Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost

Sermon for Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost, Sunday, October 18 2015, 10:30 am
Mtr. Maggie Helwig, Church of Saint Stephen-in-the-Fields, Toronto
Job 38:1-41; Ps 104:1-9, 25, 37b; Heb 5:1-10; Mk 10:35-45

The disciples, in this latter part of Mark’s gospel, seem to have gotten themselves stuck in a bit of a loop, and one could hardly blame Jesus if his reponse to the sons of Zebedee had been along the lines of “Excuse me, but have we not had this conversation? The first shall be last and the last first, etcetera? Because I really think that we have had this conversation several times this week.” And it must be said that the response of the other ten is no more edifying—James and John are at least trying to be straightforward, rather after the manner of the autistic daughter of a friend of mine who recently pointed at a shirt of her mother’s and announced, “Alex shirt tomorrow, say yes okay sure!” The other ten are bickering and triangulating and competing for favour in a way just slightly more subtle, and therefore perhaps more damaging.

Of course, we cannot be too hard on the disciples—they are, even if they don’t want to admit it, terrified of what they are walking towards in Jerusalem, by Jesus’s own predictions of his coming death, by their own understandable inability to imagine what this is all for, all the sacrifice and all the suffering. They grasp at internecine competitions and promises of a special future because that is what frightened people do. But Jesus’s answers get less reassuring all the time.

However, before I get to that, I want to look back at our first reading, the beginning of God’s long speech from the whirlwind in the Book of Job. Job is a remarkable book in a number of ways, and this is its entirely unexpected climax. Throughout the book, Job—all his wealth and children lost, his body struck with festering sores, his friends notably unhelpful—has refused to curse God, but has also insisted on the integrity of his own experience. He will not admit to wrongdoings which he has not committed. He demands, over and over, to have words directly with God, to be permitted to argue this situation out with the Almighty. And now, incredibly, he is granted this. God comes down, God speaks out of that whirlwind. What God says is possibly even more remarkable, because it apparently fails to address Job’s situation in any way, and yet it is unforgettable.

It is some of the most beautiful poetry in all of scripture, chapter after chapter—we see only a small part of it here—of God simply revelling in creation, its variety and mystery and strangeness. “Where were you when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? … Where is the way to the dwelling of light? … Has the rain a father? … Can you bind the chains of the Pleaiades? … Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?” We will go on from this to passionate, loving descriptions of the bravery of the horse—who saith among the trumpets, Ha ha—of the hilarious foolishness of the ostrich, and most of all two long passages of vivid description of the legendary monsters Behemoth and Leviathan, awesome, bizarre, wonderful simply for being, their eyes like the eyelids of the morning.

I suppose, on some obvious level, this is simply a way of telling Job that if he doesn’t know how to make a whale, he should keep his mouth shut. And yet it is also far more than that. Not just everyone gets a personal poetry reading from God in response to their complaints. And it the beauty of all this that is the point. Job does not receive, in any straightforward sense, an answer; because an answer would shut the question down. The mystery of suffering is not something which has tidy answers; in the face of the death of Job’s children, any tidy answers would be offensive.

Instead, Job is brought into the very heart of God’s own delight in this wild, untameable, amazing reality, the reality which holds morning stars and rain and monsters and death and all the creatures who will not bide our will. Look, says God. Look! It is the world! It is lovely and terrible, horrifying and exquisite, it is more than you can ever comprehend. It will take your breath away. It will break your heart. It is THIS, it is WHAT IS, and you are a part of it, and yes, it hurts, and there are no answers, there will never be answers you can grasp, there is only wonder. Look at it. Just look.

It is not what you could call a solution. Indeed, it is so unsatisfactory on that front that the writer, or a later editor, felt compelled to add an ending in which God tells Job’s friends that they all have to give him money, and then wraps it all up, as we’ll hear next week, with new livestock and new children. But that’s the part of Job’s story which doesn’t stick in the memory. It’s a happy ending by the rules of the game—but God’s game-breaking speech from the whirldwind is what remains in our minds.

And it is, perhaps, not absolutely different from the answer Jesus gives to James and John. The obvious meaning of the cup which he is to drink, the baptism with which he is to be baptized, is his death, the crucifixion towards which he is travelling; and the analogy works well enough for James, who was himself, according to the stories, martyred in Jerusalem. But John—again, at least according to the stories handed down to us—died a natural death at a very advanced age. He did not, in the strict sense, drink the cup of martyrdom. And most of us won’t either. Though we must be always remaking ourselves into people who can, if that moment comes, die for the sake of others, it is not a choice which most of us will actually, in practice, face.

But all of us will be broken by the world. We will all know loss and death and grief. We will know sickness and despair and the fear that hollows the blood, we will lie awake at night staring into the darkness. We will see our hopes fail, we will see love betrayed or simply absent. We will look at the pain of those around us and know we cannot make it better. We will know these things because the only alternative is not to live at all.

And to believe that Jesus was fully human, was in fact the one fully human person, the image of what a human person is created to be, is to believe that he knew all of this, and knew it even more entirely than we can imagine. That this too was part of the baptism with which he was baptized, the cup he drank. And if we are to strive to become more him, to live into his image and into the image of God, it means becoming ever more vulnerable to the world’s pain, even as we become ever more open to the astonishing strangeness and beauty of creation. We may not be martyred as James was, as Oscar Romero was, but we are, at least we may be, crucified and risen with Christ every day, on the streets, in the rain, fishing for Leviathan in the small boats of our lives.

Job’s response, the story tells us, was to repent in dust and ashes; and yet, it does not seem that he is repenting, or being made to apologize, for his insistence on talking it out with God—it is his friends who are explicitly told that they were wrong in trying to make him give that up, and that they need Job to pray for them. Repentance—which, as I’ve noted before, really means “change of mind”—is in this case more like a realization of profound humility, a realization of our smallness in this vast world, the limits of our understanding. But that’s only a first step. Where Jesus takes it is somewhere beyond that; we must enter that profound humility, that submission to the given world, but we must also turn it, as we can, into active caring. Service. Diakonia.

Some of you know this is one of my favourite words, some of you have heard me go on about it before; because that’s the word Jesus uses here, when he talks about his mission. The Son of Man has come to diakonein, to serve as the women and the slaves in his society do, to do the works for which others think themselves too important. So we must take this astonishing given world and find our small place in it, pray for friends who say the wrong thing at a crucial time, wash someone’s feet, make someone a meal, speak up for creation, for the threatened ice caps and the rain and the clouds. Stop trying to master all this strange wonder, to pin it down in mind or action, to bind the Pleiades, to be in charge, to get the good seats in heaven. Just walk, foolish and grieving, into that part of the world that is before us, and try to do what is at hand to be done; and the rain, in its way, will love you back, because it is, and because you, and because we are all, indiscriminately, unavoidably, always seated the hand of God.