The Question Is…

During Lent 2016, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights are looking at some of the giant questions raised in the ancient book of Job. On March 20, we viewed the Triumphal Entry of Jesus into Jerusalem as described in Luke 19:28-44 through the lens of Job’s soliloquy in Job 3.

 

seaver-IoossSt. Louis CardinalsWhen I was a kid, I loved watching Monday Night Baseball. Curt Gowdy and Joe Garagiola would call the action, and I believe that it was at this time I discovered one of the coolest things about television: the “split screen technology”. With half the screen, I could watch pitcher Tom Seaver look down for the signs that Duffy Dyer was flashing, and with the other half I could see Lou Brock dancing off first base, threatening to use his blazing speed to steal second base. Split screen allowed me to take in two different aspects of the same contest at the same time, and it surely increased my enjoyment of the game.

PIPA few years later, however, my neighbor got a new television with a technology that I hated. It was called “Picture in Picture”, and what that did was allow you to have one show playing on most of the screen, while an entirely different program was contained in a small box somewhere else on the screen. He’d have one game on the big screen and another game in the little box, and flip back and forth between them. So far as I was concerned, the Picture in Picture took two perfectly good games and ruined them by trying to mash them together.

This morning, we’re going to look at Job, chapter 3, and we’re also going to consider Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. At the end of the service, you’ll have to decide if this is more like the awesomeness of split screen technology, in which we have a helpful comparison and investigate the relationship between these two chapters of the same story… or if it’s more like the banality of Picture in Picture, which creates unnecessary distraction resulting in an unsatisfactory experience of either narrative.

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

Job, Leon Bonnat (1879)

Let’s look at Job. When we left him last week, he was sitting in silence with his wife and his friends after having suffered more grief and loss than anyone should ever have to suffer. For seven days, nobody said anything, and as we mentioned last Sunday, it is one of the most tender scenes of sympathy and affection in scripture.

That changes, as Job opens his mouth in what we English majors would call a “soliloquy”. That is, Job makes a speech here that reveals a lot about his inner self, and we’re not really sure at whom these comments are directed. Is he talking to himself? His wife? His friends? The Lord? Or is the author of Job using this speech to communicate with the readers or hearers of the story? One of the great things about a soliloquy is that the answer can be “all of the above”. Job’s words here offer an amazing insight into the depths of his character as well as an opportunity to consider the main themes of the rest of the book.

The chapter begins with Job cursing the day that he was born, and as he gets warmed up, his questions intensify. After lamenting the day of his birth and disavowing the night of his conception, he asks three significant questions. In verses 11-15, he says, “Why didn’t I die at birth? That would have been better than living until now…”

Not content with that, however, he asks in verses 16 – 19, “Why didn’t I die before I was born? I would never have known any pain at all!” And then he gets to the logical conclusion in verses 20 – 26, where he wonders, “Why does anyone even live at all, when we are bound to be so miserable?”

The net effect of Job’s soliloquy is that the reader is left with one hauntingly profound question: this man who has lost all that he has ever loved stands in front of us and says, “Why did this happen to me???”

weepingOn the other side of our split screen, we see Jesus as he enters the last week of his life. For most of the day, apparently, he does not say very much. His silence, however, extends to neither his supporters and disciples nor his adversaries and critics. The disciples and the crowds are yelling and singing to the Lord, and the religious leaders are barking at Jesus, warning him to make his followers stop that noise. As you’ve heard, Jesus’ response is that if the children of God are prevented from praising, then the very creation itself will sing out.

And when the parade is over, Jesus has a soliloquy of his own. It’s much briefer than the one we overhear in Job, but it is just as filled with bitterness and questioning. He looks over the city of Jerusalem from a vantage point that Luke wants us to see as very similar to the one to which he was taken by Satan during his temptation three years previous, and he weeps. He weeps for what is, and he weeps for what he knows will surely come. And through his tears, I believe that it’s pretty easy to see one hauntingly profound question: “Oh, oh, oh… How did we wind up here???” Jesus considers what has come before, and he surely knows what will come to pass in the next few days, and like Job, he is overcome by grief and emotion.

And this is what I think: I think that Job’s question and Jesus’ question are essentially two sides of the same coin. To use the television analogy with which I started, I believe that they belong on the same screen. Is there really much difference between asking “Why is this happening?” and asking “How did we get here?” I don’t think that there is. Job’s question is, perhaps, a little more personal in nature and little more pointed, while Jesus has a point of view that has the benefit of a little deeper perspective and involvement in a community. But I don’t think that, substantively, there is much difference here.

And the stories of Job and Jesus lead us to an important truth: it is ok to ask questions of God.

When I was seventeen, I was a busboy at the Longhorn Ranch, a big old steakhouse near my home. When I worked the closing shift, I had to wipe the rims on all of the ketchup bottles before we put them away. When I worked the opening shift, I had to wipe the rims on all of the ketchup bottles before we put them on the tables. I remember asking my supervisor, Ms. Hafley, “Since the last thing I did last night was wash these bottles, why do I have to wash them again?”

And, God bless her heart, Ms. Hafley looked at me and said, “David, ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do and die.”

Seriously? Who quotes Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade to a seventeen-year-old boy while he’s cleaning ketchup bottles? Not only that, but she didn’t answer the question! (parenthetically, for some reason I will say that if you ever dine at my place, I expect you to comment on the cleanliness of the necks on my condiment bottles…)

But isn’t that the way that much of the church and all of Job’s friends treat our questions of and about God? “What are you, crazy? You shouldn’t ever, ever, question God. What, do you want to be hit by lightning? Sit there. Suffer in silence. Have some dignity, for God’s sake. But do not question the Lord or your fate. Do, and die.”

Thanks be to God, beloved, that the lives of Job and Jesus point to a different reality. The introduction to the book of Job and the story of the incarnation of Jesus both point to a reality in which the Creator is willing and able to enter into relationship with the creation – a relationship based on love, risk, trust, and vulnerability. In the context of a relationship like that, then, we are free to cry out. We are free to ask questions.

Remember that, my friends: do not let me or anyone else ever shame you for asking questions of or about the Lord. If God loves you, and he does; and if God is all-powerful, which he is; then surely in the context of that relationship God can handle a few questions from the likes of you and me.

But having said that, we do well to remember that if we are in a relationship in which it is permissible for us to ask questions, we are obliged to hear them from time to time as well, are we not? A relationship that permits questioning only from one party is not really a relationship at all, is it?

Whether we cry, with Job, Why is this happening?, or we sit with Jesus and wonder, How in the world did we get to this point?, the responding question of the Divine is the same: Now that you are here, what will you do? Look, this horrible pain is happening. This suffering is upon us. This thing that we have feared is imminent. What will we do?

Let’s go back to the split screen. In Job, we see a reality that is twisted by the one called Ha-Satan – “the accuser”. Although he is only active in the first two chapters of the book, he causes great damage. When we meet him, he is parading in front of God, trying to incite God to doubt the reality of Job’s love for God. Talk about chutzpah – you’ve got nerve when you set out to sow doubt in the mind of the Almighty! But that’s what the Accuser does…and then he leaves God’s presence and comes to afflict Job with all manner of pain and suffering and grief in the hopes of sowing doubt and distrust in Job’s life and in that of his community.

And it works. For weeks, I’ve asked you to pay attention to the language of creation that shows up in Job. Look at what happens in the reading from this morning: Job not only curses the day of his birth – he wishes that that day were nothing but darkness. Go all the way back to page one of creation: what is the first thing that the Creator ever says? “Let there be light.” In his soliloquy, what is the first thing that Job says? “Let there be dark.”

And if you think I’m stretching it, then remember the end of the creation story. What is the last thing God does when he’s creating? He rests, and he gives rest to the creation. And how does Job end his soliloquy here in chapter 3? By saying that there is no such thing as rest. I suggest that Job chapter 3 is a reversal of creation – that the accuser has sought to undo the work of the Creator in Job’s life. And for the next 35 chapters, the story of Job and his friends is one of a community moving more and more deeply into this alternate reality whereby the grace of God is not enough to reach into Job’s life; there is neither light nor rest for that which God has made, and everything is all wrong.

The Accuser – Ha-Satan – wants Job and his wife and his friends to believe that the goodness of creation is a lie. The Accuser seeks to re-write the story of who and whose we are.

Palm_SundayLook at Luke. In our reading from today, the religious leaders – the very people who ought to be speaking the truth of God and surely truth about God – the religious leaders find themselves in the position of shushing the Divine. They are afraid of the praise of the Lord. They have lived into fear, into pride, into self-preservation… They have lived into the lies of the Accuser.

Listen to this: when Jesus sat on the back of that donkey on the first Palm Sunday, he faced the same question as did Job and as do you and me. The question before us each and every day is which story will we choose to believe? Who will we trust?

The Accuser told Job and his friends, he told Jesus and the religious leaders on Palm Sunday, and he tells us that it’s all up to us because we are fundamentally alone in the universe and therefore we are each ultimately and uniquely responsible for making our own meaning in the world.

And the Creator – the One who knows what does make for peace; the One who builds hedges around that which he loves; the One who brings order from chaos and who apparently enjoys the thought of singing rocks – that Creator approaches those whom he has made in love and promises to be with us in the hardest places of our lives.

The God who made you loves you enough to invite your questions. And the God who made you loves you enough to give you one of his own. It’s Palm Sunday. It’s a cute day to see all the little kids with their palm branches and maybe we even take a few fronds for ourselves.

But remember that today and every day we face a fundamental question of identity. This is the only Sunday in the whole year where we have both palms and ashes before us. We have the choice: whose story will we believe, and how will we show that in our lives?

It’s Palm Sunday, beloved. Cry out to God, if you need to. Where are you, God? Why is this happening? And cry out to your community, if you can. Hosanna! Blessed is the One who comes in the name of the Lord! And this week – this week in particular – follow Jesus. All week, follow Jesus, and learn with him to dwell more deeply in the story for which you were made. Amen.

Fit to Be Untied

We welcomed Palm Sunday (04/01/2012) in Crafton Heights by reading through Mark 11:1-11.  This was the conclusion to a month of conscious exploration of questions of membership in the church and connection with each other.  In addition to hearing the scripture and sermon, the congregation was invited to sign on to a large reproduction of the covenant as a means of displaying our connection with each other in Christ.

The Foal of Bethphage, James Tissot (between 1884-1896)

What do you suppose happened to the colt?  It appears to be one of the unanswered questions of scripture.  Mark tells us that Jesus’ followers went into town and took the animal, saying that Jesus said he’d bring it back when he was finished with it.

Do you think that he did?  I mean, things got pretty busy pretty fast that week.  Do you think that Jesus arranged for the little fella to get back to its mother?  Or was that a detail that got overlooked in the cleansing of the temple, the last round of teachings, and then the trial and crucifixion?

We don’t know what happened to the colt.  What we do know is that at the beginning of chapter 11, the colt is tied up.  We know that because in the space of the first five verses, there are five references to tying or untying that beast.

It was tied.  Do you suppose that the Jerusalem chapter of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals protested on behalf of this colt?  Why should that animal be tied up, anyway?  What if the source of water was just out of reach?  What if there were no shade or shelter from the intense Middle Eastern sun?  Why should that colt have to remain tethered there – or anywhere – subject to being pestered by dogs, children, or insects?  Colts are created for freedom!  To run, to leap, to play in the meadows of the world!  Untie that colt!

Yes, but…what if that colt was tied for its own protection?  After all, it was out of traffic.  Tying it there, under the vigilance of the neighborhood watch group, would keep the colt from being separated from its mother.  A tied colt is a secure, unflustered colt.

Why was it tied up?  It could have been any of those reasons, but I suppose that there was a simpler response to that question: the colt was tied there so that it would be ready when it was needed.

The gospel writer doesn’t reflect very long on how or why the colt was tethered.  All we know is that it was tied, and then it was untied and led to the place where Jesus used it.

I’m not really talking about colts, you know.

I wonder about you.  To what are you tied, and why?

Do you feel locked into your job?  Your relationship?  Your mortgage?

Some of us are tethered to a sense of self.  “I’m the guy who always has to ask ‘why?’”, someone told me the other day.  Maybe you see yourself as the life of the party or the “good” child or the caregiver.

We’re tied by our habits.  A friend of mine told me that he was unavailable for anything on Thursdays because it was bowling day.  You wash the car every Saturday.  Good habits can pin us down.  Of course, bad habits can, too: you keep twisting the truth as you try to finagle your way out of a situation at work and discover that you can’t remember what really is true…you think that maybe you could cut back on the amount of time you waste on your computer, but it’s so easy to just turn it on and get lost in the world of gaming…

As you think about your own life, do you prefer to be tied or untied?  For us, unlike that colt, it is essentially a matter of choice, after all.  We can decide to accept a job or buy a house or remain in a relationship or continue to play the games or whatever…

I believe that most of us, most of the time, prefer to be tied in to some areas of our lives.  We want something that is steady, and predictable.  We want a routine.  A friend told me recently that she hoped to develop the kind of relationship where she could go into a restaurant and have “the usual”.

I know that is not what our culture says that we want.  From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to Fight Club, from Thelma and Louise to the Hunger Games, we learn that humans want to be free from the shackles that confine us; we talk about breaking free from conformity and obedience and sameness… and yet we so often choose to be tethered to something.

My question for today, then, is this: do the things to which I tie myself interfere with Jesus’ ability to use me?

Giotto di Bondone, fresco, created between 1304-06

Jesus’ instruction, after all, was not merely to untie the colt.  He said, “Untie it, and bring it to me.”  At the risk of over-investing meaning in a sentence or two that Jesus said, it seems to me that we can infer that both tying and untying have a place and a purpose.  We are not created for slavery or drudgery or a dull grey monotonous existence.  “Untie that colt!” Yet neither are we sent into the wilderness of this world with no structure, no relationships, and no identity.  “And bring it to me!”

Like that colt, you and I are called to be in the place where we are most useful to God.  Sometimes, that is in a place where I am rooted or anchored, bound to structures and relationships that sustain and define me.

And sometimes, I need to be loosened from those places and led somewhere else.

Much of the time, the place to which I’m currently tied prepares me for life that is on the way.  Marriage prepared me for fatherhood, for instance.  Showing up at work allows me to practice keeping promises and to anticipate the situations I encounter once I am there.  And being in a special relationship with the group of people known as the First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights helps me to see what is important through eyes that are like, but not identical, to my own.

In a few moments, I’m going to invite you to consider whether you are able and willing to sign a document that reads as follows:

We, the undersigned, in response to the grace of God, desire to be constituted and organized as a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), to be known as The First United Presbyterian Church of Crafton Heights.  We promise and covenant to live together in unity and to work together in ministry as disciples of Jesus Christ, bound to him and to one another as a part of the body of Christ in this place according to the principles of faith, mission, and order of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

This covenant involves a lot of tethering – to live in unity; to work in ministry; to join together as followers of Jesus.  In the covenant, we are tied to each other in faith, in mission, and in an order that comes from Christ.  That covenant implies mutual submission.  In signing that document, I am making a choice.

It’s important for us to realize that when I sign this covenant, I am binding myself not only to the Lord, but to you – for His sake and for the sake of the world, in addition to whatever joy I might receive from maintaining a connection with you.

The first Palm Sunday gave the people in Jerusalem the opportunity to acclaim Jesus as Lord and savior.  In the events of the week that followed, his closest friends re-evaluated what exactly it meant to say that Jesus is “savior” and “lord”.  They were already tied to Jesus, of course, but in that first Holy Week they had to untie themselves from the notion of Savior as that of a conquering hero or military presence.  When they were free from those notions, then the earliest church was able to follow Jesus into the world, loving and serving in his name.

Being a part of the Presbyterian Church (USA) has historically been, in some places at least, a pretty smart move.  You came into town and you signed a covenant like this and you could expect certain payoffs.  The Presbyterian Church was full of contacts that would be useful for your career.  The Presbyterians were known to have a lot of doctors and lawyers and bankers, so when you needed some advice, it was nice to know that those folks were playing on your team.  The Presbyterian Church was full of “our kind” of people, and you could go there, as did my parents, to meet a prospective spouse and then some babysitters.  Being Presbyterian carried with it a certain level of credibility and prestige – at least in many places.

And, for all I know, that’s still true in some corner of the globe.  But for the most part, we live in a culture in which church is irrelevant.  It’s seen as, at best, an idealistic gesture wherein we can gather to attempt to hold on to memories from the past. Bill Gates
, the founder of Microsoft, has summed up this view of the church by saying: “Just in terms of allocation of time resources, religion is not very efficient. There’s a lot more I could be doing on a Sunday morning.”  At its worst, of course, the church is now seen as a destructive influence that perpetuates bigotry and hatred and ought to be done away with.

And yet, here we are, committed to one another in love.  Here we are, sitting next to people who not only are NOT Doctors and Lawyers ready to give out free advice, or business tycoons who are prepared to advance our careers – heck, the people we are sitting with can’t even be trusted to like our music, or to vote the way that they ought to in November, or to make decisions that we always agree with.

And yet God is calling us to tie ourselves to each other in the belief that we as a body will be of use to him in this time and in this place.  Not because we are so smart or well connected or attractive or even right all of the time, but because there is something here that we cannot make, we can only receive; there is something here that is given, not taken; there is something here that is for healing, not for cursing.  There is the body of Christ.

This day, I hope that you will join me in promising ourselves to each other because we trust that Jesus Christ is still at the front of this parade, and he will take us where we ought to go.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.