Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Grace to Help in Time of Need

Sermon for 10.11.09
Psalm 22.1-11; Job 23.1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4.12-16; Mark 10.17-31

Please pray with me: In your light may we see life clearly and in your service find perfect freedom; through Jesus Christ our Lord. AMEN.

From today’s Gospel Lesson: His disciples “were greatly astounded and said to one another, ‘Then who can be saved?’ Jesus looked at them and said, ‘For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

I have a friend who is charming, warm, intelligent; a mother of four, a grandmother, and now a great-grandmother. One has to know her pretty well before learning how sad her childhood was. The issue was poverty of affection. Her mother was not a nurturer and she was kept from knowing her father. As a result, she grew up feeling abandoned and that is an identity that she has never totally been able to shake. Recently we were talking about those times when the sadness seems overwhelming. I asked her whether it was possible to reach out to God in these moments. She thought and then said, “Oh, God still exists for me. It’s just that He’s busy with someone else. I’ve been abandoned.”

Job is in the same situation. One of the reasons that I hope you will read the lectionary readings in advance is that there is so much of our own lives in them. (They’re pretty dramatic at times, as good as a movie or novel. They’re also complex and require time to absorb.) So here is Job, good, decent, and pious, thoroughly God-fearing, suddenly deprived of all of his prosperity through no fault of his own. We hear his anger in the passage read just now. He complains bitterly because, despite his groaning, God’s hand is heavy on him. Job wants to be able to engage God, to argue with him. He wants God to listen; he wants to know God is there listening to him. And then, he wants an answer. In fact, the answer he wants is for God to agree with him. If God would only be reasonable—and see things Job’s way—everything would be all right. But Job cannot find him. He has lost his sense of God’s presence and feels helpless, terrified… I have been there with Job, haven’t you?

Much the same argument is going on in the psalm that we read together. Psalm 22 is typically prayed during Holy Week, as the altar is stripped on Maundy Thursday or on Good Friday. Its opening line is found in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark as the one that Jesus cries out during his crucifixion, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus probably prayed out the entire psalm in his agony, just as we refer to an entire prayer when we describe someone saying the “Our Father.”

In Psalm 22, we hear the argument that Job wanted to have with God. The poet reminds God—and himself—that “it was you who took me from the womb” and “kept me safe on my mother’s breast.” This knowledge kindles—or attempts to kindle—faith, even in a time of despair, and responsibility on God’s part. It leads to the plea to God to be present, even though God seems to have abandoned him: “Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help.” I have had such conversations with God, fearing that they were only one-sided.

But then we come to Hebrews, and we are in a different world. For what it’s worth, this text is neither a letter, nor by Paul, nor written for the Hebrews. It is a profound essay on Christ that probably took decades to develop, and it proclaims that we have access to God through Christ, that God sent Christ so that we would have access to our Maker. As we heard this morning, “before [God] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare, but we now have a high priest who is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” and who “has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” Knowing this we can be bold in asking for mercy and finding grace.

On a daily basis, we can remind ourselves that God is aware that we sometimes feel forsaken, that God understands those conversations in which we seem to be chasing ourselves in circles and digging holes to hide in. The Bible has preserved accounts like that of Job so that we know we are not alone in these feelings. God also gives Job a stunning reply before the book is over. Moreover, God has responded to our feeling of abandonment through giving us the life and continuing mystery of Jesus Christ among us, so that there is a leaven that will cause our hopes to rise.

That God’s reshaping of us may be a leavening process connected to the total way in which we orient our lives is indicated by the linked episodes that we heard today from Mark. First there is the young man who has followed all the rules, who has kept the commandments from his youth. There must have been something truly winning about him because Mark tells us that “Jesus, looking at him, loved him.” But when Jesus invites him to join his movement, the young man cannot let go of his wealth and privilege.

The point, I think, is not that we should all give away everything we have, although it certainly should encourage us to think about the stewardship of money, material possessions, and our habits of consumption. Jesus was hoping to weld the young man’s understanding of a good and blessed life to his relationship to God. In his day, being pious and being prosperous were intertwined and that notion is still alive. This young man’s prosperity, like the prosperity that Job initially enjoys, was thought to be a sign of God’s favor. That same piety would cause him to be a benefactor to others from the wealth that God had helped him acquire. This in turn would win him gratitude and a prominent place in society. None of this is wrong, but it is incomplete. A too-easy correlation between prosperity and blessedness can hide the blessedness of those who have nothing. Preoccupation with personal prosperity can distract from the task of bringing in God’s kingdom. Most important, it can create the illusion that one is pulling this off on one’s own. Perhaps this is what Jesus means when he says it will be hard “for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God.”

The disciples, the straight-men as usual, are amazed. If the wealthy, who have the leisure to observe God’s commandments and the means to do good, can’t be saved, then who? Peter even gets all defensive and reminds Jesus of all he has personally sacrificed. Who can be saved? Jesus just gives them that look they must know so well and says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God.” He is urging them—and us—to remember who is in charge and who loves us.

We have tasks to do and commandments to internalize, as Job and the young man apparently had been doing for years, but we don’t have to go it alone. We don’t have to and we’re not supposed to since God’s plan of salvation has invited us into ongoing conversation. This may be hard to get used to, but it should also be comforting. The answer may not be immediate and God may not respond with the exact script we have supplied, but our prayers, our Bible study, our worship, our actions—all the marvelous variety of the “means of Grace” as they are called—shape us and warm us. It turns out that God is always responsible and acting responsibly. Then we suddenly realize that God has never just been busy with somebody else. In God’s way and in God’s own time, the miracle of God’s living yeast has always been there, growing within us as well.

Join me in prayer: Thank you God for your mighty gifts to us in creation and in Jesus Christ. Let us know that we may approach you with boldness and that we will find grace to transform our lives. Take the common stuff out of which we are made and touch us with your presence so that we may nourish hope within ourselves, peace among humanity, and health for our earth. We pray trusting in your name, through Jesus Christ. Amen.

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