The Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost October 14, 2018
The Twenty First Sunday after Pentecost October 14, 2018 The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin
Readings: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
From this morning’s collect, “Lord, may your grace always precede and follow us.” I speak to you in the Name of God our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. Amen.
An editorial column in yesterday’s online edition of the Tallahassee Democrat gave me pause. Reflecting upon the carnage of Hurricane Michael, the writer offered this observation, “Hurricanes, like the monster Michael, can destroy … our homes and businesses. And even our physical lives. But the underlying terror is that they destroy our normalcy, our foundations, our true selves.”
My sense is that destruction of normalcy, foundations, and the true self is the very situation where we find Job in today’s Old Testament lesson. Job, a devoutly religious man, who has lived his whole life walking in the ways of God, has lost everything: his property and holdings, his children and grandchildren, and even his health. And he is at his wits end. Everything he holds dear is gone. All he has left is his faith … oh, and a nagging wife and some know-it-all friends. And those folks mean well. They, like Job, believe the scriptures that promise prosperity to those who uphold God’s ways and values at all times, and so they are convinced that Job’s dire situation is the result of unconfessed sin. That has to be it, Job! And he starts to believe them.
Nevertheless, Job is convinced that he is innocent. And that leads to a crisis of faith: if he has done no wrong, then everything he has been taught about God’s grace and mercy is either a lie, or God is purposely mistreating him. And in that undermining of all that he believes about God’s justice and love, we get a sense of the despair Job is beginning to embrace. He laments if only there was someone to plead his case before God and affirm his innocence, maybe God would listen long enough to vindicate him. But, alas, where, Job asks, does one go to find God? Where can we find God in the mist of events that destroy our sense of normalcy, our foundations, and bring into question our very faith that we are beloved creations of God?
I have thought a lot about Job’s story in light of all that has happened in our world just in these past few weeks. People were still cleaning up from Hurricane Florence when Michael roared in wreaking even more havoc on beleaguered communities and drained resources. Across the globe, wars continue, journalists are murdered, terrorism remains a constant threat, and here at home, our communities remain divided economically and racially, hate speech is on the rise and, at the same time, because we are so politically divided and suspicious of any voices that suggest a different way of looking at things, we seem incapable of civil discussion on how to address our needs. In many ways, it seems that our sense of normalcy, our foundations, and our true selves are being destroyed before our very eyes. It is in times like these that just like Job, it would be very easy to fall into a sense of despair.
The Psalmist suggests that despair is the result of sin. And make no mistake – sin needs to be confessed and, in an act of repentance, we must commit to live differently. Nevertheless, if we focus solely on the depravity of humanity’s sinfulness – our own sins and those of our neighbors – despair will create a sense of hopelessness even within the hearts of God’s own people: people who have confessed their sins, amended their lives, and know they are innocent.
Here’s an example: Look at this morning’s gospel reading. A young man, who has lived his life striving to uphold the commandments of God in every way possible, asks Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” And Jesus tells him that he must give up everything he has. Mark tells us the young man went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Moments later, Peter says to Jesus, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” In other words, what more do you want from us?
And Jesus offers that despair inducing answer: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” Now, that is not a favorite scripture for many Episcopalians. A priest colleague tells the story of his first sermon at his new cure: one of the wealthiest churches in his particular diocese. The gospel lesson that day was none other than Mark 10:17-31. His sermon focused on Jesus’ words about camels and the rich trying to enter God’s kingdom. At the end of the service, as he was greeting parishioners at the door, the matriarch of the parish, bejeweled in diamonds and rubies, gently shook his hand, leaned forward and whispered into his ear: “We don’t read that gospel in this church Father” and stormed out the door!
Like that matriarch, many theologians have misunderstood this passage as suggesting that Jesus was anti-wealth and that is not the truth. Jesus was anti-wealth without responsibility. We, who are people of means, have a responsibility to care for and nurture the poor and the alien among us, clothe and feed the naked and hungry, visit the imprisoned and bind up the wounds of the sick. When our possessions become more valuable than human life, as that rich young man found in today’s gospel reading, then we no longer possess them, but rather, our possessions possess us. And that is Jesus’ point and that sense of not doing all we know we should do as people of God, can induce a sense of despair.
But there is hope: The writer to the Hebrews, much like our opening Collect this morning, reminds us that God is all seeing and that nothing is hidden from God. God sees and God knows. And the Word of God, this Jesus of Nazareth, is living and active and his words do cut to our hearts. They do urge us to change course, amend our lives, and choose to follow God’s ways regardless of what is happening around us – good or bad. And it is through faith in this Jesus described as our great high priest who intercedes for us just like Job asked, that we can dare to approach God’s throne with boldness and there we receive not condemnation, not despair, but mercy and grace every time.
Friends, life happens. Jesus said that the rain falls on the just and unjust (Matthew 5:45). While our choices in life have consequences, bad things don’t happen to us because we deserve them. Life simply unfolds. The Story of Job is the story of every righteous victim and it is a parable filled with grace. We – all of us – are Job and bad things do happen to good people. Job’s story reminds us that not only when bad things happen, but when horrific things happen, when hurricanes come and creeks overflow their banks flooding fairgrounds and communities, when dreams fail to come true, when loved ones die, or we receive a diagnosis that an illness is terminal, when it seems that our sense of normalcy, our foundations, and our true selves are threatened, this doesn’t mean that we have been wronged by God. Sometimes there is no one to blame: life simply happens and that is the core of Job’s story: a story that in the end affirms that God is always present to God’s people regardless of what is happening to us and all around us.
So, where do we go to find God in the midst of our own struggles, our own horrors and fears? Our lessons tell us that we need look no further than to our right and our left, before us and behind us, because God is ever present and most often God is revealed in and through people just like you and me. See, we are God’s presence in this world and as God’s presence, we are sent forth to bind up the wounds of the terrified. The question for us this morning is when confronting all the chaos in the world today, do we respond in words and actions that create despair, or in ways that affirm God’s grace, mercy, love and forgiveness?
This morning, I invite you to come to this altar and symbol of God’s throne of grace and to come boldly. Partake of the body and blood of Christ. Then, with souls nourished and assured of God’s pardon and absolution, let each of us go forth in the name of Christ to proclaim to the world, “Do not despair! For the grace and mercy of God, the kingdom of God is here. Let us show you the way.”
In the words of this collect, “Lord, may your grace always precede us and follow us.” Amen.