Weekly Preaching: October 14, 2018

October 8th, 2018

Let’s look at this week’s lections in reverse order. Mark 10:17-31 (here's a sermon I did on this recently) opens a window for us into an encounter Jesus has with a man of “great possessions.” He’s a jobs producer! — and a commandment keeper. Verse 17 reminds us it’s not a still life. Jesus is “on a journey.” I picture him the way Pasolini did in his fabulous Italian film, “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” with Jesus walking urgently from place to place, speaking over his shoulder to breathless disciples trying to keep up. This wealthy man runs to catch up, kneels, and inquires about eternal life. He has so much, and now wants even more.

Jesus, like Socrates or Columbo, rarely pronounces definitive answers, but instead asks dizzying questions. The nameless man insists he has behaved well and adhered to the law. He’s good. But Jesus perceives a lack. Something’s missing. Something’s always missing.

The rich man has a pile of great things, a great life. But missing just one thing doesn’t mean he’s got 99 out of a 100 and just needs one to complete the set. The one he’s missing makes the 99 feel like only a little, not nearly enough. The one thing, the main thing, the only thing... this is precisely what even our finest people know they lack. It’s the grace — but really more than that, it’s the person. Others lay down their things not to get some grace, but to stick close to Jesus, who’s moving, travelling. Salvation is Jesus, being near him — which is hard to do while maintaining your plantations and investments.

Jesus, a genius diagnostician, sees deeply into this man and pinpoints the big blockage for him: it’s his stuff, his wealth, his things. We could (rightly) say Jesus wasn’t proposing all people give up all for the poor; it was just this one guy. Whew! But how many suffer this malady? As Morna Hooker pointed out, not many of Jesus’ listeners were rich. But the desire of riches can be the big blockage even for those who don’t have much. And we may recall John Wesley's rephrasing: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for those that have riches not to trust in them." For Wesley, the rich were those with more than the bare minimum to survive. Wealth destroys humility, wealth annihilates patience, and wealth produces vices and leads to idolatry (as explained in Theodore Jennings's amazing Good News to the Poor).

St. Francis heard Jesus' words in worship, and took the Bible literally; the rest is history. Others have approximated this radical divestment. Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, gave up his millions to build affordable houses for and with the poor. Who else can you find who has fundamentally taken a massive downward step on the economic ladder in order to empower others and change the world to be more in sync with God’s kingdom? Don’t forget that John Wesley suggested that laying up treasure on earth, keeping more than the minimum needed for survival, amounts to theft — from the poor, and from God.

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What a lovely touch, Mark noting the man’s sadness. Genuinely, he’s sad; he’s missing out, as sticking with the blockage does create sorrow. Jesus feels sad for him as well, and points out to his friends just how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. That medieval fiction about camels crawling on their knees to get through the gate called “the eye of the needle” has zero basis in fact and is worse theologically, as it implies it’s really hard, or it’s only through prayer you enter the kingdom. No, Jesus picturesquely reveals it’s absurdly impossible, just as you can’t shove a 6-foot tall, 1000-pound camel through a tiny single-millimeter hole.

Clergy should pause and recall Karl Barth’s worry. “Can even the clergy be saved? With the clergy, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Salvation is not just getting into heaven, but living into the kingdom of God here and now: it’s not hard, or really hard. It’s impossible. It’s all gift, all miracle. The same phrase punctuates the story of over-aged Sarah’s pregnancy with Isaac, and Mary’s virginal pregnancy with Jesus.

When I was pastor in Davidson, one of our Disciple groups studied this text and engaged in the usual ducking and weaving: Jesus means for us to be willing to sell all we have — but you really shouldn’t. You have to provide for your family! And if everybody did that, civilization would collapse, etc., etc., etc. The following week, they were serving homeless guests, and had thought it a good idea to invite them to study with them. Doubling back to this story, after reading it with the homeless, no one had the guts to say in front of them Jesus only means you should be willing… I mean, you have to provide for your family, blah blah blah.

We dare not overspiritualize Jesus here. Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) pointedly reminds us that Jesus envisioned a real and radical shakeup of the social and economic order. Myers is probably right: “Jesus contends that the only way to salvation for the rich is by the redistribution of their wealth — that is, the eradication of class oppression.” And Jesus didn’t envision an impersonal give-away or transfer of funds. As Jürgen Moltmann put it, "The opposite of poverty isn’t property, but community." We share what we have with others so no one is in need, so all have enough (like in Acts chapters 2 and 4).

* * *

Hebrews 4:12-16 is a compact and powerful text, bursting with urgency and tenderness. God’s Word is personified: it’s the message, the messenger, the whole Christian dispensation. And it’s alive, not chiseled in aging stone. It’s the proverbial two-edged sword... but we should not feel it’s a threatening weapon (as some wish to use the Bible). Think scalpel: sharp, cutting away what is awry, piercing deep into the soul, or paring away what is not of God, what if left unattended will be your undoing. For God’s Word cuts deeply, the way Jesus does in Matthew 5. God cares not merely about outward behavior but also inner motivations, moods and feelings.

Jesus is amazing. He’s the high priest. He is the sacrifice. He offers the sacrifice. He sympathizes with us. What a profound, hopeful, tender depiction of God, comes to us in this Jesus. What such a God does for us is he gives us good cause for “boldness” — parresia in the Greek, meaning frankness, or free speech. We can speak up candidly to God; we can’t help but open our gut and pour it all out to such a God, as we are granted access to his gracious throne of mercy.

I love the notion that this God is a help to us “in time of need.”  Isaac Bashevis Singer once said “I only pray when I am in trouble. The problem is, I am in trouble all the time.” We are in need, not just in those 911 moments, but all the time — perhaps most pointedly in those times we think all is well and we don’t need God so much.

* * *

Job. The lectionary offers us chapter 23 as part two of their four-week series, which is more directly accusatory of God than chapter 3. God is hiding, inaccessible… an experience all too real for the sufferers to whom we preach. For me, as part two of a Job series, I’ll look at the response of Job’s so-called “friends.”

After Job’s startling tirade in chapter 3, enter his three friends. They had been doing what friends do in times of crisis: they came, they sat, they loved, they were simply present. Unfortunately, they then decided to speak. William Blake depicted them flawlessly. Words are appropriate if they speak of love, if they offer solidarity in prayer. But theological “answers” designed to reckon with why bad things happen, or to make the other feel better, are what James Russell Lowell called after the death of his daughter, “a well-meant alms of breath.” His response is spot-on: “But not all the preaching since Adam has made death other than death.”

What is a friend? We might think a friend is someone you enjoy hanging around with, someone you might even trust with your private self. Aristotle said the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. And Søren Kierkegaard wrote that a friend is someone who helps you to love God. Job’s friends would ringingly claim they were helping Job toward God. But like so much bad theology, they only isolate him from God at the hour Job needs God the most. The book of Job dares to ponder the possibility that a true friend will actually take your side against God.

Beginning in chapter 4, the book of Job offers us an extended glimpse into failed friendship, right in the thick of immensely needed friendship. They quote scripture to Job, but insensitively and out of context. Immanuel Kant suggested that Job’s friends talk as if God is listening, and they are eager to cull favor with God instead of weighing the immense horror of the sorrow of their friend. The problem of evil, why bad things happen, isn’t an intellectual exercise for friends to solve for one another. Let the wound remain open. It needs the air, the space, instead of a blistering medicine of theological half-truths.

We hear this so very often. Friends, half wanting to help, half terrified that the pain of a friend has crowded them so closely that they too might lose everything, mutter trite falsehoods that only isolate the sufferer from others and from God. “Everything happens for a reason.” “God doesn’t give you more than you can bear.” “He’s in a better place.” On and on go the laughable but tragic remarks that are nearly snarky from the point of view of the one who has loved, lost, sought God, and come up empty. Emmanuel Levinas pointed out that, if we ever for a moment justify a neighbor’s pain, we open up a road to all kinds of immorality. Pain is never justifiable. We always, if we are friends, shudder, weep, and cry out with the beloved who has lost their beloved.

The book of Job’s larger lesson is that God is known in Job’s blistering, relentless, savage questioning, not in the simple, vapid answers of the friends. The moving scene in Steel Magnolias says it all. M’Lynn, played deftly by Sally Field, is at the cemetery where her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts) has just been buried. Her friends come to comfort. Annelle, kookily played by Daryl Hannah, attempts pious comfort, telling M’Lynn she “should be rejoicing” because “she is with her king.” M’Lynn takes exception, and launches into a Why? Why? Why? Tirade of immense emotional power. Who spoke more truly theologically? M’Lynn, clearly. Annelle even acknowledges that her thoughts about eternal life “make her feel better in situations like this.” Indeed. Pious comfort is for... the comforted, who aren’t comforted? Or the comforters?

We say God speaks in Scripture, but God speaks here by not speaking. It’s baffling, exasperating, and true to life. Intruding into the mystifying but elegant silence is the racket of the friends' talk and then in the mortified shouts of Job in reply. Three rounds of interchanges with three ex-friends. Karl Barth said that they purvey falsehood, they spread deceit; they are like false prophets, spouting theological truisms but not understanding the situation or the need.

Thomas Aquinas wisely declared that they need to make Job look bad so God will look good. But their God is too small and is too easily manipulated. Job is reaching out to find a God who is bigger than theirs, who is not boxable, not trivialized — a God who will at least show up and speak with Job, be present with him in his hour of agony.

Eliphaz, perhaps the senior friend, begins politely, asking if he can venture in before speaking with Job. He explains that he can’t restrain himself, perhaps as Jeremiah could not help but belch out God’s Word. But why? Good theology is at stake for him. Or is it his own fear? Order must be restored! For, if Job is right, nobody (including Eliphaz himself) can dwell safely in simplistic comfort with God. We may sympathize with him as he tries valiantly to sympathize with Job.

He begins with a bit of a backhanded compliment. There is always a fine line between encouragement and disparagement; judgment can sneak its way inside comfort when nobody’s looking. Reminding him he has comforted others who were suffering, and hasn’t been shy about reproving those who had sinned, Eliphaz turns the tables and quizzes him on why, now that the pain has come his way, he’s struggling so. Hidden in his harsh suggestion is a helpful truth for us: sometimes we have our chipper counsel ready to spoonfeed others, but when the sorrow comes our way, we realize how trite, how unhelpful, how nearly sadistic it can be.

Eliphaz verges on claims of being divinely inspired: “A word sneaked up on me… A breeze swept by my face” (4:12, 15). Was God’s Spirit moving? Or was God “not in the wind,” as Elijah learned on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:11). Did Eliphaz breathe God’s breath? Or was it nothing but hot air?

And so, feeling the rush of apparently holy wind, Eliphaz offers a little array of truthiness, speaking true things, sort of, but too thin, too trivial to sway Job or account for the horrors of severe trauma. He remonstrates with Job, declaring that if he sticks with his integrity, all will be well (4:6). Can a human being be more righteous than God (4:17)? Of course not — but Job isn’t vaunting himself above God. Rather, he is drilling God for failure to be righteous.

As if anticipating the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (life is nasty, brutish and short), he muses that humanity is born to trouble (5:7), which isn't much solace and is hardly a fit for Job’s exasperation. Achilles said as much to Priam, grieving the death of his son Hector (in the Iliad): “The gods have woven pain into mortal lives, while they are free from care.” Or remember Gloucester, in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”

Eliphaz asks if the truly innocent have ever suffered (4:7, echoing the ridiculous Psalm 37:25), implying Job may not be so clean, clinging to the fake notion that God shelters those who are holy. Have the innocent ever suffered? Have you ever read a history book, or paid attention to the world around you? Naïve, blind, and perversely adhering to theological lies is this Eliphaz. He basically tells Job, Try praying! Mind you, Job hasn’t tried praying yet. It’s all too raw; he’s not quite on speaking terms with God just yet. Job knows he had been a man of immense prayer right up to the onslaught, and thus quite rightly suspects that bowing his head and asking for help won’t work; it certainly won’t bring his children back to life.

A laundry list of biblical thoughts are voiced in 5:8-16. God does great things: he sends the rain and lifts up the lowly, he foils the deceitful, he saves the needy, echoing many Psalms. Yes, these are true confessions about our God, but they are not suitable for this occasion; they only grind Job’s soul into ever greater misery as this God isn’t being the God Job had hoped for.

Eliphaz’s worst effort to calm or correct Job screams across the centuries from 5:17: “Look, happy is the person whom God corrects, so don’t reject the Almighty’s instruction” (or as the RSV puts it, “Despise not the chastening of the Almighty”). Here is the most distasteful pablum we hear in times of misery: God is teaching you something, God is disciplining you, God is afflicting you so you will… Well, complete the sentence any way you like. God is wielding a divine paddle, God is giving you a thrashing so you’ll behave next time, God is smiting us so we’ll toe the line. C.S. Lewis famously wrote in The Problem of Pain that, “God whispers to us in our pleasures… but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But after Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer, he relented on this.

The God of grace is no harsh taskmaster. The God of grace lures us with love and compassion, not beatings and pinpricks. God teaches us through the goodness of Scripture, through the voice of our savior Jesus. Yes, we may learn from suffering. We may wake up from our sinful slumber when our world is rocked and racked with pain. But the notion that God afflicts to instruct is out of character with the God of mercy. Such a god would be no better than the one wagering with the satan, looking on like a fan as a bloodthirsty lion circles a barely-armed gladiator.

Hebrews 12 only seems to prop up Eliphaz’s thinking. “Don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, or give up when you are corrected by him, because the Lord disciplines whomever he loved… Bear hardship for the sake of discipline. God is treating you like sons and daughters!” (12:5-7). The God of Hebrews is the one who suffers for us in Jesus, the one who cries out loudly in agony (5:7), who knows our weakness and sympathizes (4:16).

Isn’t there a way of conceiving God’s discipline that is less smiting and more nurturing? God created the world in such a way that living out of sync with God does have its consequences. Constant alcohol consumption will ruin your health, and recovery is about learning the discipline of a sober life. But this is very different from concocting a God who is very angry you’ve been drinking, and dips a divine finger down into your liver so you’ll learn your lesson.

In response to this approach, Job’s uncharitable, angry, and wounded raging in chapter 6 tells us what we need to know about failed friendship…

"What can we say October 14? 21st after Pentecost" originally appeared at James Howell's Weekly Preaching Notions. Reprinted with permission.

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