Proper 28, Year C, 2016

What a week!

Some of you are coming into this space feeling wonderful and triumphant this week. Some feel like you have been kicked in the gut.  Some may just be plain relieved the election is over.

However you are feeling today, I think today you will find some hope in our words from Isaiah. They are beautiful, lofty words about God creating a new heaven and a new earth. God makes these incredible promises to his people, but today I want to remind us that the context in which these words were written was an incredibly difficult time in the life of Jewish people.

Remember with me, if you will, some of the history here. In 605 BC, the Babylonians invade Judah, which included Jerusalem, the holiest Jewish city. Instead of just taking over the region, the Babylonians forced Jewish people out of Judah and scattered them around the Babylonian empire. The Jewish people were allowed to work and have families, but they were not allowed to return home.

The book of Isaiah is divided into three parts, and our reading is from what is called Third Isaiah. Now Third Isaiah had to be written because God made all these promises in Second Isaiah about the Jewish people being allowed to return to Jerusalem where they would flourish, but the prophecies only came sort of true. King Cyrus of the Persians, who had conquered the Babylonians, allowed the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and to even start to rebuild the temple. But once they got there, the Jewish people experienced great poverty, drought, failed crops. They truly suffered. They had hoped in this one idea of the future, but the reality was incredibly painful. They gave up on building the Temple.

They were suffering and they were mad at God. How could God do this to them? After all the disorienting dislocation they had experienced, after the warfare and violence, how could things have turned out this way?

And of course what happens in this kind of suffering is that people turn against each other. The earlier parts of Third Isaiah describe factions and leaders within the Jewish community at each other’s throats. Leaders tried to make themselves rich, and the court system was filled with corruption.

Our generation did not invent brutal politics.

So, then what is this hopeful text we have from Isaiah 65 this morning? Is it pointing to some kind of idyllic afterlife? Do we have to drop dead before we can experience the lovely joy and peace that it promises? Are we too corrupt to be that aligned with God here and now?

Paul Hanson, an Old Testament scholar, believes there are two ways to understand shalom–this kind of idealized peace described in Isaiah 65. He writes,

It is terribly important that in answering this question one draw a clear distinction between two exercises of religious imagination. One dreams of shalom as an avenue of escape from real life. . .with the effect of disabling people by breaking their will to act with courage and determination on behalf o God’s order of justice. The other envisions shalom as an act of defiant affirmation that no power will thwart the fulfillment of God’s righteous purpose.

So, we can see this image of a new creation as something that will only happen after we die, which causes us to throw up our hands. Or, we can see this image of a new creation of the way God can work through us, no matter our circumstances.

Before God gives Isaiah this vision, first Isaiah does a lot of yelling . He reminds Judah that blaming God for bad circumstances is a way of throwing up our hands and releasing ourselves from any responsibility for our situation. God wants his people to take responsibility for making this idealized peace into a reality. Isaiah tells Judah they need to keep the Sabbath, clean out the corruption from their justice system, offer food to the hungry, and rebuild his Temple.

That’s how justice looked in the 6th century BCE. How does justice look now? As long as there have been Democrat and Republican parties, they have had different ideas about how to enact justice. And when our country is in a healthy-ish place, our politics looks like hearty arguments and deal making and compromises as we hash out how to make justice happen for our citizens.

What concerns me about where we seem to be headed, in such a highly polarized time, is a situation where we do not give our politicians permission to have those arguments and make those compromises. On a recent broadcast of the NPR show On Being, Eboo Patel expressed these concerns beautifully:

My quick take on that is healthy is a society in which people who orient around religion differently can disagree on some fundamental things and work together on other fundamental things. And in my mind, the most dangerous trend in our society right now is what Andrew Sullivan calls the “scalping” trend, which is if you disagree with me on one fundamental thing …I will neutralize our entire relationship, and I will take your scalp and hang it on my wall as a trophy to make sure that everybody else who has that opinion knows that I’m coming for them[1].

How do we live out faithful citizenship and have passionate beliefs, without wanting to scalp each other? I think this week—in which we had both Election Day and Veterans day—is as good a time as any to consider these questions.

At another point in the interview Patel said that when he was in college and was a fire-breathing political activist, he read a column by William Raspberry of The Washington Post in which he wrote “The smartest people I know secretly believe both sides of the issue.” This helped reframe Patel’s understanding of what it means to position himself in the world. Winning the argument is not always the most important thing you can do in a conversation. Listening and trying to understand how other people understand the world can be transformative.

It may be too soon after an incredibly divisive election cycle to start engaging in this way. We may need more time to cool off. But eventually, it would be powerful if we could really listen to each other, try to hear each other’s concerns, and see if we can come to any common ground. I think church is one of the few places in our lives we actually interact in person with people who think differently from us, so if we are very brave maybe we can practice having those conversations with each other. Even if that is SO not the polite thing to do! These conversations do not mean we are abandoning our ideas of justice.

No matter our political affiliation, there are fundamental acts of justice we are supposed to do as God’s followers. We are supposed to feed the poor, care for the widow and orphan, take care of refugees. They are summed up pretty beautifully in our baptismal covenant. We even have some copies of the covenant on the back table if you want one for your fridge. And even if our political systems completely abandon these tasks of justice, they are still ours. We are the light of the world. We can live out faithful citizenship outside of official structures.

No one can take away God’s image of a new Creation from us. We can stand up for those experiencing racism. We can feed the poor and house the homeless. We can treat each person we meet with respect. We have the power to participate in God’s creation of a new heaven and a new earth right now. And it may take awhile before the wolf and the lamb—or the pantsuit and the red cap—can hang out together peacefully and productively, but we hang on to an image of shalom where they can.

We have our annual ingathering this Sunday, but it’s not an ordinary ingathering. I hope as we offer our financial gifts to this place, we are also offering again the promises we made at baptism to God and to the world. The world needs Christians that are filled with the light of Christ’s love. Your relationship with God is more than just walking through these doors once a week. God chooses you to be his representative in the world and to help make this new heaven and a new earth. You are the light of the world.

Amen.

[1] Patel, Eboo, “How to live beyond this election” On Being aired October 27, 2016

 

Proper 24, Year C, 2016

I was an uptight little girl. I liked order. I liked to know what was happening. I was never totally convinced my very competent parents had everything under control. And so, one of the refrains I heard over and over again as a little girl was, “Sarah, stop NAGGING.”

To nag, I learned was unattractive, annoying, and pushed people away.

What a delight, then, to find a parable in which Jesus is telling his male disciples that faith sometimes looks like a nagging woman.

In the world of the parable, there is a man in power that is so disconnected from God and God’s justice that he even says, “I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone”. He owns that he is not a good guy, certainly not interested in helping a widow. But this widow, a vulnerable woman, has been wronged. And she is not going to give up. She comes to this unjust judge over and over and over again. She nags him unrelentingly. And so, finally, he gives in. She wears him down and she wins justice.

And if you read the Bible, especially the Old Testament carefully, you’ll see this is how Biblical women operate. Women in the Bible don’t have a lot of political or social power. They can’t own property, they can’t decide where they move, their stories are dictated by the men in their lives. People without power are not always able to get things done directly. People without power have to manipulate and subvert power in unexpected ways. Biblical women working behind the scenes, on the margins, brought to bear our faith story the way we know it.

My favorite example of this is how Rebekah, mother of Jacob and Esau, manipulates her sons and her husband into making sure her favorite child, Jacob, gets the birthright. Do you remember the story? Esau is the very hairy firstborn who gives up his birthright for a bowl of lentil stew. And then Rebekah convinces Jacob to put on a goatskin to trick his blind father into thinking smooth skinned Jacob is hairy Esau. She is incredibly pushy—and God uses her to get the heir with whom he wants to work. Jacob is the chosen one, and God uses Rebekeh to make that happen.

Rebekah is not the only example. In one of the weirder stories in the Bible, God comes to kill Moses, but his wife Zipporah, intervenes by touching a piece of their son’s foreskin to Moses’ feet. Mysteriously, this makes God relent and Moses continues his work. I do not recommend trying this at home.

Years later, when the Israelites are trying to move into the Promised Land, Joshua sends two spies into Jericho to check things out. They get discovered and prostitute named Rahab hides them on a roof under some stalks of flax.

Over and over again, women in the Old Testament use their cunning to do the work of God. Biblical women are not passive or compliant. Biblical women and tough and smart and very, very creative

And Jesus holds us this kind of nagging persistence as a model of how to pray. He says, “and will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”

When life gets hard or scary, when you’re not in control of a situation, sometimes it can be tempting to give up. But Jesus wants his followers to hold on and and keep asking for what they need. Jesus wants us to nag God in our prayers. Jesus wants us to tell God when we know something isn’t right, when we face injustice, when everything seems out of whack.

We can get the idea that to be a Christian woman means to keep our mouths shut, to be helpful, to be compliant. There are parts of the Epistles that can be read as an instruction for women not to teach or speak up in church.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to agree with that interpretation. Jesus surrounds himself with faithful men and women. In the Gospels of Mark and Matthew there is a great story of a Canaanite woman who pesters Jesus and is so good at arguing that he finally gives in and heals her daughter even though she is not Jewish. Jesus is dear friends with sisters Mary and Martha. And in all the Gospels, Mary Magdalene is the first person to see the resurrected Jesus. Jesus honors women and relates to them as individuals. Jesus knows they are an important part of God’s Kingdom.

God is still using nagging women to do his work. Mother Teresa was a notorious pain in the neck. She would berate officials until they gave her the permits or money she needed to do her work. In Ireland, working behind the scenes, mothers led the way in the peace treaty that stopped IRA violence. They persisted in building relationships across religious lines when no one thought it possible. Women in Chicago began movements to set themselves up on street corners after violent episodes to offer hugs and love to young people in order to stop cycles of violence.

These courageous women remind us that lives of faith sometimes look fierce. These women remind us that sometimes seeking God’s justice on earth can turn you into an annoying nag. Or, as the writer Rachel Held Evans would say, “A Woman of Valor.” And these women of valor are role models for each of us, whether we are men or women, to never give up on the idea that our world can look more like the Kingdom of God. Jesus knows that faith is going to be difficult for his disciples. He knows faith is difficult for us. He wants us to hang on, to stay invested, to stay in communication with God even if we are frustrated or want to give up.

So, hang in there. Keep nagging God. Keep knocking on his door. God is listening.

Amen.

Proper 22, Year C, 2016

Have any of you ever watched a live debate on a channel where they track audience response? Below the candidates talking, there are several lines representing different groups of voters. When a candidate says something the audience likes, the line moves up. When a candidate says something the audience doesn’t like, the line moves down.

I think sometimes we get fooled into thinking faith works the same way. Like, when I am praying in the car in the morning, my line goes way up! But then, if I get stuck behind someone driving slowly, that line goes way down. When I’m leading worship, up! When I’m feeling anxious about the future, the line goes down.

I have had multiple parishioners over the years approach me because they are concerned that they are not faithful enough. Perhaps at one point in their life they felt very close to God, but now they feel their faith dimming.

Anyone who has this concern is in good company. Mother Teresa struggled with this. St. John of the Cross struggled with this. Fearing the loss of faith is a tradition as old as the disciples!

Our Gospel lesson this morning is a perfect example. Jesus has just said some really challenging things to a large group of his disciples. He’s said things like, “It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble. “ Can’t you imagine everyone’s eyes getting a little bigger when they heard that? I know I would feel a little nervous!

A group of the apostles—those disciples closest to Jesus—come up to him and tell Jesus, “Increase our faith!” They don’t want to have a millstone hung around their neck! They love Jesus. They want to be faithful! They want Jesus to zap them with faith. They want a doubt proof, mistake proof shield of faith so they will be sure to be pleasing to God.

Jesus goes on to tell them this famous anecdote about the mustard seed. He tells them if they just had the tiniest amount of faith that they could stare at a tree and make it leap into the sea. Now, I will confess something. I have tried this. Periodically, I’ll just stare at an overgrown bush in my garden really hard and imagine it tearing itself from the ground. News flash: This has never once worked. While I would very much like gardening to be a Mary Poppins like experience where all the weeds dance themselves out of the ground, gardening remains hard labor. Jesus here is using a bit of hyperbole. One might even say he is being sarcastic.

The disciples miss the point. The amount of faith a person has does not matter. What matters is who the faith is in.

If your faith is in the one God, who created the universe and inhabited a human body and whose spirit dwells in our hearts—if our faith is in that God, the tiniest amount of faith is enough. Because faith is not about us being superheroes. Faith is God using ordinary people to do his extraordinary work.

Jesus drives home this point in the story of the slave and the owner. Now, this is a very first century story. This story of household slaves is a little horrifying now that we understand liberty and equality as so important to being a human being. But, at the time, wealthy people had slaves who would work for them for a set period of time, and then earn their freedom. But keep in mind that Jesus’ apostles were not wealthy. Many were Galilean fishermen. So Jesus telling this story to them is like me starting a story by telling you, “You know how when you have a maid and chauffeur and a cook. . .” You all would be rolling your eyes at me! Jesus’ point is that someone who is staff doesn’t expect to be celebrated, they just do the work they are hired to do.

Jesus tells his apostles this parable as a way of saying, “You are overthinking this faith thing. Don’t worry about your level of faith, just do the work of a faithful person.”

Most of the time, Jesus sounds like a wise philosopher, but every once in a while, Jesus sounds like an exasperated mom. “Stop whining about all the homework you have to do, and just do the homework! If you had just started the homework when you started whining, it would be over by now!”

In the same way, Jesus doesn’t seem that interested in our anxiety about faith. We are not central to our own salvation! God does all the work of salvation. We are simply recipients of the hard work of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. However we feel about our faith is irrelevant. We are beloved by God and in God’s good graces because God says so, not because we feel faithful.

When God looks at us, he sees our faith meter as completely full, because Jesus has done all the work he need to do to make it so.

So, we can relax. But relaxing does not look like sitting on the sofa the rest of our lives. Relaxing looks like living the life of faith. Breaking bread together, serving the poor, doing our best to live lives of courage and integrity, forgiving those who hurt us, seeking justice, being kind. The life of faith is not easy. Following Jesus is not easy. But we don’t have to complicate it with anxiety about how God sees us.

Whatever your current level of faith, it is enough to serve God. You don’t to wait until you know more or feel more. You can start right now. I was so impressed by our youth a few weeks ago when they were packing up the bags for the food pantry. Many of them had never done it before. We gave them only the most minimal instruction. But they knew it was an important job and so they figured it out! There were twenty people in our tiny food pantry and so there was much shuffling around and trying not to bump into each other. But no one complained, they just did the work of faith. They served God in a new way. And I was impressed by the grown ups, too. The “experts” stepped back and allowed a little chaos. They did not try to micromanage. That might have been the bravest act of all!

There are things about living a life of faith that scare or intimidate us. But our God is so big. He has done all the work for us. So when God calls us to something new in our life of faith—new friendships, new leadership roles, new life adventures—we can have confidence that we are enough, our faith is enough. We don’t have to be a bible expert to teach Sunday School. We don’t have to have perfect pitch in order to sing in the choir. We don’t have to have been a CEO to serve on the vestry. We don’t have to have gone to seminary, to talk with a friend about God. Our experience with God is enough.

Now, God is not going to leave us where we are. We will continue to grow in our knowledge, and maybe even our faith. But we won’t be any more saved or any more loved than we are right in this moment. This is the paradox of the life of faith: God has done everything for us, but God can do great things through us.

I invite you to release any lingering doubts you may have about how God feels about you. Say your confession when we get to that part of the service and then really, listen to the absolution. Nothing stands between you and God. Not even your doubt is powerful enough to get in God’s way.

And then, when you hear, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord,” go out there and get to work!   You have all you need.

Amen.

Proper 19, Year C, 2016

One of the images that burns in my mind when I think about September 11th, 2001 are the walls covered in posters of people who were missing. So many people died at once, and the crime scenes were so chaotic, that it was sometimes weeks before people confirmed whether their loved ones were dead or alive.   Walls in New York were covered in handmade posters with the faces of people who were lost. Their families did everything they could to find the people they loved so much. Some were successful right away—finding their loved ones in a hospital, and some kept on looking, but never stopped until they knew for sure what had happened.

That image has stayed with me this week, because our Gospel text is full of images of people looking, searching, for something precious. Jesus is surrounded by tax collectors and “sinners” who have heard about him and are fascinating by the things Jesus is saying about God. The Pharisees are horrified that someone who claims to be delivering messages from God is surrounding himself with tax collectors, who take advantage of the people of God on behalf of the Roman Empire and by sinners, who you know, do sinful stuff.

Jesus responds by telling the story of the shepherd, who has lost one sheep, leaves the other 99 sheep and searches until he can bring the lost sheep back to safety. He goes on to tell a story about a woman who loses a coin and turns her whole house upside down to find it. He then tells the story of the prodigal son, which the lectionary saves for another day.

There is no one so lost that they are outside the bounds of God’s grace. A couple of weeks ago, when we did the backpack blessing, I told the children that with God, they get infinite do-overs. A couple parents laughed/shot me dirty looks, because this is not particularly helpful ammunition to give a grumpy seven year old. I want to be clear that it is God who gives the do-overs, not people. No human being is willing to give us infinite do-overs. Our teachers won’t give us infinite do-overs, our siblings won’t give us infinite do-overs, even the most loving parent eventually has to draw a line. It’s not good for human beings to give us infinite do-overs. Sometimes people drawing the line on our destructive behavior is what finally gets us to make better choices.

But even if we have alienated every human being in our life, even if our parents have cut us off, God is still patiently waiting for us and as soon as we want to, will help us start a new life in God. In fact, if we are to believe Jesus’ parables, God isn’t just patiently waiting, God is turning over couch cushions looking for us. God is looking behind every hedge and under every rock. God isn’t sitting around waiting for us to get all our answers straight. God isn’t waiting for us to pull ourselves together. God is looking for us right now. Exactly the way we are. He longs for us.

There is a story out of Denmark, reported by Hanna Rosin of the NPR Podcast Invisiblia, that made me think of these parables.  This is the story of those who were lost, and how a community found them again.

One day, in the Danish town of Aarhus, police got a frantic call from parents whose teenage son had gone missing. While they started to look into the case, they got another call. And then another. In all, it turned out dozens of teenagers and young adults had disappeared. The police investigated and found that these young people had been lured by ISIS to Syria, along with thousands of other European young adults. Rather than recruit directly through mosques, ISIS recruited through social media and peer to peer recruiting. Some parents had no idea their children were being radicalized until the day their children disappeared.

Now, in the rest of Europe, police reaction to this recruiting was to get even tougher on terrorism. Countries forbid travel to Syria, threatened to take away passports, declared those who had left enemies of the state. None of this seemed to work. Young Muslim people felt so alienated that the call to travel to Syria and help build an Islamic State seemed attractive to them. They wanted to belong.

Belonging. Belonging is what the Aarhus policemen decided to use as a tactic to solve this problem. Instead of warning young people that they would get in trouble if they went to Syria, Hanna Rosin reports that:

They made it clear to citizens of Denmark who had traveled to Syria that they were welcome to come home, and that when they did, they would receive help with going back to school, finding an apartment, meeting with a psychiatrist or a mentor, or whatever they needed to fully integrate back into society.

Instead of punishing radicalization, the police officers tried to fight the roots of radicalization. They apologized to young people that had been arrested on bogus charges. They followed up with these young people and found them mentors, jobs, health care. Instead of treating them as lost causes, they treated them as people who wanted to be found.

Since 2012, 34 young people have left Aarhus for Syria. Six were killed and ten are still there. 18 have come home and met with these police officers, as have more than 300 other radicalized youth from Aarhus. Since the program started very few young people have left Aarhus. Last year, it was only one person. The engagement is working. One young man said that while he always felt like an outsider in Denmark, now he feels Danish.

In the years since 9/11 our country has gotten more and more polarized. Public discourse has almost entirely broken down. But these images of God searching out the lost give us hope. If God can look for us no matter how broken we are, if we can fully feel the joy of that kind of love and forgiveness, perhaps we can reach out to those around us in love. Rather than judging those different from us, perhaps we can seek them out, too, remind ourselves that their difference does not mean they are cut off from God’s love that flows through us.

The God we worship is a God who seeks the lost and then gathers them into community. As members of Christ’s body, we are invited into this gathering, both as the invited and the inviters. The police in Aarhus give us a great example of how that might look. Instead of cutting off troubled young people, they invited them back into their communities and made sure they had deep connections. I guarantee you, their experience was not easy. But it was important to preserving their community, and so they did it.

Today we begin/began Christian Formation, and I can’t stress how important this is for you and for your families. Christian Formation is not just about educating ourselves and our children about God. Christian Formation is an opportunity for us to connect to one another and to God. It is a change to be brought into community, and to give yourself the bonds of connection that will see you through hard times. One of our college students told his parent that he’s not sure what he believes about God, but he knows that the people of St. Paul’s love him. He knows that because he was an active participant in our life together. He knows that because he showed up and was willing to be gathered in. We hope that sense of church as a place of love will continue with him his whole life and ultimately draw him to God. We hope that every child who grows up in St. Paul’s has that same sense. We hope each adult who enters our doors feels that love.

But your clergy and staff cannot do it alone. We need you. We need your presence. We need your leadership. We are so grateful every time someone volunteers to chaperone or teach or plan a reception because each of those encounters creates another bond, another chance for people to feel connected.

If you are new to St. Paul’s, we invite you to join us in the courtyard this afternoon at 4:00. We want to form those bonds with you, too. And September 25th and October 23rd, Eric will be leading a Welcome Class including a tour of the church at the 9:30 hour. It can be hard to enter a new church. People are often embarrassed to reach out to a new person in case that person is not new! But we are committed to helping you find ways to connect, both to people and to God.

God wants every single one of us as part of his community. He wants us to be gathered in, together. He wants each of us to know him deeply. And he will keep looking for us until we do.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 16, Year C, 2016

I am bad at watching the Olympics. I was at work during most of the good gymnastics stuff, and kept forgetting to watch the swimming at night. Finally, my husband and I caught the men’s 100 meter butterfly. The camera was on the stands and my husband said, “Oh, there is Michael Phelps’ baby!” Now, I may not keep track of sports, but I’m usually on top of celebrity gossip, but I had NO idea Phelps had a child. My husband looked at me and said, “Yep, he has a baby and he found Jesus.”

Well, that led to some googling. An article in Christianity Today reports that two years ago September, Phelps was struggling with severe depression and contemplating suicide after his second arrest for DUI in ten years. Ray Lewis, a friend of his, gave him a copy of Rick Warren’s The Purpose Driven Life, and in reading it, he came to understand that God loved him and had a purpose for him. He used the resources in the book to reconcile with his father and do some internal work. Two years later he is engaged, has a baby, and a new handful of Olympic medals.

Phelps’ story is a powerful story of healing and it is no wonder that Christian websites are so eager to share this story of redemption of such an inspiring and gifted athlete.

But these kinds of healing stories lead to questions, don’t they? Why hasn’t God intervened in the life of my loved one with depression? Where do I fit into God’s story if I haven’t experienced miraculous healing from my medical issues?

Our healing story from the 13th chapter of the Gospel of Luke can help us with some of these questions.

Once again, this is a story only in the Gospel of Luke. And unlike some of the Gospel of Luke that focuses on God’s story being expanded to gentiles, this story is in an entirely Jewish context. Jesus is in the synagogue teaching on the Sabbath when he sees a woman bent over with some condition that has plagued her for 18 years. Like the Widow of Nain, about whom we heard earlier this summer, she does not ask for Jesus’ help. Jesus sees her, invites her over, and heals her.

Well, he lays his hands on her and announces she is healed. Our translation reads that she “stood up straight”, but the Greek reads, that she “was straightened up”. Jesus is making it clear that it is not he who is doing the healing, but God through him. In fact, to Jesus this is more than a healing. He describes this woman as being bound by a spirit, and God doing the work of unbinding her. Jesus is making it really clear that the same God who has been preached about in the synagogue for generations is the one who is doing the healing and the unbinding.

God sees this woman. God has the power to unbind her and chooses to do so. God restores her to herself and to her community. God returns her to a place of honor in her community. She is described as a Daughter of Abraham. This is a really unusual title, not used anywhere else in the New Testament. But you get a sense of her place as part of Israel, part of God’s beloved community.

Now, the leader of the synagogue is appalled that Jesus heals on the Sabbath, but Jesus uses the conflict as an opportunity to teach the crowd about the nature of God. God has compassion on people and God absolutely wants to heal us and for us to take care of each other on the Sabbath. God values people.

Immediately after this passage, Jesus starts talking about the Kingdom of God and how it is like a little mustard seed that takes root, or how a little yeast can leaven an entire loaf of bread. Jesus sees this woman’s experience as part of what it means to participate in the Kingdom of God.

Now, while we have a healing service once a month, I’m not aware of anyone in this congregation with the actual charism of miraculous healing. We just don’t live in a world where every person who needs physical healing gets that healing. But that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t deeply care about that person, or that we shouldn’t deeply care about that person as members of the Kingdom of God. We may not do any miracles together, but we can still live out the principles that Jesus teaches us in this story.

First, Jesus shows us that God sees this woman for who she is. Do we see each other clearly? When we are in the world and meet a person with a disability do we see that person for all that person is, or do we just see their limitations? What would it mean to take the time to ask good questions, to get to know each other, to truly see one another?

Second, Jesus restores honor to the woman. He restores her place in the world. Now, we do not live in an honor-shame culture in quite the same way she did. We know that ill people, or people with disabilities are not deserving of shame. But illness and disability can still be isolating. How can we as a community stay connected to those who are ill? Make our space welcoming for those with disabilities? As members of the Kingdom of God, we are called to see each person as a beloved child of God, worthy to have a place in our community.

There is a lovely story on CNN this week about an engineer who works on accessibility for Facebook. He is blind, himself, and is working on ways to make Facebook and Messenger more accessible to those who are blind. At one point in the interview he says to the audience, “your life matters.” If Facebook engineers get it, how much more can the church! We should be on the forefront of welcoming those with chronic illnesses and disabilities into our communities.

Third, God wants to unbind each of us from whatever holds us back from being the person God designed us to be. What binds you? Unresolved trauma from your past? A conflict with someone? Your fear? The life of faith is a life that is going to involve facing the hard stuff and working through it with God’s help. While God may not give miraculous healings to every person, God can give us the courage we need to go to therapy, to get help for our addictions, to work on reconciliation with difficult people.

We aren’t all going to have a dramatic transformational experience like Michael Phelps. We are definitely not all going to win dozens of Olympic Gold medals. Well, maybe if I start working out every day. . . But God sees each of us. He knows who we are, behind all of our defense mechanisms, beyond all of our surface accomplishments or weaknesses. He knows the person we are deep in our core, and he loves that person.

And we get to be part of a Kingdom in which it is our job to spread that love around—to truly see and know our neighbors as children of the living God. We are invited into God’s healing and transforming work.

Thanks be to God.

Proper 14, Year C, 2016

The internet has ruined family arguments, hasn’t it?

The minute you get heated about which pitcher played the last inning of the 1996 World Series, or what year it was that the Hindenberg exploded, or which Kardashian it was who called out Taylor Swift, all you have to do is get online and do a quick Google search. Argument short circuited.

We have such a vast store of information at the tips of our fingers. We can go as far back in history as there are written records. We can learn every piece of trivia about our favorite show. We can learn about obscure plants and animals, ways of life in other countries, the mysteries of space.

We can even go a little bit into the future. We can see projections of who is most likely to win an election. We can watch videos of what might happen to the earth if all human life ceased to exist. We can upload our photos into programs to project what we will look like when we are older.

We have so much information now that when we run into a situation where we cannot research an answer, we feel flummoxed! How long will my company survive? When will I meet the love of my life? How sick is my disease going to make me?

When we bump up against these questions, we are reminded that the future is not predictable. Our knowledge has a stopping point.

The second generation Christians to whom the letter of the Hebrews was written were running up against their own limitations. They had never met Jesus, but they had heard about him from people who knew him. They believed the stories, but because of their belief, they were running into real trouble in the world. They were being jailed and harassed. The author of the letter to the Hebrews has to convince them that their belief in Jesus is legitimate and that they have a future.

And so we get one of the most beautiful passages of the Bible: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Faith in God is not the same thing as scientific belief. We can’t titrate anything and come to a clear answer about whether God exists. To relate to God is always an act of faith, facing the world with a clear hope about how the world is structured, without having concrete evidence to back up that hope.

While we don’t have evidence, we do have something even better: stories.

Before I became a Christian, when I was a teenager, I would read Madeleine L’Engle books and really want to inhabit her world. I did not have words to express why, but I loved her sense of wonder and the way people related to each other in her books. Years later, when I was a Christian and I learned she was Christian, it all made sense to me. The stories she created, while rarely mentioning God, were rooted in a Christian centered world. Her characters behaved the way they did because of their faith and it was that which attracted me.

Stories tell us things that are true, even if the stories are not historical. L’Engle’s books taught me that we are accepted even if we are awkward, that we all have important jobs to do in the world, and that love conquers fear and hate.

The author of Hebrews also uses stories to make his point. He tells the story of Abraham, to whom God promised descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky, despite Abraham and Sarah’s old age. Abraham was given this promise. He did live to see Isaac’s birth, but he did not live to see his descendants grow to the millions. Abraham, and Isaac and Jacob after him, followed God without evidence. They trusted that God would fulfill his promises.

Well, according to the author of Hebrews they did. If you actually look back at the text in Genesis, you see Abraham doubting God at multiple points in his life. Every story of faith is more complicated than it might appear.

Second generation Christians needed to be reminded that they were part of God’s story. Like Abraham, they were faced with real doubts about God’s faithfulness. But through reminding them of the story of God’s faithfulness, the author hopes to encourage them and give them hope.

Today at the 10:30 service we will baptize Ellie Jane Simmers. When we pray over the water, we will tell ourselves the story of how God has used water throughout history. We will remind ourselves about how the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters during Creation, how the Spirit brought order out of chaos as land pushed through, separating the vast waters into oceans. We will remember the Israelites following Moses through the waters of the Red Sea, magically parted so they could escape slavery in Egypt. We will remind ourselves that at Jesus’ baptism the skies parted and God’s voice boomed down, blessing his Son. We will remind ourselves that in our baptisms we are buried with Jesus’ death and reborn into a new life of resurrection.

This story is so important. This story shapes our lives. If we are resurrection people than we know we can face hard things with courage. If we are resurrection people we know no one is their worst day. If we are resurrection people, then we know that there aren’t just second chances—there are third, fourth, seventy seventh chances to pick ourselves up and start over with God. If we are resurrection people, maybe we can even have faith that when everything looks bleak, God will show up and change the story.

Ellie Jane is becoming a member of a really radical community, a community based entirely on faith. And we have faith that God is already at work, claiming Ellie Jane and each of us as his own. We can’t Google whether or not God loves Ellie Jane, but we have faith that he does. And God loves Ellie Jane not because of her resume, because it is still pretty thin. God loves Ellie Jane because love is who he is. When we march babies down the aisle, I see the love in your eyes as you meet babies who now belong to you as members of the Christian family. I am always moved by how people will crane their necks, even leave their pews to catch a glimpse of our newest Christians.

Babies are cute, but I think we so enjoy greeting a newly baptized baby because there is joy in remembering that God loves us even more than we love these babies.

If you are in a place in your life where it is just too hard to believe in God’s love for you, may I suggest you tell yourself some stories? Maybe you need to read some stories from the Bible to remind yourself of the ways God has loved and challenged human beings. Maybe you need to tell yourself stories from your own past—times when God showed up in unexpected ways. When we are anxious about the future, telling ourselves stories is one of the best ways to shore up our faith.

And if you come to church once a week, you are guaranteed to hear stories about God, rather through Scripture or the sermon or the prayers at communion. We tell ourselves the stories of God’s faithfulness to us over and over again, so we can join those early Christians in faithfulness and hope.

Amen.

Proper 13, Year C, 2016

“But Jesus, who is my neighbor, specifically?”

Is there any more human question than that?

The particularly human who asks the question is a lawyer, who has been listening to Jesus. He understands that Jesus wants us to love God and our neighbor. He is on board.

But, like any lawyer worth his salt, he wants to be clear on the terms and conditions.

For most of us, the people in our neighborhoods look quite a lot like us. They often have the same skin color, same income bracket, sometimes they even have the exact same Subaru. So, we can imagine loving those neighbors. We can imagine watching the kids when a parent is sick, shoveling the walk for an older neighbor, borrowing or lending a cup of sugar.

But the lawyer has been observing Jesus. The lawyer has seen how Jesus flouts any propriety when it comes to his friends. Jesus surrounds himself with every kind of riff raff. So, perhaps the lawyer is a bit concerned that loving his neighbor is about to get uncomfortable.

Sure enough, as soon as the lawyer asks the question, Jesus tells a story.

And while the story of the Good Samaritan is one of the most familiar stories in all of scripture, it is also one of the most subversive.

You know it well: a man gets robbed and beaten up and thrown into a ditch. A priest, who one would hope would be most qualified to help a person in trouble, walks right by. A Levite, who should know God’s word backwards and forwards, also crosses the road. But, a Samaritan man, a man who would be been considered filth by the Levite and priest, has compassion on the man in the ditch and rescues him.

Jesus is saying that this outsider was more obedient to God than the religious hierarchy of the day.

If you want to follow Jesus, forget about obsessing over the rules, focus on loving God and loving your neighbor.

Now we get to the part of the sermon that I have re-written three times this week.

First, this was a sermon about how the Orlando shooting reminded us that there are communities who feel like they are not welcome in church sanctuaries, so they create their own. Then, this was a sermon grappling about the horrible bombings in Bangladesh, Turkey, Saudia Arabia and Iraq. Then it was a sermon lamenting the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philandro Castille and wondering what it means for us to be good neighbors to our African American brothers and sisters. And then, of course, eleven police officers were shot by a sniper in Dallas. Officers Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens all died in the attack.

What a month. What a week.

Our world feels heavy this week. So much senseless death. So much distrust and anger. Our country feels separated into neighborhoods and communities that never intersect.

So, where is Jesus’ good news to us?

Jesus’ good news to us is that we are not the priest. We are not the Levite. We are not even the good Samaritan. We are all the man in the ditch, utterly helpless, but about to be rescued.

God created us in his image, beautiful and creative and full of love. But, we fell into a ditch of our own making, by our selfishness and hatred. We ended up in this ditch of sin and pain, completely unable to help ourselves. So, God became a human being to reach an arm down and pull us out of the ditch. Jesus saved us from being captive to sin and death.

And now that Jesus has rescued us, and we can have a relationship with God, we still need the Holy Spirit to pull us out of our individual ditches. We each are in need of God’s intervention in our lives. None of us are perfect. There is a reason we say the confession every week. We need it! We need a chance to tell ourselves and God about the ways we have come short. We need to ask for help to be better. We need the Spirit’s help to become the creative, loving people God designed us to be.

We can be people of love. We can be peacemakers. We can be good neighbors, but we need the Holy Spirit’s help.

There are signs of hope out there for us to cling to, as we imagine with God what a world might look like if we lived into the true natures God has given us.

After the Pulse shooting, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld in Washington DC, announced that as soon as Shabbat was over, he and his congregation were going to a local gay bar. Can you imagine the expressions on his congregant’s faces? They did not go to protest or judge those inside. They went inside as an act of solidarity. They went inside as an act of love. They talked with their gay neighbors. They prayed together. They learned that they had many connections in common. They were not two separate groups of people, they were intertwined, just like all of us. The congregation left their sanctuary, and entered another. I guarantee you that the people in that bar never in a million years expected an Orthodox Jewish congregation to show up that night, but their visit became an act of love and grace. They were good neighbors.

In the midst of the shootings in Dallas, a mother pushing a stroller began to panic and a group of black lives matter protesters, white and black, male and female, surrounded her and her stroller until they got the baby to safety. They were good neighbors.

The police force in Dallas has been working really hard with their officers, doing de-escalating training and minimizing use of force, building up community engagement, trying to stop this cycle of unnecessary deaths. Before the sniper began shooting, you can find many photos of black lives matter activists and police offers, smiling, arm in arm. The police were protecting the activists, and the activists are still grateful. They were good neighbors.

This summer, our church book group read Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me. This book is a letter to Coates’ son, written after Michael Brown’s death. About a dozen of us talked about all the ways throughout American history that the people with power, white people, have tried to keep our African American neighbors at bay. Slavery, Jim Crow, lynching, housing segregation, school segregation, corrupt mortgage practices, mass incarceration: the list goes on and on. Being in a book group was such a small step, but for me at least reading the parts of our country’s history that were not in my school textbooks has been heart breaking and transformative. Hearing the stories of the various parishioners in the group was also incredibly powerful. We each have a connection with racism, whether in our family or in our own hearts. Confessing the ways our own families have benefited from slavery or its aftermath was an important step towards moving forward. My maternal grandmother was mentally ill, and it was the African American nanny, Laura, who gave my mother the stability and loving presence in her life she needed to grow up and be the amazing mom she was to me. Laura left her own children to care for my mother. I directly benefited from Laura’s sacrifice.

When Coates wrote this book, he had no idea it would become a best seller. Coates has been totally flummoxed by so many church groups reading the book. He is not a person of faith and he certainly had no expectation that thousands of book groups in churches across the country would be picking up his work. But he underestimates churches’ desire to do the holy work of confession, lament and reconciliation.

The book group left us with a desire to do something more. To read more, to engage more, to be better neighbors. We want to confront our own racism and work toward transformation. We are not sure what that looks like, but if you are interested be in touch with me of with our Director of Spirituality and Missions, Debbie Scott. The caveat is that I am about to be on vacation for a few weeks! If you email me and I don’t respond, I promise I will get back to you by early August.

We are created and redeemed by a God of infinite love. He desires us to love one another and he will give us what we need to make it happen. Thanks be to God.

Proper 8, Year C, 2016

The Apostle Paul is angry, you guys. Extremely angry.

Paul has worked hard to teach the Galatians the Gospel, and some rival group has come in and told the Galatians that to be Christian, they must obey the Jewish law, including circumcision.

Paul is so mad that in Galatians 5:12, he writes, “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” So, be careful how you talk about circumcision around the Apostle Paul, okay?

Paul passionately wants the Galatians to experience the freedom that comes from faith in Christ. He is furious that anyone would undermine the freedom that comes in Christ. For Paul, freedom means no longer having to follow all the particulars of Jewish law. Freedom means that Jesus has done all the work of salvation for us, so following the law is no longer a requirement.

This is wonderful, amazing news, especially if you were a gentile man looking to become a Christian! Dropping the requirement for circumcision makes conversion MUCH MORE ATTRACTIVE.

Freedom from the law sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Not having to check to see if what we eat is kosher. Not having to carefully ritually clean your house if it gets mildew. Not having to leave the community when it is your time of the month? Not having to do any ritual sacrifice of your flock?

Not being bound to the law sounds almost exhilarating! We are free! We can do what we want! But before we get to far ahead of ourselves, Paul writes:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.

We are freed from the law, but our faith in Christ binds us not just to Christ, but also to one another. We are given freedom, not to do whatever we want, but so that we can love each other more deeply. We are called to be slaves to each other, to put others before ourselves.

And just in case we think we can love each other without sacrificing too much, Paul lays out what this kind of freedom prohibits: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

What I love about Paul is he writes this FOUR VERSES after he has just wished castration on a group of people. I think Paul is preaching to himself here as much as he is preaching to the Galatians! He knows how tempted we are by our base instincts. For generations the law has been a construct to protect us from these desires and impulses, but now we are free from the law, so what keeps us from just devolving into an orgy of our own desires?

When I first joined the Episcopal Church I was coming from a more conservative evangelical tradition, which put a lot of emphasis on rules. I was a member of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship during college and it was very clear that we were not supposed to drink alcohol. Our bodies were a temple to the Lord, and alcohol would defile that temple.

When I first started attending St. James’ Episcopal Church in Richmond, I went to one of their Wednesday night dinners. You guys, there was WINE there. I about fell over. I was entering a church that was full of love and people serving God, but the strict religious imperative against alcohol was not there. It was very exciting.

Eventually, I joined the choir at St. James’. The choir met immediately after these Wednesday night dinners and let’s just say some of the choir enjoyed the wine at dinner a little more than was helpful. Our choir master finally had enough of giggling and lack of focus and gave us stern instructions to limit our drinking at dinner. There was no religious rule not to drink wine, but there was a community reason not to drink wine—being tipsy does not help a person stay on pitch. The wine was getting in the way of us worshiping God together. When members of the choir sacrificed a glass of wine for the good of the choir, rehearsals went much more smoothly and we were much better prepared for Sunday morning worship.

In our case, Paul was right that one of the things on his list—drunkenness–was getting in the way of our community life. If the altos had been super jealous of the sopranos, that would have been problematic, too. Dissension in the choir would have impacted our worship, as well. Paul’s list of prohibitions are a good guide to indicate when we are getting off the rails when it comes to loving our neighbor.

Paul gives us a list of qualities to look for as signs that we are on the right track: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He describes these as Fruits of the Spirit, because we only develop these when the Holy Spirit is at work in our lives, making us more like the Jesus we follow. We’ll never be perfect, but the Holy Spirit is at work transforming us into people who actually do love others and who exhibit the Fruits of the Spirit.

Whenever we baptize a child, I walk that child up and down the aisles here at church and I tell that child that you belong to him and he belongs to you. In baptism we become part of a community. And in Christian community we lift up the common good over and above our own individual freedoms. We look out for each other. We take care of each other.

Our country’s identity is so rooted in individual freedoms that it can feel really strange, and even wrong, to build a community rooted in interdependence and sacrifice, yet God calls us to serve one another and to put each other’s wellbeing above our own. We belong to each other. For this really to work, we also need to be vulnerable and honest with each other. While our instincts tell us we want to be independent, God has designed us as interdependent people. We are supposed to help each other, and we are supposed to ask for help when we need it.

We’ll end on a few questions and moments of reflection. I will not ask who you would hope would castrate themselves. I’ll leave that for your personal prayer time.

What fruit of the Spirit do you hope God will grow in you?

What might God be asking you to give up for the good of the community?

What do you need from someone else in the community but are afraid to ask?

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Proper 5, Year C, 2006

 

Last week we heard about the faith of a Centurion. The Centurion, a soldier who was part of the Empire that ruled over the Jewish people, had such faith in Jesus that he sent out his friends to ask Jesus to heal his slave from afar. He had faith that Jesus did not even need to come to his house, but could heal the slave just by thinking about the slave.

The centurion’s faith is the faith of a confident guy. His is the faith of a CEO who is used to people following his orders. He sees in Jesus another man in command, someone able to do God’s work with power.

After healing the centurion’s slave, Jesus and the crowd that is following him walk toward a town called Nain. As he moves toward the city gates, Jesus sees a funeral procession. The members of the procession are not looking for Jesus, they just happen to be moving the body of the dead man outside of the city gates so he can be buried. This man has just died—in Jewish custom a body had to be buried within 24 hours—so the grief of the crowd is fresh.

No one is grieving more than the man’s mother. This man is her only son. Not only that, but this woman is widowed. With the death of her son, she has lost her family. Her world is forever changed. She is devastated.

She does not ask for Jesus’ help. She may have never even heard of Jesus. Her mind is fully absorbed in the moment.

Jesus, passing by the procession cannot keep walking. He is moved by compassion to help her.

Now, the author of the Gospel of Mark describes Jesus as feeling compassion pretty regularly. But Luke strips that phrase out of the stories he borrows from Mark. But here, in this story, a story that only appears in the Gospel of Luke, Luke chooses to describe Jesus having compassion. He wants us to understand the power of the emotional Jesus experiences seeing this woman’s grief. It literally moves him. He cannot help but to act.

This story does not stand in isolation. You may have noticed all the similarities between Jesus’ resurrection of this man, and Elijah’s resurrection of the widow’s son in 1st Kings. These stories are speaking to each other, and their conversation speaks to us.

Elijah prayed to God to resurrect the widow’s son. He threw himself on the son’s body. And God resurrected the son. Jesus needs to do none of that. He simply touches the stretcher the young man is lying on and tells him to rise. He is not asking God to bring the boy to life. He, being God, commands the boy to live.

Jesus, has all the power of God. And he uses this power of healing and of life, not just for confident Centurions, but for grieving women who don’t even know that asking Jesus for help is an option.

We so often think about healing stories as being about the faith of the recipient, but healing stories are about the power and the compassion of God. Jesus chooses to resurrect the widow’s son not because he has earned it or his mother has earned it, but because it is in the nature of God to feel compassion for human beings. It is in the nature of God to transform suffering into healing and death into life.

He restores the young man to life and restores the widow to the life she knew. He gives her back some of what has been taken away from her, even though she is completely passive. She doesn’t speak once in the story. She doesn’t move toward her son after he is resurrected. Jesus does everything for her in this story, even handing her son to her after he is resurrected.

We cannot all be the Centurion. Most of us don’t walk around in complete confidence of our authority and God’s authority. Whether it is a crisis in our own family, or a hurricane, or a political season, we often look around in shock and ask ourselves, “What is happening?” We are often too overwhelmed to act, or even to know how to ask God for help.

And yet, the God of compassion who was moved to restore sons to their mothers through Elijah and Jesus, moves towards all of us in compassion as well.

Jesus restores the life of one man in this story, but through his death and resurrection he restores the lives of all humanity. All the people we have mourned, all the people we will mourn, they will all be restored to us. New life will be breathed into each of us after we die. We will all be restored to God and to one another.

If we look for them, we can find moments of God breaking into our world and bringing little resurrections in the here and now. These little resurrections help us hold onto our faith as we await the great Resurrection.

Charlie has a book out from the library right now called Maybe Something Beautiful. It’s a whimsical story about a little girl who lives in a drab city, who hangs a picture on a wall and then meets a muralist. She and he begin to add color to the walls of the drab city and soon the whole neighborhood is painting with them. At the end of the book, you find out that this is a true story, and the illustrator is the muralist who helped create the Urban Art Trail in San Diego. The art helped heal and bring life to a city that needed it. A small resurrection.

These small resurrections can take many forms, the first laugh after a period of grief. A new friend after a difficult move. The first job when you are trying to start over.

The first time you hold hands after a difficult patch in a relationship.

Small resurrections are not spectacular. They are nothing to tweet about. But they are life sustaining. They remind us that there, somewhere, is order to the universe. They remind us that we are loved. They remind us that there is a big resurrection waiting for us.

Whether we are heroes of faith, or barely faithful, Jesus’ love and resurrection are for us. Whether we are confident or overwhelmed by life, Jesus’ love and resurrection are for us.

We follow a God whose is moved by our suffering, who longs not only to comfort us, but to transform our story. We follow a God who does this, not because we deserve it or even want it, but because it is in his nature.

May you be blessed this week by small resurrections that remind you of the great one waiting for you.

Amen.

Proper 24, Year B, 2015

The last few weeks the Old Testament readings have given us a taste of Job’s story. The book of Job is a very unusual one. Job is not part of any narrative history, like Moses or David. In fact Israel is not even mentioned. Job is a stand alone mythic tale written about human suffering.

In the story, God is meeting with his heavenly beings, Satan being one of them. God remarks about this righteous man, Job, and Satan challenges him. Satan says, “Of course he is righteous, you’ve made him prosperous and he is surrounded by a loving family. Why wouldn’t he be righteous?” God is convinced Job will remain righteous, so he allows Satan to interfere with Job’s life. Job’s animals are stolen, his children are killed, and he is given a terrible skin disease that makes him anathema to every one around him.

Job is devastated and just wants to die, but he remains faithful to God. Three of his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar come to comfort him. At first they spend a week just silently supporting Job, but then the friends start giving helpful advice. They say things like, “I guess your children died because God needed a few more angels” and “God won’t give you more than you can bear.” and “Everything happens for a reason.”

Okay, so his friends don’t say those things.

But they are sure they have the answers to Job’s problems. Eliphaz suggests that Job should be happy to be experiencing God’s discipline. Bildad suggests Job should just pray harder. Zophar is convinced that Job must be hiding some secret sin and if Job would just be honest about it, God would restore everything that had been taken away from him.

You can just hear Job groaning as he replies to each of his friends, assuring them that he has been praying, that he has remained righteous, but that all of this suffering is happening anyway. He is utterly miserable and just wants God to send him to Sheol so he does not need to suffer any more. Job pleads his case before God, wanting answers, wanting relief.

Once his friends are done talking, a young man who has been listening to the conversation, decides he just has to jump in and give Job his perspective. He tells Job that Job has been dwelling too much on the negative and if he just focused on how great God is, everything will turn around for him.

Poor Job. Everyone wants to weigh in on his problems, and the only One he wants to hear from is God.

Job’s story is universally understood, because everyone has suffered at some point in his or her life. Everyone has been ill, or lost a loved one, or had serious financial problems. We all know the feeling of being completely overwhelmed, unable to help ourselves. We can also relate to the experience of people around us not really knowing how to help. How many of our mothers just can’t help but give us unasked for advice? How many of our friends give us awkward words of comfort? How many of us have had strangers weigh in on our lives? We get Job. We get his grief, his feelings of isolation and his anger. We, too, want to know why God lets terrible things happen to us. If God loves us, shouldn’t he protect us?

Job desperately wants answers from God and for God to help him.

But when God finally answers Job, and appears in a whirlwind, it becomes clear that God is not interested in giving Job the kind of pastoral care for which he was hoping!

Instead God summons Job:

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

And then a series of questions:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?

Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you?

Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may goand say to you, `Here we are’?

Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?

Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert?

Phew! Is this the heavenly equivalent of God saying, “Because I’m your mother, that’s why!” For the whole story, Job has been the center of the universe. All the action and terrors have been focused on Job. And that’s how it feels when we suffer, right? When we are in pain, all we can see is our own experience.

But here is God, reminding Job that God remains at the center of the universe. He’s not saying this to diminish Job, in fact, he tells Job to “Gird up his loins”. He wants Job to contend with him. But God places himself firmly in the position of the Creator who knows his creation more deeply than any human ever could. God knows the deep order of the universe—and there is a deep order, the sun rising and setting, the tides moving in and out, birth and death—even if our lives feel like chaos. God reminds Job of the beauty of the world.

David Henson, in a beautiful homily titled “What Job and God learn from each other” writes:

Instead, God responds with beauty.

Job cast a vision of a world overshadowed by pain and suffering. God responds by showing him the beauty and hope of the same world.

And here’s the thing. I’m not sure these are competing views. I don’t think the one negates the other. God doesn’t respond with beauty to cancel out or disregard Job’s suffering. I think that’s why God doesn’t exactly answer Job’s question about suffering. Because no answer — even one from God — is ever satisfactory in the midst of our pain and grief. Nothing solves suffering. Nothing answers it. But neither is suffering and grief the whole story of our lives and of the world. There is beauty, and grace, and hope in the world, too, existing simultaneously, in paradox, side-by-side

God’s answer, God’s presence is enough for Job. Job responds in wonder:

I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.

God does not provide any easy answers or apologize for the suffering Job has experienced. But being reassured that God has not abandoned him and that the world is filled with order and beauty, even in the midst of Job’s suffering, leaves Job satisfied.

In crisis, sometimes that experience of the presence of God is enough to sustain us. We may not know how to move forward from our crisis, but if we can sense God is with us, that can be enough to keep us going. And remembering there is deep order and beauty to the universe can help us remember our problems are not the end of the story. We have a future.

Job’s story does not end with this holy encounter. Job goes on to have more flocks, more children. He has a new beginning after his tragedy. This new beginning does not replace everything he has lost. New children cannot replace children who have died. His pain and grief still lie underneath this new beginning. But he does not remain paralyzed by his suffering, but is able to move forward, with God’s help.

May God bless you with a deep sense of his presence and a conviction that, no matter what is happening in your life, that even now God is preparing a new beginning for you. Amen.