Sunday, October 18, 2009

Bewildered, Yet Faithful

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 18, 2009

The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost
Year B: Proper 24
Job 38:1-7
Psalm 104:1-9, 25,37c
(Hebrews 5:1-10)
Mark 10:35-45

Bewildered, yet Faithful

To be honest, many of us are a little groggy today after last night’s amazing auction. It was a phenomenal event. And, it was also a great example of stewardship at work – people giving their time, talent and treasure to serve God, the church and others.

There’s been a whole lot of great stewardship going on here at Grace. In case you’ve forgotten, aside from all the many usual activities, we had the very successful clothing sale, the beautiful evensong and delicious potluck supper for the bishop’s blessing of Grace Hall, we had an inspiring and creative start to this year’s stewardship drive, and – who can forget - we had the blessing of the animals on St. Francis Day.

I know some people go out of their way to avoid it, but I really love the blessing of the animals. This year there were few, if any, really exotic animals but lots of beautiful dogs, cats, rabbits, as well as photos of dogs and cats, along with a fair number of stuffed animals.

Looking out at the congregation during that service, I was impressed by just how well-behaved the animals were. And, I got to wondering what must be going through their brains: This isn’t the park or the vet, what is this place I’ve been brought to? I recognize the people I live with but who are all these other people? Why are we here with all of these animals?

The smell of our hands as we blessed these pets must have bewildered these poor animals. “What is that creature that’s reaching out to me? Oh no – it’s a cat-dog-rabbit-man?!”

I guess the pets that were here did OK, but they really must have been bewildered by the whole experience.
Much of the time our lives aren’t so different, are they? Isn’t much of life bewildering? Don’t we often find ourselves wondering why things happen the way they do?

Life is filled with bewildering events – think of the people going about their lives in Samoa when suddenly a tidal wave rushed in and destroyed much of their world. Think of the person who has taken painstaking care of her health only to be told by the doctors that she faces a terminal illness. Think of the person who has always overachieved at work and yet receives word that, along with everyone else in the department, he has to clean out his desk by the end of the day.

Life is often bewildering.

But, it’s not just life itself that’s bewildering. Aren’t people themselves bewildering? Why do people sometimes act more generously and kindly than we would ever expect? On the other hand, why do people sometimes do the strange, destructive and often self-destructive things they do?

And don’t we sometimes bewilder ourselves? Why do we sometimes surprise ourselves and act more generously and kindly than we might have expected? On the other hand, why do we sometimes do the strange, destructive and often self-destructive things we do? St. Paul sums this up nicely in his letter to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (7:15)

Life is often bewildering.

Especially for us in the “helping professions” – but really for everyone – it is very tempting to offer easy explanations or false assurance during the bewildering moments of life.

How often when we’ve heard someone tell us about some problem or tragedy have we tempted to say – or in fact said – something like, “Don’t worry, it’ll be OK. I’m sure everything will work out for the best.”

Or how often have we been tempted to say – or in fact said – something like, “It’s all part of God’s plan” or even “God must be testing you”?

Probably the hardest lesson I learned the summer I spent training as a chaplain at Christ Hospital was resisting the temptation to offer the false assurance or the easy answer. It was hard to resist the temptation to “fix” people and their bewildering problems. I was especially hard to resist that temptation especially when it seemed like that’s what people wanted.

I remember one patient who had a relatively minor physical illness but who was profoundly lonely. When she was done telling me her rather sad story she looked at me and said something like, “And now I would like you to tell me how to solve this problem.”

She was bewildered. I tried to remember that my job was not to offer easy answers or false assurances but to be a sign of God’s loving presence and to help her ask for God’s grace in the midst of her bewilderment.

Speaking of bewilderment, for the past few weeks we’ve been hearing snippets from the Book of Job. It’s an unusual book of the Bible. We know pretty much nothing about when and where it was written. But, all of that doesn’t matter so much because the Book of Job is a piece of folklore that really speaks to people in all times and places. You remember the main points of the story, right?
Satan, the accuser or the prosecutor of the heavenly council, reports to God that he has been on the prowl all over the earth, implying that there are no righteous people. God responds by insisting that Job is “a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.”

Satan doesn’t buy it and replies that Job is blameless and upright only because he has been so richly blessed by God. Take that away and Job will surely curse God to God’s face.

God agrees to the challenge as long as Job’s life is spared.

So, Job, this blameless and upright man, will suffer bewildering loss and pain.
Now, the Book of Job is frequently offered as a help with the age-old question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” But, if you think about it, the story doesn’t really offer a satisfying answer to that question.

The character of Job is often held up as a model of patience. Maybe you know the expression, “the Patience of Job”. Again, if you read the book, you find out that’s not really true. Job is perfectly willing – and frankly justified – to complain mightily to God about what has happened to him. And in the reading we heard today, God is dismissive of Job’s complaints and is depicted as essentially unknowable and other. It’s not a very attractive view of God. But, on the other hand, God is present and despite everything God never abandons or stops caring for Job.

Job may not be patient but he remains faithful in the face of all the bewildering things that happen to him. And that’s really what this book is about. The Book of Job asks if it’s possible for us to hold on to our faith in the midst of the bewilderment of life. Despite everything is it possible for us to trust in God?

The Gospel has something to say about that, too. In today’s lesson, once again the disciples are bewildered. Mark organizes his gospel around the journey of Jesus and his disciples to Jerusalem. Along the way, Jesus is very clear with his disciples that at the end of this journey he will be betrayed, tortured, killed and then will rise again in three days.

These predictions by Jesus must have been bewildering for the disciples. It’s right after one of the predictions of Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection, that James and John make their request to sit in glory beside Jesus.

Jesus has made another of his bewildering predictions and in the midst of their bewilderment these two disciples want the easy answer and false assurance from Jesus. They want Jesus to say something like, “Don’t worry, things might be tough now, but you’ll be exalted in heaven.”

Notice Jesus doesn’t fall for this. First he’s brutally honest – if you’re with me you’re going to suffer. And then he tells them that it’s not for him to give special seats in paradise.

Finally, in the midst of their bewilderment, Jesus calls James and John and all the disciples to faithfulness – a faithfulness that is best expressed by imitating the loving and sacrificial service of Jesus.

Jesus tells the disciples - and is telling us - that we express our faith in loving and sacrificial service – the giving of our time, talent and treasure. And it’s in sacrifice that true greatness is found.

So, life was bewildering for Job and for the disciples and life is often bewildering for all of us.

In the Book of Job God is depicted as kind of cold and distant, but nevertheless God is shown as present in Job’s bewilderment.

We Christians know a good bit more about God than the creators of the Book of Job. We Christians know that God loves the world so much that in Jesus he came and lived and died and rose again among us. And as St. Paul also wrote in his letter to the Romans, nothing “will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

The question behind the Book of Job and the challenge for all of us is remaining faithful even in the midst of our bewilderment. And Jesus teaches us in the Gospel that our faithfulness is best expressed in loving and sacrificial service.

Fortunately, we don’t have to look very far to see that loving and sacrificial service all around us. Behind last night’s auction and all the wonderful things that happen here, there have been people offering stewardship – sacrificing their time, talent and treasure. I’m sure there were times when many of our fellow parishioners were bewildered by the large and small challenges of life. Yet, they persisted, they kept going, they remained faithful, they gave of themselves.

My prayer is that all of us may remain faithful to God and express our faith through loving service to one another – by giving our time, talent and treasure.