Last Monday, as is my habit on weeks that I preach, I closed and locked the door and went into read-the-scripture-for-the-sermon mode. It was not a good Monday because I just wasn’t feeling it. And it was one of those weeks when none of the Scripture lessons reached out to me and said “Preach me! Preach me!”
Job, chapters 1 and 2. “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job, That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” (1:1) Well, you all know that story – Job the blameless one becomes the object of a divine game in which God allows his subordinate, but high-ranking member of the heavenly council, Satan – to take everything away to test, to see if Job will ever curse God. Job goes through HELL for no good reason and the answer we get from God, which is paraphrased later in the book, is: “Where were you when I created the ostrich?” God is mystery, suffering is mystery. The book of Job is right in the middle of the Bible to pull the rug from under any simplistic notion that God rewards the good and punishes the bad, or that you deserve anything.
But I just didn’t have a heart to tackle Job.
Then Psalm 26 was the second Lectionary reading, purportedly written by David. And I just have to admit it: I hate it. It is the most self-righteous, self-serving poem I have ever read: “Vindicate ME, O Lord for I have walked in MY integrity and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering…. I do not sit with the worthless, nor do I consort with hypocrites; I hate the company of evildoers and will not sit with the wicked.. I wash my hands in innocence…”
Perhaps I am being too hard on old David, but “methinks he doth self-praise too much.” Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE David – he is one of my heroes because he is such a passionate sinner-saint. But I guess he wrote this psalm BEFORE he had Uriah murdered and he raped Bathsheba.
Then Mark’s Gospel: Jesus on divorce. Whoop-de-do. His words: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” I guess these words are actually a step forward in the development of rights for women – at least it gives an opportunity for a woman to divorce her husband – but his words, in this context alone, don’t even begin to answer the complexities of our relationships. And I just have to be honest. I don’t agree with Jesus. Can I do that? (I just did, I guess.)
But it made me think. Job, David and Jesus? Man, they went through a lot. And they didn’t get much for it.
I had an email from someone who asked me to pray for them and for their spouse who was finding out a diagnosis for a shadow on an x-ray. Thankfully, the news was not all bad, but then this person shared that within these last 6 months – a job had been lost, a parent had died, a child had been near death . . . and the cat died too. I mean, that’s a lot of stuff!
A lot of stuff. And you and I, we all, go through a lot of stuff! You and I “suffer” – because that is what “suffer” means – to “go through.”
So, finally, this verse from Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son.” It was a “balm in Gilead” to me, like an anointing of precious oil for me. Jesus – A son, a man, in the midst of it all; going through it all, suffering. A person, who expresses God and calls you and me to express the divine in us too, we who, like him, are little lower than the angels. We too, like Job, who don’t deserve it. We too, like David, who are sinner/saints and have done excruciatingly horrible things and yet somehow are not outside the economy of God’s love. We too, going through divorces and trying to figure out things, seemingly making them up as we go along. because it’s the best we can do.
But this Son, this Jesus, loves me and loves you when things aren’t very clear, and loves me and loves you when you don’t feel the connection with God, and you realize that most of life is not spent in clarity and certainly and surety but most of our lives are lived in the risk of precariousness. I don’t know what’s going to happen when I step out of these doors in approximately 40 minutes. We could be doing it all wrong. We stumble and bumble and fumble around in our lives seeking and searching and wandering and wondering. And sometimes the Bible is a great help and sometimes it is a hindrance. Sometimes prayer works and it is so powerful and you feel you have really plugged into some divine power. And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes faith feels so alive and you just tingle. And other times it’s just dead. It is all part of going through “it” whatever “it” is for you.
Sometimes in this community, we experience the presence of the living Christ in the kindness of a smile, in the touch of a hand, in a coffee shared, in a prayer shawl delivered, in tears and laughter and the laying on of hands and just being. But sometimes in this community, we see the worst of human disagreement and dishonor, and we realize that we never quite get it right and we fall very short of what we would want to be and people get hurt and feel left out and leave, or some feel so alone, even in the midst.
And yet in these days – did you hear that? – in these days, your days, our collective days. These days of political partisanship and terror plots, and births, and deaths, and triumphs and tragedies, and new love, and wars and new instant VIA coffee at Starbucks – God has spoken to us by a Son. God has spoken to us by a Son.
But the Word, the Word Jesus Christ, becomes not more words (like this sermon) but becomes flesh, becomes presence. And we can’t see how things will work out – maybe it is all up to angels, I don’t know.
Certainly I do not see “everything” being in subjection to some divine plan, or at least the divine plan that I would lay out, where everything is a nice, smooth, stress-free. But I love verse 9, and that’s what drew me this week: “But we do see Jesus…. the pioneer of our salvation [who was made] perfect through sufferings.”
Made perfect through suffering. “Perfect” here does not mean moral perfection, or doing nothing wrong. Perfect here is as in the Sermon of the Mount in Matthew when Jesus says, “Be ye perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Jesus doesn’t mean get 100% right on the exam. He doesn’t mean never drink a beer, or look an attractive person, or chuckle at a naughty joke, or drop a four-letter bomb, or be all prim and boring, or don’t be gay, or don’t get a divorce … or whatever we imagine is not pleasing to God. That’s not what Jesus is talking about, and that’s not what Hebrews is talking about.
“Perfect” means whole, complete, moving towards being completely open. Truly, I believe that is what “perfect” means. Why we lay this moral perfection thing on ourselves is beyond me.
All that does is burden us with shame and guilt. And I know that sometimes shame can remind us of where we have gone wrong and “guilt is the gift that keeps on giving” – but when we universalize these terms and imagine that God is looking for mistakes and we manipulate guilt and fear and shame… that is just crazy. “Being made perfect” means making a lot of mistakes – because it means going through a lot, suffering a lot.
And oft times we make the false connection between our lack of perfection and suffering – what happens to us is deserved because we have failed morally, because we have done wrong, screwed up – and surely sometimes there is cause and effect – but here in Hebrews we are told that God’s living word – Jesus – is not about moral perfection and suffering as punishment. Because really, it is absolutely the opposite of that.
Jesus is made more whole, becomes who he was meant to be by GOING THROUGH life, by being. Jesus’ life had a gory death at the end, no doubt but it was not the death that made him perfect. It was the going through life and death in obedience that led him towards completeness, so that he would be in this deeper relationship with Abba, with God. It was the growing in openness to God, in the midst of whatever, being open, letting go of false notions of this or that, letting go of control – of getting through it. This is being made perfect.
So I just want to say, whatever you are going through right now, whatever you are “suffering,” – even if it isn’t all that bad but is just stuff – life happens and you don’t deserve it. And the question is not whether or not you are morally perfect, or do the right thing. The question is: are you willing to go through it, and take it, whatever happens?
Are you willing to be open and continue to learn, continue to observe, continue to grow, continue to seek, continue to make mistakes, continue to ask and continue to laugh and continue to cry and continue to break and continue to mend and continue to die and continue to live? Ecclesiastes was right – there is a season for every matter under heaven, a time in which God is present and calling us forward.
We don’t have to understand any of it – but as it says at the beginning of verse 9: “We see Jesus.” And what do we see in Jesus? A person, trusting God through it all, in the midst, no self-protection, judging no one, holding things loosely, admiring the lilies, turning over money changers tables, not being caught up in legalism, or in following rules. And Jesus is doing nothing that you and I can’t have or can’t do too.
Did you hear that?
Words simply can’t capture it. This Truth. That’s why we have Jesus words, living words. And that is why we have the sacrament because we really can’t understand it. But we can still see with our own eyes, and taste with our own lips and feel in our own guts, and ponder the wonder of a truth that suggests that hope and sacrifice and love have the final word, not despair, fear and hate. So we come forward and we eat and drink this little snack in the middle of church. And we say it is the body and blood of Jesus offered for us and to us and in the coming forward we catch a glimpse that faith is more than words, more than understanding, more than getting the right answer – it is simply accepting our own being, our own desire to move forward, trusting that what we are going through is not a mark of shame but a journey of completion. You are worthy.
And today, I want to add a piece to our communion service. After you come forward to receive the elements, you can either return as usual to your seats, or, if you wish you may come and kneel at the railing and receive an anointing from either Clover or me. The anointing oil is enriched with myrrh – that which was offered to Jesus at his birth and that which bathed him at his death. And since we are in between birth and death, the coming and the going, it is good that we are anointed like Christ and for one moment we kneel under the blessing – not the curse. You can pick up your curse at the door and live under it. But that’s on you, that’s on you. It’s not here. Not in this building. Not our Jesus. We aren’t kneeling under the curse, under the confusion, but on this peacemaking Sunday, it’s just an anointing that God loves you, for you to be at peace
And if you wish to make a personal commitment or re-commitment to Jesus Christ – do it. Let the burden go even if it is for a second, take the risk to kneel and receive and if you hear anything else this day, just hear these words:
Jesus is not ashamed to call YOU “brother” or “sister.”
Isn’t that amazing?