October 4, Proper 22:
Draft text of the homily, please do not cite without permission.
Long ago, God spoke to our ancestor in many and various ways, says the author to the letter to the Hebrews
God is still speaking…
I bet you’ve wondered, at some point, is God trying to tell me something?
It’s usually when things go wrong.
When something horrible happens…and we’re left feeling helpless…on the outskirts of town…scraping our sores among the ashes. That’s often where the wondering starts…where did I go wrong?…Why me?
And in those times of real darkness, we might even turn to scripture for some comfort…some hint of God’s message to us…some help…some hope…
And what do we find today? A combative Jesus, not at all interested in affirming the status quo for those already comfortably in power…And Job, alone, afflicted, yet firm in his faith and his own innocence.
Not super helpful, is it?
Unless we look at it slightly differently.
Typically, Job is held up as a model of patient suffering, but that’s a pretty reductive reading of the text.
Job is actually one of the loudest of the many, varied, and contrary voices in scripture…an alternative voice…a challenging voice.
Job is a radical challenge to one of the main threads in all of Scripture.
The one which says, “Do good things and you’ll be rewarded, do bad things and you’ll be punished.”
Versions of this mantra are proclaimed from scripture to pulpit to advertising slogan from antiquity to the present…The good prosper, the wicked—not so much.
It’s a message that is deeply entrenched in our religious texts and in our secular world.
But our scriptures also contain other voices—Job (and Ecclesiastes and a few other texts)…dissenting voices…minority reports…which say, “not so fast.” That’s a nice idea, but we all know the world doesn’t really work that way.
For almost thirty chapters of dense and often soaringly beautiful poetry, Job and his three friends argue this point back and forth…”your wickedness is massive,” they reason. You must have done something! It’s a very orthodox (very correct thought), and we hear this same logic all the time in our “blame the victim culture.”
Yet, Job keeps eloquently resisting that flawed logic, “no,” he says. You are missing the point. Everyone suffers, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” he asks his wife…The question isn’t “why do the innocent suffer, it’s why do the wicked prosper?”
Job wants God to give an account of God’s self, but Job’s real issue isn’t even with God…it’s with this pervasive view that the good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. It’s a profound challenge to the main argument of scripture…It’s a profound challenge to us, who would follow in the ways of God.
So here’s how I want to look at it slightly differently…If it’s such a challenge, why leave it in scripture?
Wouldn’t it have been easier to leave it out? To stay on message? Our ancestors who put the scriptures together could have made it a seamless whole…left all the difficult parts out…but they didn’t… These counterpoint seeds to prevailing orthodoxy are sown all throughout scripture. In fact, the compilers of Scripture often treat these contradictory irritations as pearls of great price. Jesus sows these seeds all the time. He’s a master at this counterpoint method…”You have heard it said X, but I say to you something else.”
He does it again today, his comments on marriage points to (actually quotes) the two different creation narratives: in the first God creates humans as a unit…in the image of God, male and female he created them…in the next chapter the man is made from earth, and the woman from the man’s rib, and they become one flesh.
The Pharisees want a decision based on the orthodoxy of the day…and Jesus up-ends that…and speaks a dissenting word that points to a deeper truth. Human relationships, he says, aren’t supposed to be legal constructs designed to maximize our usefulness to one another. We are created for deep, lasting, life-changing, and generative relationships with one another and all of creation. And he uses the image of a child to underscore this minority report.
These troublesome difficult passages are all throughout scripture…it’s almost as if the wise women and men who told and transmitted and eventually wrote down all these stories are suggesting that a persistent, faithful questioning of our own assumptions…our own orthodoxies…is a good thing…
And I think it is.
There are plenty of narratives out there that need to be challenged.
The narrative that there is simply nothing to be done about gun violence.
That we have achieved a post-racial and post-sexist society.
That if the poor simply tried harder, they could make ends meet.
That it’s too costly and (maybe) too late to do anything about climate change.
That in order to be truly happy and loved and valued that you need to consume more of whatever it is.
That you, in your flawed, scarred, insecure self are just not enough.
Those narratives need faithful dissenting voices.
They need our faith-filled voices and the collective voices of our faith communities.
Because all of that is pretty overwhelming…when I think about just me trying to make a difference in any of it, I start to despair, because it’s too much.
The voice of Job’s wife looms… “Just give up.”
But this is where stewardship comes in…(stay with me).
Today begins our fall stewardship celebration at All Saints. And over the next several weeks you’ll hear from fellow parishioners about why they pledge to All Saints, and what this community means in their lives. You’ve already gotten a taste of this with the fall Saints Alive. In these voices you will hear God speaking to you in many and varied ways.
I want to encourage you all to think prayerfully about how you might share your gifts of time, talent, and treasure here, and I invite you to make a commitment that stretches you in some way, that challenges your own orthodoxy, or your own already settled narrative.
For me, part of why I pledge each year is certainly to support God’s mission through the work we do here, but it’s also because pledging is a concrete way I can connect with the larger church and be a part of those faithful alternative narratives that the church engages in.
In the face of the narrative that there is simply nothing to be done about gun violence, an ad-hoc group of bishops, clergy and lay people joined to form Episcopalians Against Gun Violence, and General Convention passed several resolutions around this, and Episcopalians from Massachusetts were active in advocating and testifying in advance of last year’s passage of an omnibus bill to reduce gun violence.
In the face of the narrative that says we live in a post-racist society, our General Convention this summer set aside 2 million dollars for racial justice and reconciliation work , and the Diocese of Rhode Island announced plans to transform part of the Cathedral of St. John into a Center for Reconciliation—a museum examining both the slave trade, and the opposition to it. Our own diocese plans to continue work in this area, encouraging all of us to read and discuss the book The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.
In the face of the narrative that it’s too costly and too late to do anything about climate change, Episcopalians again have been at the forefront of advocacy for a different narrative. All Saints has long been a partner with Interfaith Power and Light, and this year our diocese is joining with the New England Regional Environmental Ministries in proclaiming a Season of Prophetic Climate Witness which begins today and goes through Feb. 7.
In the face of all the narratives surrounding immigrants and refugees, Episcopal Migration Ministries has worked for decades resettling refugees, and Bishop Gayle told us recently at clergy day that our Diocese is looking at ways to respond to the current refugee crisis.
In the face of all these big, national and global challenges, there’s not a lot I can do just by myself, but my yearly pledge to All Saints ensures that I am part of all this work, and part of those conversations. That others are able to continue this vital work on my behalf.
Now I understand that all of these are controversial, and none of these initiatives are complete in themselves. They also need dissenting voices, faithful people who question and probe and challenge the orthodoxy (the “correct thinking”) that the supporters of any of these position can too easily fall into.
In other words, even if you disagree with the actions and direction of the church we still need your voice, we still value your voice, and pledging, as I said is a way of taking part in the conversation.
I know All Saints is a place where many of you come to renew yourself and recharge…a place of holy and sacred rest…a place where some of the ugliness and hardness of the world can be countered by the beauty of the worship and the warmth of the welcome. I hope it’s also a place where you can hear God speaking in many and varied voices. I pray that we all remain open to being challenged and transformed by God’s grace and love here, so that we can continue to be part of God’s great work of challenging our narratives and changing the world.