Sunday, October 25, 2015

“We All Love Happy Endings, But . . .” (Job 42:1-6, 10-17)

In the end . . . everything turned out for the best for Job.  In the end . . . Job had the proverbial “happy ending” to his situation and to his story.  Despite being on the short end of a challenge between Satan and God . . . a challenge in which he lost his family, his wealth, and his health . . . Job receives a “happy ending”.  In the end, despite his suffering . . . despite is complaining and questioning . . . despite his adamant demand for an audience with God . . . and, despite the fact that he admits that he could never fathom the depths or the breath of God and God’s presence in the world—even to the point of repenting . . . Job still gets a “happy ending”.

Some biblical scholars have jokingly said that Walt Disney must have written the end of the Book of Job . . . the ending is just that much like the ending in a Disney movie.  In the end, Job is abundantly restored: new house, new riches, new family . . . he got it all back and then some.  Everything turned out for the best in the end . . .

. . . and, in the end, we all walked away from the story of Job—happy.  Happy that for all of his suffering he was rewarded . . . that he was blessed.  As the writer tells us: “The Lord restored his fortunes and gave him twice as much as he had before. . . the Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part.  He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys.  And he also had seven sons and three daughters . . . after this he lived a hundred and forty years; he saw his children and their children to the fourth generation.”  That, my friends, is a “happy ending”.

Everyone loves a happy ending . . . but . . .

Let’s get real.  Life is not that “black and white” . . . not that clear cut . . . not that simple.  Everything in life does not end with a “happy ending” . . . no, far from it.  We all know better.  Anyone who has ever gone through anything that even comes close to what Job experienced would vouch that it is just not that simple.

I am not a gambler, but I would be willing to bet that any one of us here this morning can share a story that . . . at least to us . . . is comparable to the mess that Job experienced.  I imagine that we all have a story from our own lives or the lives of others that seem just as painful and messy as anything that Job went through.  And, I also imagine that few—if any of us—can claim that in the end we got the same results that Job got . . . that we got the happy ending when the princess rides off into the sunset and everyone lived happily ever after.

Reality is just not that way . . . life is just not that way.

No, life is messy.  People suffer.  People die.  People lose everything.  Disasters happen.  Wars break out.  Accidents happen.  As most twelve-step groups say, “Poop happens!”  Writer and psychiatrist M. Scott Peck, in his book The Road Less Traveled writes that “life is difficult and the sooner we can learn to accept it, the easier it gets.”  Knowing this are we supposed to just accept the ending of the Book of Job and go skipping off into life thinking that that is it?

Well, no, we’re not.

When we began the story of Job the first question we dealt with was the integrity of Job.  Integrity, in the first definition that most people assume, has to deal with one’s morals and beliefs.  That was what Satan was betting on . . . betting that Job would throw away his integrity due to his suffering, curse God, and be done with it all.  But, Job did not . . . never once did he waver in his faith.  Oh sure, he complained, he questioned, and he got under the skin of God . . . but he never renounced his faith.  He remained a person of integrity . . . he remained true to who he was created to be.  Which is the second definition of integrity . . . being whole, which includes the good and the bad of which a person is created to be.  In the end Job remained a person of integrity.

Throughout the story that is what Satan is betting one . . . that is what his wife tells him . . . that is what his friend insinuate.  But Job proves them all wrong in the end.  In the end, despite everything that Job has taken away . . . it is replaced.  New family, new house, new wealth.  Everything is restored . . . well, not everything.  The one thing in the end that was taken away from Job and not restored was his simple faith . . . his rock-solid confidence that he knew what he knew . . . and what he knew was what.  In the end, Job admits that he really does not know as much as he thought he knew . . . he discovers that easy and pat answers and understandings of how things work in God’s creation are not always the whole story . . . that there is a lot about God and God’s relationship with creation and humanity that he does not know or understand.  That faith is not simply “black and white”, nor is it cut and dried.  Faith is a great mystery.

As one Bible commentator stated, “. . . Job has less to go on at the end of the book than at the beginning.”  But, you know what . . . he still believes in God . . . he still embraces God . . . he still prays to God.  He still has his faith, but it is no longer the faith that was built on an earlier theology or understanding of God . . . it is less certain . . . less black and white . . . less set in stone.  There is a greater sense of mystery . . . a greater sense of wonder and awe.  He even admits it when he proclaims to God: “Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know.”  In the end Job discovers that faith . . . when lived openly and honestly . . . doesn’t answer all the questions, but creates more questions.  He has a new outlook on life and God. 

Through his ordeal, Job actually grows in his faith . . . his faith matures.  Through the whole ordeal . . . through the whole Book of Job . . . he never gets an answer to his question of “why?”  All he really gets is a more intimate relationship with God . . . a greater sense of the mystery that is God . . . and, a whole lot more questions.  He also gets an understanding, even though he does not understand it and cannot explain it, that God will never, ever abandon him.

And so it is for us.

Life is not easy . . . and, yes, bad things do happen to us; but if we can accept the knowledge that God stands beside us through thick and thin, then we, too, can receive the blessing that Job received.  That blessing is not so much him having his family, home, wealth, and health restored as it was being able to embrace the fact that we do not have to have our beliefs etched in stone to have faith . . . that it is okay to have questions . . . that it is okay to have doubts . . . and to freely admit it to ourselves and to God.  God will understand . . . God will not abandon us.  It accepting that we cannot always understand . . . that God is a great mystery . . . and, that we can still believe . . . still have faith.  We don’t get it, but we still have it. 

That is faith.

That is integrity.

Accepting and being who God created us to be . . . we don’t understand why—and that is okay; but we still believe.  That is integrity . . . Job still had his integrity.  Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

“Paradox of Faith” (Job 38:1-7, 34-41)

So, after moaning and groaning, whining and complaining . . . challenging and harassing God . . . Job finally gets what he wishes and prays for—an audience with God.  I don’t think that it is quite what Job expected.

Now remember . . . Job has legitimate complaints . . . pertinent questions . . . for God.  He is frustrated . . . he is angry.  And who can blame him?  His children and family have been killed, his wealth has been taken away, he has been afflicted with a nasty skin disease, and he is reduced to sitting in the town dump moaning and groaning about how rotten life looks from the bottom of the barrel.  Job looks around the world and it is a dangerous place . . . filled with pitfalls and traps . . . full of hard, sharp edges that cut the body and the soul.  It is a place of hopelessness and ugliness and suffering.  And, it hurts . . . it hurts Job to the roots of his faith and heart.  It is understandable that Job is angry.  Whether we like it or not, it is a deep, primal form of faith that Job is displaying.

Job is pretty mad at God.  And, as I stated earlier, who could blame him.  From the throne of privilege and blessing to the sewers of sinfulness . . . Job has taken a tumble that he cannot understand, nor can he explain.  It feels cruel that God has done this to him.  So he complains . . . he complains to the point that he is even condemning God for the hardships of his life.  Job wants to know.  Of course Job’s friends try to shush the words of blasphemy and heresy they are hearing from Job, despite the fact that his words are honestly raw in like of the suffering that he is enduring.  But Job doesn’t listen.  Despite what it seems like to those around him, Job does not give up his understanding of his faith and who he is as a person of faith . . . he remains steadfast in his claim of being righteous and blameless in spite of his doubt and questioning of God.  His faith grows stronger . . . imagine the kind of faith it takes to trust God enough to challenge and condemn God.

So, God answers Job.

One would think that God is not too pleased with Job or his attitude from the words that are spoken: “Who is this that darkens by counsel with words without knowledge?  Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.  Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?”  Those are not words of endearment.  Job has questioned and indicted God for what he perceives as indifference toward God’s children.  Job keeps asking God where in the world God has gone as he looks around the world and sees nothing but suffering and pain.  Job wants to know why God has forsaken the people.  Pretty uppity stuff for a human.  And, God responds in kind.  God puts Job in his place.

But we do not want to get caught up in the tone of this response from God . . . no, more importantly we want to look at how God responds to Job.  Now, granted, God does not directly address Job’s words or complaints; but, God does answer Job.  Where Job see the world as an ugly, hurtful, painful place . . . well, God responds with a world that God sees as a place of beauty.  God responds to Job’s indictment . . . God just doesn’t give him an answer.  God doesn’t try to explain.  God doesn’t even contradict Job’s accusations.  God just responds with beauty.

Whereas Job casts a vision of a world that is overshadowed by pain and suffering; God responds by showing him a world of beauty and hope.  It is the same world.

Now here comes the paradox.  A paradox is “a statement that, despite sound (or apparently sound: reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or even self-contradictory.”  Both Job and God are talking about the same world—one sees ugliness and pain, the other beauty.  One is not any more “right” than the other . . . they are both realities of the same world.  They are not competing views . . . one does not negate the other.  For faith to work, it takes seeing the world from both perspectives.

God does not exactly answer Job’s questions about suffering . . . not because there is no answer, but there is no answer—even from God—that would ever satisfactorily answer the question of pain and suffering in the world.  Nothing solves suffering.  Nothing answers it.  But suffering and grief is not the whole story of our lives and of the world.  There is beauty, and grace, and hope in the world . . . existing simultaneously, in paradox, side by side.

Yeah, I know . . . it doesn’t make sense . . . this response from God.  It feels insufficient.  Yet, maybe, there is wisdom in responding to suffering with an invitation to see beauty around us, to allow beauty to interrupt despair and grief.

Beauty is as unexplainable as suffering . . . it cannot really be explained . . . it can only be experienced.  And, like suffering, beauty changes us.  Sometimes it takes a situation like Job experiences to open our eyes to this paradox of faith.  Job’s suffering and grief removed that protective barrier of wealth and privilege to open his eyes to see how deeply suffering, injustice and pain course through the human experience of life.  That is why he could only see suffering and pain in the world.

But, we need both . . . we need the paradox. 

How do you view the world we are living in?

If I look at the world through the lenses of others—like the news media . . . television, radio, newspapers, the Internet—I see a bleak, dark world filled with suffering, pain, and injustice.  It is not a pretty world that we are living in . . . it is an ugly world.  There are wars being waged around the world . . . people fleeing their homelands because of the violence and threat of death.  There are school shootings where innocent people are losing their lives . . . more and more senseless gun deaths.  There is a rising rate of murder . . . even in our area in which Billings has already experienced more murders in a single three month period than it has over the past couple of years.  There are people starving to death because they have nothing to eat . . . 21,000 a day.  We are in the political season and we see the uncivility of the candidates towards one another and the people who will elect them.  We see it in our news . . . read it on our social media . . . hear it in the stories of those around us.  It is a pretty ugly world that we live in . . . one I imagine Job would affirm as his experience.

Yet, at the same time, research shows that, despite all the war and unnecessary killing occurring in our world and nation . . . we are actually living in the most peaceful and least violent time in human history.  Also, again according to research, we are living in a time when there are fewer people hungry than ever before, thanks to political advocacy and charity . . . thanks to this effort the number of people suffering from hunger around the globe has been cut in half since the 1960s.

From one perspective the world is going to hell in a hand basket; on the other hand, it is being healed and the world’s people are making progress.  How can this be?  How can we hold both perspectives in our heads and hearts to make any sense out of it all?

That is the paradox . . . the paradox of faith.

There is suffering in the world . . . bad things happen to all people.  There is beauty in the world, too . . . all around us.  Surprisingly, we—God’s children—stand in the nexus between the two . . . one foot in each side.  It is here that we live our lives . . . that we have our existence . . . that we must learn faith.  It is a great mystery.  There are no answers to the suffering or the beauty in the world.  We need both.  We need to cultivate them—an awareness of the suffering of humanity and an awareness of the beauty of creation.

Job is pleading with God to look at the world and bear witness to its suffering and pain, God is pleading with Job to look at the world and bear witness to its beauty and glory.  They need each other.  God needs to see Job’s prophetic grief . . . Job needs to see God’s prophetic beauty.  Both are needed in order to live.  It is a fine balancing act that we—the faithful—are called to do in the journey of life . . . in the journey of faith.  In the end, both Job and God realize the truthfulness of this fact . . . they see eye to eye.

This is the change presented by the Book of Job.  The intimate relationship begins.  No longer is God above creation, but is now alongside of it.  Between the suffering and the beauty we encounter the divine . . . we encounter the grace . . . and, we find the door open to be in an intimate relationship with God.  Sometimes things have to come to a head and spill out in angry words . . . letting it all out, before there can be a real relationship in which two truly listen to one another.  Ask Job . . . I think he would concur.  Amen.

“The Wise Church Respects the Poor” (James 2:1-17)

Ten years ago, or so, I sat in an amazingly beautiful sanctuary.  I was in Cambridge, England, and the name of the church was King’s College Chapel.  I’d like to show you a picture (above). 
The ceiling is the largest vault fan ceiling in the world—all hand carved.

The stained glass is some of the finest medieval stained glass in the world.

The tour guide explained to us that it took a century to build the chapel—and several English Tudor kings, beginning with Henry VII—oversaw its completion.  What Henry VII wanted to build was a chapel that would outshine all other chapels.  Those of us sitting in the chapel were stunned.  The motivation on the part of Henry VII was one-upmanship.

Today there is a fund drive on the part of King’s College to preserve the building and restore the organ.  When college is in session there is evening worship.  Other than that it sits empty.

If we think about the story behind this chapel in Cambridge, England, and the life of Christ, we all understand that Christ wasn’t motivated by status, Christ was motivated by service.  Jesus responded to need—“help, my daughter is dying,” “help, our brother is dying,””help, my mind is sick, or my skin sick, or my arms and legs are useless,” “help, I’ve been bleeding for twelve years,” “help, I’m hungry.”

Ann Lamott reminds us in her little book Help, Thanks, Wow that help is a prayer.  We all say it.  Life can be very impossible.

What the story of King’s College Chapel teaches us is that as the church, it’s not always easy to stay grounded in the heart of Christ, the heart of service.  It can be quite difficult to stay focused on improving the lives of the poor.  In his letter to all churches (James doesn’t address his pastoral letter to just one), James addresses our weakness as congregations to need really lovely, comfortable stuff AND be impressed by wealth AND to hear the invitation to be good news to the poor but not actually DO the good news to the poor. 

The WISE church, meaning the church whose ears are attentive to the will of God, according to James, brings honor to the poor.  (James 2:6)

So I got to thinking.  Since you and I are made in the image of God, which means the church’s heart IS made up of the same stuff God’s heart is made of which is compassion (especially for the poor) ---that perhaps the church gets side-tracked by other agendas because we move too fast and work too hard and plug into too much technology or have so little faith in God’s faith in us or listen too much to the world and it’s constant invitation to own and control and impress and consume—to get in touch with what’s in our hearts—love for the poor.

So I’m asking our tech booth to share a little movie with us this morning called Tammy’s Story. It’s about 7 minutes long.  I hope you will sit back and relax, and listen—it’s a little blunt in a few places—but I think you’ll agree that it has to be because life is quite blunt.

There it is!  I can see it on your faces.  YOUR heart for the poor.  It’s not okay to leave Tammy there---
If faith is strength, faith is love.  Love is the strongest power there is.  Jesus teaches us that faith, or love, the size of a mustard seed can move mountains of poverty.  Perhaps for the first time this parable makes sense. 

Let us pray:  God of the poor, let our church be your heart.  Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings, Montana on September 13, 2015.)

“The Danger of a Single Story” (John 3:16)

One late spring morning I took a walk to a small pond.
In my mind I envisioned observing a turtle on a log and a fish in the shallow water.

If I were really lucky, perhaps there’d be a pair of ducks.
What I didn’t expect to encounter was the air thick with insects—invisible to the naked eye if the sunlight hadn’t been streaming.

I was standing in this amazing energy filled with so many living things, including me.

No breathing through the mouth!

Stand perfectly still.

Observe what the sunlight is revealing that normally would be hidden from plain sight if one were to simply observe the little pond from a distance, from the road, perhaps driving by: life, everywhere, life!

Not one dimensional, not two dimensional, but life in 3-D life!

I understood in that moment the whole world as it is—
a sea of activity beyond my comprehension—
and myself as I am—
one with the log, the cattails, the fish,
the turtle, the water, the ducks,
the air, the insects, the light.

Not above the world with an air of superiority.

Not below the world with an air of inferiority.

Not beside the world like a partner, helping the Source of all life but within the world like mother and child.

Within God .

Within God just like the fish, the pond,
and the air, and the insects, and the ducks.

In this moment I understood what psalmist means when he writes “Taste and see the glory of the LORD!”

Have you ever had the glory of the LORD sneak up on you like that—expanding your heart to the point where you think it is going to explore with all of God’s sweetness?

Later that evening I made this note, “God is so big.”
Which means love is so big---because God is love—and God’s love encompasses everyone and everything.

John says the same thing in his gospel this morning: God loves the world. I wonder John penned this part of his gospel after he had experienced the glory of the LORD?

Let us note that John doesn’t say God loves a particular part of the world, or simply the people of the world (although there are biblical translations that say that God loves the people of the world). The translations we are reading in worship this morning God loves it all. Not only does God love it all God empowers the world through Christ, through compassion. That’s what John means when he writes that God gave “his only begotten son” out of love instead of judgment. God GAVE the world the compassionate heart of God so that the world would not perish. When you and I as disciples or students of Jesus BELIEVE in the compassionate life enough to make the compassionate life our goal, we, too empower the world.

Like Jesus we restore dignity, we make peace, we feed and we clothe and we house.

It’s a very big step, this thing called a compassionate life, the Christ life which saves the world God loves. At the same time it is the life we said we wanted when we were baptized—and as we break the bread and lift the cup—we want to be a blessing.

I thought it would be good for us this morning to explore one aspect of the compassionate life that God desires WITHIN us and one road block to the compassionate life that we sometimes throw up. The step towards a compassionate heart is reconciliation, which means “to restore friendly relations” and a roadblock is stereotyping, which means “to generalize or oversimplify a group of people, usually offensively, in order to distinguish and diminish the group.” Stereotyping creates brokenness; separates people from the whole.

Some years ago a young woman from Nigeria was filmed for what is called a TED Talk—a non-profit devoted to spreading ideas. This young woman’s idea is this: Single stories are dangerous. A single story (or stereotyping) is when we let ONE story become the only story, such as “reading a novel called American Psycho,” notes the Nigerian author, “and being moved by the fact that young Americans were serial murderers.”

The young woman writes: “I come from a conventional, middle-class Nigerian family. At 19 years of age I left Nigeria to go to university in the United States. My American roommate was shocked by me. She asked where I had learned to speak English so well, and was confused when I said that Nigeria happened to have English as its official language. She asked if she could listen to what she called my ‘tribal music,’ and was consequently very disappointed when I produced my tape of Mariah Carey. She also assumed that I did not own a stove. What struck me was this: She had felt sorry for me even before she saw me. Her default position toward me, as an African, was a kind of patronizing, well-meaning pity. My roommate had a single story of Africa: a single story of catastrophe. In this single story there was no possibility of Africans being similar to her in anyway, no possibility of feelings more complex than pity, no possibility of a connection as human equals.”

Least she keep this challenge outside of herself, she tells the story of how she read American and European books when she was young because they were available. “When I began to write my own books at age 17,” she notes, “all my characters were white and blue-eyed, they played in the snow, they ate apples, and they talked a lot about the weather, how lovely it was that the sun had come out. Now, this is despite the fact that I lived in Nigeria. I had never been outside Nigeria. We didn’t have snow, we ate mangoes, and we never talked about the weather because there was no need to. We are so impressionable and vulnerable when we are in the face of a story, particularly as children. Now, things changed when I discovered African books. People like me could exist in literature. So what the discovery of African writers did for me was this: It saved me from having a single story of what books are.”

In other words, there is never a single story about any place, any person, or anything. One story, one slant, one introduction to something is incomplete. When we meet Jesus, we receive in our bibles more than one person’s experience of him. And guess what, they are not all the same. In the Old Testament we meet more than one person’s experience of Moses. There is more than
one story teller. And guess what? Not everyone sees the same thing in Moses OR the people wandering in the wilderness.

This young woman from Nigeria just started a non-profit with her publisher. Their goal is to build libraries and to refurbish libraries in state schools that don’t have any so persons are exposed to lots of stories, and they plan to start workshops in reading and writing so all the people can tell their many stories.

The more stories we are exposed to, we understand, the more complete the picture is of what this thing we call life really is. The more we see God for who God really is. Only she calls it “paradise.” Isn’t that a great word for God, paradise? That’s certainly what I experienced that spring day when I walked to the pond. God is big—diverse—overflowing with energy. And whether it is the migrant and refugee or the mountain and river God reminds us that it is loved. Who are we to diminish anyone or anything?

On this world communion Sunday we find ourselves thinking about WHOLE WORLD and not just a small part of it. We are thinking about family and friends and refugees and migrants and hurricanes and droughts and mountains and oceans. So many people around the world are breaking the bread of life and lifting the cup of blessing…offering their lives in service to Christ…by becoming compassion…that the world might not perish.

Let us pray: We gather at your table today, Story-telling God, to regain a sense of paradise by opening our lives to everyone, and not just a few whose stories sound a lot like our own. Amen.

(This sermon was preached by Reverend Dana Keener at Central Christian Church in Billings. Montana on October 4, 2015.)