St. John’s Episcopal Church
207 Albany Avenue, Kingston, NY 12401

Sermons

  • Our Hope: A Life in the Spirit – The Rev. Michelle Meech

    October 10, 2021

    For a few weeks this fall, we get a glimpse at the Book of Job. This happens every 3 years, as the lectionary is a 3-year cycle.  The Book of Job is thought to be one of the oldest scriptures we have.  Scholars generally agree that it dates to 600 years before the birth of Jesus.

    It’s important to note that the beginning of the century in which this scripture was written marked the final defeat of the Kingdom of Judah (the Southern Kingdom after the nation of Israel split into two), when Babylon captured the city of Jerusalem. A generation later – about 40 years – Jerusalem was returned to home rule when the Persian Empire was founded by Cyrus.  The sixth century was, therefore, a time of great chaos for the ancient Israelites.

    So perhaps it’s not surprising that the Book of Job deals directly with the question of theodicy, or why a loving God permits evil to exist. Of course, this question was on the minds of people at that time – a time of political, social, and economic turmoil. If we believe God is good and, this relates to how we view ourselves if we believe we are made in the image of God… if we believe that God is good, then what sense can we make of suffering?

    If we are good, then why do we suffer?  How do we understand evil?  And what does it mean when bad things happen to us?  Is it our fault or someone else’s fault?

    If we can figure out what happened then, perhaps, we can prevent it from happening again and thus, regain God’s favor.  Or someone’s favor.  And how do we deal with all of the emotional content from episodes of suffering?  Trauma. Anxiety. Shame. Resentment. Grief. Depression.

    It’s a knot of questions to untangle.  Given that this question about suffering and evil is really one of the core issues we struggle with as humans, I often wonder why we only read Job every 3 years.

    And in this reading from today, we call Job’s complaint, Job is bitter.  Job is a wealthy person with many comforts and possessions and a large family.  He has “won” at life. He has all the things that we call blessings and he is thankful for them. And you see, Job is also a pious person.  He is devoted to God. So, why would he suffer through the loss of everything he has? His wealth, his family, his health? If he’s devoted to God, won’t God take care of him?

    Now, this is a book of poetry, essentially.  A parable. And it’s meant to help us reflect on the human response to the problem of evil.  Several characters try to help Job make sense of what’s happening… his wife tells him to curse God, his friends tell him that it’s all his fault. But Job maintains his innocence and ends up determining that God is unjust, reflected in today’s passage: “my complaint is bitter… I would find God in his dwelling place and make him listen… I am an upright person and am sure that I can reason with God… but I cannot find her.”

    Now, I don’t know about you… but I’ve been in this place before.  A place of suffering.  And convinced of my own uprightness enough to believe that I have been wronged and that someone else has caused my suffering. Perhaps that was true. And convinced that I could make all the suffering go away if someone just understood things from my perspective. Perhaps I could.  Perhaps they would.

    But here’s the thing… who is right and who is wrong… who is just and who is not… it doesn’t matter. We like to think it does, but it doesn’t.  It’s why we like to find the point of blame, to help us make sense of the suffering. We like to think that if we’re doing the right things, God loves us more than the person who doesn’t do good things. Or, perhaps, if we don’t really think that, we like to believe that God will reward us for being good.

    But, as we know, good things happen to “bad” people and bad things happen to “good” people. The problem of evil and suffering is not so easily explained.

    Now, fast forward 600 years or so and we have same basic question happening in Mark’s Gospel. The rich man isn’t suffering but he is insistent that his efforts should save him.  He says: I have done well.  I have lived by the Jewish law.  I have “won” at life.  So, what must I do to inherit the kingdom of heaven?

    The Eye of the Needle, painting by Bertram Poole. The painting depicts the possibility (from the Medieval period) that the the Eye of the Needle is one of the gates through which people entered into Jerusalem. Contemporary scholars are not convinced of this.

    And the next line is important here because I think it’s easy to leap right into judgment about those who have wealth. But Jesus is not judging the rich man.  The scripture tells us:  “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…”  Jesus’ response comes from love. It doesn’t come from the same place as when he’s talking to the Pharisees.  He’s not angry.  He’s loving and compassionate.  And he sees the problem immediately and he knows the response that’s coming.

    “You lack one thing; go sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.  Then come, follow me.”

    The man walked away in grief. And then he gets into it with the disciples, with us, presumably. “How hard it will be for someone with wealth to enter the kingdom of heaven”… Jesus is seeing that his words are creating some anxiety so he presses the issue.  “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!  It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”

    But… they replied in their astonishment… “Then, who can be saved?” Jesus looks at them and responds: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

    Like Job and like this rich man, we humans often believe, I think, that how well we do in the world, the comforts of our lives, the ease with which we are able to do things, the general lack of suffering we experience… that these are all blessings from God. And that’s exactly the notion that Jesus is trying to challenge here, that wealth and ease of life are blessings from God.

    This is why Jesus is called a savior. Because Jesus is attempting to free us from the world’s grasp on us. To free us all from the oppression created by the accumulation of wealth.  He is teaching us by challenging the notion that wealth = blessing from God.  Because if that’s true, if wealth is about blessing… then it stands to reason that the poor have done something to deserve their suffering. This line of thought, that wealth equals blessing, is how so many, in this country, have come to believe in something called the “prosperty gospel,” which is blasphemy, actually.

    Jesus loved the rich man enough to confront him. But also knew that it would be the hardest thing this man would ever have to do.  To give up the world in order to receive the kingdom of heaven. To lose his life so that he would gain life itself.

    And because we are bound to this world, because we are bound to the life of achieving comfort – not necessarily luxury, but comfort – because we are these finite beings who despair at the notion of our own decline and our own death… Jesus tells us that we cannot create our own salvation. We cannot manufacture or achieve or cultivate our own salvation just as we cannot prevent so much of our own suffering.

    Because there is something else that is so much more precious – a life in the Spirit.  What does this mean?  For God all things are possible. Being devoted to God is about coming to realize the immediacy of God’s presence.  That God is right here, with us, closer than our breath.

    This kind of awareness is what leads us to remember how interconnected we are.  It compels us to realize that the accumulation of wealth is not only unimportant, but it’s a burden that keeps us locked in and defensive, protecting what we have. Living as if we truly believe that God is with us is exactly what enables us to grasp that giving from our abundance is true joy.

    Our hope is not in making sure we have the comforts we think we deserve.  Our hope is not in trying to make sure we remain free from suffering. For comforts can always disappear and suffering is always a part of the human experience.

    Rather our hope is in deepening our faith, in living a life in the Spirit – God’s Spirit. For this can never be taken from us, even in our darkest hour, especially in our darkest hour. The nearness of God, the immediacy of God, the intimacy of God is unquestionable, closer than our very breath. This is our hope because this is the only thing that is real.