The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost—PR 23—Year B; The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31
Today is not the gospel of sweetness and light. It is rough from the get-go.
Job is smack dab in the middle of his complaint. Remember the story…Job is upright and blameless. Satan and God have a bet on how long he’ll stay upright and blameless if he starts to suffer. He goes through multiple calamities losing all of his material goods and even his 10 children. Still, he’s an unbelievably loyal, faithful subject to God. Then, Satan talks God into a little bodily affliction, those loathsome sores, and those sores send Job right over the edge. For the next 35 chapters, Job goes round and round with his friends, who are lousy friends indeed. They keep trying to pin all his suffering on him. He must have done something wrong because bad things just don’t happen to good people. Or, his kids must have done something wrong because bad things just don’t happen to good people. Bad enough that the innocent guy has to suffer, but he even gets blamed for it by his friends. Tragic.
Well, today, Job turns his complaint toward the heavens. “Today also my complaint is bitter…Oh, that I knew where I might find him…I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge. If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him…If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!”
Translation: “If I could just talk with God, if I could just get my case in front of him…I have a load of stuff I want to say! If I could just talk with God, if I could just ask him, ‘Why? Why? Why is all this happening?’ –then I’d know why I am having to go through all of this. God wouldn’t flatten me. God knows I am a good guy. No, God would be in this conversation with me. If I could just talk with God, I know I could reason with him. And he would declare my innocence. But I can’t find him. I want to talk to God so badly, but I can’t find him. No matter what direction I go, forward, backward, left, right, he’s not there. I can’t perceive him, I can’t find him, I can’t see him, I can’t even catch a glimpse of him walking away—nothing. No matter where I turn, God is not there, nada, nothing. I just wish that it would be so dark that I couldn’t see at all, at least then I wouldn’t have to see the fact that God is not there.”
I think this is what despair looks like. Ever been there? Ever had something happen to you that seemed totally unjust, so not fair, some suffering, some brokenness that was beyond your ability to understand or comprehend, something that you just couldn’t make sense of? Have you ever wanted to hold God accountable for your pain? Have you ever wanted to pin God’s ears back, to lay your case out before him because you need for him, and for the world, to know that you don’t deserve this, that nobody deserves this? Have you had a season when you desperately needed God, and yet you couldn’t find God anywhere? And what’s worse, if you have ever known intimacy with God, and then, God is just gone—you see, you know, what you don’t have. That’s despair. That’s dark, and in that place, vanishing seems like a pretty good option.
Most human beings, at some point in their life, maybe at more than one point in their life, they get to this place.
What do you do? What do you do when it has all gone horribly wrong, and you can’t find God anywhere? We want to do something, anything, to get the suffering to stop.
“What must I do to inherit eternal life?” said the man to Jesus. Jesus answered his question with a list of “to-do’s,” but those didn’t do the trick. You see, it’s not about doing anything.
“You lack one thing; go and sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions. Jesus turned around and looked at his disciples, “It’s so hard. It’s so hard to enter the kingdom of God. It’s so hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle then to give up that one thing that we’re attached to, and our attachment makes it impossible to enter the kingdom. You can’t open your hands or your heart to receive the gift when you’re still clinging.”
The disciples were astounded, “Then who can be saved?” Jesus looked at them with love and possibility, “For you, for mortals, for human beings, it’s impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Peter, blessed Peter, he jumped in, “Look, we have left everything and followed you, family, friends, jobs, everything.” Jesus said, “I know, I know, and for you, and those others who have left it all, you will know an abundance, a fullness, in this life, beyond your imagining, and in the age to come, eternal life—you will know eternal life because you will know union with God.”
That rich man, he thought it was about doing something to receive the gift of eternal life. It’s not about what we have to do to experience union with God; it’s about what we have to give up. It’s not about doing something, it’s about giving up whatever’s in the way. For that man, it was his riches. Why? Because sometimes, when you have material resources, you can begin to believe that it is all up to you to make your way in this world, and from there, it’s not hard to leap to the thought, “And it’s up to me to make my way to God.” We can’t earn our way there. Not through our money, not through our adherence to the commandments, not through an upright and blameless life. Suffering will come, and that suffering doesn’t mean we’ve lost God any more than our successes mean that we have gained God’s favor. What saves us? Giving up. Surrendering. Throwing ourselves on the mercy of God. Giving up on our incessant need to understand and have answers and figure it all out. What saves us? Leaving it all behind. And the “it” is different for each one of us.
What is the “it” for you? In the words of Jesus, “What is the one thing that you lack?” What is the one thing that is standing between you and God? What is the one thing that is keeping you from experiencing union with this Divine Presence that yearns to have you “come away, my love,” as that lover of the Song of Solomon cries out. What is that stone that is keeping you from waking up and walking out of your tomb into light and life? What is keeping you from knowing what resurrection is in your heart and body and mind and soul? And what will it take for you to let that one thing go?
Ultimately, we can’t will God to reveal God’s face. There are times when it all goes dark. But just because we can’t see God, doesn’t mean that God is not there. The mystics of old named this way of knowing God the via negativa—it’s when we know God in what God is not. Yeah, I know, it’s a paradox and an obnoxiously obnoxious paradoxical paradox at that. But in those times of deepest darkness, in those times when we can’t see God, there is still a place we can turn.
And The Letter to the Hebrews show us where that place is.
“For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” And who is that high priest? It’s the same one who cried from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me…” Jesus knows what it means to hit the absolute depths of human despair—Jesus knows what it is to be Job. And that “yet without sin” part—what does that mean? I think “sin” means “separation.” If we take the leap that Jesus bore full divinity in his being, that his humanity was fully infused with divinity, that divinity dwelled in him at a cellular level, then, he was without sin, he was without separation, in his being; he was one. I believe that Jesus drank the dregs of human anguish, absolutely, completely; when he cried that godforsaken cry, he had no hope—no hope of resurrection, no hope of light, no hope of joy, no hope of life—he wanted to vanish into the darkness…And yet, because of who he was in his being, because he bore divine life in his being, because of his oneness, that human anguish and despair was brought into total, absolute, communion with God never to be separated, never to be out of union with God again. That despair and anguish was brought into relationship with God in a way that can’t ever be undone. Ever. Sisters and brothers, that’s why The Letter to the Hebrews can say, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Grace, mercy, Presence, these are the treasures that await us when we give up that one thing, whatever that one thing is, that we’re clinging to. Maybe we hold onto it for dear life because we fear that if we let it go, the darkness will swallow us whole, but even the darkness is filled with the Presence of God. We can’t fall through the bottom because Jesus’ arms are stretched out even there waiting to catch us.
If you can’t find God, fear not. Your human condition is still in perfect union with the Divine, whether you can feel that union or not. All that is left for you to do is fall into the arms of the Living God. Give up. Surrender. Leave behind whatever is standing in your way from taking that leap, then approach the throne of grace with boldness. The life you’ve been waiting for, the life you’ve been yearning for, the life that Jesus is inviting you to, that life begins when you leave your “it,” whatever “it” is, behind and leap into the darkness knowing, trusting, that somehow, some way, you will be caught by the Presence that lives even there. Amen.
The Rev. Cynthia K. R. Banks
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Boone, NC
October 14, 2012