Proper 23B: When Life Goes Without Answers

PotholesOLD TESTAMENT: Job 23: 1-9, 16-17

To read the text from Job

Once again we read from the Book of Job. Remember that the writer is unknown as well as the time in which it was written. This part of Job is probably the hardest to read. Our friend Job seems to be giving up. He wants desperately to talk to God and to know that God is hearing him. Now keep in mind that we’ve missed a lot of the book as our Lectionary readings jump from Chapter 1 to Chapter 23. We have missed most of the poetic account of the visits and dialogue between Job and his three well-meaning, if not bothersome, friends.

Job seems to move from apparent acceptance to what is happening to him to an out and out challenge of God and God’s power in his life. He demands answers now and sees justice as due to him. We identify with Job here. We want answers. Answers would make life easier. And we want answers NOW. But Job doesn’t even seem to be able to find God in order to register his complaint.

His complaint is not that he is suffering—he seems to have resolved himself to that. He doesn’t even seem to be questioning why God would do such a thing. Perhaps he is more comfortable with some of that mystery that is God than many of us. Job’s biggest complaint is that he feels God has deserted him. He feels that God is absent in his life. And yet he still holds his integrity, unwilling to sin before God. And then, jumping to verse 16, his tune changes a bit. He admits that he is a little afraid of God, afraid of what God will do. He wants desperately to vanish into darkness and away from God. His image of God is falling into one that could quash him, could crush him. He almost sees God as an enemy and, yet, is not willing to sin before God.

To understand how Job got here, we sort of have to look at what he’s been dealing with from his friends: First is his friend Eliphaz, who apparently sees God as “The Fixer”…”Come on, Job, if you just submit to God, if you have faith in God, God will fix it.” Then there’s Bildad, who sees God as “The Judge”…”Well, Job, you must have done SOMETHING wrong. After all, God is fair and just. God only gives you what you deserve.” And finally, we have Zophar. Zophar seems to see God as saying whatever it is that he’s saying…Job must be wrong, I must be right. We’ve all known these friends. Wouldn’t you rather just sit in the silence?

But the truth is, Job still desires God. He wants to connect with God, to know that God is there. Richard Rohr says it like this: But somehow, Job says, I can’t get through to him. “God has made my heart sink. Shaddai has filled me with fear. For darkness hides me from him, and the gloom veils his presence from me.” I can no longer “think God” or think it out at all. Job is being led beyond ideas and concepts to mere desire. He has been simplified by suffering, which is what suffering always does. He is reduced to pure desire. What we desire enough, we are likely to get. The all-important thing is to desire, and to desire deeply. What we desire is what we will become. What we have already desired is who we are right now. We must ask God to fill us with right desire. It’s our profound and long-lasting desires that will finally explain our lives, and will soon explain Job’s.(From Job and the Mystery of Suffering, by Richard Rohr, 123)

I know I don’t have a chance, Job is saying, I know God is right somehow; I just don’t understand in this instance how he’s right. But I’m willing to wait.

That’s the difference. He’s willing to wait in that space of nonanswer. That’s the space in which God creates faith. The counselors are not willing to live in that space where there is no answer, no conclusions. To this day, many people equate “religious answers” with “faith”. But faith does not mean having answers; it means being willing to live without answers. Cultural faith and civil religion tend to define faith poorly and narrowly as having certitudes and being able to hold religious formulas.

Such common religion is often an excuse for not having faith. Strange, isn’t it? Faith is having the security to be insecure, the security to live in another identity than our own and to find our value and significance in that larger union. (Rohr, 74.)

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. Why do we struggle with these seemed “silences” of God?
  3. What is it about us that needs to have answers so desperately?
  4. What does that say about our faith?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 4: 12-16

To read the text from Hebrews

The beginning verse of this passage is familiar and is often quoted. It is actually a way of the author making the point that whatever it was that he just said, it is important. It is something to which we should listen. What it boils down to, is that faith is not easy. Entering a life of faith, a life of following Christ, will not give you answers or guarantee that your life will be filled with wealth and ease. It’s hard. So, here, we are admonished to pay attention to what we have heard and to avoid drifting away.

We know what God has done. We’ve seen it. We’ve heard it. But we must allow the double-edged sword of God’s living Word to cut through our illusions that are part of our lives. We are called to live differently. We are called to live with a different view of life.

Believing in God means believing in truth. It also means a certain nakedness, the willing to face up to who we really are and to stop pretending. When someone loves us as we are, it can be very challenging, because it means we need to face ourselves as we are. People who love like that are liable to get killed, metaphorically or literally – Jesus himself being a prime example. Love which goes along with pretence is no love at all.

At the heart of God’s calling to us, though, is grace. What may seem foolishness, weakness, and debasement in the world’s eyes is our true hope—God’s wisdom, power, and mercy. Before God we become fully known and we should enter that with boldness—because that is where we will come to know God. There will be an aspect of God that remains hidden from us. After all, if we fully knew God, we would BE God. No one ever promised us that! The writer of Hebrews, though, reminds us that Jesus as the Incarnation of the Living God lets us know that we are never hidden from God. In that Incarnation, in that way that God truly walked where we walk, we find something more than God pretending to be human. We find God experiencing everything about humanity that we do—even the very hiddenness and forsakenness of God. God has entered and continues to enter our experience to find us even when we cannot seem to find God in our lives.

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does the image of the two-edged sword mean for you?
  3. What makes this passage difficult for us?
  4. What does it mean to you to “know God”?
  5. What is the difference between knowing God and knowing about God?

GOSPEL: Mark 10: 17-31

To read the Gospel text

All of us are thinking the same thing…there has got to be a way out of this one.  Surely Jesus didn’t mean ALL the man’s money.  How would he live?  What would he do?  More than that, what would WE do?  (Couldn’t resist…J) Princess Diana once said that “they say it’s better to be poor and happy than rich and miserable but what about compromising by being moderately wealthy and a little moody?”

In the passage, a rich man approaches Jesus with considerable reverence.  He did all the right things.  He asked all the right questions.  (He was righteous and blameless and upright.  Where have we heard that before?)  Even his question about eternal life displays a modicum of awareness that eternal life was what God promised.  He just wanted to know how to do it.  Jesus’ reply is a little abrupt.  In true Jesus fashion, he deflects attention from himself to God.  In essence, he is saying that there is no answer to that question.  God is God…Look at God…God alone.  As Jesus says, the man knows all that he needs to know.  Now just look and listen…

Then he challenges the man.  He tells him to do three things:  Keep the Commandments. Sell his possessions and give the proceeds to the poor.  Follow me.  The truth was, the man had missed the point.  He knew what the commandments were but he really didn’t understand the commandments.  He needed to get rid of the illusions that he had created and follow Jesus, which meant living in a different way.  Jesus was not saying that wealth was bad.  It was the fact that the man’s faith understanding was a little misdirected:  What can I gain?  How can I gain?  How can I get my reward?  He was missing the spirit of compassion for others that Jesus embodied.  His wealth and his own needs and wants had blinded him to it. Following Jesus is not the usual reward-punishment system.  The norms are subverted.  The first will be last and the last will be first.

The truth is that he wasn’t demeaning the man.  He loved him enough to be truthful.  He wasn’t calling him to an out and out abandonment of the physical world—just a new way of looking at it, with eyes that do not search for a way to buy ourselves in or buy ourselves out, with eyes that see love and compassion and grace as ways of life, and with a heart and a mind that is open to whatever God is saying or not saying.  Life is a gift.  Just see it that way.  It is more of that two-edged sword.  What does living your faith call you to abandon?

In 1981, I sat in the Riverside Church and listened to the Rev. Will Campbell preach. He is a white Baptist preacher who had been active in the Civil Rights movement. (Brother to a Dragonfly is his autobiography and memoir of some of that time.) I don’t remember the text Will was preaching; it might have been this week’s gospel (Mark 10:17-31). I was 19 years old and passionately interested in changing the world for the better.  I took a bus and the subway every week from my dorm room in Brooklyn to the Riverside Church because William Sloane Coffin’s preaching indicated to me that these people were interested in changing the world for the better too.

This is what I remember of Will Campbell’s sermon that Sunday. He looked out on that Upper West Side congregation dressed so well and sitting in the gothic cathedral that Rockefeller money built, and he said, “You have invited me here today to talk to you about ending racism, but I think what you actually want me to tell you is how you can end racism and keep all of this. [He gestured to the sanctuary and everything around him.] I am afraid I don’t have an answer for you.”

I remember nothing else of the sermon. Did the preacher get out of that corner he had painted himself into? Within the allotted time for the sermon, did he leave us with hope for “incremental change,” or something? I don’t remember, but I have never forgotten that lone comment from the sermon.  It seemed to me that he was saying, “You all want something you can’t have: justice not rolling down like waters, but justice practiced ‘in moderation.'”

“Seek me and live.” (Mary Hinkle, “Seeking”, available at http://maryhinkle.typepad.com/pilgrim_preaching/2003/10/seeking.html, accessed 6 October, 2009.)

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What is your reaction to this passage and your own life?
  3. What other things do we need to rid ourselves of to truly follow Christ?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

In his poetic eulogy “The World of Silence”, the French philosopher Max Picard says that silence is the central place of faith, where we give the Word back to the God from whom we first received it. Surrendering the Word, we surrender the medium of our creation. We unsay ourselves, voluntarily returning to the source of our being, where we must trust God to say us once again. In silence, we travel back in time to the day before the first day of Creation, when all being was still part of God’s body. It had not yet been said, and silence was the womb in which it slept. (Barbara Brown Taylor, When God is Silent)

If we live our spiritual lives only in fear of punishment or in hope of reward, rather than in the awareness of the One because of whom all life is worthwhile, we can be religious people, but we will never be holy people.  Then life is simply a series of tests and trials and scores, not the moment-by-moment revelation of God who is present in everything that happens to us, in everything we do…God is present in everything around us, in everything we do, wherever we are, and in whatever situations we find ourselves.  It is coming to a sense of the Presence of God that changes our attitude toward life.   (Joan Chittister, Becoming Fully Human)

To believe you can approach transcendence without drawing nearer in compassion to suffering humanity is to fool yourself.  There can be no genuine personal religious conversion without a change in social attitude. (William Sloane Coffin)

 

Closing

 

“Things fall apart, the center cannot hold.”  We are no strangers to the falling apart; We perpetrate against the center of our lives, and on some days it feels like an endless falling, like a deep threat, like rising water, like ruthless wind.  But you…you in the midst, you back in play, you rebuking and silencing and ordering, you creatingrestfulness in the very eyes of the storm.  You…be our center:  cause us not to lie about the danger, cause us not to resist your good order.  Be our God.  Be the God you promised, and we will be among those surely peaceable in your order.  We pray in the name of the one through whom all things hold together.  Amen.

 

From Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth: Prayers of Walter Brueggemann, 26.

 

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