Jesus snapping at the person who asks what he must do to inherit eternal life, politely calling Jesus “good teacher.” “No one is good but God alone.” The man must have sighed to himself, because he’d lived a faithful life obedient to the Commandments, and Jesus requires that him to “Sell what you own, and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven.” “He went away shocked and grieving.” We feel again we’re in the man’s position and Job’s. What else are we supposed to do? Why are we being picked on, when we’ve done everything we’ve understood we were to do.

What must we do to inherit eternal life? Both Job and the man here seem to have done it right, whatever that might mean. Rather than diverting ourselves onto questions about the camel, the needle, and wealth, John Hooker suggests we consider our “unexamined privilege.” The man had many possessions, and he came to Jesus. He was neither a poor man, nor a rich man uninterested in what Jesus was preaching about: the reign of God. He felt something lacking in his life of , and he knew that he missed something, but didn’t know what it was. The disciples had thought that at least a rich person could enter the kingdom of God. It was all of their assumptions that being rich would do it.

What is it we think will guarantee that our ticket to heaven will be punched, just as we are? Is it our hard, hard, exhausting, wearying, excessive work, but so virtuous? Is it our having been victims of one sort of —ism or another, sexism, racism, classism, or the other victimhoods we sometimes feel beset by. Is that the privilege, which puts us in the clear? Is it wealth, education, skills, or class, which makes us worthy of the reign of God? How do we assume an edge? Isn’t that what the man who went away sad was being confronted with? Jesus was not blaming him for the riches alone, but for seeking a spiritual path without either claiming that life reality for himself, or naming it as a tool he could use in service to the establishment of God’s reign.

John Hooker mentions Cowper’s hymn, “Oh for a closer walk with thee.” It asks, “Where is the blessedness I knew/When first I saw the Lord” which is the question to ask of the man who came to Jesus. He is uneasy, and wants to know what else he can do, because he’s left his life and come to Jesus, but he doesn’t acknowledge honestly what that life encompasses. He doesn’t introduce himself honestly. In Cowper’s words, he doesn’t name, “The dearest idol I have known/Whate’er that idol be.” His idol is his assumed and unclaimed wealth.

What is ours? We each have individual idols and collective ones. Do we expect to have a variety of aspects of our liturgy the way we want it as individuals or as we agree together? Is our liturgy our idol? Our music? Are we curious about naming for ourselves truthfully what our unexamined privileges are, our idols? Do we know?

“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” “Then who can be saved?” Aren’t we each curious? Here’s what is the quintessence of hopefulness. “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible.”

Probably we are not going to receive the answer about what each of us holds dear as our own idol. We are not going to be told what our unexamined privilege is—it is our own job to do that examining. We can, like the man, go to Jesus, and then, unless we want to be sent away sorrowing, we need to bring some of the psalmist’s self-aware humility and trust, “Be not far from me, for trouble is near.” He, like us, wanted to walk that on-going path of grace, to “be given to all good works.” “For mortals, it is impossible, but for God all things are possible,” any person, all people can be saved. How do we press our capacity for curiosity to know even ourselves, individually and as communities, and examine our privilege and turn it to working for the reign of God? We do it with hope, together, with boldness. We remember to trust and believe that God’s property is always to have mercy. Then when we ask with the disciples, “Who can be saved?” we can trust that “with God all things are possible:” Good News.”

© Katharine C. Black 14 Oct 2012 St. John’s, Boston