Proper 24B: Shhh! Why Don’t You Let God Talk?

Waiting for God to talkOLD TESTAMENT: Job 38: 1-7, (34-41)

Read the passage from Job

Just to set the stage…

As Elihu speaks, the sky darkens. Ominous rumblings of thunder sound. Lighting rips open the sky. The cattle huddle together, heads down, tails facing into the wind. Rabbits scamper hurriedly to the deep woods. Birds flutter anxiously, twittering and chattering excitedly. Stillness hovers over the land. Dark clouds race in from the west and black out the sun.

Then lightning zigzags across the blackness and bathes the landscape in eerie whiteness. The thunder swells in volume, its reverberations shaking the earth. And then the heavens open, and the rain pours down. Tall trees bend, their branches sweeping and swishing the rain as it falls in sheets.

Job crouches on the ground. He grasps at his sackcloth, trying to pull it over his head to shield his body from the driving rain. Lightning blazes again. There is a sharp crack, then another sudden clap of thunder. Under his sackcloth, Job breathes heavily. Fear and despair clutch him. Even the brutal, uncontrollable forces of nature have turned against him now. Job cries weakly.

And then suddenly, the storm is over. The writer of Job describes what follows:

And now the light in the sky is dazzling, too bright for us to look at it; and the sky has been swept clean by the wind. A golden glow is seen in the north, and the glory of God fills us with awe. (Job 37: 21, 22)

                God is about to speak. (Mildren Tengbom, Sometimes I Hurt: Reflections on the Book of Job, (St. Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 1986), 184-185.)

 

The opening line of Chapter 38, “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind,” has been prepared for by Job’s demand to see God. This whirlwind is not to be confused with a tornado or a hurricane or some other natural phenomena. It is instead a sign of God’s own appearing in human affairs—a creative, life-changing force that is undefined, perhaps not understood. You can’t hold this God down, you can’t explain this God. This God is dynamic, in motion, while our definitions are always static, trying to put God in a box, saying God is this or that. But for Job, God is a whirlwind.

            Well, finally God speaks up! (Richard Rohr interprets 38:1 as “Aw, shut up!, Job”) For almost 90% of the book, Job has begged God to intervene, implored God to speak. Now that God has, uncharacteristically chosen to speak, we are reminded of the fact that God has been present through this whole story.

In last week’s reading, Job was anxious to bring his case against God: “I would learn what he would answer me,” Job brashly declared, “and understand what he would say to me.” But God turns the tables on him. “I will question you,” God says, “you shall declare to me.” Job has longed for a sort of “Q and A” with God, but this is going very differently than that for which he hoped. God’s first question is simple. “Were you there?” Were you there when I laid the very foundations of the earth? Well, of course Job’s answer is that he was not. God goes on and ticks off all of the grandeurs of Creation. Can Job do what God does? Can Job care for creatures the way God does? And, of course, Job has to admit that he had nothing to do with any of it. In this questioning, (even beyond what we’ve read), God lists a variety of animals—lion, raven, the wild ass, the wild ox, the ostrich, the hawk and the eagle, to name a few.

The Rabbis long ago noted that, when God boasts of God’s handiwork, of all the animals God offers as evidence of divine creative genius, none of them is of any earthly use to humanity. Humanity is only a small part of the wonder of Creation. The implication is that, regardless of whether or not Job can feel God’s Presence, God is there. And God is God; Job is not. But God still treats Job with respect. There is no demand of apology or repentance. In Job, God doesn’t seem to be bothered with all the earlier rantings and arguments that have gone on. God just wants Job to realize that he is not God. Job doesn’t really receive an answer to his question of why he, or for that matter any human, has to suffer. God instead just reminds Job of the incredible Presence and providence of God. Essentially, God gives no answers. In fact, we are left with more questions! Richard Rohr points out that when the church gave us the impression that there were ready-made answers, it was doing us more harm than good.

 

After God’s great speech, Job is a changed man, but it is not the content of the speech that heals him. Rather, it is the fact that a God whom he had only heard about has now come to him personally. Theological constructs are not the source of Job’s redemption; rather, it is relationship with God that transforms his profound suffering. Job meets God and sees that the circuitous track of his life has led him through paths of joy and suffering. Best of all, Job realizes that in all things his path was held in the hand of a God who was waiting to take him in God’s arms and wipe his tears away.

Last summer I traveled to France, and visited the great cathedral at Chartres. I had heard that there was a labyrinth laid into the cathedral floor. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims would journey to the cathedral and walk the labyrinth in meditative fashion–acting out a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. They would enter the labyrinth at the outside of the circle and follow the path as it weaves in and out, around and around to the center of the circle. There are no wrong turns and no dead ends: the path always leads back to the center.

When I arrived at Chartres, I could not walk the path because chairs were set up across the floor, so I spent time praying at the entrance of the labyrinth. Soon I moved into the center of the circle. I was struck by the power of the labyrinth as an image of my life. I had journeyed 40 years to stand in the center. As I looked back over my life, I thought of all the losses, failures, mistakes and brokenness I had experienced. I thought also of the joys, gifts and treasures of my life. Through it all, the path led to the center, to a meeting place with a God who was there all along.

Is this word of hope enough for those who suffer–that in the end, wherever the path leads, it is the presence of God that heals our grief? Probably not. For the rumor of God is rarely enough to satisfy. But the meeting . . . the meeting is sweet balm for the one on an ever-circling journey to the heart of God.

The other night I dreamed that I was in Chartres: As my eyes adjust to the dim light of the cathedral, I see people walking the ancient labyrinth and join them. The circuitous path leads me through the terror and shadow of my worst fears, as well as through my most poignant joys. I reach the center, the pulsing heart of it all. Suddenly, an arm is around my waist, a hand light upon my shoulder. I look into the eyes of God. The dance begins, and we whirl and twirl in a dance of laughter and glee. How was I to know, as I moved around and around this labyrinth path, that I was fumbling toward this sweet ecstasy? We dance, God and I, a whirlwind of light. And all round us dance the daughters of Job, the sweet, beautiful daughters of Job. (Margaret B. Hess, “The Labyrinth of Life, (The Christian Century, June 4, 1997), available at http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n19_v114/ai_19550312/, accessed 12 October, 2009.)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this say about God?
  3. What does this say about humanity?
  4. How do you feel about there really being no answer given? Is that always bad?

NEW TESTAMENT: Hebrews 5: 1-10

Read the passage from Hebrews

In this passage, the writer depicts an image of Jesus as a priest who we can grasp on to. Essentially, Jesus is a priest in solidarity with humanity at its most vulnerable. Our great high priest chooses to stand with the people, not above them, and from their midst renew the church and teach it once again to know God. We are reminded of God’s action in Christ and that Jesus has been exalted above all the cosmic powers.

In this culture, high priests were always appointed. Here, Jesus is portrayed as part of the order of Melchizedek. Melchizedek is mentioned twice in the Hebrew Scriptures—in Genesis and then again in Psalm 110. He was a priest of the Most High in the time of Abraham who received tithes from him. His name literally means “righteous king”. Some have claimed that these passages refer to a literal human; others claims insist that it refers to a theophany, a righteous ruler superior to the Levitical priests. This is not what we think of as an apostolic priesthood. But it is an eternal designation. So Jesus is part of this same so-called “order”. But the ministries of a priest like this must be with the people, not removed from them.

God does not want compensation; God desires one’s very life. Jesus was fully human and suffered as humans suffered. But Jesus was fully human, the very epitome of humanity. This is the way to perfection. The passage depicts Jesus as learning obedience through suffering. This is not just “doing what God says”, so to speak. It’s deeper than that. Obedience has to do with the transformation of the will such that all of life, every action, every choice, every relationship, every priority, every conversation, every work decision, everything reflects the will and values of God. God does not will us to suffer. God wills us to get through it.

 

  1. How does this passage speak to you?
  2. What does the image of Jesus in solidarity with humans mean for you?
  3. What does this say about faith?
  4. How does this speak to you about obedience?

GOSPEL: Mark 10: 35-45

Read the Gospel passage

This passage comes as Jesus is preparing to enter Jerusalem and confront the controversy that awaits him there.  For the Markan Gospel writer, this passage plays a key role in explaining Jesus’ death.  James and John request privileged places of authority in seats at Jesus’ right and left.  In doing this, they appear to have missed everything that Jesus has said and done.  They recognize that glorification awaits Jesus and they conspire to capitalize on that high honor.

Jesus’ response to them foreshadows the violence and death that await him in Jerusalem. Mark’s Gospel emphasizes that such rejection and death are inevitable and required, because of who Jesus is, because of the boundary-breaking character of his ministry, and because those who wield power in the world will do all they can to protect themselves and their agendas from what is essentially his subversive ministry. But James and John have a need for human power (ironically the same kind of power that will ultimately end Jesus’ life.) In contrast, greatness among Jesus’ followers is measured by their ability to live as servants, even if that means suffering oppression at the hands of those who wield earthly power.

Being a servant or slave is not about being subservient to Jesus, though. It is about joining with him, partnering in the ongoing act of God’s creative activity in the world. Jesus was powerful. His call to leadership was not to be without power but, rather, to redefine what power and leadership is. He came not to be served but to serve.

In the culture in which this was written, slavery was a normal thing. It was part of the social fabric and no one viewed it as necessarily a bad thing like we would today. In fact, it was considered a close relationship, so using this imagery to depict one’s relationship with God was not out of the question. And yet, James and John didn’t get this. They came essentially asking Jesus a favor. “Jesus, what can you do for me?” You will notice that, contrary to what many think Jesus represents for them, Jesus did NOT answer with “Sure, guys, anything you need…” Instead, his response was, “Well, what exactly do you want me to do for you?”

This is not unlike Job’s expectation of God. Perhaps Jesus response was more like, “Really, guys, were you there….?” We probably need to cut James and John some slack, though. After all, how much of what they are doing do we do? Perhaps they really did get it and were afraid. Perhaps, rather than seeking power, they were just seeking security. Give them credit—at least they were honest. They want badly to be like God. God is powerful. God is in control. God is there. Barbara Brown Taylor refers to it as trying to secure cabinet positions before the election is finalized. The problem is that they are assuming that the new world—the coming Kingdom—will be set up with the same rules as the old one. And one more time, Jesus tells them, “Sorry guys…that’s not the way it works.”

 

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. Who do you think that Jesus is addressing here—those in power or those who long for power? Is one worse than the other?
  3. What definitions of “power” exist? How does that differ with Jesus’ depiction of “power”?
  4. What “powers” do we need to let go of in our own lives in order to follow Christ?

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there. (Ann Lamott, Traveling Mercies)

Our disappointments, our lonelinesses and our defeats do not separate us from Christ; they draw us more deeply into communion with him.  And with the final unanswered cry, “Why, my God, why?” we join in [Christ’s] death cry and await with [Christ] the resurrection.  This is what faith really is:  believing, not with the head or the lips or out of habit, but believing with one’s whole life.  It means seeking community with the human Christ in every situation in life, and in every situation experiencing his own history. (Jurgen Moltmann, 1926-    )

If you read the Bible and it does not challenge you, then you are reading yourself and not the Bible. (Ernesto Tinajero, 21st century)

Closing

Give me a pure heart—that I may see Thee,

A humble heart—that I may hear Thee,

A heart of love—that I may serve Thee,

A heart of faith—that I may abide in Thee.  Amen

Dag Hammarskjold

 

Easter 6B: Abide

 

Power-of-His-PresenceFIRST READING: Acts 10: 44-48

To read the Lectionary passage from Acts, click here

Backing up just a little bit, Peter has summarized Jesus’ earthly ministry in the preceding verses. In verse 38, he tells the crowd that in Jesus’ baptism, God anointed him with the Holy Spirit and with power. But then the Holy Spirit comes, as a “gift” on all who were there listening to him speak. But what is surprising to those good circumcised believers that are standing there listening, the ones who have done everything right, the ones who have followed all of the religious rules, is that the Spirit comes upon all who are present—even on the Gentiles.

Here, “speaking in tongues” is a sign of the presence of the Spirit. The pouring out of the Spirit and baptism are closely associated in Acts and Baptism follows the coming of the Spirit. Peter’s question is an important one: If someone has received the Holy Spirit, if God has somehow compelled someone to come forth, if God has somehow some way shown up in their life, then how can we withhold baptism? So he orders them to be baptized under his authority.

Once again, the coming of the Spirit was sudden and unexpected—and unplanned as to who was going to receive it! This now removes any lingering doubt that the Kingdom of God was open to Gentiles and others. The idea of “speaking in tongues” is sort of foreign to us. We’re not really sure to what this was actually referring. Clearly there is language content, but, like the Pentecost experience, perhaps it has more to do with listening than the actual speaking. Once again, the writer of Acts focuses on hospitality and welcome. This speaks loudly to those that are more comfortable with God’s grace being carefully mediated to those that have done everything right.

But the point is that, in all honesty, these people that were of Jewish descent that have become a part of this new Christian movement had already begun to define and limit what the movement was about. So, they were utterly astounded when suddenly Gentiles started showing up with evidence that somehow God had burst into their life. On his blog, Episcopal priest Rick Morley writes a reflection on this passage:

In other words, they have no clue. They have no idea what God is doing, what God is capable of, or who God is able to reach. Instead of being open to the infinite possibilities of God they are closed-minded, thinking that the only way to God is a way that looks like the way that they came to God. As if God can’t be reached by other routes. As if their understanding of God is the only right way. The only possible way.

Of course, this is the quintessential struggle in the New Testament Church between Jewish and Gentile Christianity. The question, “Can one follow Jesus without also being Jewish,” sat over the nascent church like a wet blanket. But, of course, this is also the quintessential struggle of the church today. Most of us can’t imagine a church, or “doing church,” differently than what we have already. As our rolls and pews slowly empty out, we talk about “tweaking this” and “tweaking that.” We’ll add a few drums and post what we’re doing to Facebook. Because that’ll draw them in.

And so, what we have in the Book of Acts is a glimpse into a mirror. Just like the first Church couldn’t see the reign of God past their own paltry view of the possibilities, neither can we. Towards the end of the third chapter of Paul’s Letter to Ephesians, we see a glimmer of someone who “gets it”: Glory to God, whose power working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. (Ephesians 3:28)

It’s like when we look out into the world around us, we see just a sliver—just the tiniest wedge of possibilities. But, God sees the whole sky. The whole infinite expanse of the universe brimming with possibilities. New things to be done. New people to be reached with His love. New ways to crash the reign of God into creation. What gives me the slightest glimmer is that the church in Acts was “astounded.” At least they weren’t “disgusted,” or “dismayed.”

Sometimes when I hear prophets and dreamers in our own day spin visions of what the church can become, the reaction I see is disgust and dismay. I think we need to summon the ability to see the world, the church, and our lives from God’s perspective. We need to pray for that. And then work to make it happen. But, if we’re unable to do that—and I admit that it’s a large task—then at least we need to recapture the ability to be “astounded” when God begins to do something new in our midst, and breathes life into these dry bones we’re always rattling. (From “Even Astonished”, by Rick Morley, May 1, 2012, available at http://www.rickmorley.com/archives/1585, accessed 9 May, 2012.)

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. How does this speak to our churches today?
  3. How does this speak to our world today?
  4. What meaning does this passage bring to baptism for you?
  5. When are you “astounded” by God?

 

 

NEW TESTAMENT: 1 John 5: 1-6

To read the Lectionary Epistle passage, click here

This passage sort of repeats the same theme that we found in the Acts passage—that all who believe are adopted children of God. The mark of loving God and obeying God is not “burdensome”, for we are given the power that compels us to follow God and to love our fellow brothers and sisters. To believe in Jesus as the Son of God is at the very core of our faith and through this faith, God reigns.

As people come to Christ, come to God, God’s power is shown more widely throughout the world. And through the mention of water and blood, we are reminded that Jesus experienced both baptism and crucifixion. The Spirit was part of both of these events and is continually present as the soul of the church.  The writer goes on into the following verses and tells us that there are three things that together testify to our belief in Jesus Christ: Holy Spirit at work in the community, Baptism, and Crucifixion as shown in the Eucharist. This is probably a statement against those who believe that Jesus came by water but not through the Spirit that was present in other ways. They were perhaps espousing that Jesus, as God, did not really die, denying Jesus’ very humanness, denying that Jesus was one of us.

The passage depicts love as obedience to God. I don’t think it means that our obedience proves our love for God but rather that if we love God and abide in God’s love, then our obedience to God, our listening to who we are and who we are called to be, is what we do. In essence, our love for God leads us to do nothing less. We tend to think of “obedience” in a bad way, as something that in some way makes us do something other than we want, other than we would do naturally. But here, obedience to God is actually being who we are, tapping into the real us, the real love of God at our very core of being and then living that out in every aspect of our lives. Every aspect of Jesus’ life was for God and for us. We are called to be and do no less.

  1. What meaning does this passage hold for you?
  2. What happens if we deny Jesus’ humanness?
  3. What does “obedience” to God mean to you?
  4. What would it mean for you for every aspect of your life to be for God and for others?

 

GOSPEL: John 15: 9-17

To read the Lectionary Gospel passage, click here

Jesus continues to prepare his disciples for his physical departure from them. In last week’s passage, he told them that he is the true vine, God’s agent, and that they are the fruit. They represent him in the world—to bear fruit, to do in his name. This is how God’s power will be extended among humans. Jesus has loved them as God has loved them. They are continuing to love him by being obedient to his commandments, to continue to be in a loving relationship with God even after Jesus is gone. This is the kind of love that leads to ultimate joy. Jesus is the model for our behavior and Jesus is the one that loves others so much that he gave his life for them.

The word servant is difficult for us, but to be a servant of God was an honor in Old Testament times. Jesus, then, had chosen these and appointed them to see converts who would be servants. And Jesus depicts what happens when this great love is fulfilled—the fruit of love is abundant joy. The goal, then, is not purity or spotlessness, but a joy that fulfills itself in love.

The way that Jesus addresses the issue of status is interesting. Essentially, the image of servant is abandoned in favor of one of abiding friendship. While the language of serving and servitude has dominated Christian tradition, this little correction deserves more reflection. Perhaps it means that God does not want slaves but, rather companions. It creates a different model of spirituality. Of course friendship also means letting the other be and acknowledging that otherness in its integrity and sacredness. Certainly there is no thought of ‘pocketing’ God or Jesus in a way which reduces either – a kind of power-play which makes them manageable (pocket-able and in my control). Some people either want to dominate or be dominated. They live lives as if it is either-or. The model here is different. It does not compromise the integrity or holiness of the other, but affirms companionship in such holiness. We are not just asked to be friends; we are friends for a purpose; we are friends to bear fruit in Christ.

And, once again, if we love God, if we abide in God, we will keep God’s commandment. It will not be merely that we choose to do so. God chose us. And as children of God, we can do nothing else. It is who we are. From that standpoint, “disobedience” to God is not just doing wrong. It’s more than just ignoring the speed limit. Rather, it is not being and living out who we are. It is being someone other than who God made us to be. It means that we love God and that we love each other. It means that we are no longer estranged from God are separated from others. It calls us all to the table and invites us to sit down and share a meal. No one is excluded. No one is left out.  No one is waiting in the wings wondering if they will be welcomed or shunned. Emily Dickinson once said, “my friends are my estate.” In other words, those with whom we share our lives ARE our lives. Love them as you love your life. Love them the way that Jesus loved. Love them enough that when the chips are down, you can do no other than to love them more than life itself. It is that kind of love that IS fruit, that IS life. It is the love into which God calls us.

In Scripture, hospitality reflects a larger reality than mere survival. It links us to each other and to God. It is understood as a way of meeting and receiving holy presence. Sure it was risky, probably even more risky than it is today, but it was the expectation. It was what we are called to do—to meet God in every face we encounter. It doesn’t mean that we all have to like each other or even get along. A stranger is still a stranger. But we are called to recognize that running beneath all of our lives is a common humanity and a common Creator. It’s not about overcoming differences but rather transcending them and being reconciled to one another in love. And our love for each other is a reflection of our love for God. And letting each of us be who we are is letting God be God.

 

  1. What is your response to this passage?
  2. What does this “friendship” in and with Christ mean for you?
  3. How does that change our relationship to God?
  4. What would the world look like if we loved each other more than life itself?
  5. How does this speak to the commonly-used phrase “a personal relationship in Jesus Christ”?
  6. What does this say about hospitality?
  7. What if we had that same “expectation” of hospitality as we find in Scripture?

 

 

Some Quotes for Further Reflection:

 

Today we are bombarded with a theology of certitude. I don’t find much biblical support for the stance of “God told me and I’m telling you, and if you don’t believe as I do, you’re doomed.” A sort of “My God can whip your god” posture. From Abraham, going out by faith not knowing where he was being sent, to Jesus on the cross, beseeching [God] for a better way, there was always more inquiring faith than conceited certainty. (Will D. Campbell)

My business is not to remake myself, but to make the absolute best of what God made. (Robert Browning)

 

We are what we repeatedly do. (Aristotle)

 

 

Closing

Close by reading the words of “The Servants Song” (Richard Gillard, in The Faith We Sing, # 2222):

Brother, sister, let me serve you, let me be as Christ to you; pray that I may have the grace to let you be my servant, too.

We are pilgrims on a journey; we’re together on this road. We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load.

I will hold the Christlight for you in the night-time of your fear; I will hold my hand out to you, speak the peace you long to hear.

I will weep when you are weeping; when you laugh, I’ll laught with you. I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.

 

When we sing to God in heaven, we shall find such harmony, born of all we’ve known together of Christ’s love and agony.