October 18, 2015 Job 38: 1-7, 34-41; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-41 (Proper 24B)
Good morning. A rich set of readings from Scripture this morning with some deeper thematic threads that seem to weave together. God’s magnificent address to Job, out of the whirlwind. The great hymn about the eternal priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews. The conversation in Mark 10 between Jesus and his disciples about which of them is going to get into the most important stained glass windows as they turn toward Jerusalem and as the outline of the Cross begins to be seen on the distant horizon. If I were going to reduce the topic of the day to one word it would be, I guess, “humility.”
A word that is central again and again to descriptions of Jesus and of the desired character and behavior of the follows and friends of Jesus. The word “humility” always for me recalls that pivotal moment in John’s gospel when John the Baptist, who is at the very height of his popularity and influence, surrounded by vast crowds of dedicated followers and admirers, sees that the expected one, Jesus, is now on the scene. “I must decrease,” John says, “so that he may increase.” Stepping back to make room for what God is doing. To say, “It’s not about me.” Whether it’s Job before God in the midst of his calamities and suffering. Whether it’s the disciples of Jesus hearing yet again that the path to the spiritual exaltation of the kingdom is one that goes in a downward direction rather than an upward one. Whether it’s the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in this great insight into the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross. In the wide world the path to success is all about singing “look at me—see how great I am!” But Jesus says to his friends, “not so for you.” And since we live in the world and are also friends of Jesus, the tension stretches across the boundaries of our lives day by day. Humility.
In that context I’d like to begin and then to end this morning with two stories that are for me both associated with my mother-in-law: Fran Johnson, Susy’s mom. A woman of great Christian character, intelligence, and spiritual insight and substance. A bright sense of humor. Real “wisdom” in exactly the way that word is used in the Bible. Grace and also I would say truly, humility. It’s been a number of years now since her death, but so very frequently I’ll hear in my memory an echo of a word she said—or sometimes just a smile, or a penetrating look.
In any case, there was this time, many years ago, when I was as I recall making some off-hand comment, somewhat critical of something that was happening in my Field Education parish, St. Anselm’s in Lafayette, California. I have actually no memory at all of what the issue was. Something the idiotic rector had done that I could have done a million times better, I’m sure. But in any case what I do remember was Fran kind of brightly saying, “You know what they say! If you ever find a perfect church, don’t go there. You’ll only spoil it.” I’ve heard other people give different versions of that saying over the years, but that was the first time I’d heard it, and I’m sure it will always be in my thoughts with her voice and intonation.
I would say, to begin, that I’m pretty sure—pretty sure (she was my mother-in-law, after all!)—that Fran wasn’t thinking about me personally when she said this. The point wasn’t that “I” would spoil things. At least I hope not! But it was to be a quick short-cut reminder that perfection is an illusion. That things may “look” perfect, from a certain distance, but that whenever you get close enough to be able to see them with greater clarity, the illusion of perfection is quickly dispelled. Especially when people are involved. And churches turn out most of the time anyway to have people in them. The thing about people is that they are, that we are all of us, inevitably problematic. A friend of ours in Auburn, California, used to have a little plaque on the desk in her study that said, “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.” Always a good reminder. We may sometimes tend to think that we are God’s gift to humanity. But God has offered only the one gift, and we aren’t him. Hard as that sometimes is to believe.
Of course, a lot of people become pretty skilled in pulling themselves together at least on the outside. Putting up a “good front.” But no matter how cool, calm, collected they may appear, just scratch the surface. We looked at Job last Sunday morning as he sat on the ash heap picking at his sores and mourning the loss of the people and the life that he had loved. Fifteen minutes before that moment and he was at the top of the world! To be reminded that that’s all of us. It doesn’t always happen in one sudden cataclysm, as it did for Job. But sooner or later everything that happened to Job happens to every one of us. As the echo of the Funeral Sentences in the Burial Office: We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. So with churches, Fran was saying. If you see one that looks like everything is all smooth sailing, don’t look too closely. If you do, storm clouds and rough seas will reveal themselves before you know it. So with any of our lives, of course. Our families, our work, our relationships.
So what I think Fran was telling me—or at least what I’ve drawn from the memory of her little joke over the past 30+ years—is that it’s with this real broken and messed-up world, with these real broken and messed-up people, that Jesus chooses to live. That it is this real broken and messed-up church that he has come to redeem and bless and save. And if it’s good enough for him, it can be good enough for us too. “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” A bunch of messed-up people. Which is to say, a bunch of people . . . .
So Mark 10, and even after all they’ve been through the disciples are still struggling with this. Just a few steps earlier in the journey Jesus took young children up in his arms to say, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Kids with strawberry jelly smeared over their t-shirts. With dirty diapers. What sometimes is called the “great reversal,” especially emphasized in St. Mark’s gospel: “the last shall be first, and the first last.” So much of what the world values most, and a set of priorities that gets turned upside-down. Just a few steps earlier in the journey Jesus had told the rich young man who wanted to know about his relationship to God, “you lack one thing.” And the way to obtain that one thing that he lacks turns out to be not to get something more, but to let things go. “Sell what you have, give it all away, and then come follow me.”
That the renewal of our relationship with God, our restoration –flowing not from our strength, but from our weakness. Which is not the way it usually works in the world we live in! That word from God to Job out of the whirlwind, like the song from the Prophet Isaiah. My ways are not your ways, saith the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.” What St. Paul talks about when he talks about what he calls the “thorn” in his flesh, this debilitating condition—praying that God would heal him, so that he could grow in his ministry in strength and power. God says, Paul, “my strength is made perfect in your weakness.” Second Corinthians 12. One of the most important passages in all of St. Paul—who then goes on to say to the Corinthians, “you go ahead and boast about your strength, your success, your accomplishments. I will boast of my weakness. Because it is in that weakness, that brokenness, that I am nearest to Jesus and his death on the Cross. And because being near him, being near Jesus, is the only kind of success that I’m really interested in.
So the second story that I associate with my mother-in-law. Harald and Fran had come down from their home in Scituate, Massachusetts, to visit us when I was Curate of St. Andrew’s in State College—so this must have been maybe 1986 or 1987, I’m guessing. In any event, it was in the press of things at the end, after the postlude, as the rector—my old friend and mentor the late Jim Trost—and I were shaking hands with folks at the back of the center aisle. Harald and Fran came down, probably with Susy and maybe with the kids, I don’t really remember. I introduced them to him, and Fran said very nicely, “it’s wonderful to meet you. You have a beautiful church.” And Jim smiled, looked up and around for a moment, laughed, and said “Yes, they are.” Yes they are. Fran told that story numerous times over the years. It really impressed her and delighted her, I think. Jim had been rector of that parish for almost 25 years at that point, and he knew most all of the stories, the hard battles. The stylish young couple whose first child had died shortly after birth, and whose marriage at that point was hanging by a thread. The composed, well-dressed older woman in the back pew who was three weeks back from her second stay at rehab. The businessman in the power suit whose oldest son had just flunked out of college and come home suffering from deep depression. He knew all the stories, Jim did. “You have a beautiful church.” “Yes, they are.”
What we would say to each other. As we’re on our way to communion this morning. We can send the message telepathically. Just think it in a concentrated way. Or maybe we can even say it in a quiet voice over a cup of coffee. An encouraging hand on a shoulder. Welcome to the church. If you’re broken somewhere. Sometimes it’s on the surface and shows up right away. Sometimes we seem to travel in deep disguise. It’s exactly the opposite of “I’m o.k., You’re O.K.,” the title of the best-selling book back in the 1960’s. It’s, “I’m not o.k. You’re not O.K.” And the hard process that we all need to be about together of getting to be o.k. with that. The work of the Church.
In any event, in absolutely the most important ways it’s not about stained glass windows and the majestic architecture of high-lifted ceilings and vaulted arches, impressive programs, popular activities. We do know that for sure. His eyes aren’t on the architecture. A good thing for us to remind ourselves of. “A beautiful church you have here, Jesus.” “Yes, they are.” That’s what he says this morning, looking at us. “Yes, they are!” Because that’s what Jesus is all about, as we hear the story in the tenth chapter of Mark—to take the beauty of his broken church, which is this broken church, you and me, and to sweep it up into his embrace as he was raised up in pain and sorrow and brokenness on the cross. A church so beautiful that he would die for it.