Communing in Troubling Times

Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.”  Mark 10

Download K Karpen Sermon10-7-2012 podcast or click to listen.

I am a great admirer of the Common Lectionary, that three year cycle of prescribed Biblical readings handed down from some mysterious ecumenical committee somewhere.  Before the lectionary became a popular tool in Protestant churches, preachers would often preach about the same dozen favorite texts, ignoring the rest of the Biblical witness.

I had a pastor growing up, a wonderful man, a caring pastor, who would preach the same sermon week after week after week.  I know people say that.  But in this case it was really true.  It became a Sunday dinner parlor game to come up with any slight, original deviation that had occurred in the sermon that day.

Once the lectionary began to catch on, that minister would still preach the same sermon, but it would be linked to different Biblical texts!  And the congregation loved it!

Of course, there was a bit of resistance to adopting the lectionary.  I remember one of my first Sundays here, Rev. George was expounding about it and he said, I don’t think the holy spirit can be governed by year B of the Revised Common Lectionary,” And from the back of the sanctuary came a voice, We’re in year C.”

Only at St. Paul and St. Andrew.

The Bible is big, and it’s rich.  Someone once said to me, The Bible, I read that.  It’s a strange book.”  But it’s not a book.  You can’t think of it as a book.  It’s a library.

And there’s all kinds of stuff in that library, the good, the scary, the confusing and the indifferent.  Imagine a library of 66 books all on the same subject, all by the same ‘author’, written down over nearly a millennium.  And if you can say that the books of the Bible are at least inspired by the same author, you can also say that that author is at the same time the subject of each book.  And yet every book, every chapter of every book, is somehow different. And for better or worse, the lectionary forces us to sample all those differences.

And so, we come to today’s readings.  Look what we get: One kind of arrogant psalm boasting of the psalm-writer’s faithfulness, but with the great line, Your amazing love is all I can ever see.”  Add to that a snippet from the book of Job, that folktale on steroids, that fable turned into an amazing theological dissertation, exploring the question of theodity: why do bad things happen to good, faithful people.  A snippet that contains the memorable line now part of our popular culture, The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Add to that a Gospel reading containing an uncharacteristically stern pronouncement of Jesus on the ever-popular subject of divorce.

Pity the preacher! Called to make sense of all that.

If ever was a week to stray from the lectionary…  During dinner at a wedding last night we sat with another United Methodist minister who said, ‘Well, readings like this week’s are just a reminder that some parts of the Bible are better off ignored.”

But, for better or worse, we’ll look at this week’s readings and see what sense we can make of them.  Because there is a common theme. There really is.  And the theme is faithfulness.  Our faithfulness to God, and God’s faithfulness to us.  A reminder that you and I are not called to be successful; we’re called only to be faithful.

Let’s look at Job.  I love that book.  It’s almost like a cartoon in the beginning.  You have God and Satan hanging out in heaven, chatting away as if they did that every day.  And God says to the Satan, Look at my man Job, did you ever see anybody like him.  He loves me.  And Satan says Yeah!  Look what you gave him.  The guy’s rich. He’s comfortable.  He’s got everything.  But take it away from him and see how much he loves you!”

So God says, Go for it!  Actually, to be fair, God says, Go for it, just don’t do anything physical to him.  But it’s a stipulation God later removes, and Job is left with nothing, no cows, no sheep, no family, no job, pardon the pun, and covered with tremendous sores.  All to see if the Satan can get him to be unfaithful to God.  And Job’s faithfulness never wavers.

Let’s look at Mark.  Here we have words from Jesus about divorce that seem strangely intolerant, maybe even naïve, to our modern ears.  It will be a puzzle to me to the grave why people who consider themselves fundamentalists and Biblical literalists, have latched onto homosexuality, a subject about which Jesus said zero, rather than divorce, where he’s quite firm and explicit.

But the through story with Jesus, and the through story with the Gospels, is that Jesus is always sticking up for the under-appreciated, under-represented, the marginalized, the vulnerable.  In the first century, women could find themselves divorced from their husbands and suddenly in devastating poverty, with no rights to property or anything else.  And their children could wind up the same way.

That is probably why Mark follows these sayings on divorce with the scene with the children.  Children who are the model for the participation in God’s kingdom, in God’s reality.

Why is that?

I’m going to resist idealizing children, since I have two of my own.

But the thing about children is that they count completely on the faithfulness of their parents, and when that faithfulness falls apart, their world falls apart.

I am still paying for a clock miscalculation that caused me to be five minutes late to pick Harry up from school.  I’ll go to my grave hearing that yeah, you’re ok, Papa, but remember that time you forgot to pick me up?

The Bible’s wrong: The sins of the fathers aren’t visited upon the sons, they’re cherished by the sons.

But what children really know and understand, cling to and depend on is our faithfulness to them.  I’m not speaking to those of you who are parents, only.  Children know and remember, even if they couldn’t or wouldn’t articulate it, the way the adults in their lives come through for them.  That kind of faithfulness, according to scripture, is nothing short of God-like.

In that way, the children in our lives can teach us to rely that same way upon our God.

A God who, despite the folktale of Job, does not play games with us.  Who is not above us in our suffering, but beside us.  Who is not distant from us in our sorrow, but becomes one with us to take in and take on that sorrow.

That’s God.  That’s God for you.

A God who is there for us and here with us.

I had a friend once, a member of this church, Sylvia Shepherd.  Sylvia was a faithful lady.  She was one of those people who, despite an edgy sense of humor, never said anything bad about anyone when she could help it.  Sylvia was one of those people who seemed like she breathed in the spirit and breathed out praise.

Sylvia had gone through death, divorce, disease.  Her life was ripped apart by the agony of losing two children to untimely death, one quickly, one a long, slow death by alcohol.  And one day she said to me, I know God never gives us more than we can handle.”

And I said, Sylvia, I don’t like that; it’s not right, it’s not fair, it’s not good; and I’m having a word with God about all that.”  And Sylvia, who knew God better than I did, she smiled at me, as though to say, Well you do that, but God and I have already been through all that, and it’s ok.”

Like Job, she lived faithful; faithful was who she was and faithful was how she lived.

I want to live like that.  I want to be like that.

I want every breath I take to wash through me like the spirit of God.

I want every breath I breath out to be a whisper of a prayer of praise.

I would love to wake up and say, Your amazing love is all I can ever see.”

I would love it if I could get to the point where I always recognize the source of everything I see, and everything I have, and everyone I know.  And to know that not having what I want when I want it, not being what I want to be when I want to be it, is also a gift.

I would love to strive to be not successful, but faithful.

I would love it if I could say at the end of each day,

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord.