Sunday, October 18, 2015

Job 38:1-7; Mark 10:35-45


Do You Really Believe in God?



 

        This marks the third and last week on our journey through the magnificent book of Job. Two weeks ago we examined dangerous theological questions the author dared to ask. In the face of the Deuteronomic Code which states if you are good, good things will happen, but if you are evil, you actions will catch up to you, the writer of Job explores the question of bad things happening to good people.  This question leads to a difficult examination of who is God and where is God in the midst of tragedy.

        Last week we followed our burdened traveler as Job moved from conversations with his friends to an attempted confrontation with God. Job had questions that begged to be resolved. But God would not operate on Job’s timetable. Job’s rants resulted in silence, perhaps suggesting God sometimes grows weary of our constant complaints.

        Bravely, and I hope anxiously, we approach Chapter 38, the centerpiece of this great work. God finally speaks and while they are not exactly the words Job desired, they perfectly illustrate the author’s intention to remind us that God is God, and we are not.

        Instead of answers, Job receives his own set of questions. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who determined the measurements? Who laid the cornerstone? Can you make it rain? Can you send forth the lightening? Did you give wisdom to the mind?”

        Where were you?

Who are you?

What do you know?

 

Thirty-five years ago I took basic theology under John Leith at Union Theological Seminary. Dr. Leith lectured for fifty minutes, never lookimg up from his notes. At the end of the class he wrote our assignment on the board and headed for the door. A classmate respectfully called out, “Dr. Leith, I have a question.” Dr. Leith turned and uttered these words. “Sir, this is Theology 101. You do not know enough to have a question. Would you take advance Calculus before knowing 1 plus 1 equals two? When you have learned enough theology to ask questions, I will answer them. But that will not happen this semester. ” With that, he left the room.

Who doesn’t desire answers to the mysteries of the universe? Job pushes theological buttons no other book in the Old Testament dares address. But then, in an incredible demonstration of faith, the author of Job not only refuses to answer the very questions raised, he reminds us, in a most condescending way, that there is an unimaginable gap between the mind of God and humankind.

Who are we?

Where were we?

What do we know?

        If we believe in God, do we dare question the intentions of the Almighty? God’s discourse out of the whirlwind is intended to show us our lack of power and wisdom. But does this demonstration limit our conversations about God? While I hope not, it reminds believers to begin any faith conversation with the affirmation that this is God’s world.

        William Sloane Coffin was one of my favorite preachers of the last thirty years. He tells the story of an incident when he was an undergraduate student at Yale. In a tragic accident three of his friends were killed in an automobile crash. At the funeral, Coffin was sickened by the piety of the priest when he quoted from the book of Job, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away. Blest be the name of the Lord.” Coffin was so outraged by the response he wanted to openly confront the priest after the service. But a voice inside his brain asked, “Coffin, what part of the phrase are you objecting to?” Coffin’s initial response was how could the Lord take away his friends?

        But then a strange realization came over Coffin. He was really protesting the initial statement, “The Lord Gave!” For the first time in his life Coffin was keenly aware that this was not his world. At best, he was only a guest.

        Who are you?

                Where were you?

                        What do you know?

 

        James and John were having a casual conversation with Jesus when they boldly asked, “When this is all over, can we sit at your right and left hand?” They were boldly asking to be given the best seats at the table. They knew Jesus was the guy, but that didn’t mean they couldn’t be nominated for best supporting actors.

        Jesus looked at them with a face that must have expressed the pain of the world. “You have no idea what you are asking? Can you drink of the cup which I am about to drink? Are you willing to bear the sins of the world?”

        Who are You?

                Where were you?

                        What do you know?

 

        Believing in God is a no brainer when one looks to the Blue Ridge Mountains on a day like this.  But do we modern folks still believe that ghastly and dehumanizing symbol of the cross really matters?  Evangelicals preach the cross but only as it relates to individuals after death. Progressive Christians say less and less about the crucifixion, preferring to preach ethics and human responsibility. Is Jesus in danger of becoming another example of an innocent victim? Will the impact of the cross and the concept of grace disappear from our theological language?

        As progressive as I imagine myself being, I still believe in the reality of sin. I still believe sin not only enslaves me, but corrupts the whole of humanity. I still believe the cross, God’s holy intervention, was necessary to rectify something we cannot do for ourselves. I am well aware we avoid the language of sin. Perhaps, contrary to all the evidence before us, we doubt we are really sinners and believe we are perfectly capable shaping an ideal world.

        So how are WE doing?

        Where were WE when God imagined the universe?

        Where were WE when God intervened against the powers of sin and death?

       

        Sometimes, when the questions are too large or my heart too heavy, despite my love of theologians such as Brunner, Tillich, Moltmann, and Borg, I put them back on the shelf and return scriptures like Psalm 116.

I love the Lord because God hears my voice.

When the snares of death are upon me, when I have suffered distress or anguish, I cry out.

Despite the darkness in my soul a small voice sings,

The Lord is Gracious, Righteous, and Merciful.

The Lord is Steadfast in Love.

What shall I return to the Lord for all of God’s bounty?

I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.

 

Who am I?

        Where was I?

                What do I know?

 

Regardless what the stock market does, regardless who is killed in Baltimore or the Middle East, regardless which politician implodes, and regardless if my team wins or loses, the leaves are still turning orange, the geese are still headed south, and a nip of fall is still in the air.  Regardless how often I am overwhelmed by the weight of this world, when I stop, and look, and remember, I am astonished at what God has done and what God promises to do tomorrow.

Bless the Lord, O My Soul.      Amen.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

God, Are You Listening?


Job 23; Mark 10:17-27

 

        Boy were we fortune. After eight days of rain, the sun finally broke through and we have begun to dry out. At least in our part of the country the rivers managed to contain themselves and while we were inconvenienced, we pretty much survived the whole mess. But not everyone was so fortunate. My daughter lives northwest of Columbia. Their rains were not so gentle and our only contact with Martina was through the cell phone. Daily we were informed of schools closing, Fort Jackson being shut down, damns being breached and roads collapsing. Martina’s community became an island. There was no way in or out.  We naively believed if we could hear her voice, everything would be OK. But if Martina had lost electricity, her cell phone would have died, replacing her words of assurance with the anxiety created by silence.

        A biblical major theme that began with the Exodus experience in Egypt was, “If we cry out God will answer.” Time and time again in scripture we are reminded that God heard the cries of the Hebrew slaves and responded because the God of Abraham and Jacob promised to respond to the cries of God’s people.  Job knows God as a God who speaks. Creation came about through a word. Pharaoh was banished with a word. The word of the Lord carries with it the proof of God’s fidelity with God’s people. Job believed if he can hear a word from God, all will not be lost. But no word was forthcoming, and Job lost his patience.

I find it ironic that the one thing that everyone seems to know about Job is his great patience. Nothing could be further from the truth. He was a man of faith. He suffered physical and verbal abuse. He remained steadfast in his confidence in his innocence. But Job was hardly patient. Listen to our text this morning. “My complaint is bitter. If I knew where God resided I would present my case. God has no argument for I am innocent. But God is nowhere to be found. If I go forward, God is not there. If I go backwards, God cannot be found. The Almighty must be hiding because God knows I am righteous.  I call out and hear nothing. Such silence terrifies me. I wish I could vanish in the darkness.”

        Whether it is a daughter in distress or a heart in conflict, silence offers little comfort.

I promise you, speaking about the silence of God is not a theme that really goes over big in church. We tend to be Psalm 139 folk. That’s the one that goes, “O God no matter where I go you are there. If I step forward or backward you are there before I arrive.” Yours truly clings to that message. Psalm 139 is my bail out when I have no other answers. We want to believe when all else fails God is still with us. When I go to the hospital I am well aware nothing eases anxiety more that reminding the patient God is with them.  For many folks those words work better that valium.

God’s presence is what we proclaim in worship. Our whole liturgy from revolves around that declaration that God is here. From our opening music through our joys and concerns there exist the unwritten assumption is God is sitting on the back row, quietly observing all we do and say. What if I began worship by declaring, “God couldn’t make it this morning. In fact, I am not sure God makes it any morning, but we are going to worship anyway, just in case.” If I began worship in this manner many of you would be church shopping next week.

Job decides if God won’t speak, then he will berate God until the Almighty responded. Job has listened to his friends. He has been badgered by his wife and now Job was ready to do his own talking. Job wants to plead his case. He wants to justify his actions and proclaim his faith. Job wants to tell God that if he has been punished because of his unfaithfulness than perhaps God needs to go back and check the ledger because he is innocent.        (Stop)

I must say if anyone deserved to be heard by God it was Job. But I wonder if God ever grows weary of listening to us. We are constantly bringing our concerns and our complaints. I wonder if our voices wear God out.

In my last church I had this great guy who never missed church and he appeared to love my sermons. No matter what I preached on, when I looked in his direction he was always smiling and nodding. If you have ever engaged in public speaking you know there is nothing more affirming than someone who is intensely engaged in your words. Whenever I felt a sermon was losing steam I would look at the old gentlemen and receive a shot of self confidence.

One Sunday I caught him after church and fishing for a compliment said, “You seemed to have really enjoyed church this morning.” He gave me a blank look, reached up to his ear, then replied, “I apologize, what did you say? I forgot to turn my hearing aids back on.”

I knew better too ask, but curiosity  got the best of me. “When do you turn your hearing aids off?”

He sheepishly smiled and said, “I turn them off before church.  I like you a lot preacher but I would rather be fishing.  I promised my wife a long time ago if I could fish on Saturday, I would go with her to church on Sunday. So here I am. But I dream about being on the lake.”

Have you ever wondered if sometimes God just wants to go fishing? We send a constant barrage of petitions to God and expect answers.  We are the faithful. We are the true believers. We are the ones God can count on. We are the good guys.

Well so was Job. Yet when Job needed an audience from God, guess who had left the building. Can we really expect God to listen to everything we have to say?  I wonder if sometimes God just turns off the holy hearing aids and waits for us to be quiet. In Job’s defense I have discovered it is a whole lot easier to talk to God than listen to God. When we are talking, we control the conversation. But what happens when we stop, and dare to say, “OK God, I’m listening.”  That is a dangerous proposition. First, who am I to decide when God can or cannot talk? But even scarier is the idea that God might speak. Are we really ready to hear the Word of the Lord?

In this morning’s New Testament text we encounter a young man brash enough to engage in a holy conversation.  He insists he is faithful. He brags he has kept all the commandments. He even desires eternal life. It would seem that when it comes to being the perfect disciple, this guy has hit the jackpot. But then he goes from talking to listening. Jesus said to him, “What I need for you to do is sell everything you own and give it to the poor.” Are you kidding me? No wonder Paul insists we are saved by grace alone. The demands of Jesus/God are too often more than we can comprehend.

A number of years ago my church in Texas invited Will Campbell to come and speak to the community. For those of you not familiar with Campbell he was a white Baptist preacher from Mississippi that got caught up in the Civil Rights movement and never looked back. People loved to invite Will to speak at their church but by the time he finished a lot of folks were glad he was leaving. Will not only spoke his mind, he didn’t mind speaking it.

At one of the sessions in San Angelo a person stood up and asked how the city might solve its homeless problem. Campbell said, “Homelessness is not a city problem, it is a church problem.” He continued, “How many homeless folks do you estimate are on the streets of your fair city?”

The person who had asked the question responded, “Probably around one hundred.”

Campbell then asked, “How many churches are there in this godly city?”

Again the person responded, “Probably the same amount.”

Campbell smiled and said, “Let every church in this town adopt a homeless person for a year. Give them and their family a place to stay. Give them a job. Teach them how make a budget. Invite them into your homes. At the end of a year, see how many homeless folks you have.”

The buzz that went through the crowd was not one of excitement. Immediately folks complained the plan would never work. It was unrealistic, unproven, and too hard to orchestrate. Folks even suggested homeless folks liked living on the streets. Campbell simply smiled. This was not the first community in which he had made this outrageous suggestion. And it was not the first that saw him as some kind of lunatic.

Godly words are hard. They take us out of our comfort zone. They challenge us to take a closer look at ourselves. When the young man heard the request of Jesus, he turned and walked away in silence because silence was his only response to God’s difficult words.

What an interesting pair we have this morning. Job cannot stop talking and the rich younger ruler no longer has anything to say. The silence of God leaves Job bitter, while the words of God leave the rich young ruler sour. Both view themselves as perfect yet neither passes godly muster. What a conundrum we have? Do we dare speak for God might respond?

The disciples of Jesus viewed the interchange with the young man and responded, “If he is not good enough, heaven help the rest of us.” Jesus responded, “Heaven will. For mortals, salvation is impossible, but not for God.”

Job screamed at the Almighty demanding verification of his perfection and heard nothing. The young man encountered one word from God and was left speechless. Aren’t we both Job and the rich young ruler? We who claim to be followers of the Prince of Peace have no rival when it comes to power and riches yet we claim no answers for a world flooded by wars and poverty. We either rant to God that we need some holy answers, or we remain curiously silent to the holy words we have already been offered.

I think God is weary of hearing how perfect we are. I think God is weary of our turning a deaf ear to difficult truths. So what does God want of us? Perhaps we are the ones who need to be listening rather than talking.

Perhaps the Word of the Lord to be gleaned from this morning’s text is simply this.

How often do we listen?

        How often do we listen?

                Amen.

 

 

 

Sunday, October 4, 2015

A Timeless Story


Job 1:1, 2:1-10

Powerful people have a whole lot of control over our lives. There is little disputing this. We know it now, and Machiavelli knew it back in the 16th century when he composed The Prince, a litany for tyranny based on the proposition that those in charge can justify immoral actions if these actions achieve the desired results.   

What you might not have known is according to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, successful leaders in industry and business are not necessarily nice folks. Having to choose over being liked or being powerful, taking a page from Machiavelli, they often justify decisions based on profit margin rather than acceptable ethical practices.

But those folks make up only a minute percentage of our population. For most of the rest of us, personal ethics seems to matter. I would like to think everyone here believes a high moral code is an essential part of any community. It is important that we strive to do the right thing. Deuteronomy 30 declares, “Do what is right and you will be live. Live outside the laws of God and your life will be miserable.” What exactly does that mean?  According to the Law of Moses, it begins with treating our neighbor as we would desire to be treated. Jesus ups the ante by absurdly suggesting we must also love our enemies. Being good is hard. But making the “right choice” becomes easier when we believe God will reward us for our decisions.

Don’t you wish that is how life worked? Billie Holliday sang, “Them thats go shall have, them thats not shall lose. God bless the child thats got her own.” A central theme of the Bible is to love one another and yet so often it is the ones steamrolling the opposition that end up winners while the rest of us struggle to survive.  Don’t you wonder why God allows life to work this way?  Have you ever dared to ask yourself when Godly people suffer, why do they continue to believe? Or maybe you have considered the unimaginable. Is  faith only a means to a selfish end? These are the questions the author of Job dares to raise.

“Once there was a man who was blameless and upright. He feared God and turned away from evil.” So begins one of the great works of literature in which an unknown poet engages in a probing theological investigation of human suffering.  We are not reading a historical account. Job is a fictional character, but then so were King Lear, Don Quixote, and Huckleberry Finn. Within these masterpieces of literature we are liberated to explore ancient questions that still cry for answers.

Why do godly people suffer? That seems to be our entrance into the Book of Job, but ironically, the question is practically turned on its head. In a conversation God is asked, “If a godly person falls on hard times, will they remain faithful?”  The question intrigues God. The Almighty assumes creation is thrilled with life, regardless of their station or circumstance. But what if life becomes hard? What if hope barely exists? What if there is no reason to rejoice? Would earth’s greatest creation still worship God?

Job is the very definition of success. He has seven sons and three daughters. He owns thousands of sheep, camels, oxen, donkeys and ample slaves to take care of his every need. Job was the greatest man in all the land and he acknowledges this by giving thanks to God every morning and night. Life is good in the land of Job.

Then one day, raiders from the north slaughter the slaves and rustle all the animals. While this was happening all the children are at the big house having lunch. A huge storm destroys the building killing everyone inside. Within a matter of hours the richest man in the land has lost his wealth, his children and perhaps his reason for living. To make things worse, God is directly responsible for the calamity that befalls this “blameless and upright” man. Job is left with three friends who are no bargain and a wife who suggests Job should just kill himself.

Let the dialogue begin.

Job initiates the next 40 chapters of poetry with the words, “Let the moment when I was born perish. Let that day be darkness; let that night be barren.” As Job laments his existence, his friends jump in and question Job’s sainthood. Remember Deuteronomy 30? If Job was sinless, how could anything bad happen to him? It is logical for the friends to conclude Job must have displeased God. This is where Job moves from an interesting story to a masterpiece. In the face of all the past theological evidence, the author is not satisfied to ask WHERE is God in the midst of calamity.  He dares to inquire WHO is God in the midst of tragedy.  Then he challenges our na├»ve assumption that stuff just happens by asking who do we become and how do we respond in the midst of the unimaginable?

Eli Wiesel tells the story of a trial that takes place in the extermination camp of Auschwitz. A loaf of bread is stolen and the prisoners are accused of the crime. No one confesses because the stolen bread was taken by a guard who placed the blame on the prisoners. But punishment must be forthcoming. Three Jews are randomly selected and publicly executed.

The next day the rabbis meet to discuss who is ultimately responsible for the deaths of the three men. One rabbi defiantly accuses God of deserting the Jewish people and allowing them to be brought into this house of horrors. In accordance with Jewish law, if charges are brought, then a tribunal must take place. Over the course of the next few days God is placed on trial. Accusations are made, arguments are heard, and in the end the rabbis unanimously agree that God is guilty as charged. Then the rabbi who brought the charges stood and made the following declaration. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is One. Blessed be the name of the Lord.” 

If you are here to receive answers to the questions raised by the Book of Job, you have come to the wrong place. But if you are here to confirm, despite the evidence, that, “The Lord is One; blessed be the name of the Lord”, then welcome to a sanctuary from the world’s WEARY logic that leaves us without hope.

The friends of Job offered time honored answers that were more accusations than solutions. Someone had to be at fault. The wife of Job, surely overwhelmed by her own loss, suggests death to be more comfort than life. Job, by declaring his innocence also declared his desire to live. Job, by raising his voice against God, struggled to find answers, even though he knew no answer would ever make sense. Job, a pawn in a heavenly game, is trapped in the eternal struggle between knowledge and faith.             (Stop)

Today, like every other first Sunday at Rockfish Presbyterian, we come to the Table. Today, like every other First Sunday we hear the words, “This is my body, broken. This is my blood, spilled.”  We understand brokenness. We haven’t lost ten children and a fortune, but we have been hurt. We have witnessed tragedy. We have seen humanity at its worst. We who have been broken, come together with a community of broken people hoping to be made whole.

I ask you, what is logical about this table? The sacrament itself is built around the inconceivable notion of God becoming powerless, and of Jesus dying, in order that death might be overcome. Where is the proof that this is possible? Where is the evidence that any of this happened?

There is none, except the faith residing in our hearts singing there can be no greater truth than the grace of God.

The beauty of the Book of Job is the author dares to take us on a journey where obvious answers do not work and easy answers are easily discarded.

The same can be said of the table of the Lord. This is the place, despite all the logical evidence, that we broken ones come and irrationally whisper, “The Lord is One. Blessed be the name of the Lord.    Amen