A sermon for Nov. 17, 2013, St. Matthew Parish
I had a reflection on the theology of Job at the third hole while I played golf on Friday. You may remember that the book of Job is about trying to explain what appears to be unjust suffering and pain. It is Job’s so-called friends, who presume that the afflictions Job suffers must call for some kind of repentance on his part. He must first seek God’s forgiveness. But Job claims to be innocent, and with an unusual theology, blames God for what has fallen on him.
So it was that my tee short on that par three hole had veered to the right. I had a chip to the front corner of the green, and stroked the ball perfectly, and then there appeared this little one inch stake holding up a rope protecting some ground under repair. My ball struck that stake and careened off into the front sand trap. I was indignant at the injustice of this event. I failed to hit the sand, and that meant my ball when flying over the green. I ended up with a six.
Standing on the next tee I announced to my playing partners—a member of the parish, our music minister, and a former rector of this parish, that I was the recipient of an injustice. Crying to the heavens filled with indignation I hit the best drive of my day, and still felt cheated by that little wooden stake.
Thus I invoked a particular theology that neither Jesus nor St. Paul would ever endorse. It’s that false theology that I want to address, because I believe it’s a ditch many of us use to find some sense of justification and rationality for what it often just the way things are.
There are two seemingly contrary lessons or rather pictures before us today in our readings. We’re coming to the end of Luke’s Gospel for this particular liturgical year, and thus it makes sense that we can’t leave out the somewhat dire “end of the world” meditation of Jesus. He spoke of wars, rumors of wars, temples destroyed, persecutions, false accusations against disciples, and betrayal within families.
It’s the message you might expect from someone walking around with one of those “End of the World” signs.
The first reading from the prophet Isaiah could stands in contrast. It’s an “end of the world” vision, but it’s a re-creation of a new world. It’s marked by joy. No one dies early. All live a full life. Those with vineyards will harvest a crop every year. (Grape growers around the world will deny that this is possible.) Nobody will ever labor in vain. And even the wolf and the lamb will lie down together in peace, though I think we’re still looking for the first lamb who would volunteer to test that proposition.
Now some of you know that on many a morning I get up early and walk to Starbucks in the Palisades. You might think that I spend my time talking to others, and sometimes that happens. There are few members of this parish who actually are up at that hour and frequent Starbucks. But generally people stay away from me. And I understand why.
Yesterday, for example, I started reading this book. One look at its title and the number of people willing to talk to me diminishes greatly. The book is called, “Apocalyptic and the Future of Theology.” A week ago I finished a book called “Apocalyptic Paul.” It was equally effective in keeping people away.
What I really want you to offer you is a way of using the adjective Apocalyptic so you won’t cringe or run away. And maybe if you seen someone reading one of these books, you might actually engage them in conversation. This may seem like a stretch.
It helps to know that the most frequent translation of the word “Apocalypse” —(that’s the noun) and it is a Greek word—is “Revelation.”
So Jesus is talking about the Revelation, the Apocalypse of God, but not as God bringing disaster. Please note that this is so different, so very different, from so many more popularized versions of apocalyptic imagery. This isn’t God causing wars, or temples to crumble, or families to fall apart. This is the world that is in denial that this is God’s world. The Cosmos—another Greek word for all that is in the world—is in the words of one theologian that which is afflicted—broken. Paul said this creation was subject to the bondage of decay. (Rom. 8:21)
Isaiah believed the same, and thus offered another picture. A God made, or God-remade world. What’s important to note in that prophecy is the way the verbs are framed.
I came across a question that the Annie Dillard was once asked. As aspiring writer once asked her, “How can I know if I can be a writer?” Dillard replied, “Do you like sentences?”[i]
So here’s the first sentence of Isaiah’s prophecy: For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.
Who is the subject of the sentence. It’s not Isaiah. He speaks for God. Thus the God of Genesis, the God of the story of Adam and Eve, the Abraham and Sarah, and Moses and Miriam, is going to start over. With a new creation. And then the prophet tells us how it will look.
And they waited. And held onto the vision. And Jesus new that time hadn’t come as well. But he knew that inside that vision was the vision of the Kingdom of God. The kind of rule, the kind of sharing, the kind of caring, that was meant to be for all.
What was meant to be for all! And some have said that the hardest passage in the Bible is the one that says of Jesus, “One man’s act of righteousness leads to rectification —meaning the new creation and restoration of relationship with God— and AND, life for all.” Not some. Not a few good people. Not a few lucky souls. But life for ALL.
But we often live with a different theology. I did as I saw my nicely hit chip shot lunge into that undeserved sand trap. I deserved better I thought.
You know that phrase, “God helps those who help themselves.” The majority of people think it’s in the Bible. It’s not. But there is a kind of make yourself better theology lurking throughout—sometimes its subtle and on occasions is pretty obvious. There are some passages in Deuteronomy, for example, where Moses supposedly declares that we have it in our power to choose blessing or curse. It’s that age-old presumption that someone who is successful in the eyes of the world must have done something right, and thus have the rewards that are signs of that right living.
Here we are on what we call Outreach Sunday. In a few days we have the Christmas Faire which will give away all its proceeds to groups that work with those who haven’t been experiencing success and the fullness of life. Is this simply charity on our part? Is it what sometimes is called “Boot-strap theology?” Here hang onto our boot straps and learn how to really wear boots that make you look good in the world.?
The legacy of autonomy in reference to God haunts us. That our salvation as it were is something like a suitcase. It has a handle on it. And we are to grasp that handle. And carry it with us.
And those that aren’t in evidence of their salvation, or success, or happiness? They haven’t found the handle.
But what if it never had a handle in the first place? I was at the 18th Annual Awards Breakfast last month of the Westside Shelter and Hunger Coalition, to which we belong along with 33 other faith groups, agencies, and organizations which are committed to ending hunger and homelessness. Our speaker this morning at announcement time is Alison Hurst who comes from Safe Place for Youth, one of our partners.
At that breakfast we heard from four in a group of over 25 who were being celebrated for the turn-around in their lives. So much of the hell that they’d been through wasn’t because they were bad to begin with, but, Oh, the beginnings that some of them had, and then the fateful turns and twists of luck or its lack, marked a road that none of them would ever choose again, or wish for any of us.
Anthony wrote: I grew up on Cleveland Ohio and was bullied at school and bullied at home. I was told I would never amount to anything, that I was worthless and I believed it.” Antwann, homeless from 18 until he was36, incarcetated 20 times, due to his mental illness was finally diagnosed and received the medication and treatment that brought him to a whole new day. Every one of their stories was like that.
Their stories called to me—they led me to ask for forgiveness. For all the times that I presupposed that people in those circumstances somehow were deserving of their fate and place in life. God wanted me to see them as God saw me—that I stood in need of God’s grace and forgiveness. I needed to be reminded that forgiveness is the act of seeing possibility, and new life, and a new relationship with one another. That’s what we are about will all those we are called to serve, and how we are see ourselves. Not as deserving of God’s grace and favor, but as the recipients of what God in Christ has done for us. God as agent. We are the recipients of God’s grace and love. God as, we often say in the Eucharistic prayer, as the author of our salvation. We don’t author our own standing with God. It’s all God.
I need to stop thinking that if some tragedy befalls me, even that ball in the sand trap, that I must have done something to deserve this fate. We are to see the world as it is: and it is a world where there is injustice. Where nations rise and nations fall. Where there are earthquakes, famines, plagues, and typhoons that destroy without regard for who is or isn’t worthy. In this world we can be falsely accused for having faith, even betrayed within our own families.
But there is a way to live in this world that speaks of a new creation; that declares the revelation of God, God’s apocalypse, in letting us experience the God who had always been pursuing us. When St. Paul used the Greek word for revelation, the word “apocalypse”, he was telling us that the world had changed in Christ.
One final language lesson. That world of Job and the feeling that you might deserve God’s favor, was an “If—Then” World.[ii] That world was shattered in the Death and Resurrection of Jesus.
It became the “Because-Therefore” World. Because Christ died for all, we gather in the name of the one who authored our Salvation. The one who recreates the world leading us to welcome one another as Christ welcomed us. Forgiven. Blessed. And in this “Because-Therefore” world we aren’t any more special than anyone else. Nonetheless the “Therefore” part has to do with our generosity—a generosity of spirit, to be sure, but a generosity that makes it possible for the various organizations such as we support that meet real human needs. As we respond with kindness and with real gifts in some small measure we are sharing in God’s “Therefore.”