Proper 22b 2015: Strong, Powerless, Suffering

(When are we strong? When are we suffering? When are we powerless?)
“And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.” Jesus shows his disciples how to handle children: playful, maybe unruly, demanding, necessary-for-our-livelihood, and without power or authority. First century children were necessary to bestow honor on a family, to show their blessing from God (that the wife could bear children), to complete the manual labor that life demanded. If we didn’t have children, how would our family exist in the future? We ask that same question in churches today. Jesus’ reply is that children are not the future, but the present: it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. That is incredibly good news for those of us who are still at times playful, a little unruly, occasionally demanding, and might feel that we have no place or power or authority. When have you felt powerless?

It is fitting that this short passage about loving children, about loving the powerless, immediately follows a passage about divorce. To be clear: this is a difficult passage of Scripture; there are few, if any of us, who have not been touched by divorce. We might squirm at hearing Jesus’ words today. Let’s study the passage anyway.

The Pharisees ask Jesus a question in order to trick him – they are trying to build a case against him, to find fault with him. The gospel of Mark gives us many examples of authorities trying to trick Jesus. They ask Jesus a question about divorce. The “trick” is two-fold: one, Mosaic law already allows for divorce; and two, different schools/opinions in Judaism have been debating what the ruling (Scripture) in the book of Deuteronomy means. If Jesus takes a side in the debate, then the authorities can use that against him. Remember how hard it is to win an argument with Jesus, or to get a straight answer to a question. How does Jesus answer? That’s right, with a question. “What does the Law of Moses say?” The Pharisees “know” that Jesus is going to take a side in the debate. The Pharisees give an appropriate answer. Jesus doesn’t fall for the trick; instead, he gives us “the rest of the story,” that divorce came about because of our, human hardness of heart. Divorce, some might say, is a concession to human weakness; it is not part of God’s plan. Jesus takes the Pharisees’ use of Scripture and extends it all the way back to creation. Moses’ Law says … but God’s plan says that marriage is part of creation. All of a sudden we are talking about marriage and God’s grace through the Law for our failings. God is merciful. This is a situation in which Jesus does not call the people to abolish the law of Moses, but to deepen it; to look not at human interpretations of what we are to do, but to look the best we can at creation in the way God made it. In that creation, male and female were created as help-mates, partners, one flesh. Women in Jesus’ time were often impoverished and shamed from the act of divorce. They would suffer. Today, too, divorce causes suffering to everyone involved: the spouses, their families, children, friends, and our communities. We suffer. We, too, are pulled into the arms of Jesus.

I wonder how many of us have felt powerless this week? We were powerless over a storm named Joaquin that brought rain to the United States, but not the devastation that could have happened. We watched people in the Bahamas suffer under that storms wrath. We might have felt powerless once again when we heard about another shooter, another mass murder in a school. Ten victims and the perpetrator are dead. Families and communities are suffering. We are hurt, angry, fed up, and divided about what to do. When, dear Lord, will it end?

Our big question, of course, is why? Why do innocents suffer? Our biblical resource for that question is Job. Job feared God and turned away from evil. Job lost everything, and we join him today as he tries to soothe his itching skin with a broken piece of pottery. He is suffering greatly. He is powerless, it seems, against Satan and God. We have the opportunity, through the lens of the book of Job, to ask hard questions. We may not get the answer that we would like; God’s answers tend not to have one side or another, but nuances that go back to creation itself. We may be humbled, left in awe. What about Job? I propose that although he suffered greatly, and he did, and he was powerless, he was also strong. Job was strong in faith in a way that we can be today. Job looked at reality and cursed his life, but he did not curse God. Job was strong – stubborn – in his faith and poured out his heart and his anguish to God. It is not a weak faith that dares to question God, that dares to speak its deepest thoughts, but an enduring faith. Thanks be to God for faith that strong, for hard questions, and uneasy answers. For mystery.

What do we do in light of one more storm, in light of ongoing and frequent murders? The answer is not one, or two, but many. Some may advocate for gun controls, regulations on purchase, use, permits, and testing. Some might work for controls through the pricing of guns or ammunition. I invite us to respond in the way that our faith calls us, and to remember our baptismal vows in our discourse, public and private: respect the honor and dignity of all persons. Gun owners. Gun haters, abstainers. Children. Those with no power. Those who suffer. Those who are strong.

As a faith community, part of our way forward is in prayer. God is the strength that we have, the strength that secular action cannot provide. I ask you to pray every day. Pray for the church. Pray for the living and the dead. Pray for those with power and for those with none. Pray not that we will get what we want, but that God’s kingdom will be created, that God’s kingdom will come. Pray that we will be so transformed by the power and love of Jesus Christ that we, too, children of God, and that all children of God – that is, all of creation, will be gathered into the arms of Jesus.

Those killed are Lucero Alcaraz, 19; Treven Taylor Anspach, 20; Rebecka Ann Carnes, 18; Quinn Glen Cooper, 18; Kim Saltmarsh Dietz, 59; Lucas Eibel, 18; Jason Dale Johnson, 34; Lawrence Levine, 67; and Sarena Dawn Moore, 44. And the shooter.

“For it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”

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