Jesus’ Hardest Words: Sermon for February 12, 2017

It’s good to be back in the pulpit this morning after being sidelined for the last couple of weeks. I’m grateful to Heidi Heath and Alex Simpson for stepping in to preach while I recovered from my concussion.

I’m particularly grateful because they both preached on the same larger subject that I’ll be talking about this morning, and so in a real way I’m just building on the foundation that they’ve already put in place over the past two weeks.

As timing would have it, these multiple voices came in the midst of one of the most significant and dense parts of the Bible. For a solid month the lectionary gives us Gospel readings from the Sermon on the Mount.

Now, Jesus was a interesting sort of teacher. Most of his big lessons came not from lectures or speeches, but from stories and from questions. Jesus was much more likely to teach something important by telling a parable, like the ones about the Prodigal Son, or the Sower and the Seed. Or, he would let the people figure out the truth for themselves by asking them questions and having them come to a conclusion.


Carl Bloch’s painting, “Sermon on the Mount”

What he was unlikely to do was exactly what he does do here, and that is to effectively preach. And yet, one day he saw crowds gathering and he went to the top of a mountain, and he began to teach the people. Later Christians would call this the “sermon on the mount”, but I like to just think of it as “Jesus’s big sermon”. This was the time that he laid bare so much of what it would mean to follow him.

The passages that Heidi and Alex preached about are well known to us. They are calls for Christians to live as examples of God’s love in the world, and to take hope, even when it seems like the whole world is stacked against goodness and kindness.

But then, right after those words, comes this passage. And there’s a lot in this passage that makes me nervous. First, if you are angry with someone, says Jesus, you will be judged. Later, if you look at someone with lust in your heart, you are committing adultery. Or, if your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out. Or, if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off. Or, if you marry a divorced woman, you are committing adultery. And in a lot of these, Jesus is talking about going to hell. Or finally, don’t swear. Just say, “yes or no”. Nothing more.

So, things don’t look so good for me here.

I mean, I’ve been angry before. To be honest, I think I had every right to be angry. And, frankly, I’ll be angry again. It might be righteous anger about some great social injustice, but it could just as easily be about someone cutting me off in the Starbucks drive-through.

And then there’s lust. Remember how Jimmy Carter once talked about lusting in his heart when he was president, and everyone laughed at him. Well, he was a good Baptist, and he was talking about this passage. Truth be told, we’ve probably all lusted at one time or another.

And then there’s this stuff about tearing out eyes and cutting off hands. My eyes cause me to judge others, or to envy them. And my hands…sometimes my hands are idol, and we can’t have that. Other times I’m so proud of the works of my hands that they cause me not to be humble. But, I plan on keeping both eyes and both hands because, frankly, I don’t think any of us would have hands or eyes if we followed this one.

There’s also this divorce passage. I’m not divorced, but I am married to a divorced woman. Does that mean I’m committing adultery? Do I need to go home this afternoon and say “sorry, honey…you’re on your own”?

And then there’s the swearing. I’ve sworn on legal paperwork, and I’ve sworn in far less legally-mandated ways. In other words, everything Jesus talks about here in this passage, I’ve done.

So, I don’t know about you, but reading these I feel pretty sure that I’m probably going to hell.

You too? See you there.

Now, to be honest, I don’t actually think I’m going to hell. I don’t think you are either, by the way. If you want my honest opinion, I’m not sure there is a hell. And if there is one, I think it is this: I think it is the absence of God. And because I believe God’s love and grace are stronger than anything we could ever do, I don’t think that God leaves any of us there.

But there was a time in my life when the thought of hell caused me real distress. I didn’t grow up in a church that damned people to hell. We were Christmas and Easter Presbyterians. But I did grow up in the South where the churches who preached a literal hell were all around, and they were very vocal.

I remember when I was six years old and a kid at the playground told me that if I had ever told a lie in my life I was going to hell. I have no idea what I could have lied about at age 6, but it probably involved taking extra cookies or something. No matter, I was damned.

And then there were those times when I was in high school, and the local megachurch talked about homosexuals and how they were going to hell if they didn’t change. And I knew they were talking about me. And I knew that there was no hope.

I think I may have started studying theology because I wanted to know that I wasn’t damned. Along the way, I came to believe that not only was I not damned, but I was loved beyond measure by a God who is full of grace. I came to see the fear-based churches that had proliferated in my hometown as a sort of anxious reaction to our own understanding of our humanity. We humans are imperfect beings, after all. How could God love us?

I confess, though, that when I read this passage my old fears come back. What if I’m not measuring up? What if I’m wrong? What if the way I’m living isn’t good enough.

What if I’m not perfect?

I’m not, of course. You probably aren’t either.

And here’s where I have one small point of agreement with those fundamentalist churches I used to know: we are indeed imperfect beings. We will sin. We will fall down. But unlike those fundamentalist churches, I don’t tell you this because I believe God is ready to throw us all into the fires of hell. I tell you this because God is ready to welcome us home.

The reality of life is that none of us is perfect. None of us will ever keep even one of the Ten Commandments perfectly, let alone all ten. All of us will disappoint ourselves, and one another. All of us will fail from time to time.

Jesus knew that. He knew that it was inevitable. But he also knew this: he knew that in God there is grace. God is willing to love us “as is”. More than that, God is delighted to love us like that. God may have high standards for us, ones that we try even still to reach, but God does not expect our perfection. God just expects us to keep trying.

And so, that’s much of how I understand the Christian life. There is a way that things should be. This world should be filled with love, kindness, and justice. Were we all perfect, it would be. And then there is the way that things actually are.

And so, it’s tempting in the face of that to throw up our hands and say “well, we will never get it right, so what’s the point”. But that’s exactly when we need God’s grace the most. That’s exactly when we need to hear God saying to us, “it’s okay…keep trying…I still love you”.

And so, we keep trying. And we stay in relationship with God and with one another. And, little by little, the world is transformed.

I used to try to do the right thing out of fear. I feared a God who I thought kept the fires of hell burning.

Now I try to do the right thing out of love, and out of gratitude for God’s grace.

I’m not sure if I’m any better at getting it right from time to time, but I can tell you this: I’m a whole lot more sure that I’m doing it for the right reasons. And I’m a whole lot more sure that God loves me, and that God loves us all. Even when we mess up. Maybe especially when we mess up. God is still there loving us through it. Amen?

“Once upon a time…” – A sermon on the Book of Job for October 7, 2012

Once upon a time…

How many books did you read, or have read to you, as a child that started like that? As a child when you open a book that says that, you know in the end that it’s all going to work out and be okay. Ten minutes later not only would everything be okay gain, but it would be better than ever.

We don’t often get stories that start out with “once upon a time” in the Bible. But we do today. The book of Job starts with these words: There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. In other words…once upon a time. But this isn’t a fairy tale.

You probably know who Job was. Even if you don’t know much about the Bible, you’ve heard about it. Job was the guy who got a bad break. He was a good guy who had a lot of bad things happen to him. And now if a friend is going through a hard time, we might even say something like, “they’re a regular Job”. He’s our symbol of bad things happening to good people.

At the beginning of the story Job is a happy man, and a wealthy man. He has sheep, oxen, camels, everything. But more than that, he is blessed with a family. He has ten children. And they all like each other. They even share meals together.

And Job is good. He loves God. He does justice. He is righteous. Everything he has, he has gotten the right way.

But then the bad things start to happen. His wealth is destroyed, and he loses all his material goods. Even worse, while his ten kids are eating dinner together one night, their house falls in on the family. And he loses all of them. He mourns them mightily, but he refuses to turn away from God.

But not long after that, he loses his health too. He becomes covered with terrible sores from the top of his head to the bottom of his feet. After everything else, the pain is so terrible, and finally his wife tells him “curse God and die”. And what she was really saying was “give up on God…and life”.

But Job says no. He won’t curse God. And instead Job, covered with sores, goes out and sits on a heap of ashes. And his three friends come, and sit with him. And for seven days they just sit them and mourn with him and keep silent. And then they open their mouth. And that’s their first mistake.

Job’s three friends were named Eliphaz, Bildar, and Zophar. We all know Eliphaz, Bildar, and Zophars. Not in name…but every other way. You may have heard the phrase “Job’s comforters” These are the folks who try to say something to make things better when something bad happens, but they really just make it worse.

Have you ever had one of those friends? I saw these folks a lot when I was a chaplain in a children’s hospital. They’d come in and try to comfort the parents of sick kids, and usually they said things only made themselves feel better. And I always waned to say to them, “Just, please…stop talking…”

But of course they didn’t. And neither did Eliphaz, Bildar, and Zophar. Job tells them that he wants to die. He says, “I wish I was never born” And their response is not to comfort him, but to try to make sense out of what happened.

Eliphaz goes first. He tells Job, “you must have committed some horrible sin for this to be happening. Then Bildad adds his thoughts. “You may not have sinned, but your children surely did.” Finally, Zophar chimes in: “You must have done something horrible, and really you deserve much worse than this, so be thankful.”

None of this sits well with Job. He grows angry and tells them they have no idea what they are talking about. He calls them “worthless physicians” and tells them they are clueless. But they still don’t stop. They go back and forth, again and again, the friends saying uncomfortable things, and Job growing angrier. And every time Job asks, “why isn’t God helping me”, the friends say something even worse.

Have you ever had a situation like that? Something hard has happened in your life and you’ve needed the support of your friends, but instead you got these sort of unhelpful explanations?

Sometimes I think this is why we don’t bring the hardest parts of our life back into the life of the church. We’re afraid that people are going to try to ascribe blame, or tell us what we are doing wrong, or judge us for it. We’re afraid we will run into Job’s comforters…well meaning people who just make us feel worse.

What are the things we aren’t talking about because of that? Because we’re worried others won’t understand or will somehow judge? Depression, infertility, addiction, divorce, post-traumatic stress, mental illness, abuse, suicide, financial problems, family fights?

You should be able to bring those things to church without fear of judgements. Without Job’s comforters. You should be able to bring what is going on in your life to this place, and feel like you will be surrounded with love. I know that’s hard though. When people come to talk to me, they often tell me about something going on in their life and they feel like they are the only one in the world going through it. And what I always want to tell them is that they’re not. Because often their are five other people in the parish going through the exact same things.

We can be the sort of place that you can bring those things. And we can be the place that helps you to do what Job does next. When Job has had enough of the arguing, enough of the blame, something happens. He begins a conversation with God.

That’s important. When things are going wrong in our lives, when nothing makes sense, sometimes we lose that connection to something greater than ourselves. We feel guilty or ashamed, or we hear the words of the Job’s comforters around us, and we stop talking to others about is going on in our lives. And then, we stop talking to God.

And, I think sometimes when things are really bad, we want to talk to God. But we’re just afraid of what we will say.

Have you ever been really mad at God? Have you ever wanted to demand answers? Have you ever been so angry that you wanted to shout out “don’t you see what is happening here?” And then, when you’ve done that, have you felt even more guilty about that?

If you’ve ever felt abandoned by God, you’re not alone. If Jesus himself, who was fully God but also fully human, could shout out “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me” on the cross, then what makes us think that we are immune to that kind of despair? And yet, even though Jesus did it, we feel like we shouldn’t.

But here’s the good news…God can take it.

Job turns to God and they begin to talk. And they have a long dialogue back in forth. Does Job get all the answers? No. But he talks honestly to God and he gets that relationship back. And he shows us that being faithfully vocal is better than being silent and losing the connection with God.

When we are going through the roughest times of our lives, that’s when that relationship matters more than ever. Even when we are afraid of what we will say. Even when we are hearing unhelpful words from the world around us. Even when nothing makes sense. That’s when we need it more than ever.

Job needed that. And in the end, though he never got all the answers he wanted, he got the ones he needed. And he got that connection to God back. And in the end, God even had some words for those friends Eliphaz, Bildar, and Zophar. God tells them that they didn’t get it right, and that not only had they hurt Job, but they had offended God. (And, just a side note…is there anyone in your life you wish God would say that to?)

The story ends with us being told that Job got back all the material things he had lost, and then some. He also became father to ten new children. Now, if this was a fairy tale, we would say “happily ever after…” But, I’ll bet he never forgot those ten kids he lost. How can you?

We all lose what we value in life, and God knows that. God mourns with us. And even as God continues to bless us, God knows our pain. If God knew Job’s surely God knows our own.

What is so telling to me, though, is that God continues to bless us even in our pain. God continues to be with us even when we hurt the most. And God refuses to bless the words of false and easy judgement from the world around us. God is inviting you into that relationship. If you are in pain, if there is something that is going on in your life that you cannot bear, if you feel alone…you don’t have to.

Start with God…and know that this place can sit with you in all of that too. There is nothing you cannot bring to God. And there is nothing you cannot bring here. We may not have all the answers for you here, but we can sit with you in the questions. We can keep silence when you just need someone beside you. And we can listen when you need an ear. And one day, maybe you can do that for someone else.

Once upon a time there was a was a man named Job. And once upon a time, there was all of us…living in a broken world, living in a sometimes painful world, but living in a community where we could support one another as we to turn to God in our hardest times. Amen.