What Do We Say?


I am preaching at Edenville United Methodist Church in New Milford, NY, this morning. Here are my thoughts for the 18th Sunday after Pentecost.

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What did you say last Monday when you came home and learned that three young girls had been killed in another school shooting? How do you explain the appearance of violence and murder in a community based on non-violence principles? And what do you say when the victims of the crime offer forgiveness to the killer and his family?

I cannot immediately explain why someone would decide to plan and then kill anyone, much less several people. The school shooting in Wisconsin the week before is perhaps easier to explain because the student was angry with the school and he had decided to take his anger out on the principal. The same explanation can help us explain the Columbine shootings; the young men involved there were angry with their classmates and sought revenge. But this explanation does not go far enough in explaining the other Colorado school shooting two weeks ago.

And though we can offer a rational explanation for the behavior of all those involved; it still doesn’t explain why all of these individuals decided to take their particular course of action.

Are we so enamored with violence that we have come to think that it is the only solution to the problems of society? Are we so fixated with violence that we think it will cure any problem we may have, whether they are real or perceived?

Against the backdrop of questions that we may not be able to answer, we are reintroduced to the story of Job this week. This book, written soon after the exile in Babylon, is an example of what is called subversive wisdom. It is an alternative to the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. Both the Book of Job and the Book of Ecclesiastes can be seen as a radical questioning of the easy confidence of the conventional wisdom found in the Book of Proverbs.

It is, for many, one of the great classics of world literature. The story of Job is the story of a righteous man from whom everything is taken – all his children, all his wealth, and finally all of his health. Its subject matter is a question that humankind has pondered ever since it had a sense of who they were: “Why should innocent persons suffer when the wicked seem to live in comfort and security?”

The early prophets attempted to deal with the question in terms of the Israelite nation but the writer of Job deals with it on an individual basis. It is a direct challenge to the time-honored and still accepted doctrine that people are rewarded or punished according to their merits. (1)

The dialogues between Job and his “comforters” are a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will suffer”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom. Job’s friends tell him that he must have done something very wrong (“Happy is the man whom God corrects”) and that this experience should lead to a greater piety. This experience should, in the end, lead to everything being all right.

But it is a conclusion and an argument that Job will not accept. From the very beginning, he is outraged at the injustice of what is happening. Job will not accept the results unless he is given an opportunity to see God and have God explain what is happening. Job rejects the comfort and counsel of his friends, with their established wisdom about God.

In the end, Job will come to peace with himself. He will meet God and find out that perhaps he, Job, is unable to understand all that makes up the world. Job finds out what we ourselves too often know, we are immersed in an overwhelming truth, a truth that we can only know through a limited view of the world.

In today’s Old Testament reading (2), Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of his character and actions are highlighted. Job is characterized as blameless and upright, meaning that he is “straightforward” and “ethically straight”. He is a man with a spotless character. Like Daniel, Job is blameless before his human critics but not necessarily before God.

But from the very beginning, in Job 2: 9 – 10, he is severely tested. His wife questions his integrity when she asks “Do you still hold fast to your integrity?” These are the very words that God used early in verse 3. They are words that emphasize Job’s perseverance. But his wife misconstrues this for religious fanaticism; she thinks that he is blindly refusing to see the reality of his desperate situation.

The thing is that the Book of Job alone does not present concrete solutions about why people suffer and how it is that we are to combat injustice. So what does this all mean for us? Are we to accept that there is no solution? How can we find hope in a world that offers no hope? Job’s wife’s comments precede the thoughts of many people today when they see the violence, hatred, angry and angst that pervade this society. They cannot accept that a loving God would allow this to happen. They get angry with God and walk away. They are closed to the words of God which still offer hope and possibility. Those who turn away from God do not see a world around them; they are blind to those who can help.

Job’s response and his urging that we accept both good and bad from God anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job; that a person of faith will trust in God through prosperity and adversity, even if they are unable to understand why the bad things happen. Just as Job finds trust in God at the end of the book, so too can we find trust in God through Jesus.

Jesus’ ministry was an invitation to all to share in the same life that He had experienced. This is a challenging message to accept with conventional wisdom. Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Holy Spirit; it only can accept the visible world and ordinary experiences. This leads us to see Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process and transformation, we see it as something where God has already done what has to be done.

This makes God a lawgiver and a judge. It is why the Pharisees and Sadducees constantly tested Jesus, as they did in today’s Gospel reading. (3)  Their questions were not necessarily about divorce, though this passage is the central tenet for the church’s view on divorce, but rather about the adherence to the law.

If you held to the requirements of the law, things were good; if you did not, then you could expect bad things. If you follow the requirements of the law, God will give you what you want and need; if you do not, then God will withhold the good and punish you. God’s forgiveness becomes conditional; it is only for those who believe and it only lasts until you sin again.

Jesus changed this. No longer is God solely a lawgiver or judge; now He is our Father in Heaven. No longer is God’s grace given because we met a series of requirements determined by adherence to the law; God’s grace is freely given to all who would seek it. No longer is God’s grace limited to a select few; it becomes open to all who accept Christ in their lives.

In all the questions that the Pharisees and Sadducees asked, it was always about holding the myriad requirements of the law, even when it was impossible or contradictory. Their lives and power were dependent on the people mindlessly following what they, the leaders, said. Christ changes that; now when we live our lives in accordance with God’s commands, the outcome changes.

Stop and consider what happens when we accept Christ into our lives. In the Epistle reading for today (4) the writer of Hebrews tells us that our lives change because of Christ’s presence. Jesus takes on our burdens and frees us. No longer are we entangled by the requirements of the law. Now we, the people of the 21st century, are the custodians of the journey that began so long ago in Israel.

In the world of today, based on conventional wisdom and the notion that bad things happen to sinners and good things happen to the righteous, we have a hard time accepting this. We still feel that it is our “right” to do wrong against the one who has wronged us (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth); we ignore Jesus’ commandment to turn the other cheek. We would rather act instinctively, even when we know that two wrongs don’t make a right and fire added to fire stills burns the house down. (5)

We are not willing to immediately accept the new version of wisdom that is offered through Christ. We are angry at those who inflict violence and injustice on us; we seek revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can forgive the family of the person who killed their children. We demand justice and revenge and we cannot fathom how a community can reach a hand of caring and forgiveness to a family that they are supposed to hate.

So what do we do? In his book, “Letters of a C. O. from Prison,” Timothy Zimmer wrote,

We say, many of us, that such and such a condition is evil, that such and such a goal is good; this the spirit which binds us, not in commitment, but in the possibility of commitment. For it is what comes after the good and evil have been defined and agreed upon that determines the grain of activism. Do we practice what we preach? Or, do we, advocating peace, resort to violence in our advocacy? And advocating freedom, refuse to face the real threat to our security which freedom brings? And advocating love, hate the haters more than they hate us? . . . If we preach love and freedom and peace, we must first love, be free, be peaceful — or better yet not preach at all but let love and peace and freedom speak for themselves in our actions. (6)

The word “disciple” does not necessarily mean “a student of a teacher” but more “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is to follow Jesus, to go on a journey with Jesus.

Journeying with Jesus also means to be in a community. Discipleship is not an individual path, but a journey in the company of disciples. It is a road that is less traveled yet done with others who remember and celebrate Jesus.

And discipleship involves being compassionate. “Be compassionate as God is compassionate” is the defining mark of the follower of Jesus. Compassion is the fruit of the life in the Spirit and the ethos of the community of Jesus.

The Christian journey is a life lived from the inside out, a life in which the things we experience within — dreams, memories, images, and symbols, and the presence of him whom we encounter in deep silence — are in constant tension and dialogue with all that we experience without — people, events, joys, sorrows, and the presence of him whom we encounter in others. Thomas Merton repeats a suggestion of Douglas Steere that the absence of this tension might well produce the most pervasive form of violence present in contemporary society. “To allow one’s self to be carried away by a multitude of conflicting concerns,” Merton writes, “to surrender to too many demands, to commit one’s self to too many projects, to want to help everyone in everything is to succumb to violence. Frenzy destroys our inner capacity for peace. It destroys the fruitfulness of our work, because it kills the root of inner wisdom which makes work fruitful.”

One of the most critical tasks of the local church is to enable people to become “journeyers” rather than “wanderers.” This suggests that the leadership of a congregation needs to be serious about their own journeys, to the point where they are willing to share their experience with others, not as those who have arrived but as fellow journeyers able to receive as well as to give. . . .

In his Markings, Dag Hammarskjold records some of the often agonizing turning points that were the occasion of the deepening of his remarkable journey. One entry in this journal describes with particular wisdom that sense of creative tension which is the mark of wholeness. “The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you,” he writes, “the better you will hear what is sounding outside. And only he who listens can speak. Is this the starting of the road toward the union of your two dreams — to be allowed in clarity of mind to mirror life, and in purity of heart to mold it?” Ultimately, this is the question we all must ask, for it is the question Christ asks of us. (7)

We are faced with a challenge today. In light of the violence that seems to have become so much a part of our lives, in light of the poverty and homelessness that is so much a part of our lives, in light of the injustice and oppression that seems to have become the norm rather than the exception, what do we say? What do we do?

When the world around is filled with senseless violence and poverty and oppression, will you say that it is God’s wrath for the sins of unnamed souls? When innocent children are killed and lives are destroyed through senseless violence, will you cry out to God that it is His fault?

Or will you say that you are a disciple of Jesus Christ. Will you say that He came to save this world from sin and death by His own sacrifice on the Cross? Will you say that because He came to heal the sick, give sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, enable the lame to walk, set the oppressed free and bring hope to the downtrodden and forgotten, that you are willing to walk with Him today?

The writer William Safire viewed the story of Job and his encounter with God as a victory for Job because Job called the Lord of the universe to account. It was a dialogue between a powerless individual and an all-powerful authority. It is a model for the miraculous thing that individuals such as Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Andrei Sakharov accomplished. Safire concluded that injustice in all forms need not be accepted; on the contrary, justice must be pursued and established authority confronted. One person can make a difference. (8) And each one of us can be that one person who makes the difference.

We must first remember that we have proclaimed that we are Christ’s disciples. We have committed our lives and our souls to following Christ. Clarence Jordan is best known as the founder of the Koinonia farm in Georgia. Founded in the late 1940’s, it was one of the first attempts at integration in the Deep South.

As such, it was the target of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups. Jordan asked his brother Robert, an attorney, to represent the farm in some of the civil actions against the Klan. His brother refused, claiming that it would hurt his political aspirations (he was to become a Georgia state senator and later a justice on the State Supreme Court). He said that such an action, representing an integrated church related organization would amount to political suicide and he would lose everything, his house, his job, his family, everything.

Clarence Jordan noted that the farm would lose everything as well. To this, Robert Jordan replied that it was different for Clarence.

Clarence then challenged his brother. He pointed out that they both joined the same church on the same day. He pointed out that when the preacher asked if they accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, they both answered yes. There could be nothing different between their situations.

Robert could only say that he followed Jesus, up to a point. Continuing the challenging, Clarence asked if that point was the foot of the cross.

Robert replied that he would go to the cross but that he would not be crucified on the cross. Clarence said that Robert was not a disciple of Christ but rather an admirer. He also said that he should go back to his church and tell the church that he was only an admirer and not a disciple.

Robert’s comments were interesting. He said, in effect, that if everyone who felt like I do did what you suggest, we would not have much of a church. Clarence only asked if he, Robert, even had a church that he could go to. Later on, Robert Jordan would become a true disciple and work for the betterment of society. (9)

We must also remember that we are Methodists. And our heritage is based on the feelings of John Wesley that the church cannot be silent when people are hungry, or sick, or naked, or homeless, or in prison and without hope. John Wesley could not stand aside and let the church ignore those who were poor, hungry, naked, sick, or in jail, even if the conventional wisdom was that the cause of poverty, hunger, the lack of clothes, or ill-health was the intrinsic sinfulness of the individual. John Wesley started a movement because he could not accept the injustice of a society that would cast aside the lesser members of society.

There is violence in this world; there is injustice in this world. There is hatred and oppression. We can simply say that it is God’s will and there is nothing we can do; we can say that God doesn’t care and nothing we do will change that. Or we can open our hearts to the power of the Holy Spirit; we can open our ears to hear the call of God through Christ calling us to be His people.

You are being asked today if you are willing to follow, if you are willing to take on the task of completing the answer to a perplexing question. 

UMH #593 – Here I Am

As you leave this place today, as you go out into the world, how will you respond to the call of the Lord?  At the beginning of this message, we sang the spiritual, “I Want Jesus To Walk With Me.”  The journey that we are about to begin today is not an easy one.  It is not easy answering God’s call.  But we do not do either alone.  All we have to do is ask Jesus to take our hand and guide us through this journey that we are about to make.  Our closing hymn this morning is #474 – “Precious Lord, Take My Hand.”

(1) Adapted from http://www.cliffsnotes.com/WileyCDA/LitNote/id-103,pageNum-42.html

(2) Job 1:1; 2: 1 – 10

(3) Mark 10: 2 – 16

(4) Hebrews 1: 1 – 4; 2: 5 – 12

(5) Adapted from “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 25

(6) “Letters of a C. O. from Prison”, Timothy W. L. Zimmer (1969, The Judson Press), page 36 – 37

(7) From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen

(8) Adapted from http://www.jewishjournal.com/home/searchview.php?id=13244

(9) Adapted from Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs – Saints and their stories by James C. Howell

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8 thoughts on “What Do We Say?

  1. I enjoyed your What Do We Say sermon as I have other features on your blog. Our experiences run parallel on many levels, but not enough to be boring. 🙂 Am dismayed that your site is riddled with coding errors. A shame, really, as there’s much gold to be mined here. Is there any chance you’ll clean up your formatting?

  2. You will have to describe what you mean by coding errors and what the solution is. I simply prepare my sermons in a document and then paste them into the blog. I know that some browsers do not translate what I have posted well. You are the first to indicate that there is a problem.

  3. Here is an example of the formatting errors I see –less the exclamation points/commands which blogger disllows — using your post, FROM WHERE IS GOD? as an example:

    “Two comments come to mind when I read the Gospel reading for today.< --[if supportFootnotes]-->[1]< --[endif]--> First, why is it that the disciples don’t get the message about how ….”

    And in the footnotes themselves, this is what is displayed:

    < --[endif]-->
    < --[if supportFootnotes]-->[1]< --[endif]--> Mark 9: 38 – 50
    < --[if supportFootnotes]-->[2]< --[endif]--> Mark 9: 14 – 18, 28

    The PC on which I’m reading your blog is operating Win98SE in an IE6.0 browser. * What do you see when you cut-and-past a standard Word document, wholesale, into your blog? * What is your OS and browser?

  4. I use FireFox as my browser. When I post the document into the blog, I see the document as it is typed. My OS is Windows XP Professional.

    At one time I was using the add-in that “blogger” provided for direct publishing into the blog but it didn’t work after a while and I quit using it.

    If I have time this weekend, when I finish my sermon, I will try to publish it and edit the internal links.

  5. Pingback: When Are We Going To Learn? « Thoughts From The Heart On The Left

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