Sunday, October 14, 2012

God is With Us in Our Despair

Grace Episcopal Church, Madison NJ
October 14, 2012

Year B: Proper 23 – The 20th Sunday after Pentecost
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Psalm 22:1-15
(Hebrews 4:12-16)
Mark 10:17-31
God is With Us in Our Despair
            I don’t know about you, but I enjoy reading newspaper obituaries of people who have lived long, full, and interesting lives.
            Earlier this month I read the obituary of Eric Hobsbawm, who was one of the most accomplished British historians of the past century.
            He wrote a series of books on the history of the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.  The first was what’s still his best-known book, The Age of Revolution. He followed that with The Age of Capital, The Age of Empire and finally The Age of Extremes.
            If something works, you stick with it. Anyway, after I finished reading Hobsbawm’s obituary, I wondered what title he’d give to a history our own time.
            My guess is: The Age of Despair.
            To a large extent we live in an age of despair.
            Much of the time we try to hide our despair from others – maybe especially from those closest to us.
            People ask, “How are you?” And usually, no matter what, we say, “great” or “fine” or maybe if we’re willing to be a little vulnerable, “OK”.
            But, try as we might, that despair comes bubbling up in all sorts of ways.
            In our personal lives despair bubbles up when we cut-off people from our lives or when we act out, maybe blowing small things out of proportion or making a nasty comment or passing along gossip. The despair bubbles up when make self-destructive choices - maybe drinking more than we should or simply neglecting our responsibilities and commitments.
            There’s a whole lot of despair bubbling up in the current election cycle. Our national problems and challenges seem to be beyond our leaders and those who want to lead us. And, though many of us have strong opinions, how many of us can honestly say we understand the complexities of the economy, the federal budget, health care reform, the Middle East, the environment, and on and on?
            We live in the age of despair.
            And there are two main causes of our despair.
            The first cause of our despair might be summed up as “stuff happens”.
            This is the despair caused by bad news from the doctor. This is the despair caused when we – or people we care about or depend upon - lose a job. This is the despair caused by fears of default and foreclosure. This is the despair caused by betrayal. This is the despair caused by crumbling or broken relationships.
            This is the despair that makes us cry to heaven, asking God, “Where are you?” “How can you let this happen to me?” “Why don’t you do something?”
            Of course, there’s nothing new about this type of despair. Long ago, the psalmist asked:
             “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
              In today’s first lesson we heard a little bit from the Book of Job. This unusual book is a folktale mostly about the despair caused by undeserved suffering – despair caused when “stuff happens.”            
            Do you know the story? Job is a blameless and upright man. He enjoys a full and prosperous life. But Satan suggests to God that Job is only blameless and upright because things have always gone his way. Faced with some misfortune, Satan is sure that Job will curse God.
            So, a bet is made in heaven between God and Satan.  Satan bets that, faced with terrible misfortune, Job will curse God.
            So for no reason that he can tell, the righteous and faithful Job loses his wealth and his children and is wracked with disease.
            And, just like us, when stuff happens blameless and upright Job despairs.
            Job despairs because God seems to be absent.
            Job says about God, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling!”
            And then, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”
            The first type of despair is caused when “stuff happens.”
            And then there’s a second type of despair – an even worse type of despair that we make for ourselves.
            This “self-made” despair is caused when our priorities are out of order.
            This “self-made” despair is caused by focusing too much on accumulating possessions and preserving our wealth – things that, on their own, can’t make us happy, content or joyful.
            This “self-made” despair comes from worrying too much about professional success. It’s the type of despair that’s caused by caring too much about what other people think about us.
            This “self-made” despair comes from spending too much time bemoaning the state of the world and not enough time getting out there helping others.
            This “self-made” despair comes from trying to live someone else’s life and not living our own.
            The rich man in today’s gospel seems to be suffering from this “self-made” despair.
            Mark packs a lot into this little passage. The rich man approaches Jesus and seems to try buttering him up. He kneels before Jesus and calls him “Good Teacher” and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
            Jesus answers him by running down some of the commandments, adding one that’s actually not part of the ten: “You shall not defraud.” Maybe this is a sign that Jesus knows that not all of this man’s wealth has been obtained in honorable ways.
            The rich man claims to have followed all of these commandments. And, like Jesus, let’s take him at his word.  Jesus loves him no matter what. But then Jesus calls him to one final and great sacrifice: sell all of his possessions, give the money to the poor and follow Jesus.
            We’re told, “When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.”
            Sounds like “self-made” despair to me.
            After he’s gone, Jesus tells his disciples how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of God.
            I know that makes my stomach sink a little. I bet that Sue and I have many more possessions and enjoy much greater luxury than the rich man in the story. And, for that matter, we live better than just about everyone else who has ever lived or is alive today.
            So, is it nearly impossible for us to enter God’s kingdom?
            Talk about despair! And then it seems to get worse. Notice what Jesus says next: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God.”
            Turns out, it’s hard for everybody to enter the kingdom of God!
            So, where’s the good news in today’s lessons?
            The good news is that both the rich man and Job were wrong.
            The good news is the rich man was wrong. The rich man asked the wrong question. God’s love and eternal life are gifts given freely by God to those who are open to receiving them. We don’t have to “do” anything – we can’t do anything - to inherit them. God’s love and eternal life are not things that we can buy and own.
            Just before today’s passage from Mark, Jesus says: “Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”
            All that’s really required is not easy but is doable. All that’s really required is an open heart to receive God’s love – and then God, for whom nothing is impossible, takes it from there.
            Job knew about despair. But, the good news is Job was wrong.
            Job thought God had abandoned him. “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward I can not perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”
            But, Job was wrong. God was right there with Job the whole time.
            And God is with us in our age of despair. Whether it’s despair caused when stuff happens or despair that’s self-made, God is with us.
            I’ve seen God with us in our despair over and over again – and I bet you have, too.
            I saw God with us in our despair a while back when I visited the home of a dying parishioner and he and his family and I shared a simple and beautiful communion service on what turned out to be his last day of consciousness and just a few days before his death.
            I’ve seen God with us in our despair when people lose their jobs or when a marriage gets broken or when a frightening diagnosis is given. God’s love is shared as friends gather round offering support, offering shoulders to cry on, offering hands to hold, offering ears and hearts to listen - for as long as it takes.
            And we’ve seen God with us in our despair when a family took the brave step of asking us all to help a fragile little boy, asking for what probably seemed impossible – and God’s love was unleashed.
            We may live in an age of despair but there’s good news all around us.
            There’s the good news that all that’s required of us is not easy but is doable: an open heart to receive God’s greatest gifts of love and eternal life.
            And there’s the good news that God is always with us in our despair.
            God is with us.