Saturday, October 23, 2021

Job 38 for Trinity 20 at Coventry Cathedral


Let me take you on a short journey in time.

It’s millennium year and I’m curved around my cello, part of an orchestra drawn together for a community production of Noye’s Fludde, with my children all having solo roles. It has been a wonderful week but we’ve reached the last night, and the final chorus

We sang it as our opening hymn

The spacious firmament on high, with all the blue ethereal sky and spangled heavens, a shining frame, their great Original proclaim

The words present that popular idea of the music of the spheres as if the whole galaxy is an orchestra, and I exchange glances and smiles with our conductor as I reflect “as above, so below”

If you’ve spent much of your time researching 17th century literature, that kind of thing is bound to happen...but for that moment as the music swells around me, it almost seems true. Everything makes sense. Divine order holds the universe in being. I have my place in the orchestra of creation, just as I do in the Britten performance. It all makes sense.

Except, of course, that life rarely presents itself in harmonious order and while we all indeed have our place – our vocation – a song that only we can sing, it’s often very hard to see the overarching patterns around us.

It has been a problem since the dawn of time.

Enter Job, who has had a long long wait for God to answer his appeal to make sense of things.

The famously upright man who had rejoiced in all the gifts that he’d seen as a reward for his virtuous life has found himself, overnight, blighted by the full weight of what seemed to be divine disfavour. (It’s small consolation for us, as the readers, to know that the whole thing is part of a divine experiment, dreamed up by Satan to determine whether faith in God can survive random experiment that God consents to. What, we may ask in outrage, is THAT all about?)

Job maintains a dogged stoicism – The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord – until the end of chapter 2 – but things keep on happening and it is altogether too much to bear so he begins to answer back.

He looks around him and sees injustice and suffering wherever he looks.

He is angry with God – no, furious!

Having listened to the apologetics offered by his three friends, the men known as “Job’s Comforters”, he is anything but comforted.

Let that be a lesson to any of us who find ourselves sitting beside those who are suffering.

There is no point in offering pious platitudes, in a desperate effort to make the unbearable somehow bearable. We can NOT claim that everything happens for a reason – or that God never gives anyone more than they are able to bear. The facts quite simply do not bear that out.

Last Sunday as we gathered for our annual Baby Loss service, what mattered was not to try and find tidy answers but to be real about the pain and sadness each family was carrying.

They didn’t need sticking plasters – which would never cover the gaping wounds of their loss.

Rather, they needed an assurance that they do not travel alone.

That’s probably true for everyone whom we encounter, who are staggering under a burden of grief.

We CANT fix it and we are unlikely to make things better by resorting to easy words.

Pain is pain and while it can be hard to watch with those who suffer, that’s

pretty much the best we can hope to offer. The ministry of human presence a reminder that God never leaves us alone in the dark, whether we feel God or not.

Back to Job. His friends haven’t helped at all, and the poor man is convinced that everything he had believed about God’s righteousness was based on error, that God is simply capricious …It’s centuries before Shakespeare has King Lear proclaim

As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport – but that’s very much where Job is heading. He begs for answers, rails against God, laments that there is NO order, that nothing makes sense any more and God – well, God is silent

That’s possibly a situation that feels quite familiar to you…especially if you are bruised and battered by the loss and loneliness that have besieged many during covid-tide. We have, individually and collectively, faced so much that feels unfair, as we have grieved for loved ones sick and dying alone, have wondered what price humanity in a society that, in establishing priorities in a uniquely challenging landscape, seems to have placed economic survival above human suffering.

Much theology is already emerging from the experience of the pandemic, and I’m sure there will be more….because we so badly need to find meaning for our pain. Just like Job.

Despite what some parts of the Christian world might assert, there’s no guarantee that loving God and seeking to serve him will result in a charmed life and often in the immediacy of pain and loss it can be hard to feel the reality of God’s love. This is the absolute opposite of what the disciples hope for when they ask Jesus if they can be his right hand men. They imagine that closeness to their Lord will lead them to vicarious glory – while God has something very different in mind, in the upside down economy of the Kingdom where those aspiring to greatness must become servants and God’s empty Godself of all power except the power of love.

We aren’t wired for that

We find it hard.

We prefer a different world view, in which virtue is rewarded and God’s plan is clear for all to see, written across creation.

And, as God answers Job, it seems that this is what God expects us to do.

To look up, look around, and SEE.

The Jesuit writer Gerard Hughes writes early in his book “God, where are you”

We can only meet God as the God who is immanent. It is through our encounter with God, immanent in all things, that we catch a glimpse of God who is transcendant”

In other words, creation is a series of sign-posts toward the God who is both present in and far beyond everything that God has made.

The God who speaks to Job from the whirlwind

I love that.

While Elijah in his cave discovered that God was NOT in the whirlwind but in the still small voice of calm, Job is buffeted about by his own experience of grief and loss. His life, his emotions, are one big whirlwind – but God’s voice is louder still…

And, in the end, he advocates for Job...and against those friends who had sought to diminish the enormity of the situation by tidy, religious answers. Instead, taking me back to the music of Noye’s Fludde, God offers what amounts to a poem reflecting the unanswerable beauty of God’s creation.

Life, God suggests, is not a puzzle to be solved but a mystery to be recognised and entered into.

This is a mystery. It is not explained or defended; God merely asserts it. The world, full of beauty and creativity and danger, was not made merely for human consumption.

The story is bigger than us, and none of us are the main characters (see Job 38:12-39:30). God does not so much answer Job’s questions as re-frame them and offer Job a new way to see the world in which his grief and his experiences are not the end or the entirety of the story.

Of course, the divine speeches do not answer Job’s questions—nor ours, I imagine. But they give us a glimpse of the deepest and richest of all of God’s storehouses of knowledge. Lest we imagine that the divine speeches exist to stop us from asking any more questions, God seems intent on engaging Job in an actual dialogue, and draws him back to the conversation again and again.

There’s absolutely NO problem from God’s perspective our ranting at sharing our confusion, our pain, our grief.

Being real, as Job was real, is a keystone of our relationships with one another and with God, so please, I beg you, keep God and to each other about order, justice, and the structure of creation itself. And keep on looking around you.

Th ere’s so much to marvel at, so many traces of God’s beauty in the beauty around us, even in the rhythms of loss and decay and death. All things in their season.

To end, here’s Gerard Hughes again

Now I know that you are always greater than anything I can think or imagine...I am glad that I cannot locate you, define you, describe you.

Now I can thank you for the mystery of my being

You are the God of every situation. God in our darkness drawing us to light. God who is for us, even when we are against ourselves…

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The Camel and the Needle - Address for Welcome to Sunday 10th October 2021

Have you ever been so anxious to hear the answer to a question that you’ve actually run to discover it?
Maybe when you were a child…when you wanted to know if it was OK to go to a friend’s house for tea, or whether the post had arrived on your birthday?
Maybe later, anxious for news of exam results, or an absent loved one expected home?
But now…
Now, I wonder what question might so excite you that you RAN to get the answer…Is there anything that you would want to know so badly that you would fling yourself at the feet of the one who might just be able to tell you?

Actually, if I had just one question to ask God, then the one that the rich young ruler poses might well qualify
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?”
That surely is THE question…the one to set us tossing and turning at night…the one to force us from our beds….the one that really REALLY must be answered for each one of us.
Isn’t that what we’re for? To work out our eternal destiny?
What must we do?
His question, - our question.

But if that is the question, then I have bad news for all of us.
Though there is an answer…we probably won’t like it.

It’s one of those times when the gospel seems like anything BUT good news.
Listen to this.
Go, sell what you have and give the money to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven…
Oh. My. Life!
Over the years I’ve tried so hard to make a comfortable home wherever I’ve landed…a home defined by the presence of people and things that matter to me.
Keepsakes from friends and family.
Pictures and objects I’ve chosen with care
Books. Oh so very many books.
Go sell what you have
I wouldn’t know how to begin.
In fact, it might just be that I’m possessed by my possessions, for it certainly seems unthinkable that I should throw all my treasures aside…
Even for the sake of treasure in heaven.

That’s no surprise to Jesus.
Listen to his comment to the disciples
It's harder for a rich person to enter God's kingdom than it is for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.
That doesn’t sound promising.
Of course, you may have heard that there was a gate in ancient Jerusalem called "The Eye of the Needle," which was so narrow that a camel couldn't pass through it unless all its baggage was removed, at which point it could just get through painfully, laboriously on its knees.
We could deal with that scenario.
We might not like it, but it could be managed.
It would suggest that we, the wealthy, could enter God’s kingdom, if we weren’t too attached to our possessions….
But, oh dear, sadly research confirms that there was NO SUCH GATE.
Maybe that’s not surprising.
If Jesus had been talking about a well known local landmark, his hearers wouldn't have been reduced to incredulous questions
"Then who can be saved?!";
But that’s not the way of it.
There is no "Eye of the Needle" gate that camels can crawl through.
Jesus means what he says.
It’s that hard to enter the kingdom…

Nor can we claim immunity on the grounds that we’re not actually wealthy at all.
It may not feel much like it, but if you’re in any doubt then when you next have access to a computer, try entering your income on the website “Global Rich List” and see where you end up. Your income is measured against those of the whole of the world’s population…and the results are shocking. Even on a stipend that never seems to go quite far enough, I find myself in the top 3.6% in the world.
That’s rich, then.

But maybe I could bear to give away all my things.
After all, I’d still have my children, wouldn’t I?
Surely we can assume that family values are Christian values, Christ’s values
That must be a given.
But no
Jesus positively encourages his disciples to abandon their families, their responsibilities, all those precious human ties.

They (and we) are to strip ourselves of everything by which we identify ourselves…Possessions, relationships…the lot.
And stripped of everything, we are then to follow
Deeply disquieting stuff.
I don’t know how it’s left you feeling, but I don’t think I can do it.
Truly, I long to follow – I yearn to find my way into the kingdom of God…but I don’t think I’m brave enough to leave so much behind.

But this is the gospel!

It’s supposed to be good news!

So where do we find that, today?
We find it, first, as Jesus considers the young man
“Jesus, looking at him, loved him”
He has tried so hard, hasn't determined to DO everything he can to get things right. Jesus knows exactly what course the conversation will take…he understands just how fettered the young man really is…but he loves him.
He loves him, and he loves us – with all our good intentions, our deeply buried longings, our welter of doubts and fears.
He loves us so much that he cannot, and does not leave us imprisoned in those many much-loved cages we’ve fashioned for ourselves.
We cannot on our own break free – but if we recognise that we are trapped, - then we’ll find there’s good news here, right enough.

The rich man, secure in his wealth, was asking the wrong question:
What can I do to inherit eternal life?
He assumed that it must be down to him, a matter of action plans, and personal control…and so he was crushed when it seemed that the necessary action was beyond him.
But actually, that’s the point.
That there was nothing he or we could do.
To let go of all that we have, all that supports and impedes us, all that deludes us into thinking we can somehow earn our place in the Kingdom – that’s still too much for us.
We cannot save ourselves.

But I promised you good news, and it’s here in the astounding paradox of grace.
The answer we struggle with turns out to be the best news of all.
We CAN inherit the Kingdom, not through what we own, not through who we are, not even through what we can give up…
We can inherit the Kingdom when we recognise our own helplessness….when we accept that there is, truly, nothing we can do
For mortals it is impossible, but not for God. For God, all things are possible