Keep your mouth shut

Standard

Sermon for June 20th, 2021

Readings:

Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

/

Job has been severely tested. 

Job was a good man. Righteous, honest, worshipped God, did all the right things. Followed the rules, obeyed the laws. Job did everything right, and yet what we find in scripture is a man suffering beyond belief. Job has lost his wealth, his health and his family. The only thing that Job has left are three friends, and you know the old saying that “with friends like these, who needs enemies?” Well that pretty much describes Job’s friends. Because at first when Job is suffering they just sit with him and mourn with him, and if they could have just left it at that they would have been good friends indeed, but they don’t. They can’t keep their mouths shut.

Incidentally, as an aside, I spent years in hospice and hospital chaplaincy, and I have spent a lot of time doing what we call Clinical Pastoral Education, reflecting and learning about ministry to the sick and dying, and I think I can sum up all the wisdom I gained from that experience and those years in ministry in four words: KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. When you encounter someone who is in pain, who is sick, suffering or grieving, the best thing that you can do is just be there with them. Stand beside them, sit beside them, bring them a casserole if you want, but just be with them. Obviously, if their suffering is something simple, and you have the power to do something to help them you do that. But a lot of the time suffering isn’t simple, and helping them isn’t as simple as fetching someone a pill or a glass of water. There is no pill that will make the pain of death or grief go away. And sometimes sickness isn’t easily diagnosed or treated either. Some things are chronic, and some pain, especially emotional pain, goes deep. The best thing you can do is just be with people that are suffering. Be with them. Don’t let them suffer alone. Listen to their cries; listen to their story. If you try to explain or explain away someone’s suffering you are likely just to cause more pain. There are not magic words in ministry, but there is presence. You can just be with people, and that is a powerful thing.

If Job’s friends had just sat with this poor, suffering man, listened to his cries and his stories, and witnessed his pain, they would have done a good job. That would have helped him. But they couldn’t keep their mouths shut. They had to come up with or explain a reason for his pain. So one by one, Job’s friends each suggest that Job must have done something wrong. If God is a God of justice, if God is fair, then you Job must have done something along the way to deserve this. Some friends right?

Job knows that he is innocent of all that his friends accuse him of, but their constant prodding, and their constant insistence that God is a just God and that therefore Job must be guilty of something, this leads Job to the point of despair and he starts to question God and God’s goodness, and that is when God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind and that is where our first reading begins this morning. And God begins by saying that all of this talk is “words without knowledge.” Words without knowledge. And maybe Job hoped in that moment that God would lay the knowledge on him and answer his questions, but God doesn’t do that. Instead God asks Job a question:

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Where were you Job, when I created the world? 

The response stings a little bit, but maybe it needs to. Because we should never approach God with anything but humility. God certainly isn’t threatened by our anger and he isn’t hurt by our questions, but we need to remember, whenever we approach God, whether it is in joy, or in suffering and anger, we need to remember that God is God and we are not. We NEVER, never know the whole story. We are prone to using words without knowledge. If that phrase doesn’t sum up the age we are living in right now, I don’t know what does. Words without knowledge. Talking without listening. 

God doesn’t give Job a simple answer. We may wish that he had. We might want God to give us simple answers about all the suffering in the world, but God doesn’t do that for Job, and he doesn’t do it for us either. Instead, God shows Job the whole majestic world: he shows him mountains and oceans and clouds and stars and little goats and deer giving birth and giant creatures in the sea. And God says, I made all that. I run this. 

And Job says, you’re right. I spoke too soon. I don’t understand how all this works. 

And then God says to him: oh and by the way, your friends are stupid and they don’t know what they are talking about. God isn’t nearly as upset by Job’s complaint as he is by the nonsense Job’s friends have been spouting. And Job’s health and wealth and family are restored, and Job lived to see his grand-children and he died old and full of days. 

You know the Book of Job is one of the oldest books of the Bible. We actually have no real idea when it was written, and maybe that is as it should be, because it is a reminder that there are real limits to human knowledge, and that is a truth in every age. There is so much about this world we live in that we just don’t know. The Book of Job asks the quintessential human question: why do bad things happen to good people? It asks God the big question, and God doesn’t give a simple answer. The reality of the universe is just too much for us to grasp. The Book of Job doesn’t give us a simple answer to a complex question, but the story of Job presents us with a difficult question instead: when you encounter a suffering person, when you see someone who is grieving or in pain or sick or down on their luck, when you encounter a suffering person how do you respond? Are you quick to look for someone to blame? Do you shell out cheap advice to the suffering person? Do you try and help them figure out where they went wrong or what mistakes they must have made? Are you quick to open your mouth or can you just sit and listen? Can you listen to someone cry and just let them cry? Can you sit in dust and ashes with someone? 

The lesson that I take from the Book of Job is that it is not up to us lowly humans to determine who deserves what in this life. That question is way above our paygrade. To tell the truth, I’m not sure that anyone deserves anything. At least, not in the way that we often use that word. Deserve is a loaded word. Justice is another word that I think we misuse. Human justice and divine justice are very different things, and we need to remember that whenever we start throwing the word Justice around.  Maybe it isn’t possible for us to know who deserves what in this life, but what we can do, what we have the power to do is to identify the people that are suffering and to go and be with them. Just do that: when you encounter someone that is suffering, go and be with them. Listen to them. Cry with them. Hear their story.  

The Book of Job is 42 chapters long, and most of that is taken up with Job’s friends trying to convince him that he must have done something wrong, but in chapter 2 we read that: “when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home. They met together to go and comfort and console him…..

They should have just left it there. They should have just kept their mouths shut.

Everything

Standard

Sermon for June 13th, 2021

Readings:

Ezekiel 17:22-24
Psalm 92:1-4,11-14
2 Corinthians 5:6-10,[11-13],14-17
Mark 4:26-34

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

Everything. Those words of Saint Paul from his letter to the Corinthians paint a slightly different picture of Christianity than the one we often see.

Being a part of Christ. Being in Christ. Being baptized into his body; being redeemed by his blood; being saved by the son of God who died and rose again, that should change everything for you. Everything. 

How you live and how you die and everything in between. Everything in your life from the way you spend your money to the way you spend your time, everything should be influenced, everything should be touched by being in Christ. 

Jesus didn’t die and rise again just to redeem an hour of your life every Sunday morning. Christianity is not a hobby to be pursued alongside all your other hobbies, and it’s not a form of do-gooderism either. Do-gooderism, I don’t know if that’s a word, but it is now. You know what I mean. We aren’t here to just be a club of nice people that like to do nice things once in a while. It is easy to fall into thinking that way though, because that is very much the story we are told by society all the time. It is the picture of Christianity that the world shows us.

We live in a secular, and pluralistic society, as does a large portion of the modern Western world, and don’t get me wrong, there are some great benefits to that, but one of the downfalls is that in these modern times, we have all been taught to compartmentalize our lives. So you have your public life and your private life, your professional life and your home life, and we’re all supposed to keep everything in its own little box, including our religious life. Religion, for the rapidly decreasing number of people that find it significant at all, is now just another compartment of our private lives. Religion is about what we think happens to us when we die; Religion is about what holidays we celebrate with our families a few times a year; Religion is about a culture that we identify with; at best it is a part of our identity among many other parts of our identity. And of course there is a huge segment of society that doesn’t even want that level of commitment, so a lot of people call themselves ‘spiritual but not religious’, and while a part of me wants to be critical of that mindset, there is another part that recognizes that those folks are longing for a better story than materialist western society is giving them, they recognize that atheism and modernism are insufficient stories to make sense and meaning out of the world they live in, BUT they haven’t yet found in Christianity (in any of its forms, or in any other religion) a better story. Well, that is on us, it’s not on them. We haven’t been good at telling them a better story. We have also bought into this modernist, secular worldview that your faith is supposed to be this one little compartment of your life, among so many other compartments, and so often that is what we sell people when we talk about our faith (if we talk about it at all): it is another thing to do, another club to belong to, another bill to pay and if that is what Christianity is all about then I really can’t blame people for not wanting to be a part of it. But is that really the Christian story?

Saint Paul in his second letter to the Corinthians says: 

For the love of Christ urges us on, because we are convinced that one has died for all; therefore all have died. And he died for all, so that those who live might live no longer for themselves, but for him who died and was raised for them. From now on, therefore, we regard no one from a human point of view; even though we once knew Christ from a human point of view, we know him no longer in that way. So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!

Paul is not talking about Sunday morning religion folks. What Paul is talking about is a way of looking at the world that changes everything. Everything. The conviction that Jesus died for all, even for someone like him, changes the way that Paul looks at every other human being. It changes the way he looks at himself. The death and resurrection of Jesus isn’t just some historical event, it is something that touches the life and death of every single human being. A Christian, therefore, someone who is in Christ and united to the man on the cross, a Christian isn’t meant to be just the same old human with a bit of window dressing added on. A Christian isn’t supposed to be someone with just another box to tick on a census form, or something else to do on the weekends. A Christian is supposed to be someone who is radically reoriented to the world around them. We have a completely different story to tell about the universe than the modernist, materialist story the world is telling. The power behind the universe, and the source of all life, for us, is not some meaningless, purposeless, shapeless force, for us the power behind the universe has a name and a face. We have witnessed, in Jesus, the god of all creation. We have been invited to live our lives as a part of his life. All of our lives. God isn’t asking to be the Lord of your Sunday morning. God doesn’t need your free time. Christianity isn’t a hobby, it is a completely different way of looking at the world. It is a different story, that we are invited to be a part of.

Should Christians be doing good things in the world? Absolutely! You bet! Faith without works is dead. But the church isn’t a club for nice people that like to do good things. We are meant to be a community of believers that have a story to tell. It is a different story than the one the world tells. The world likes to tell the story about what humans have done. Human beings are the heroes of the secular, modern world. In that story, we congratulate ourselves for all of the progress in the world. In that story, we become convinced that through our own intellect and ingenuity, we are just going to keep making the world better and better. There isn’t a higher power or deeper meaning in that story, just more and more stuff. There is a lot of stuff in the world’s story and the more of it you have, the more blessed you will be. Although, blessed is probably the wrong word, isn’t it?, because there is no blessing in that story. There is no unmerited grace, just chance. Just luck. If there is any salvation in that story, it will come at our own hands. But salvation is a pretty meaningless concept in that story, because what is being saved but a just a heap of swirling chemicals and molecules? If you follow that story to its logical conclusion, our deepest emotions and attachments in this world, become nothing more than illusion created by a bunch of hormones and chemicals in our brains. Whether you are aware of it or not, you are being told that story by the modern world all the time. 

But the Christian story is different. We have a story to tell about what God has done, and what God is doing in the world. God is planting the seeds of his kingdom all around us. It may be invisible to us at first. It may be hard to see, but it grows. The story we tell isn’t just about something that happened once upon a time, it is a story about here and now too. God is alive here and now. Jesus didn’t die for your Sunday morning; he died for your every morning. He died so that every time you open your eyes, you look out on a world that was created not as some cosmic accident, but as an act of love. The Christian story doesn’t have to be opposed to science; that is a false dichotomy. Christians just see, behind the workings of science, deeper meaning and significance. Science is good at explaining how things happen; but it isn’t good at explaining why? The Christian story is about why. The Christian story isn’t just a few set answers to questions about what happens after we die, the Christian story is a completely different way of looking at the world, and when that story becomes our story, when we become a part of that story as Jesus invites us to, that should change everything for us. Everything.

The atheist, modernist, materialist story about salvation through human progress…it’s a weak story. I think a lot of the world knows that it’s a weak story, they just haven’t found something better yet. That, my friends, is where we come in. We have a better story to tell. We have a story, that when told properly, should change everything. The Christian story is not meant to be just one compartment among many in our lives; it is a completely different way of looking at the world. It is a different way of life.

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 

Everything.

The grass isn’t blue

Standard

Sermon for June 6th, 2021

Readings:

Genesis 3:8-15
Psalm 130
2 Corinthians 4:13-5:1
Mark 3:20-35

/

Early in Jesus’s ministry he went to Capernaum, a little fishing village on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. When the Sabbath came he went into the synagogue and began to teach. And people were amazed at his teaching, because he taught “as one with authority.” He taught the scriptures like he really knew them. And if that wasn’t enough, while he was teaching, a man came up to him that had been struggling with an unclean spirit, a demon. We don’t talk a lot about unclean spirits or demons anymore. We like to dismiss these things as primitive superstitions or misunderstandings. I’m not so sure. I think demons are real. We all probably deal with demons more than we care to admit. But anyways, through this man the unclean spirit or demon cries out: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” And just then, Jesus says “be silent and come out of him!” And the man convulses and the demon come out of him. The demon is destroyed, but not the man. The man is saved. And people start to wonder.

Jesus walks out of the synagogue and heads just a few steps down the block to Peter’s house where his mother-in-law is in bed with a fever. Jesus takes her hand and the fever is gone. People start bringing other folks to Jesus that are sick or struggling with demons and Jesus heals them all. The demons know who Jesus is, they know he is coming for them, so Jesus won’t even let them speak anymore, because demons are liars. Then Jesus takes the show on the road and starts casting out demons in other villages. 

A leper comes to him. Jesus touches him and makes him clean. People start to flock to Jesus. They bring him a paralyzed man and Jesus not only makes him walk again, but very curiously the first thing that Jesus said to this man was “your sins are forgiven,” sort of like that was the most pressing issue and the greatest gift that he had to offer. Jesus is getting very famous and starts calling more people to follow him, and then one day, he heals a man on the Sabbath. Jesus does a good thing; he brings health and wholeness back to someone, but he does it on the Sabbath, and there are some people who have such a restricted view of what God allows on the Sabbath, that they completely turn on Jesus. This is just a bridge too far. Because he has broken one of their rules, or perhaps more accurately, because Jesus is questioning how some people are interpreting God’s rules, he has created some enemies. But he keeps going. He keeps healing the sick. He keeps teaching people and casting out demons. 

Some of Jesus’s critics, even some members of his family, start to suggest that he is the one that is possessed by the demons. People start saying that Jesus is doing all of these good and miraculous works through the power of Satan. And Jesus points out how ridiculous this is: How can Satan cast out Satan? Satan doesn’t cast out demons and heal people. Satan doesn’t set people free, Satan binds people; Satan enslaves people. But Jesus is healing people and setting people free. Jesus is actually binding Satan up. Jesus uses this fun little analogy of tying up a strong man to plunder his property. Well Jesus is tying up Satan so he can take God’s property, that is you and me, back. Jesus is plundering Satan’s house and stealing us back for God. But you know, as much as that is good news, some people just don’t want to hear that; don’t want to believe it. Because if that is really true, then that means that we are really going to have to start taking what Jesus says seriously.

Jesus teaches with authority. And Jesus challenges some of the prevailing interpretations of God’s law. And Jesus is demonstrating such actual divine power that people are distressed and shocked and conflicted and maybe a little terrified, because if the power that is in this man’s hands is also in his words and in his teaching, if what he is saying is actually true, well that is going to re-order their world, and that’s scary. So we find ways of not believing the truth when we are confronted with it. We look for reasons not to believe God when God is speaking to us. Sometimes we will even go so far as to cling to the exact opposite thing because doing so keeps us in our fantasies; It keeps us from having to confront a truth we don’t want to confront. That is what is happening in the gospel today. People don’t want to accept that Jesus is teaching and acting with the power of God, because if they did that then that would mean their lives would have to change. So instead they try to convince themselves that the exact opposite is true, and that Jesus is, in fact, using demonic power to cast out demons. It’s ridiculous, but that doesn’t matter. Humans are good are believing ridiculous things if it keeps them from having to confront the truth.

I think that one of the most brilliant Dolly Parton songs ever, and this is really a difficult judgement, because most of them are brilliant, but one of the most brilliant at least in terms of lyrics is “The Grass is Blue.”

I’ve had to think up a way to survive
Since you said it’s over
Told me goodbye
I just can’t make it one day without you
Unless I pretend that the opposite’s true

Rivers flow backwards
Valleys are high
Mountains are level
Truth is a lie
I’m perfectly fine
And I don’t miss you
The sky is green
And the grass is blue

There’s snow in the tropics
There’s ice on the sun
It’s hot in the Arctic
And crying is fun
And I’m happy now
And I’m glad we’re through
And the sky is green
And the grass is blue

I mean, that’s not scripture but it might as well be, and not just because St. Dolly wrote it, but because it really speaks to a truth in the human condition. If there is a truth that we are confronted with that we really, really don’t want to accept, well sometimes it is easier to just turn the rest of the world upside down; sometimes it is easier to just hold on to the opposite of what is true, so that we don’t have to let go of our delusions. Dolly would sooner believe that the grass is blue rather than accept that her lover is gone. The Pharisees would rather believe that Jesus is using the power of the devil rather than accept that his authority comes from God. Adam and Eve would rather believe the serpent than trust in God’s goodness. Lies go down real smooth and easy. It is the truth that is usually hard to swallow. 

But deep down I think a lot of times we know we are fooling ourselves. The sky isn’t green and the grass isn’t blue. And the devil never sets us free. Only Jesus can do that.