October 14, 2018
Job 23:1-9, 16-17
The Rev. Dr. Kathy Dunagan
If you have friended me on Facebook lately, you will have noticed that my current profile picture is just that, a profile - that is it’s a side view - but not of me. It’s of Lucy Van Pelt and she’s thrown her arms in the air and is screaming!
I loved the Peanuts comic strip as a kid and I still read them. Charles Schultz was an interesting person, a devoted Christian who also leaned toward Secular Humanism. He wrote some Sunday School curriculum for adults and taught Sunday School.
The jokes in his strip are one liners and they’re still funny. In the most viewed of all his work, A Charlie Brown Christmas, a made-for-television short film that was first run in 1965, Lucy gets some great lines. But it’s Charlie Brown’s little sister who got one of the best lines.
She asked her older brother, Charlie Brown to help her with her letter to Santa. He did so begrudgingly. He had a lot on his mind after all, what with his dread of a big commercial Christmas and that play he was working on in his directorial debut. But he grabbed a pencil and paper and started taking dictation. Sally began a long list of all the things she wanted for Christmas but then, she just wrapped it up by suggesting to Santa that if her list was too complicated, he could just send cash. She said, “How about 10s and 20s!” and Charlie Brown ran away with his arms in the air screaming about the commercialism of Christmas ruining everything.
I always empathized with him in that scene. To this day I bemoan the Christmas rush of spending and the lack of time we spend in prayer, the expectant prayer of Advent, the spiritual depth of riches we could receive from waiting for Christmas has been mostly lost.
But, that’s the new Christmas mantra isn’t it, as Sally put it, “All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.” And we are still in this struggle more than 50 years since Charles Schultz named the problem in 1965.
There are actually two difficult theological questions in today’s readings: the question of a mechanistic world view and the question of how much we must sacrifice to become disciples.
First, we dig further into the dilemma of Job who is a good man, as good as they come and yet God has allowed him to be cursed and tormented by the satan. The theological problem here is a mechanistic worldview. We know all about this. We see it every day. This is the problem of assuming that those who act righteously can expect good things to happen and those who fail to act righteously can expect calamity. The problem with the book of Job is that we approach it from this world view. We want what we have coming to us. And we expect God to be all loving, all knowing and all powerful and therefore give us, God’s very creation and likeness, whatever we want. We don’t get why Job, a good man, had it so bad. He lost all his crops, his children all died, he developed a horrible skin disease, his wife told him to curse God and die and then seems to have left him alone, scratching his sores with shards of broken pots. We, like Job’s friends enter this scene with the question of why. Why would God allow this to happen to a good man? Why do bad things happen to good people?!
And we want answers.
But, it doesn’t work that way does it?
This is what Biblical scholars call a mechanistic worldview. If you sin you get retribution, also known as bad karma or bad luck. But if you are good, and you keep the 10 commandments and you don’t trick people, well then you get good things, good luck and, well, “10s and 20s.”
In last week’s part of Job’s story, Job was dignified and refused to speak ill of the God who seemed to have allowed his many losses. But this week we find him winning and complaining and asking that inevitable question, “Why me?”
Still, unlike his friends, Job is confident of his righteousness. Job remedies this cognitive dissonance by challenging the justice of God. Because God is not following the dictates of a mechanistic worldview, God must be held accountable. Job envisions placing God on trial in hopes of being vindicated.
I visited a non-Episcopalian in a hospital this week who, bedridden, was spending all his time watching the hurricane on CNN. He asked me to verify a scripture for him about the wrath of God through such natural disasters. To tell you truth, I didn’t recognize the passage and I don’t agree. God does not send hurricanes to punish non-believers. But I failed to convince my new friend.
The most likely place you will find dramatic examples of this dilemma of mechanistic theology, is in holocaust movies and books. There is a 2008 movie I recommend called “God On Trial” which takes place in a bunk house of a concentration camp. I also recommend Elie Wiesel’s book, “Night” in which he questions the audacity of God to allow such inhumane and evil things to happen to "God’s chosen people.”
The second theological problem in this morning’s readings is that Jesus has the audacity to tell this rich young man to sell everything he has and give the proceeds to the poor. Throughout the history of middle class Christianity, we have managed this commandment because we don’t know what else to do.
There is an oft quoted statement of President Carter about discipleship. It is something he said, among many, about his faith and he said this particular thing a long time ago. I’m curious about why this has been hitting social media so much this week. But Jimmy Carter is quoted as having once said, “My faith demands that I do whatever I can, wherever I am, whenever I can, for as long as I can with whatever I have to try to make a difference.”
Mr. Carter is actually paraphrasing John Wesley who said, in the 18th century, “Do all the good you can, by all the means you can, in all the ways you can, in all the places you can, at all the times you can, to all the people you can, as long as ever you can.”
These are both great quotes to remember. Because, my friends, that is the basic premise of discipleship. We must give our all, make sacrifices, be willing to give away even all that we have so that we can prioritize following Jesus.
Here are some more thoughts on how we manage our Gospel lesson:
There’s pretty much nothing we can do but manage it. Mark’s is a relentless Gospel, which seems not so much to invite to faith as to prove again and again the impossibility of faith. A few times that pattern is broken -- we will all be really relieved to meet blind Bartimaeus in a few weeks’ time. But today’s pericope is killer. So we have to manage it.
So, here are some time-honored strategies of this management. Get ready. These will sound like a bunch of excuses by the time I’m done!
• 1st. The rich young man didn’t actually keep the law. He actually did not follow the law that required charitable gifting. So that business about giving up his possessions was just a way Jesus was calling his bluff.
• 2nd. Nobody can actually keep the law, hence nobody can give up everything, either; it’s just a rhetorical device to call our bluff, and once we grasp that, well, we’re off the hook.
• 3rd. Giving up everything was a command to this particular rich young man, but only to him. It makes no claim on anyone else, being but an object lesson on acquisitiveness.
• 4th. It was a real command, but it applies only to the rich. All of us can think of someone richer, so by contrast we don’t qualify.
• 5th. Then again, the disciples infer just the opposite: everyone is rich (presumably because even the poor can think of someone poorer). Luckily, Jesus gives us the ultimate divine out: we can’t do it, but God can. Whew. Off to the mall.
Who can argue with Jesus on this one? We know he’s right about the law and about the wealth. It’s the double-bind of our Christian formation: this lesson is so deeply internalized that it’s nearly impossible to hear it for the chasm in our lives of faith that it is.
The rich young man was an attentive, devout, open-hearted keeper of a law that was intended to shield and uphold life, yet still ready to learn more from the Master. So he sought Jesus out and knelt at his faith with utmost respect. If only we were as ready and listened as well as he!
An this guy is the only person in the entire Gospel who is singled out as being loved by Jesus. It’s the only place where it says that “Jesus loved him,” loved one person in that way. And this one dearly, uniquely loved person just walks away, “disheartened” and “sorrowful.” How terribly shocking to discover that, after all, you love your stuff more than you love the Kingdom of God. Mark seems to pause here in his relentless challenge to give a nod toward the tragedy that is the human being.
When I was a teenager the Holy Spirit gave me an incredible gift. I must have been about 14 because I had been confirmed at 13 and this was just after that. I had a notion one Sunday to stop reciting the Creed with my church. I decided to stand out of respect, but to stand silently and ponder the words of the creed. I decided without any advice or without discussing it with another soul, that I should just listen for a while. I decided that I would not say the creed again until I was sure I really did believe all that stuff.
Now, that was in the United Methodist Church and they used the Apostle’s Creed every week at the time, I guess they still do. In that creed we say “I believe” which is a bit different from the Nicene Creed which we, in The Episcopal Church use every Sunday - except for baptisms and sometimes funerals when we use the Apostle’s Creed. The predominant use of the Nicene Creed is precisely that we language. We pray as a community and so we stand and profess our faith as a we.
So, if that had been the case when I was 14 I may have missed the opportunity to personally and spiritually study the creed in this experiential way of asking myself, through the nudge of the Holy Spirit, if I did, in fact, believe the creed.
Do you? Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heave and earth? Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord? The Holy Spirit? The Church? Forgiveness of sins? The resurrection of the body? The life everlasting?
This is what the readings are about this morning. The book of Job is not about “why bad things happen to good people” but rather about belief in God - God almighty. God is God and we are not. If we want to explain away the omnipotence of God, then we have a problem. When we make such excuses, we’re trying to be God, to control God, to figure out and fix God.
Jesus did not tell this young seeker of “eternal life” to give away all his possessions so that the man would suffer or learn his lesson the hard way. Jesus was not punishing him. Jesus was inviting him to a life of following the way of God. And you can’t follow and join in the joy of a life of belief, a life of faith, if you don’t let go of your stuff!
I want to bring this back around, like I like to do in wrapping up my rambling sermons, to Sally Brown, that lovable Peanut’s character. Because, you know what else was great about Sally Brown? Her love for Linus!
Sally’s usually afraid of everything - she’s sort of like little Woodstock in that way always screaming and startling. But in spite of her fear of everything, Sally is hopelessly devoted to Linus Van Pelt. If you remember, she would always follow him around with hearts floating all around her.
(Parenthetically, there’s an opportunity for us locally to love Linus too and make blankets with the Linus Project on October 20th!)
But Sally’s devotion to Linus causes her to forget all her fearful ways and follow around that guy she feels devoted to. If any of us were as devoted as this to Jesus, we would get this whole section of Mark’s Gospel when Jesus gives us example after example of how to become a disciple, how to love God and follow Jesus. We would also get this lesson of letting go of our stuff - at least that stuff that gets in our way. Because, if we were so devoted to Jesus, we wouldn’t care about that old stuff anymore anyway.
It really is that simple.
So go and do likewise.