Our Gospel lesson also speaks of suffering. James and John come to Jesus with what seems a childish request: Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus tells them that choice seats in the kingdom are not his to grant--at least not yet. He then questions them: “Do you know what you are asking? Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with [my] baptism?” They said yes, and, indeed, it was fulfilled--at least part of it--the suffering part.
“He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward,
since he, himself is subject to weakness.”
Year B: Proper 24 Jan Robitscher
Job 38:1-7 (34:1) Church of Our Savior
Psalm Psalm 104: 1-0, 28, 37b Mill Valley, CA
Hebrews 5:1010 October 21, 2012
In the Name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
There is a question that comes up sooner or later in the Christian life. Sometimes it happens in a moment of doubt or in the course of spiritual direction or counseling, or, in older age, as we approach death. It is: Why is the God of the Old Testament so different from the God of the New Testament? Or at least, why does it seem that way? Is the God of Job an all-powerful tyrant? Is Jesus the “nice Son” of a mean and nasty God? If we read these lessons in a certain way, we are in danger of coming to just this conclusion. And what--if anything--do these lessons have to do with the diocesan ministry called An Episcopal Ministry to Convalescent Hospitals, affectionately known as AEMCH, and the reason for my visit? I think there is a connection, but first, back to the lessons.
In order to understand what is happening as God speaks to Job, we must first set the scene. Old Testament scholar Robert Alter gives us a good summary:
When Job, in rapid succession, has been bereft of all his various
flocks and servants and then of all his children, and is stricken
from head to foot with itching sores, he refuses his wife’s urging
that he curse God and die and instead sits down in mournful
[Job] confronts his three “friends” who have come with all
assurance of conventional wisdom to inform him that his
suffering is certain evidence of his having done evil. Job
consistently refuses to compromise the honesty of his own life.
Eventually, the Lord answers Job out of the whirlwind...
I can hear it now--God yelling at an innocent Job:
Who is this that darkens counsel by words
Gird up your loins like a man and I will question you
and you shall declare to me.
Where were were you when I laid the foundations
of the earth?
But wait! God does a remarkable thing here, and maybe God isn’t yelling. What if the story of Job is not so much about the “why” of suffering as it is about God’s presence in it? What if what seems like God’s temper tantrum is really a poem--a love poem--about the creation of the world and all that dwells in it? Granted there are no easy “outs” for Job. God rebukes him, and justly, for railing against suffering he cannot understand. Yet, In a systematic way, God is telling Job that there has never been a time when God was not with him--even in his suffering--for God created everything that is, as we affirm in the Creed every week. Job (who eventually has his life and goods restored) is reduced to silence before such a love-poem as God speaks. But at the same time his outlook changes from death to life in the presence of this awesome, tough-loving, caring God.
Our Gospel lesson also speaks of suffering. James and John come to Jesus with what seems a childish request: Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.” Jesus tells them that choice seats in the kingdom are not his to grant--at least not yet. He then questions them: “Do you know what you are asking? Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with [my] baptism?” They said yes, and, indeed, it was fulfilled--at least part of it--the suffering part. What Jesus is saying is that the choicest seats in the coming kingdom come only to those willing to serve and to suffer. Later, when the disciples become angry with James and John, Jesus explained, perhaps in quiet tones, that if they want to be great in the coming kingdom, they must be a servant, and that he “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Here, in Jesus, is the ultimate innocent suffering.
Perhaps this still seems like God in two different voices--or maybe even two different gods. But is it?
These themes are drawn together in our lesson from Hebrews. If it sounds familiar, it is because part of it occurs in the service of Tenebrae, in Holy Week. At St. Mark’s, this lesson is always chanted.
(sung) He is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward,
since he himself is beset with weakness.
And it goes on to say that:
Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest,
but was appointed by the one who said to him,
‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you.’
...Although he was a son, he learned obedience
through what he suffered; and having been made
perfect a source of eternal salvation for all who
Here is Jesus--Emmanuel--God-with-us—in his own suffering; even in the midst of our suffering.
So what does all this have to do with visiting the elderly frail in convalescent hospitals?
Twice each month a group from St. Mark’s goes to visit the residents of Berkeley Pines Convalescent Hospital. While it is not a bad place, it is certainly not like The Redwoods or any other nice retirement facility. It is the final home for those on Medicaid. The folks there are often not fully there and the smells can be overwhelming. So this is not exactly a fun ministry. But we go there and we sing old timey hymns like “What a Friend we have in Jesus”:
(sung)Have we trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
Can we find a friend so faithful
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness,
Take it to the Lord in prayer.
And the music reaches where words cannot. We come and sing hymns, say Psalm 23, read Scripture, pray the Lord’s Prayer and sometimes give them communion. And they respond. Some sing, move to the sound of the old, familiar hymns while others just listen or fall asleeep. And we are not afraid to preach that God is with us in every circumstance; that suffering and death do not hold the last word for Christians, and that we are all preparing for what we say in the closing lines of the creed: “the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come”. Helen, a wonderful Jewish woman who has gone on to greater glory, attended our services faithfully and each time reminded us that Jesus was a “good Jewish boy”. Then she would lead the Intercessions. And we would sing another hymn...
The hardest part about today’s readings is their message that Jesus’ willingness to suffer on the cross for us demands our willing participation, however small. If Jesus can “deal gently with the ignorant and wayward”, so can we. Like Job, we must fall silent before suffering we do not understand, realizing that God has been with us all along. Like the disciples, we must not strive for seats of honor in the kingdom, but say “YES” to participating in Jesus’ service and his baptism of suffering.
But we are not left to do this alone! Each week we come to receive the very life of Jesus right here at this Altar. As we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in Communion, we become Christ-bearers to the world. It is in that strength that we go forth to do ministries that call us to share in the sufferings of others.
So what do I tell my directees and others when the “question of the two gods” comes up? I tell them that I hope they will come to appreciate the whole story, whether of Job or Jesus--and know that the Bible gifts us with story of salvation--from the creation of the world in Genesis to the glorious vision at the end of the Revelation to John. In this Story you will find one God, who is beyond our limited knowledge; who cannot be contained or tamed, God-with-us in Jesus, and God’s consoling Spirit—one God who is present with us in our own suffering, in the suffering of the elderly, in the suffering of our world.
Here is Good News, indeed!