Overwhelmed: Heed the voice of youth

the series finale!overwhelmed4forworship

Here’s a question I wish someone would have asked Jesus in any of the gospels: “In the resurrection, what age will I be?”

Like: can I have the knees of Steve in his 20s but the insight of Steve in his 50s? And PLEASE, the metabolism of 19 year old Steve? Hair color: yeah, I don’t care; I’m ok with this washed-out gray-brown. (and if you don’t see any brown any more, just don’t tell me.”

There are a lot of people lately who feel compelled to keep before us that at the Wedding Banquet for the Lamb, imagined in Revelation and some of Jesus’ teachings, the tables will be filled with people who “don’t look like us.” Mike Ramsdell pointed out a week ago that the “geographic center” of United Methodism is in Rwanda.

We are reminded that however divided the kingdoms of this world are by race or class or culture, the Kingdom of God is beautifully, gloriously diverse!

But even that picture, the images most of us conjure, I’m afraid, are limited to diversity of hue of skin, hairstyles, and clothing variances.

I wonder how many of us imagine the wide age diversity?

What age do you want to be in the resurrection? Have you ever given it any thought? Does it matter to you?

We are tackling the Book of Job under the heading of “overwhelmed.” I think it is fair to say that Job was overwhelmed, and that, perhaps, we can learn something from his story that can help us deal with feeling overwhelmed.

One of Job’s problems, I suggested in week 2 of this series, was that he thought his world was the world. In his world, life had always worked in this way: you work hard, you get paid. You slack, you don’t. Of course, this wasn’t just work and pay; Job had read this way onto life itself: if you try your best, if you do good, you would be rewarded with good things and happiness.

Job HAD a good life; he had his best life now! He had lived well!  He is introduced, you remember, this way, Job “was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil.” (1:1)

Then there’s this bet in heaven where the satan accuses God of protecting Job, playing favorites with Job. So God lets the Satan take away all his possessions. Job doesn’t flinch, the satan goes back to God, God allows him to inflict Job with sores, head to toe.

Then we get 28 chapters of back and forth between Job and 3 of his friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. After sitting silently with him for 7 days and nights. In Jewish tradition, and a tradition we would do well to adopt, they didn’t speak to Job, the one grieving, until he spoke to them. Then, in turn, they each tell Job he has done something to deserve this, to bring it on himself. And to each, Job insists he hasn’t.

Job and his friends have, to this point, existed in the same world; the world where right behavior is blessed and wrong behavior is cursed. It only remained to learn – or for Job to admit – what the wrong behavior was.

But these things hadn’t happened to Job because he had done anything wrong!

After several back-and-forths with his friends, the story starts to take a different turn. Job turns nostalgic in chapter 29:

Oh, that life was like it used to be,
  like days when God watched over me;
when his lamp shone on my head,
  I walked by his light in the dark;
when I was in my prime;
  when God’s counsel was in my tent;
when the Almighty was with me,
  my children around me;(2-5)

And chapter 30 takes a turn that I, honestly, didn’t see coming:

But now those younger than I mock me,
   whose fathers I refused to put beside my sheepdogs.

I don’t know where this is coming from – at least not in the text. No one younger than Job has mocked him. NO one younger than Job has been mentioned.

But, I suppose, that sense does sometimes come following nostalgia. For instance, some of you might have felt this way:

“The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, and tyrannize their teachers.”

Do you know who said this? This gets really fun. It has many times been attributed to Socrates, but really only dates back to 1908. We’ve been despairing our youth for a long time – and attributing it even longer!

Or this: “Even as I said it, I knew the phrase, ‘to make a living’ could have absolutely no meaning to these children of the affluent society.”

Sounds about right today – except Ernest Fladell of Life Magazine said it in 1968. Of the baby boomers. For those following along at home, baby boomers are between 55 and 73 now.

We have a long history of thinking nostalgic and somehow then turning that around on younger people.

Here’s the deal: since this is nothing new, I don’t intend to come down hard on anyone for it. But, you know, there’s this thing that once you know about something, you’ve lost the excuse of, “Oh, I didn’t realize I was doing that.”

Here’s the deal this makes for today: the next turn in the Book of Job is the introduction of Elihu; Elihu is a 4th friend, one who we hadn’t met before chapter 32. You heard that introduction just before I started. I’ll recap the end of what was read, and take it a little further:

Elihu had waited while Job spoke, for they were older than he. When Elihu saw that there had been no response in the speeches of the three men, he became very angry.

Elihu son of Barachel the Buzite said:
I’m young and you’re old,
   so I held back, afraid to express my opinion to you.
I thought, Let days speak;
   let multiple years make wisdom known.
But the spirit in a person,
   the Almighty’s breath, gives understanding.
The advanced in days aren’t wise;
   the old don’t understand what’s right.
Therefore, I say: “Listen to me;
   I’ll state my view, even I.”
Look, I waited while you spoke,
   listened while you reasoned,
   while you searched for words.
I was attentive to you,
   but you offered no rebuke to Job,
   no answer from you for his words.

Folks: we’ve got a generational thing going on here! But it isn’t really about old versus young or young versus old. It is, I am convinced, another angle on my contention that “your world isn’t the world.”

How much of your experience of the world today is controlled or limited by your age, by your stage in life?

The temptation, at least as I experience it, is to think that we accumulate perspectives rather than replacing them. Let me try to unpack that.

This past Monday I was at South Euless Elementary. I mentor a 5th grade boy – which, in our case, means I meet with him at lunch. He sat down, and unpacked his bag. A honey bun, veggie chips, a salami sandwich, and a banana. And he proceeds to eat them in that order. I commented on his eating the honey bun first. (I wasn’t correcting him; I’ve sat with this guy at enough lunches to know that he’s going to eat everything.

I ask if he is going to eat things in that order. Had he considered, I wondered aloud, mixing, say, bites of sandwich in between crunching the chips?

No, way, he told me. Back to his honey bun.

I laughed inside. I remember when I ate that way! Divide and conquer. Then, years later, I was into the “mix it all up stage.” Now, I can go either way. Honestly, I usually eat all my veggies first. Not ‘cause I like ‘em, but ‘cause I know I need to eat them, and I want to get them out of the way before the good stuff.

My first tendency, though, was to correct this 5th grader; to invite him to the wily and daring world of intermixing the different parts of his meal.

Because I used to eat that way, and now I eat this way. So this way must be better, right?

Not. At. All.

I have replaced the perspective I had in 5th grade about eating the various parts of a meal. But I can still remember it, but it takes a bit of an effort not only to remember it but to value it. It is a different perspective than mine, but not a worse (or a better) one.

If we aren’t careful, we run the risk, as we grow older, of deluding ourselves into thinking we have collected perspectives and that this makes our current perspective the best one of all those we’ve been through.

Not. necessarily, true.

For instance: Job had YEARS of ‘proof’ that his perspective that good is rewarded (or blessed) and bad is punished (or cursed). But now, his kids all grown, he’s faced with a life that doesn’t actually work according to that perspective.

And Elihu, who now offers a different perspective, happens to be younger. Younger enough, it seems, not to be so set in his ways.

Which is a misnomer if ever there was one.

The ways you and I get “set in” as we age aren’t our ways; they are those, if we aren’t careful, of the generations that have gone before us. Like in Baby Boomers today lamenting about the laziness and fragility of millennials – sometimes using the EXACT SAME language their parents and grandparents used to lament about them!

I wonder how different it might look if we remembered how we felt hearing our parents – or other elders – pontificate about how things were “back in their day” before we started pontificating today?

Elihu offers a different perspective than Job’s other friends, and the only difference we are offered as a possible explanation is that he is younger.

I am pretty sure the Bible is trying to tell us something here.

A friend of mine served on the Board for United Methodist Communications as a youth. We haven’t done a stellar job of this, but did you know we, as a UMC, are required to have youth representation on every committee? Young people, I promise to improve this.

So, this friend’s name is Alice. At the time I was the Youth Coordinator for the Central Texas Conference, and that meant that sometimes I got the opportunity to take Alice to and from the airport she she could make the UMCOM board meetings.

One time, on the drive home from such a meeting, I asked her how the meeting was.

She was exasperated. They had spent a long time talking about how to reach and better communicate with 18-34 year olds. That’s an important demographic that the church – most churches – have had a lot of trouble connecting with.

Here’s the deal, though: Alice was 18 at the time, and they would never let her talk?

I mean, why get the perspective of an actual 18 year old?

As a church – a church with many more people my age (54) and older than younger – we have a lot of work to do to reach out to, to communicate with, younger people. And I have to admit, I’ve been at meetings – I’ve been part of discussions! – where us older folks talk about what will reach younger folks. Or where men talk about how to reach women, or where white people talk about how to reach other ethnicities.

There are many distinctions or boundaries between the vast diversity of humanity all around us, but they’re all porous. As God’s people, we are called to cross all the boundaries we can – age, gender, ethnicity, worldview, perspective.

Elihu reminds us of one of the echo chambers we fall into most easily, and I want to offer you one of the ways I think God has laid right in front of us that we can – and must – get out of our echo chambers. I almost said “comfort zone,” but I don’t know that we’re really all that comfortable.

If we were really comfortable where we are, with who we are as a congregation, we wouldn’t need a series called “overwhelmed.” Honestly: we are overwhelmed with many things, and in many ways.

Like Elihu speaking to Job, I am closing this series with one obvious step for us to take when we feel overwhelmed. Let us heed the voice of youth.

Here’s one way. Our Preschool. Our Preschool brings about 190 kids onto our campus each week. These kids come with parents. Some of those families have church homes, but some of them don’t.

What can we do to reach out to, to bless these families that trust their kids with the care offered by our church?

So; I don’t know which aged-version of you you expect to “be” in the resurrection, but I think we’ll find ourselves happy there if we heed the voice of youth today.

More Gracious Memory

Young people today are so much better than they used to be.

Ok; let me clarify, or, perhaps, say what I really mean. I am more optimistic about young people today than about when I was the age they are now.

I have awesome and encouraging conversations with people half my age. They are thoughtful, intelligent, and generous. They even seem interesting in what I have to say.

They treat me with respect.

Which is more than I can say for myself when I was the age they are now. At least, that’s how I remember things.

Maybe I should have a more gracious memory of years past.

 

Overwhelmed: God Shows Up!

overwhelmed4forworshipCan you imagine? What it would be like? To walk by God’s side? Will I dance for you? Or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall? Will I sing hallelujah, will I be able to speak at all? I don’t know if I can even imagine!

What would you do if you had the opportunity to present yourself before God? Can you even imagine?

In the intro to the story of Job, the writer first tells us who Job was. A good man, a wealthy man. A very good man. A very comfortable very good man.

Cut from that scene to this one: the “divine beings” or “children of God,” depending on your translation, came to present themselves before the Lord. Also, the writer tells us, “the satan” comes along with them.

The way it reads “the satan” isn’t one of the “divine beings” or “children of God,” but neither does his presence in that courtroom scene bother or upset anyone. He fits, I suppose, but differently than everyone else.

And, as a reminder, since I haven’t mentioned this since the first sermon in the series, this character in this story is not necessarily “the devil” most of us have come to mind when we hear the word, “Satan.”

First off, this is a very specific character; so much so that he is “The Satan.” Second, and perhaps more importantly, the images we conjure of satan or the devil come less from scripture and more from legend and stories that have been spun long after the canon was closed.

For instance, there’s no indication anywhere in scripture that Satan is red with horns and a pitchfork. Or that Satan, or the devil, is in charge of hell.

And we have learned to read “satan” into places where he isn’t. For instance, the story in Genesis 3 of the serpent, the woman, and the man. No actual mention of Satan, or The Satan.

But we’ve got enough before us this morning we can’t really dig into all that.

It is enough for us that as these beings present themselves to God, one of them brings up a beef with Job.

The one who otherwise doesn’t exactly belong. Look carefully at the language in 1:6 One day the divine beings (or ‘children of God’)  came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Adversary also came among them.

So the Adversary, as the CEB chooses to translate it, comes along with all the others. But the Adversary, in the Hebrew understanding the Adversary is the Accuser, isn’t there to stand in awe of God or to dance or to sing hallelujah. It doesn’t seem he is concerned about whether he’ll be able to speak at all.

He is there to start something. Specifically, to accuse Job’s love of God being a direct result of God’s favor and protection. Here’s how the Message puts it:

“So do you think Job does all that out of the sheer goodness of his heart? Why, no one ever had it so good! You pamper him like a pet, make sure nothing bad ever happens to him or his family or his possessions, bless everything he does—he can’t lose!

If the Satan means “the accuser,” well, then, he is certainly living up to his name!

So, ok; stay with me on this for a minute: how does one get to the place where one can, in the presence of God, focus on accusing God and others about what’s wrong?

I mean: I think Bart Millard and MercyMe are definitely on to something here: When confronted with the presence of God, how can one not be humbled – humbled to silence, to absolute awe?!

How is it the accuser goes on accusing?

Actually, I know. Because, sometimes, I am he.

I mean, I can be in the midst of a beautiful worship service and get sidetracked by thoughts accusing someone else of doing something, or not doing something, that is distracting or thoughtless or whatever.

And I bet I’m not the only one.

It is, I think, actually pretty arrogant of us to sit here and wonder how someone could possibly stand in God’s presence and not be caught up in awe and wonder.

We do it all the time!

Some of us assume the role of the adversary or the accuser. We have become very good at accusing others of irreverence, disrespect, being inhospitable, dishonesty, cheating; all sorts of things. Whether or not our accusations are true, I am inclined to think that they are motivated more by the darkness we let take residence in ourselves than by the actions or attitudes of others.

Take a look at how quickly you accuse others!

At another church I served once upon a time, I was already seated in the chancel area for the start of the service when a man came in, his 3 small children in tow.

You may not have noticed this, but it is unusual for the father to be the parent bringing kids to church.

Anyway, this man comes in quietly, makes his way around the back and up the outside aisle, forward a few pews, and slipped in as quietly as possible with 3 kids.

Oh, and he was wearing a ball cap.

My first thought was, “please, God, let no one tell him he has to take his hat off in worship.”

This was in the day when I still deaned Sr High camp at GLC every summer. Whenever youth entered the chapel at GL, everyone knew you took off your hat. There was a large table there, front and center, in the narthex, for the hat collection.

All of which comes from 1 Cor 11, where Paul teaches that men ought not have their heads covered in worship. And that women ought to have their heads covered in worship.

In fact, in the church at Corinth, the assumption was women were expected to participate in worship every bit as much as men, but with their heads covered.

So, I know, generally, we don’t wear hats in worship. We have some women who sometimes wear hats in church – and that used to be a thing!

But for a visitor to a worship service, who happens to be wearing a hat, it seems to me the worst thing to do is to stop him right away and correct that behavior.

If not wearing hats is important enough to your church, then work it out over time. But you don’t lead with it.

I am thankful that, as far as I ever learned, no one corrected this young father who wanted to bring his kids to worship.  

We make worship about so many things that it isn’t about! Worship IS about acknowledging the presence of God and coming into that presence in a way that is more intentional, more focused, than the general presence of God we all know we all live in every moment of every day.

Worship is not about hats or flowers or candles or images or electronic equipment or dressing well enough or not dressing to well or having coffee or snacks with you or not having food or drink in the sanctuary (except for communion).

Worship is about recognizing the presence of God and acknowledging God’s goodness, mercy, power, and love; about making some time to focus soak up God’s forgiveness and healing power.

When we enter God’s presence for the purpose of accusing someone else of something, I’m afraid we’ve really lost touch with who God is.

And who does the Satan accuse?

Job. And God.

It would be bad enough if the adversary, or the satan showed up just to accuse Job, but if you’ll notice, he is also accusing God.

He accuses Job of only revering or fearing God because God has this hedge of protection around him.

In so doing, he is also accusing God of protecting – favoring – one person over above others.

Which gives me pause. Because in some of my so-easy-to-hurl accusations about others, I may, indeed, be accusing God of something as well.

Every part of our worship service – even the announcement video! – is intended to support your feeling the presence of God here. We want every part of the service to be something that helps you connect with God’s presence here.

If part of it doesn’t, be patient; don’t be quick to accuse. God is here, and we are all here to worship God.

Take a look at the story from this gospel (Luke 18:9-17) reading this morning. 2 people went up to pray – a Pharisee and a tax collector. In prayer, the pharisee thanks God he isn’t like other people – bad people – even like this tax collector here. That’s self-righteousness, and it’s also accusing. The tax collector, on the other hand, prays simply, “God, show mercy on me, a sinner.”

I think the Holy Spirit wants to encourage us through the book of Job to be willing to question God without, maybe, accusing God.

There is a line between questioning God and accusing God, I think. The book of Job indicates that it is ok for us to question God. Some of Job’s questions border on, or maybe they do accuse God. Yet, God shows up. And, in chapters 38 through the end of the chapter, when God is present, Job’s attitude changes. He doesn’t get the answers he wanted. He doesn’t even seem to insist on them. Or remember them.

Rather, it’s like Job moved into an “I can only imagine” frame of mind.

The song, I can only imagine, was written by MercyMe lead singer Bart Millard, not long after losing his father. Bart was 18. He was Christian, his dad was a good man of strong faith, but it can be hard to lose a loved one, no matter the age.

Bart says he heard “he’s in a better place now” so many times. Bart didn’t doubt that, but also shared that hearing that “doesn’t really do it for you.”

So the song came, not out of some super-spiritual preachy place, but, from wanting to flesh out the idea  of “I can only imagine…” a phrase that had been on his heart for years.

I can only imagine reminds us of God’s greatness and goodness, and Job reminds us that when we feel far removed from the goodness, and maybe oppressed, or overlooked by the greatness, God comes to us not angry, but also not necessarily to answer our questions.

But God does come to us. And restores us.

God is here this morning! I don’t know if you’ve felt God’s presence – or if you’ve felt God’s greatness AND god’s goodness, but God is here.

Many Christians most feel God’s presence when we share the sacrament – as we are about to do. When simple elements bread and grape juice become, for us, for us who hunger and thirst for God’s presence, the body and blood of Christ.

May these bring God’s goodness to you this morning!

Overwhelmed: Putting God on Trial

overwhelmed4forworship

We are some MESSED UP people!  The good news is that the Bible clearly establishes that we are messed up in the same ways people have always been messed up, and that God both loves us anyway, AND has already done everything necessary to deliver us from our sin and to begin our healing of our messed-up-ness.

What God wants more than anything else is for all of creation to come back into line with the way God dreamed it up and spoke it all into being in the first place.

Scripture seems clear to me that the way God intends to do this is by forming a people. Calling people out of “the world” and forming them together into a people who will live as “a city set on a hill,” “a light on a lampstand.” Maybe the world that God calls us out of is our world, our limited world, you may remember that one of the messages from the Book of Job is that your world is not the world. Peter also wrote about calling us out of the world, in that sense, in 1 Peter 2, and then writes that we are

a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people who are God’s own possession. [Peter says that] You have become this people so that you may speak of the wonderful acts of the one who called you out of darkness into his amazing light. Once you weren’t a people, but now you are God’s people. Once you hadn’t received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9-10)

We are messed up people, and we are God’s people! We are God’s marketing agency, the plan through which God intends to share this incredibly good, healing, redeeming, saving message with the world!

Once, we hadn’t received mercy. Now, we have received mercy!

Now that we have received mercy, what are we going to do with it?

Will we let God work in us?

We want God to work in the world, right?  Do we have any right to expect God to work in the world if we won’t let God work in us?

I think this is one of the great challenges the Book of Job presents to us. Like Job, most of us seem to be wired to expect God to work in us by punishing us for doing wrong and rewarding us for doing right.

But I think the Book of Job is way ahead of us on this. I think the Book of Job wants to teach us that if we think of God as “punishing for doing wrong and rewarding for doing right, we’ve got our focus on the wrong god.

But, you may think, there is only 1 God. James agrees.

Yet, here we are; regularly challenged in our lives NOT to worship the wrong god. The 1st commandment, “You must have no other gods before me,” presumes not necessarily that there are other gods, but that we God’s people – God’s people who have already seen and experienced the mighty power of God to deliver and save – we have a “bent to idolatry.”

We get God wrong.

If we are honest, we have this tendency to fashion god in the form of a superhero, or, in some cases, a larger, more powerful version of us.

But we didn’t make God in our image, God made us in God’s image.

Idolatry is the most basic challenge of God’s people – idolatry is worshipping that which is not worthy of worship.

OT idols were easier to recognize than some of our idols: I mean, melting down jewelry and forming the shape of a calf and bowing down to it, that’s obvious. What might be less obvious: they called this golden calf Yahweh. AS IF something we create could grasp actual God.

Turning to football or shopping or porn or caffeine or fitness or tobacco or alcohol or social media in an attempt to fill an emptiness inside yourself, well, that’s just not as obvious.

Yet, for us, each of these and many other things tempt us, and, potentially fill, for some of us some of the time, a place in our souls that they were not made to fill.

Sometimes we turn to these things instead of doing the difficult work of healing relationships with each other. Sometimes we turn to them to fill a place in our souls that ought to be reserved for God.

And sometime it isn’t a substance or behavior that we turn to. Sometimes we turn to an image of God we have created, or had created for us.

Like the image of a God who loves people who do well and “strive to keep the commandments” and hates people who don’t keep the commandments. Or don’t try hard enough to keep the commandments.

Throughout this series on Job I am going to keep coming back to this way of understanding the world  and God because I believe this is why the Book of Job is in the bible. Much of the time our lives do work according to the principle of “good things happen to good people, bad things happen to bad people.”

But when your one of those good people, as Job was, and horrific things happen to you, You have to do something else. You have to find a way to see the world differently. Because nothing in the book of Job anywhere indicates that God doesn’t love Job or that God is happy about what Job is going through.

And, hopefully, you learn somewhere in the process, that the God who loves you and delivered you and saved you and is saving you IS greater than the god you had constructed.

To get there, Job put God on trial.

Or tried to, or wanted to, put God on trial. The reading this morning, from Job 10, is some of Job’s pining to face God as if in court. Much of the context of Job’s responses to his friends could be read this way. Here’s another part, from ch, 23:

Look, I go east; he’s not there,
   west, and don’t discover him;
9     north in his activity, and I don’t grasp him;
   he turns south, and I don’t see.
10 Surely he knows my way;
   when he tests me,
   I will emerge as gold.
11 My feet have stayed right in his tracks.
   I have kept his way and not left it,
12     kept the commandments from his lips and not departed,
   valued the words from his mouth more than my food.
13 He is of one mind; who can reverse it?
   What he desires, he does.
14 He carries out what is decreed for me
   and can do many similar things with me. (Job 23:8-14)

Several times in Job’s laments he is openly frustrated at God’s hiddenness.

Have you ever felt like God is hiding from you? You cry out, lament, shout, maybe even kick things, drive too fast or drink too much out of frustration for feeling like God isn’t hearing you.

You aren’t alone. I mean, besides you and Job, you’re not alone. In the book, A History of God, Karen Armstrong writes about  some Jews in Auschwitz put God on trial. They charged God with cruelty and betrayal and, like Job, found no consolation in the stock answers to the problem of evil and suffering especially in the midst of their current obscenity. Finding no justification for God’s silence before human suffering, no extenuating circumstances, they reached a verdict: God is guilty as charged and deserving of death. A Rabbi pronounced the verdict, then, announced that the trial was over, that it was time for the evening prayer.

It’s like the Book of Job in 30 seconds.

Put God on trial, pronounce the verdict, and then move on to evening prayer.

I invite you this morning, to put god on trial, pronounce your verdict, and move on with life.

What you’ll find is what Job found. The god you put on trial is not the God of the bible!

The gods you and I would put on trial are the gods that we have made up – the gods we have crafted in our own image, or the image of some ideal person or superhero.

The God of the bible, on the other hand, won’t fit our definitions or limitations.

Which is why, I suppose, when God appears in the whirlwind in chapter 38 through 41, God doesn’t really make an effort to answer all of Job’s questions. Rather, God has questions of God’s own to be asked.

Interestingly, I think that’s how it works in court. Both ‘sides’ get to ask questions.

But, as I processed this, I have come to believe that even thinking of putting God on trial or taking God to court can be idolatry, if it requires us to have formed an image or likeness of something that is NOT our God and worshiping it.

We want a God who has to answer to us and make us understand everything.

We find we have a God whose coming to us IS an answer.

Wanting to put God on trial means we don’t grasp the relationship that God wants to have with us!

One of the geniuses of Wesleyan Christianity, of which the United Methodist Church is a part, is the understanding that God comes to us first. Even when we think we are coming to God, or when we feel like we want to call God to us, to put God on trial or to thank God or to ask questions of God, we believe that God actually initiates all the contact.

We believe God is Creator; while God spoke the rest of creation into existence, God formed humans, like a potter forms clay. Not only that, but god also breathed life into us. And it’s no accident that breath and spirit are the same word. God breathed spirit into us!

God hears our cry, when we recognize our slavery – our slavery to sin – and God delivers us. God delivers us, leads us, feeds us, and then, after all these things, God gives us commandments. The first of which is “”You must have no other gods before me.”

Any other gods we put before God are what mess us up.

Putting God on trial, or challenging God to answer, are all things, if Job is any indication, that get us to the place of recognizing that The God, our God, isn’t any of those gods.

Our God isn’t so simplistic as “good people prosper, bad people suffer.” Our God isn’t a superhero who swoops in to fix everything you and I and others have messed up.

Our God is the One who formed us, breathed life, breathed spirit, into us, and delivered us before asking or requiring anything of us. Our God is loyal and gracious.

Last April three of us went to Panama on a mission trip. We spent several days in Santiago, Panama, working on and with a church there. We flew in and out of Panama City.

The day we flew home, we ubered to the airport a couple hours early. We found a short line ahead of us – only about 3 people, I think. But there was only one counter agent.

Ok, well, there were 2 counter agents. But the other counter agent was assigned to the Advantage program – premium fliers, whatever that category is called. He was there, but he wasn’t helping.

I suppose he was still doing his job: he was organizing the lanes for his section. You know, those poles with belts that connect them? He was making sure they were straight. So much so, in fact, that he asked one of us to please move because our backpack was infringing on where his line was supposed to be.

In line in front of us was a woman with a child, as I remember it. Waiting in line with small children can be a challenge, so I approached the person who was so meticulously attending to the straightness of his lines, and asked if he could, maybe, help some of the customers in the line that was actually forming.

He told me he had to prepare his area.

I acknowledged that, but said, “There’s no one in your line, and you’ve got it really well prepared for when someone comes. But over here there is a ine that is getting longer, and this woman with a young child could probably use your help.”

I wonder sometimes if we get the idea that God is more concerned with the form of the line, the orderliness of the boundaries, than with the people who are in the line.

In a way, I think this is what Job was pushing up against. The boundaries of “the good life” had been removed, but he was left with an image of God who was more interested in the neatness of the line than the people in the line.

It feels this way sometimes. But let me assure you this morning: God is more interested in and concerned with people – all of whom are created in God’s image – than in the neatness or order of the lines than are drawn.

Because God knows no matter how neatly these external lines are set up, we are messed up inside, and God wants to clean the mess and start the healing. Now.

Take away: What are you making up about God that doesn’t fit the biblical story of God loving all people? What are you willing to do to let go of what you make up about God that you then use against God?

 

om, I feel your pain!

One year, even after at least half a dozen people had checked it, we published and mailed out a flyer with the schedule of our Holy Week events.

It included, and I wish I was making this up, a line that said our Maundy Thursday service was on “Wednesday, March….”

How could so many people all miss something like that? I don’t know how it happened, but I can assure you this: it happens. To the best of us.

Can I admit here that I enjoy, just a little, finding a typo or other issue in a publication – especially if the book came from Oxford or Harvard or some other incredibly respected institution.

Reminders that everyone makes mistakes help me stop beating myself up over my mistakes.

Call this burying the lead, but this post is, if you haven’t already caught on, inspired by the reports that the tickets for tonight’s State of the Union included a misspelling. “Union” was spelled “Uniom.”

And, of course, this mistake exploded around social media and late night comedy.

Which, likely, has some people feeling defensive for the President.

I feel for everyone here; I enjoy getting laughs at things I post, and sometimes those laughs are at someone else’s expense.

But here’s the deal: the real problem, as I see it, is neither the type nor the jabs for laughter’s sake. No, the real problem is that many of us are more than willing to laugh – we share, forward, retweet, when “the other side” slips up, but we get all bent out of shape when someone we support is the object of any ridicule or humor.

Maybe it is ok to enjoy a laugh about a mistake made by someone you don’t like or respect. But if it’s ok for you, try not to get bent out of shape when someone else is laughing at someone you like and respect.

 

Overwhelmed: Proximity

Week 3 in the Overwhelmed Sermon Seriesoverwhelmed4forworship

Rachel and I came to this realization very early in our marriage: If we are ever going to be able to expect our kids NOT to have their phones out at a family, meal, we would have to set the example.

We decided We had better start NOW. So, sometime less than 11 (we’ve been married 11 years next month) and more than 8 (that’s how old Eliza will be in May), we decided that, when eating together, we would put our phones away. And so we did. And still do. At every meal together.

But, honestly, at the current rate of change, why should we expect carrying a phone that is also an internet connection will still be a thing in 6 years?

Almost no one saw it coming 20 years ago. My favorite scene in the jumanji reboot is where Alex,  the one who went into the game in 1996, asks Bethany, who entered the game in 2017, “does ‘phone’ mean something different in the future?”

Yes, Alex, it does.

The meaning of “phone” has changed, but I was confronted this week by something that apparently hasn’t changed. At least, not in 40 years, and, I would bet, not in 70, either.

A high school classmate of mine shared frustration with something “a millennial” had done.

Instantly a stream of us (by which I mean people my age, so Baby Boomers or older Gen-Xers) launch into how horrible millennials are.

OMG! It was a lot like some of my parents generation used to lament about our generation! (except, of course, they didn’t have facebook to lament so loudly and broadly)

When I shared that “I would hate someone to judge my entire generation by one person’s act” she responded pretty quickly, “I wasn’t judging the whole generation.”

Well, when you say, complaining, that “a millennial” did something, yeah, you are pretty much blaming the generation.

When I was in college, I went downtown for something and parked on the town square. Parking places weren’t easy to find, so when I saw one, I turned across a solid yellow line to get it. I knew that wasn’t legal, but nobody was coming and I really wanted the space.

So, I get out of my car, and this older gentleman comes hobbling toward me, shaking his walking stick, saying, “You people are always driving wrong!”

As soon as I figured he wasn’t actually going to hit me, I just went on with my day.

Now, several years later, I read people from my generation saying things about the younger generation.

Didn’t we learn?

I’m not mister innocent here. I catch myself saying things like, “back in the day, we didn’t do so-and-so….”

There are fair ways to talk about generational differences, but please hear me, fellow people over 40: we too easily talk down to younger generations – and we do so in ways that shut us off from them – that separate us. That make them want there to be a generation gap.

To the extent that someone once told me they volunteered at a campus ministry because they wanted all these young people to get good jobs so their social security would keep coming.

If that’s all the connection you want with someone – with a whole group of people, maybe we should spend some time with Jesus together.

We too easily get caught in our own echo chambers, surrounding ourselves with people who look like us, think like us, believe like us. While there is comfort in doing so, there is a downside, too.

To be fair, you have, no doubt, had people whose lives are very different than yours, question some of your decisions, judgments, behaviors.

They don’t know your story; who are they to judge you?

Walk a mile in my shoes! You might tell them.

And, of course, most of us have been on the other side of this. I’d love to hear your stories, sometime, of lessons you’ve learned or growth you’ve experienced, by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes.

This morning’s reading tells us that when we realize that our world is not the world, we might do better than simply hear from friends who are so close to us they can’t offer us any difference in perspective.

To be fair, they didn’t do everything wrong. Job called them, they came. From a distance, they were struck by what had happened to him. They “wept loudly.”  Then, they sat with him silently for A WEEK!

Then, they spoke. In turn, each spoke to Job, hoping to set things right, hoping to offer Job peace and comfort, encouragement and healing.

Here’s what the first friend offered Job. Eliphaz the Temanite said to Job:

2 “If someone ventures a word with you, will you be impatient?
But who can keep from speaking?
3 Think how you have instructed many,
how you have strengthened feeble hands.
4 Your words have supported those who stumbled;
you have strengthened faltering knees.
5 But now trouble comes to you, and you are discouraged;
it strikes you, and you are dismayed.
6 Should not your piety be your confidence
and your blameless ways your hope?

7 “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished?
Where were the upright ever destroyed?
8 As I have observed, those who plow evil
and those who sow trouble reap it.
9 At the breath of God they perish;
at the blast of his anger they are no more. (Job 4:2-9 NIV)

Sadly, I think, Eliphaz just spoke to Job the same things Job already knew – or the things Job knew until all this had befallen him.

He KNEW this was the way his world worked: God rewards the good and punishes the bad.

Except Job also knew this: he hadn’t brough this on himself! He hadn’t been hiding some sin away from everyone, and now he was suffering publicly. He suffered great loss, all of which, as far as his life was concerned, did NOT happen because of anything he had done.

Eliphaz was too close to see it any differently, though.Enter Bildad the Shuhite, friend number 2. Maybe he’ll be able to help:

2 “How long will you say such things?
Your words are a blustering wind.
3 Does God pervert justice?
Does the Almighty pervert what is right?
4 When your children sinned against him,
he gave them over to the penalty of their sin.
5 But if you will seek God earnestly
and plead with the Almighty,
6 if you are pure and upright,
even now he will rouse himself on your behalf
and restore you to your prosperous state.
7 Your beginnings will seem humble,
so prosperous will your future be.
20 “Surely God does not reject one who is blameless
or strengthen the hands of evildoers. (Job 8:2-7, 20 NIV)

Come on, Job!  Does God pervert justice? “We all know the answer is ‘no, God does not pervert justice.’” Bildad continues: ““Surely God does not reject one who is blameless or strengthen the hands of evildoers.”

Of course not!

Then Bildad says,

But if you will seek God earnestly and plead with the Almighty,
  if you are pure and upright, even now he will rouse himself on your behalf
   and restore you to your prosperous state.

“God will rouse himself”?  Like God was sleeping? Like all this happened because God was sleeping?

Is all the tragedy that has befallen Job, really a signify God’s rejection?

No; but this seems to be what the first 2 friends think.

So, maybe Zophar will help. Here’s a bit of what Zophar says to Job:

2 “Are all these words to go unanswered?
Is this talker to be vindicated?
3 Will your idle talk reduce others to silence?
Will no one rebuke you when you mock?
4 You say to God, ‘My beliefs are flawless
and I am pure in your sight.’
5 Oh, how I wish that God would speak,
that he would open his lips against you
6 and disclose to you the secrets of wisdom,
for true wisdom has two sides.
Know this: God has even forgotten some of your sin.

7 “Can you fathom the mysteries of God?
Can you probe the limits of the Almighty?
8 They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do?
They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know? (Job 11:2-8 NIV)

“Your sins are so bad, God’s even forgotten some of them! And you’re all ‘I’m flawless’”

Zophar seems to me zo far from the truth!

There is no indication that God has forgotten anything, and I’m not sure Job is claiming to be flawless. He is, however, saying that the events he has been through in the last few days don’t fit with the larger pattern of his life.

In other words, he hasn’t done anything to deserve ALL THIS! Job has all his children taken away from him. Then, since he still “doesn’t’ sin or blame God,” he is afflicted with “severe sores from the top of his head to the soles of his feet.” This time the writer tells us that “Job didn’t sin with his lips.”

So, now, Job might actually be blaming God.

And all three of his friends are, in fact, blaming God. Well, they’re blaming Job’s actions for bringing on the consequences of God’s punishment.

The tricky thing is that their reasoning is really the same as Job’s, they just don’t know that Job hasn’t actually done anything to bring this stuff on.

Job’s friends ARE friends – they come to him when he needs friends. They don’t rush into answers or blaming. They sit with him quietly for A WEEK before saying anything.

But then, when they speak up, they say the same things Job is already aware of. They think like Job, and, like his world isn’t the world, their world isn’t the world, either. So, as it turns out, this isn’t really helpful.

We can’t know, but what if Job had friends that weren’t so close – so similar to him?

What if Job heard from a wider variety of voices?

What if Job had friends who didn’t believe the same, “God blesses good people and curses bad people” thing that had worked his whole life?

Now, you might be thinking, “Didn’t he talk about this last Sunday? And kinda the Sunday before that, too?”

If so, let me thank you for being someone who has been here 3 consecutive Sundays! That’s not so common as it used to be.

And, if I could take a minute about that. God doesn’t love you less if you aren’t in Church every Sunday. But I hope that worship is actually beneficial to helping each of us live our lives in the presence of God during the week. So missing a week of worship would, I hope, leave you feeling like, “wow, I miss worship!” NOT  with a guilt trip.

So: yes, I am reiterating: the idea that “God blesses good people and curses bad people” is exactly why the Book of Job is in the Bible.

Because life is almost never so easy as “God blesses good people and curses bad people.” That’s karma – and an over-simplified version of karma at that. “You only get what you give” makes a fairly decent song if you like the New Radicals, but the gospel is precisely the opposite – “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

Job’s friends really aren’t in the position to offer him the help he needs – the help to begin to grasp that his world isn’t the world; that God still loves him, is still with him, no matter what has happened.

We, the church, tend to operate in a world similar to Job’s. Whether or not we personally are wealthy, healthy, and wise, we meet in church buildings that are paid for build on land that we own and, to one extent or another, have reliable resources to just keep things going.

But many people in the world – many people who live within walking distance of this church, are not so fortunate. And while it plays well to our ears that they just haven’t live right, it’s really, really condescending of us to be so presumptuous. They don’t deserve any better? If they lived differently, made better choices, yada, yada, yada?

We’re no better than Job’s friends if all we have to offer is some version of “If only you’ll live right, then God will take care of you.”

And it’s really hard to get out of that mindset if we surround ourselves with people who think and feel and say the same things! Now, I don’t want to be too hard on you; Jesus’ disciples suffered the same malady. “Jesus, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

Jesus disconnects the two: Jesus answered, “Neither he nor his parents. This happened so that God’s mighty works might be displayed in him. While it’s daytime, we must do the works of him who sent me. Night is coming when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

I realize many of you want me to decode that and answer the question: why was he born blind? How do we make sense of nonsensical things happening in a world were we so loudly proclaim that God is in control?

And if the book of Job is clear about anything, it is that what we may think “God is in control” means is not exactly what it looks like in the world.

Telling hurting people that “God is in control” or “everything happens for a reason” or “I’m sure God means this for good,” or any of the many varieties of these we think and say may indeed NOT comfort to afflicted. And we want to comfort the afflicted, right? Comforting the afflicted IS Biblical. Telling them God must be settling a score, not so much.

Maybe the truth we need from the Book of Job when “bad things happen to good people”  starts in 2:13 – “They sat with Job on the ground for 7 days and 7 night, not speaking a word to him, for they saw that he was in excruciating pain.”

Sometimes saying nothing is the BEST thing to do.

Seems kind of funny to me to say that 12 minutes into 15 minutes of talking, but there is truth in it. Sometimes saying nothing is the BEST thing to do.

If you do not KNOW that some affliction or hardship or tragedy is a direct message from God, don’t lay that on the person who is suffering from it!

And, I have to tell you, about 99% of the time, you do not know. That’s not an insult; the disciples didn’t know! Job’s friends thought they knew, but then near the end of the story God expresses anger with them because they “haven’t spoken about me correctly as did my servant Job.”

How Job spoke of God we’ll look at more next week, under the heading of “Putting God on Trial.”

For now, I want to invite you to reflect on this: Do all the people you have in close proximity share your perspective on everything?  This is not necessarily bad, but it can leave you like it left Job – with nothing but a narrow perspective on a world that is wide-open with events and circumstances and consequences.

Expand the perspectives you keep in proximity: meet different people. Get to know people different from yourself. Listen to them. Speak openly with them about your perspectives.

And, of course, remember, that sometimes saying nothing is the best thing to do.

Are you willing to step outside your proximity zone? Find people older, or younger, than you. People browner or whiter than you. People who believe differently than you who live lives you respect. They’re out there. They live near all of us.

Last week a muslim friend of mine told this joke about a couple going to heaven that I’d heard before – lots of times. Except every time I had heard it it was told by a Christian. Kind of like when I moved to Texas and learned what Aggie jokes were. They’re the same jokes people tell in other parts of the country, but in other places they are jokes about people of some ethnicity, or profession, or just from the next state over.

If we’ll reach outside our proximity, I believe we’ll find we have more in common with people different than us that we thought.

And we’ll likely need them – their different perspective – at some point in our lives.