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Homily – All Saints 2015

One of the more off-putting aspects of the Great Religions for our culture is that they are old. Old buildings, old music, old words. Little wonder there are those who say that if the church really wants to speak to our day it had better “get with it” and modernize. But there is something to be said for not “getting with it.” Tradition, the past, gives today’s Christian not only roots, order, and stability, but options. We often manage to liberate ourselves from the chains of the past only to become slaves of the present … and as anyone who really works at keeping up with current fads discovers, the present is a demanding master. In words that would warm the cockles of a history major’s heart, in church or out, I would tell you the past is all about giving us options.

He’d been born, as most of us in the room were born, in the right kind of family on the right side of the tracks. His father had done well in business. He had good looks, a good education, good friends, liked good times, and even a good fight. But as this Bernadone kid grew older, he became more serious … was more and more bothered by the poor he kept bumping into. Encountering a street person ravaged by disease once, he hurried by, pitching a coin back at him to ease his conscience when, from out of nowhere a wave of compassion rose in this formerly carefree young man. Overcoming his revulsion at the dirt and smell, he turned around, walked back, and embraced the leper … and all was changed. History knows him as St. Francis, a young man who walked away from “the good life” for another option. One can only guess the potentially disruptive effects of considering such a story, so one of the most unsettling and revolutionary acts I can do is to tell the stories of the saints—woman and men who said NO to the poverty of options afforded them by culture and the status quo, and YES to God. Lack of imagination is the first victim of faddishness, and an inability to remember great lives has produced a failure of nerve in us.

A professional counselor now retired was telling me how he had decided to get into the helping field. In college his advisor had lent him a book: 100 Careers that Can Change the World. He read one of the page-long explanations of vocations, and was moved by the one on being a counselor. He then offhandedly remarked, “no one writes books like that anymore, because no one believes it.” At times I fear he is right. So all the more do we need occasions like this. The point of the story of a saint is that the Christ-life is not beyond me. The gospel is the power whereby the spirit of God makes people not just nice but new.

So remembering is a revolutionary act, and we do not worship alone. Our holy ancestors huddle around us, tug at our sleeves, whisper to us from their perches … Deborah, Samson, Jeremiah, John Chrysostom, Teresa of Avila, Dietrich Bonhoeffer … grandma, a kindly neighbor, your 4th grade teacher. Every time we assemble we rejoin a divine-human conversation which began long before any of us were born, which is why it can be so comforting to come to church (to remember we are not alone in this), and why it can be so very threatening too (being roused from our delusions that as the first generation to be so challenged, we are really doing as well as can be expected). In the saints there is a warning that the status quo will never be enough.

The saints don’t need our praise, but we very much need their witness that greatness is possible. So we need to do more than sing a song in their honor. We need to be challenged by their lives, have our complacency shaken, and have our self-identity as victims overthrown. So your holyday assignment is to the November reading of a bio of a great person (whether religious or secular is immaterial). [Just never confuse greatness with fame: Lady Gaga has one; the Theresas of Avila and Calcutta, the other.] By it you will be reminded that people with no more native talent than you changed their world (beginning with themselves), and that holiness is indeed within your grasp.

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Homily – Sunday, June 21, 2015

Ordinary XII

We don’t hear much about Job in church; yet his is one of the Bible’s most compelling stories. It’s that unjustified suffering thing of his that grabs us. You can read about Moses splitting the Red Sea or Deborah routing the Canaanites and never think of your own life, but once Job starts cursing the day he was born it’s hard not to empathize. We’ve all been there, or know someone who is: the divorced neighbor with MS; the couple whose first child has a birth defect. Stories like these make Job our contemporary in a way few biblical characters are. He’s the guy who does everything right, and who gets the shaft all the same.

God and Satan (who at this stage in Israel’s life isn’t the devil with horns and a pitchfork but the respected district attorney on God’s heavenly team) are debating what motivates human behavior. Satan insinuates it’s only because God rewards and punishes that humans walk the straight and narrow. Job becomes the guinea pig to test the premise, and Satan is allowed to take everything away from him: property, children, even his health. The thing to grasp is that the Book of Job isn’t a documentary, but a theological argument in the form of a drama. This first part of the story isn’t its point (that God does indeed play with us like pawns). It’s just the “set-up” for the real question: what’s the connection between how we act and the things that happens to us?

Anyone who speaks of “the patience of Job” has never read beyond chapter 2—for after a week of silent enduring, Job erupts: “damn the day I was born!” [We heard a portion of this in February: “is not life drudgery … is ours not a slave’s existence?” he said] Job argues his case on and off for 37 chapters before his friends who, if initially sympathetic, get all defensive when he starts railing at God. They tell him he must have done something to deserve this. Only Job (and God) know he’s innocent. The friends explain Job’s pain by coming up with pious theories to explain it (like “God never gives you more than you can handle” and “God must have wanted your kids more than you”). The more he suffers, the more platitudes they dish up. Finally, Job shakes his fist at God: “I’ve done everything you’ve ever asked of me! Why is this happening? Answer me!” And God does … a tiny portion of which is our 1st reading. It was chosen to go with the gospel, which shows Jesus’ power over the uncontrollable sea … but I want to stick with Job today. God’s rebuttal goes on for four chapters, but never does answer the question. Job’s asked about justice; God speaks about omnipotence, and as far as I know that’s the only answer we’ve ever gotten about why things happen the way they do. God only knows; and none of us is God.

Virginia Woolf wrote to a friend, “I read the Book of Job last night—I don’t think God comes out well in it.” Indeed, some take from the book that God is an arrogant bully who reaches down and squashes Job like a bug, and that a Supreme Being who doesn’t show any respect for human suffering doesn’t deserve the title (in which case I guess Satan is right: no one worships God for nothing). But I prefer to take my cue from Job, who sounds anything but crushed when it’s all over: “I’ve spoken of things beyond me,” he tells God. “I had heard of you by word of mouth, but now my eye has seen you—I will be still, disowning what I have said.” Why be quiet though he didn’t receive an answer? Because he saw God face to face and lived to tell the tale. It was as if a flea had insisted that the lion upon which it was riding stop—stop right now—and explain why the ride was so bumpy and hot … until one day the lion turned round and roared right back, so the flea saw itself reflected in both golden eyes at once. Never mind what the lion said. The lion turned round; the lion roared. And that’s enough to live on for the rest of his life.

If there’s an answer to the problem of unjustified suffering here, then it’s this: that for most of us the worst thing that can happen is not to suffer without reason but to suffer without God—without hope of consolation or rebirth. All other pain pales next to the pain of divine abandonment (ask Jesus about that), and what the Book of Job wants us to know is that God does not finally abandon us. When there’s nothing left, what’s still left is the God of creation, who laid the foundation of the universe and set limits for the sea. This is the Lord of Life who never runs out of life, and from whom we may always ask for more. According to Job we don’t have to be polite about it either. In the end, God prefers Job’s outrage to his friends’ empty piety. When in pain, it’s all right to yell as loud as you can, “Why is this happening to me?” It may even bring God out of hiding with a roar that lays our ears flat against our heads (and makes the angels shout for joy).

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