Proper 23 Year B
We have to begin by taking a moment to savor these heart-rending words from the book of Job, and from the 22nd Psalm. I wonder if there are any among us who can hear these wrenching words of suffering and complaint to God and not be moved to pity: “My complaint is bitter,” Job says; “God’s hand is heavy despite my groaning…” In this reading Job is giving voice to his deep feeling of abandonment by God: “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides… I turn to the right, but cannot behold him…”
I wonder if any of us can relate to that feeling of being abandoned by God.
That theme, of course, is repeated in Psalm 22, the famous psalm quoted by Jesus as he hung on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? And are so far from my cry, and from the words of my distress?”
Who among us hasn’t felt that sense of abandonment at some point in our lives? I know I have.
You know, I think there are basically two kinds of religion in this world. There are the religions who almost never let Job get a word in edgewise. For those religions, our suffering is always only temporary, and almost always our fault. If we only had a little more faith; if we only gave God a little more credit; if we only gave the church a little more money – then God would swoop in there and fix our problems and rescue us from our sense of abandonment.
And then there are the religions – and these are the more rare religions – that let Job speak his peace. These are the religions that acknowledge the reality of suffering and don’t try to blame the victim for that suffering. These are the religions that respect the fact that sometimes life is very very hard; and that there aren’t always magical answers to our problems; that sometimes when we get sick, we stay sick, and then we get sicker, and then after a long and heroic battle, we die; and that death is not a sign of failure but rather the way in which nature replenishes itself; these are the religions that understand suffering as an invitation to come to terms with our mortality and our limits. We don’t feel a need, as Job’s friends did, to shut Job up. Rather, we feel the need to draw closer to Job; and hold him up when he feels faint; and rub his tired muscles when he is sore; and wash his feet when he comes in from the road. We see our suffering as something that draws us together, rather than splits us apart; and as we care for one another in our suffering, we discover the healing power of God, holding us close, deepening our love, expanding our hearts.
I’d like to think this church is that kind of religion. We live in prayer; we pray for miracles, and we see them every day; but we don’t need miracles to know that God exists. Instead, we only need one another.
A few weeks ago, during the sermon time, we handed around sheets of paper and asked each of you to tell us about your suffering: what is the biggest real-world challenge facing you? What keeps you up at night? What do you worry about during the day? And we asked, how are those challenges a spiritual challenge to you, and what can we as a community do to support you as you wrestle with that challenge.
Over the course of those 3 services that Sunday, we collected 130 slips of paper. As soon as I got into the office that week, I read through all of them, in prayer; and it was a very moving experience. I want to thank each of you for the honesty and sincerity of your replies.
It probably won’t surprise you to learn that a lot of us are worried about our health. But what I noticed was that most of us are more worried about someone else’s health than we are about our own. We worry about our spouse or partner, or a parent, or a child. Which just goes to show – sometimes our suffering is harder on the ones we love than it is on us.
We also found that many of us are burdened by concerns about our closest relationships: our marriages are under strain, we have difficulties with our children, we live with broken relationships that cry out for forgiveness and reconciliation. And a number of us struggle with loneliness; the grief of losing a spouse or a partner; trouble making friends and connections.
But by far the number one concern – the issue that came up more than any other issue – was, guess what? Money. Financial concerns. It was truly an eye opener for me to see just how many of us are worried about money. This recession has kicked our butts. Many of us have lost a lot of our retirement savings; some of us are facing foreclosure or have gone through bankruptcy; and just about all of us are feeling a major challenge feeling financially secure and stable in this world.
The Spiritual Formation committee is going to be going over these results more systematically but one thing I think is obvious – many of us could use some support around money.
I remember once I was leading a Bible Study back in Boston; we were looking at some of Jesus’ parables about money and I asked the group if anyone there had a concern about money. And this fairly wealthy businessman said, Yeah, I’ve got a problem with money – my problem is I don’t have enough of it.
A number of other folks nodded their heads at this; someone even wondered why, while Jesus was out there multiplying the loaves and fishes, he couldn’t have also multiplied the stocks and the bonds.
But then we got into it on a deeper level, of course, and we began to admit that the problem really had to do with our relationship with money. Now, this isn’t to minimize or diminish the fact that many of us are dealing with very serious financial problems. Many of us in this parish are deeply in debt, or genuinely poor. But even so, we also have to recognize that just about every person in this room is better off than most of the people on the planet. Most of us have seen enough of the rest of the world to know that, as poor as we feel, we have so much more than most people on earth. Many of us have visited third-world countries; we’ve been absolutely amazed at the generosity of the poor people we’ve met there. And yet we’re the ones worrying about money far more than they are.
This, of course, is one of the first signs of wealth: as a general rule, the more money we have, the more we worry about money. The more we possess, the more our possessions possess us.
Nothing new there.
So what’s the solution?
I used to think that my own anxiety around money had to do with simply wanting the basics. All I want, I used to think, is to know that I’ve got a roof over my head; if I just didn’t have to worry about losing my house, I’d be fine; and if I could just be assured that I had 3 meals a day; and decent health insurance; and, I don’t know, a cell phone that worked; and a wi-fi signal for my computer; and a car that didn’t break down. That was it. Then I’d be happy. Oh, and maybe a pension plan. And dental insurance. That would be great. And a bicycle. Was that so much to ask, to have a bike to ride around on? And maybe, you know, a little bit at the end of the week to maybe take in a movie and a pizza. That would be it. Then I’d be happy.
And so it goes, right? And every time we get a little bit more money, there’s just one or two more things that seem perfectly reasonable to us that would make us feel content.
And so it goes; we’ve stepped onto the treadmill, chasing after the illusion of security and happiness by means of material possessions. And it never ends. Until one day we’re shelling out for the pool boy and the gardener and the nanny and the butler and the second vacation home in Provence and complaining about taxes and the price of caviar and never, ever feeling secure.
This is the problem with the rich young man in our gospel reading. The young man has come to Jesus in his best velvet robe. Pinned to his cap is a jewel the size of an egg, gleaming in the sun. But his eyes are troubled.
"What must I do to inherit eternal life?" he asks. He’s looking for eternal happiness; for the kind of bliss and security that never fades away.
Jesus looks into the young man’s soft face. He sees a good man; he’s not evil or wretched or greedy – he’s like us – except richer. He follows the law, he loves God and his neighbor. Isn't that enough? Shouldn't that be enough? What else could possibly be required?
But Jesus sees the deeper problem; and lays down the ultimate challenge: "Sell everything you have, give the money to the poor, and come, follow me."
Jesus uses extreme examples in order to drive home his point and emphasize his seriousness. It’s not that Jesus thinks poverty is such a swell deal everyone should try it. It’s not that Jesus wants us all to experience the joy of sleeping on sidewalks and begging for food – Jesus doesn’t want that for us any more than he wants us to pluck out our eyes if they cause us to sin.
No, Jesus uses extreme teaching examples like that to get our attention. But he does want us to understand this very important point: to the degree that our possessions possess us, we are hiding from God. To the degree that we continue to think that our happiness and our security depends on having more stuff, we are lost to God.
And the cure for that is to move in the opposite direction. Practice giving stuff away. Practice generosity. Try being ridiculously generous and see how it feels. Get rid of all those things in your life that you thought at one time you needed, only to find their glitter fade and their appeal diminish the moment you possess them.
Step off the treadmill, Jesus says. Discover the joy of giving; give, and experience the freedom that comes from not being owned by your possessions. Live simply, and discover the joy of the earth’s abundance, the true security that comes from living in balance with God and with nature. Do more of that – and the path to salvation will stretch out before you like a gleaming highway shining in the sun.
As I said at the beginning of this sermon, we all wrestle with feelings that God has abandoned us. But what Jesus is asking us to consider is how we abandon God – by creating idols of gold; worshiping the golden calf of our own desires and insecurities. Practice generosity – and see if maybe the joy that comes from that doesn’t draw us closer to the heart of God. My prayer is that we will all open our hearts ever more to this invitation from Jesus – and in the process we will know eternal life.