This is the message that I gave on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, 8 October 2000, at Walker Valley United Methodist Church, Walker Valley, NY. The Scriptures for that Sunday were Job 1: 1, 2: 1 – 10; Hebrews 1 1 – 4, 2:5 – 12; and Mark 10: 2 – 16.
There is a saying in the South, “I am an American by birth but a Southern by the Grace of God.” And since I was born in Virginia and spent the major part of my life in Southern states, I guess that saying would apply to me. A Southern mother raised me, I like most Southern food, and I can talk, if it is not obvious, with a Southern drawl. I even understand many of the reasons for the place football has in a way of life that confuses people who have never lived in the South.
But I don’t hold to all the traditions of the South. Somewhere along the line I came to believe that there was equality among men and women and that any attempts to divide people because of their race, their creed, their color, or their sexuality was wrong. I came to this belief in part because of what I learned in school and in no small part because of what I learned in Sunday school and church.
Traditions are fine but sometimes traditions have to be changed. When Jesus put that child in his lap, as we read in the Gospel this morning, he changed traditions. When the people questioned him about the nature of divorce, he challenged their traditional views of the relationship of marriage.
In verses 5 and 6 from the Gospel reading for today, Jesus declares that divorce was a concession to the hardness of the heart but also states the God’s intent was that man and women would be equal in value and worth. The manner of divorce at that time was that it was possible for a man to divorce his wife but that a wife could not do the same.
Jesus, throughout his ministry, sought to change the ways things were viewed, from a strict interpretation of the law to a better understanding of what God intended for people to do.
The Old Testament reading for today and for the next few weeks looks at Job. The Book of Job, written soon after the Jewish people’s exile in Babylon, is an example of subversive wisdom, of alternative wisdom in the wisdom tradition of ancient Israel. The core of the book, dialogues between Job and his “comforters”, is a sustained debate about the theme of requirements and rewards (“the righteous will flourish, the wicked will wither”) which stand at the center of conventional wisdom. Indeed, 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 Proverbs that if one lives right, all will go well. In the book of Job, those who would “comfort” Job are defenders of these notions; Job vehemently attacks them.
In the passage that we read for today, Job is described as a righteous man. Two aspects of Job’s character and actions are highlighted. Blameless and upright, meaning “straightforward” and “ethically straight” emphasize his spotless character. Like Daniel, Job was blameless before his human critics, but not completely sinless before God. In Job 31: 5 – 6, he (Job) testifies of his personal integrity. That Job feared God and shunned evil was an indication that his right relationship with God motivated him to turn away from evil. This descriptive phrase was also an indication that Job was the epitome of wisdom.
In Job 2: 9 – 10, with his wife’s taunts, “to curse God and die” Job faces his most severe trial. Her question, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity,” employs almost the exact same wording that the Lord used in verse 3. The wording emphasizes Job’s perseverance, which his wife misconstrued as religious fanaticism; she thought he was blindly refusing the reality of his desperate situation.
Job’s response to the second test, the loss of his health and alienation from his wife, was once again commendable. His rhetorical question, urging the acceptance of both good and adversity from God, anticipates one of the central messages of the Book of Job, that a person of faith will trust in the God through prosperity and adversity, even while unable to understand why bad things happen.
This represents what I have, over the past few weeks, characterized as a first-hand relationship with God. As one who knew God personally, Jesus invited those who followed him to the same life that He had experienced. This is a challenging message for both secular and Christian forms of conventional wisdom in our time.
Our culture’s secular wisdom does not affirm the reality of the Spirit; the only reality of which our society is certain is the visible world or our ordinary experience. This leads us to seeing Christianity in passive terms. Rather than seeing life as a process of spiritual transformation, a journey, conventional wisdom says that God has already done what has to be done.
It is a vision that has God as lawgiver and judge. God’s requirements must be met, and because we cannot meet them, God graciously provides the sacrifice that meets those requirements. Yet, in this view of God, new requirements are created: God will forgive those who believe that Jesus was the sacrifice, and He will not forgive those who do not believe. God’s forgiveness becomes contingent or conditional. Not only is it only for those who believe, but it lasts only until sin is committed again, which can then be removed only by repentance.
When you read Hebrews, you read how Jesus is both the chief priest and the principle sacrifice. No longer are sacrifices needed since Jesus Himself was the sacrifice that was given to cover all the sins of the world, both now and in the future. What I personally got out of the passage from Hebrews that we read today is that we are caretakers of the journey that was begun so many years ago in Israel.
The New Testament is about a journey — a journey of discipleship. The meaning of the world disciple is not “a student of a teacher” but rather “a follower of somebody.” Discipleship in the New Testament is a following after Jesus, a journeying with Jesus.
Discipleship means, among other things, eating at his table and experiencing his banquet. That banquet is an inclusive banquet, including not just me and not just us, but those we tend to exclude. It means being nourished by him and fed by him. That was the point when Jesus fed the five thousand and as Israel was fed in the wilderness during the exodus. If we think of our communion today like those meals in the wilderness, it becomes a powerful symbol of our own journey with Jesus and being fed by him on that journey. “Take, eat, lest the journey be too great for you.”
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. Though not the only role of the church, it is the primary role, it is why we are here today, to “gather the folks, tell the stories, break the bread.”
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. (From Mutual Ministry by James C. Fenhagen)
We, Protestants, are an undisciplined people. Therein lies the reason for much dearth of spiritual insight and serious lack of moral power. Revolting, as we did, from the legalistic regimens of the medieval church, we have forgotten almost completely the necessity which inspired these regimens, and the faithful practices which have given to Christendom some of its noblest saints.
Without discipline there would have been no Francis of Assisi, no Bernard of Clairvoux, no Teresa of Avila, no Brother Lawrence, no William Law, no Evelyn Underhill, no Thomas Kelly (no John or Charles Wesley?).
Without discipline there will be no such rich legacy of sainthood bequeathed by us to succeeding generations, or revitalizing the church and redeeming the society of this generation.
The spiritual vitality of the church depends, not on complicated organization or creative administration, important as these are; not on eloquent preaching or adequate theology; valuable as they are; not on unlimited financial resources or cultural maturity; helpful though they be.
What the church primarily needs now, as always, is the presence within it of God-conscious, God-centered soul. Even a few here and there would mean very much to a church confronted by the chaos of this age.
A multitude of men and women, pressing “on to the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus,” would confront the secularism and skepticism of our time with a challenge not easily laughed off or shunted aside. (From Discipline and Discovery by Albert Edward Day)