The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost, Oct. 7, 2018

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
October 7, 2018
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

From Mark’s gospel, (Jesus said) … For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     One of the blessings of being the Rector of a parish is that I set up the preaching schedule for the Rev. Anna and me. So, imagine how happy I was last week that Anna not only had to address the story of Esther, but also our reading from Mark’s gospel where Jesus urged us to pluck out our eyes or cut off our hands and so on. I found myself feeling rather smug that Anna had to tackle those lessons, not me.

Well, that smugness came to a screeching halt when I perused today’s lessons – my turn to preach – and I came face to face with the dreadful story of Job. So I skipped ahead to our gospel reading from Mark. As a divorced and remarried man, I can tell you from my own personal experience that this passage from Mark has been used by many in the Church to shame and condemn those of us who have known the deep pain and grief of divorce. (You know, I almost asked Anna if she’d mind if we changed the preaching schedule for today.)

And yet, once again, as I was reminded in my prayers this week, scripture always invites us to seek and then grasp the deeper message in our texts. A message that affirms God’s grace and forgiveness and, in so doing, offers us hope: hope that says we really can live differently and more fully. And, frankly, with all that is happening in our lives, I find today’s scripture lessons timely.

     An amazing thing about the story of Job. Some believe it is a true story about an actual man named Job. Others believe it is a parable. The story is purposely not dated and the name Job literally means “every man,” suggesting this story is timeless and can happen to anyone. Those who first heard this story knew that no one is as perfect as Job is described and like us, those first hearers understand that God does not visit horrors on people for sport nor does God allow us to be used to prove a point to a lesser god or being. That is not the God of the Bible and not the God we know. In fact, this story flies in the face of everything Deuteronomy says about life’s choices. If we will choose to always walk in God’s ways then, Deuteronomy says, life will be a journey from one blessing to another; or in contemporary “prosperity gospel” language, if we send money, drink the “miracle water”, and so on, we will be blessed and nothing bad will ever happen to us. Oh, and if it does happen, then it must because we have sinned. Remember: That’s what Job’s neighbors said.

     Now, preachers typically use this story of Job to address the question, “If God is all powerful and loving, why does God allow suffering in the world, especially suffering among the innocent.” And that is a great question. In fact, my initial sense was to offer answers based upon all of our readings this morning. But, I am going to save that for a future sermon: maybe next week’s sermon. (Yes, you do have come back next Sunday.) I am deferring because I think there is an incredibly timely message here: a timely message for us as Jobs ourselves and as human beings.

     The opening verses of the Letter to the Hebrews speaks to the unity of all humankind and reinforces the entire message of the New Testament: “The Word became flesh.” Not male, not female, not Jew, not Gentile, but “flesh.”The Word became flesh in order to be identified with all humanity, with all creation. The writer goes on to say that this Word made Flesh, this Jesus, is one with us in our humanity. He is one of us and one with us. And this Jesus is the Messiah, our redeemer, precisely because he suffered in his solidarity with all humankind: that’s you and me, and every one of our neighbors, friend and foe.   

     Our lesson from Mark’s Gospel recalls one of the many questions posed to Jesus by his detractors. They use the question of divorce and Jesus responds that the Law of Moses is perfectly clear on the matter. Then Jesus goes deeper: he goes beyond all the legalities about divorce. He reminds us that the severing of relationships is not God’s intended purpose and that the Law was created because of our own hard-heartedness that left women bereft of income and sustenance. The bill of divorcement protects women, and does not give license to men to make unwise decisions about marriage. We are reminded that absolute power when used to meet our own selfish absolute needs is a form of idolatry. Jesus quotes from Genesis saying that the crux of the creation story is about relationships: our relationships with each other, with our neighbors, and with God. Relationships that should be marked by fidelity, honesty, nurture, and growth for the mutual benefit of us all. The quality of our relationships whether with God or each other, the Psalmist says, is a choice on our part. The quality of every relationship is up to us.

     So what is that timely message I referenced? We, who claim to be people of God, just like Job, seek to uphold all the commandments of God. Deuteronomy says the first commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:4-5). And Our Lord Jesus Christ reminded us that the “The second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’’ He concluded saying, “There is no commandment greater than these” (Mark 12: 30-31). The question presented by the story of Job goes to the heart of what it means to be God’s people especially today: It is one thing to love God when things are going really, really well in our lives. But what about when it seems like God doesn’t answer our prayers, or life doesn’t go the way we hoped or planned? Do we still love God with all our heart, soul, and strength? Or like Job’s wife suggests, do we curse God?  And when people not only disappoint us, but act violently against us, or they are the cause for the mess we are in, is it possible to love them, love our neighbor as much as we love our own selves? Or do we vilify those with whom we disagree, write them off, and describe them as “our enemies?”

     This past week, many folks were consumed with the debate over whether or not Brett Kavanaugh should be seated on the Supreme Court. And the vitriol, from both sides, was, and continues to be, absolutely vile. It seems everyone thinks that their opinion is right and everyone else is wrong. Sadly, all too often, people chastised others in the name of religion. Christians against Christians calling each other all sorts of names and tossing scriptures at each other like weapons. And God help those who happen to follow other faith traditions. They fared even worse. Relationships and our ability to find common ground on matters that affect how this nation moves forward have been shattered. Perhaps permanently.

And yet, there was a ray of hope in all this – and it happened right here at Holy Cross. On Tuesday evening, several gathered for our Contemplative worship service. A poignant moment in that service of prayer and reflection came in response to our specific invitation not only to those who have been victimized by sexual assault and whose stories have been questioned, but also to those who have felt wrongfully accused and whose stories have not been believed. We invited everyone – regardless of who they are or what their circumstances - to come forward for the laying on of hands, for anointing with oil, and healing prayers. In the silence of those few moments, healing began. What would happen if people of God approached every strained relationship with the same intentional care and love?

     Beyond the turmoil in Washington, a situation occurred this week much closer to home. Last Sunday, graffiti including a swastika and the words "Heil Hitler. The Holocaust was a good thing," were painted on a wall in an area known as the Free Expression Tunnel at Appalachian State University. This is the 3rdincident of anti-Semitic threats on campus in the past twelve months. On Friday, several faith leaders from throughout the High Country gathered to discern our response. And there is more yet to come. But for now, we have agreed that as faith leaders who consider ASU to be a part of our community and for which we feel responsible, we consider these images and words experienced by those targeted and by us to be instruments of hate meant to intimidate and threaten. Thus, as people of faith, we denounce these acts of hate in the strongest possible words and stand with those who are their target and feel under threat. The question before us, as clergy, is how do we demonstrate our resolve? Well, we’re working on that. Stay tuned!

     I share these stories because today’s scriptures urge us to love God and neighbor regardless of our circumstances and wounds. The timely question for us, given all that is happening here at home and throughout our nation, is not only can we so love, but will we?  

(Jesus said) … For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.” Friends, hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church and God’s people. Amen.