Sermon October 28, 2012

“Take Heart”

October 28, 2012

               Reformation Sunday

The Reverend Christine M. Delmar


Job 2:1-6; 10-17

 Then Job answered the Lord:

2   “I know that you can do all things,

and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.

3   ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’

Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,

things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.

4   ‘Hear, and I will speak;

I will question you, and you declare to me.’

5   I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,

but now my eye sees you;

6   therefore I despise myself,

and repent in dust and ashes.” ….


10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before. 11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring. 12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

 Mark 10:46-52

46 They came to Jericho. As he and his disciples and a large crowd were leaving Jericho, Bartimaeus son of Timaeus, a blind beggar, was sitting by the roadside. 47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout out and say, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many sternly ordered him to be quiet, but he cried out even more loudly, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” 49 Jesus stood still and said, “Call him here.” And they called the blind man, saying to him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.” 50 So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus. 51 Then Jesus said to him, “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man said to him, “My teacher, let me see again.” 52 Jesus said to him, “Go; your faith has made you well.” Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.

Let’s Pray:

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, you are our rock and our redeemer.  Amen. 

Today is Reformation Sunday, when we remember the Protestant Reformation, which began nearly 500 years ago when Martin Luther nailed 95 Theses to a church door in Germany.  Red is the color for Reformation Sunday, which is why I am wearing a red stole.

Though we do not reflect much on Luther’s momentous act, we would not be gathered here as Congregationalists, and I would not be a Presbyterian minister, without it, and the great understandings about God and faith that developed from it:  “Reformed and always reforming.”  “Grace alone, faith alone, scripture alone.”  Grace alone means we do not come to faith or eternal life by our good works or purchased tickets to heaven.  Grace and faith are free gifts from God, which we open ourselves to through God’s living Word in Scripture and through Baptism and Communion.  Another foundational belief is that an all-powerful, faithful God is actively engaged in the world, caring for it, and seeking to redeem all that ails it, and us, through God’s Holy Spirit.  So to honor this day, we began worship with Luther’s great hymn: “A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing; our helper strong amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.” This is a hymn of deep trust, encouraging us to take heart, because God is with us in the travails of life, ever seeking our good.

Today we are also facing a “Frankenstorm” very close to the anniversary of last year’s freakish weather system.   Like Luther’s 16th Century Protestants, we believe in God’s providence and care, but what does this mean for those who might be hurt by this storm?  Why doesn’t God just blow it out to sea?   I’m sure many are praying that happens; I know I am.

On a lighter note, today is also the fourth game of the World Series.  (Yes, I’m a baseball fan—surprise!)  I have been consoling myself that the Yankees aren’t in it, by reading a new autobiography about Jim Abbott, a pitcher, who played for the Bronx Bombers in the early ‘90’s.  Though born with a serious birth defect (only one hand), he was good enough to pitch a no-hitter.  Since he retired from baseball, he has worked for the Office of Disability Employment Policy, and as a motivational speaker.

When Jim Abbott was born, his unmarried teen parents felt like their lives had imploded, like Job’s.  His father, Mike, was inconsolable, believing that God was punishing him, so his mother shouted at him, “Michael, you remember this: God takes away once, he gives back twice!”[i]  Really, is that what God does?   Give back twice following a devastating loss?   Isn’t that just another well-meaning, but unhelpful expression that people say when they are trying to make sense of the senseless, like “It must be God’s will,” or “Or God needed an angel,” or “God will never give you more than you can handle?” As we continue to hear individual faith testimonies during this stewardship time, what can we also learn from the testimonies of Job and Bartimaeus, when we are sidelined by events that fracture our lives and possibly our faith?

Mrs. Abbott’s comment resembles this verse from Job:  “The LORD gave Job twice as much as he had before.”  Because of God and Satan’s behind the scenes wager, Job loses his possessions, his children, and his health.  Now, Job’s faith, suffering and restoration are all exaggerated to highlight the problem of innocent suffering for us.  But what does all this say about God?  Does God play with people’s lives like he did with Job?  Does God intentionally take as Mrs. Abbott said, but then doubly bless?

Bible commentators agree that Job is one of the most challenging Biblical books, and I am not going to resolve what the greatest scholars have not been able to resolve: the many thorny translation and theological difficulties presented in its 42 chapters.  But as a pastoral care minister, who counsels many folks sitting on “ash heaps” of lives that have imploded, and who tell me they feel like Job or Job-ette, I could not ignore today’s reading, even though we have not been following Job the past several weeks.

There are two distinct parts to this passage: Job’s brief response to God, and then the fable like happy ending.  Much of the book up to this point was Job railing against his friends who blame him for his suffering, Job indignantly venting to God, and desperately seeking to hang on to his faith in a just and all powerful God, while seeking an explanation for his suffering.  But when God finally speaks to Job out of the whirlwind, God doesn’t give an answer.  It’s one of the great non-answers of all time.  Instead God verbally dazzles Job with a series of questions showcasing God’s immense powers over creation, including the forces of chaos, in stark contrast to Job’s human limitations.   When we first come in on Job in verses 1-6, Job appears to be admitting he sinned or was wrong to complain.  But that is not Job’s testimony for us.

Nearly every word of Job’s final response, v. 6, is a problem.  Most scholars conclude that the NRSV rendering—“I despise myself and repent in ashes and dust”— is not the best translation.  A better one is “I relent and have changed my mind, or am comforted concerning dust and ashes.”  Meaning, that as a human being (dust, like Adam made from dust), Job now accepts how little he knows about God’s justice, which is not understandable by the standards Job was imposing on God—that bad things shouldn’t happen to good people.  Job now perceives a good creation in which the chaotic is restrained, but never fully eliminated.  And Job learns that his dearly held view of the world—that good things always come to good people—was simply not true.  When he says to God, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you,” this is a profound new statement of faith.  Before, Job knew God from the hearsay testimonies of others—from his family and from his faith community.  But now Job has met God in the storm of his own life, and he knows firsthand about God’s presence with him and in the world.

Friends, how Job spoke to God when he was hurting is instructive for us when we suffer.  Many people tell me, I shouldn’t complain, I shouldn’t be angry at God, I should have more faith.  But in his unbearable loss and suffering, Job tells God the truth about how he is feeling.  By shouting out his hurt to God, he actually keeps his relationship with God alive.  Like he is shaking one fist at God, but holding on tightly with the other.  God can handle our bewilderment and anger.

When God responds to Job in the whirlwind, God corrects Job’s perception of God’s justice, but God does not rebuke Job for the pain he expressed.  Though there are hundreds of commandments in the Bible, note that there is no “Thou shalt not complain commandment!”

Now what about the perplexing happy ending? As I hear more bad news than good in my job, I love happy endings.  When the biopsy comes back negative or the surgical margins are clean.  When someone severely depressed or critically ill recovers.  When a broken relationship is reconciled.  But what does Job’s happy ending mean?  Do God’s extraordinary blessings erase Job’s bitter anguish over losing his other children or the reality of the pain he suffered?  Is Job being doubly blessed, because he was good, or because God is trying to compensate him for his suffering?  Like compensatory damages for so much unjust suffering?  I do not think that is what we are to understand, nor are we to take this happy ending so literally.  It is not true to real life. Even Jim Abbott, the baseball pitcher, who experienced many blessings despite his disability, still struggles with painful feelings about it.

Whatever this puzzling ending signifies, it cannot mean that Job’s pain is forgotten by new children and new wealth, or that Job is the same as he was before.  Job has been forever changed by what he suffered and his encounter with God.  And he is different in the new life God has given him.  For example, he provides inheritances for his new daughters, counter to the cultural practices of his time. It’s as though out of his own unjust suffering, he is seeking to correct other unjust suffering.  And that is good.

One of the lessons of Job for us is that when life collapses and we feel like dust sitting in the dust, is not to blame ourselves or God.  Much of the time, there is no one to blame, and no one is at fault.  Senseless suffering happens in this wondrous, but free and complex world that God has created, and there are no answers as to why or how.  Rabbi Harold Kushner, who wrote the best-seller, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, after his young son died, concluded that God is loving and just, but God is not powerful enough to overcome evil and suffering.[ii]  But that is not our reformed Christian understanding of God.

Thomas Long reminds us that evil is the enemy of God’s good creation, and God is working to overcome it, not just in the ultimate victory of time, when crying and death will be no more, but also now in the midst of pain and suffering.  Long writes, “the response of the gospel to evil and suffering is yes.  Yes, God hears the cries of the suffering.  Yes, God comes with healing in God’s wings, as a warrior…to do combat with evil and suffering in the power of the cross of Jesus, in the power of love and mercy.”[iii]  Job’s experience of being led to new life by God, anticipated God’s continuing healing actions through Jesus Christ.

Which brings us to Bartimaeus, a blind beggar crying out for mercy.  This is the last healing in the Gospel of Mark, while Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem and the cross.  As we have heard over the past few weeks, Jesus has been trying to get his disciples to see what being followers of Jesus really entails.  They clearly see the benefits—the miracles, the excitement of being with Jesus, something astonishing is always happening when Jesus is around—but they are not seeing there is also a letting go of just their own concerns so they can  serve as Jesus wants them to serve. What is Jesus now inviting them to see in Bartimaeus’ healing?

Like Job, Bartimaeus is suffering, reduced to begging on the side of the road, his own personal version of the ash heap. By the religious customs of the time, he would have been considered an unclean sinner, not welcome in the synagogue. So Bartimaeus is a marginalized outsider; and not part of the inside crowd accompanying Jesus.  But when he hears Jesus is near, he knows this is his best shot to be healed, so he shouts out, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  And the crowd, which includes Jesus’ still clueless disciples, tries to shush him.  They see Bartimaeus as a nobody, disturbing their happy parade.  But Bartimaeus desperately needs healing, so he cries out even louder.  “Son of David, have mercy on me!”

The story of Bartimaeus occurs just before triumphant crowds in Jerusalem will shout, “Hosanna!  Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David.” (Mk 11:10)  But they do not understand that Jesus is not the long-expected Davidic Messiah who will liberate Israel from the Romans.  Bartimaeus also incorrectly calls Jesus “Son of David,” but he does so with more insight into who Jesus really is, the healing savior of the world, and he is approaches Jesus with faith that Jesus can liberate him from what is keeping him from being whole.  As scholar Richard Swanson observes, Bartimaeus sees quite a lot for a blind man.[iv]

Jesus hears Bartimaeus and he commands the crowd to call him.  And now that they see that Jesus thinks this lowly blind beggar is worth stopping for, they tell him, “Take heart; get up, he is calling you.”  And Bartimaeus leaps up in joy, throwing off his only possession, his cloak, to go to Jesus, who asks the same question he asked James and John, “What do you want me to do for you?”  In contrast to James and John who sought glory, Bartimaeus asks for what he most desperately needs—to see.  And after Jesus says, “Go, your faith has made you well,”  Bartimaeus immediately sees.

Does “your faith has made you well” mean Bartimaeus’ faith was the actual cause of his healing?   As in if he hadn’t believed enough, he wouldn’t have been healed?  No.  Bartimaeus’ faith led him to acknowledge his utter need for mercy, and it brings him into the healing presence of Jesus, who heals him by God’s power.   And what does Bartimaeus do after he can see?  He does not just go on for his own sake, which he could have easily done.  Instead, he follows Jesus on the way, which means he becomes a disciple.  He joyfully threw off the symbol of his old life, his cloak.  Like being baptized, he begins a new life in Christ.

Bartimaeus is a witness to us of God’s healing engagement in the world through Jesus Christ, who Walter Bruggemann describes as “God’s mercy among us.”[v]  The mercy Jesus showed Bartimaeus continues the movement of God’s mercy and grace that we have heard about throughout the Old Testament, as well as the New. Like the merciful care God gave to the Israelites wandering in the desert.  Like the mercy God gave to Job bringing him to new life.  Bartimaeus is yet another example of Jesus bringing God’s healing mercy to those who are hurting, especially those are on the margins of life.  Those who most need to take heart that Jesus is calling to them, so they can get up and live, into the wholeness God wants for them.  And what Jesus wants the disciples and us to see is that those who receive healing mercy like Bartimaeus, are being called by Jesus into a new community, to share God’s mercy and grace with others.  This is what the church, the Body of Christ is all about: receiving and giving grace to others.

Sisters and Brothers, as beloved children of God, Jesus is calling to us all to take heart and come to him, honestly acknowledging our own needs for God’s transformative mercy, so that we too can get up and live as God wants us to live.  Into the wholeness that God seeks for us, and into the ways of discipleship that are not just about living for ourselves, but for the sake of others and God’s kingdom.  And Jesus is also calling to us to take heart by having the courage to extend mercy to others, throughout this community and beyond our bounds.  This may require us to acknowledge our own blind spots about where we need healing, or to ask ourselves how we might be shushing others who need mercy and grace, because they do not fit our immediate agendas—our own happy parades—or our idea of who should be part of God’s gathered community.

So dearly beloved, on this Reformation Sunday, and as we face the major storm that is coming, take heart, and trust in the words of Martin Luther, that God is a mighty fortress, our helper strong amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing. And take heart, because God is calling to each of us, through Jesus Christ, in mercy, love and grace, so that we may get up and live, no matter what storms we are facing.  Amen.

[i] Jim Abbott and Tim Brown, Imperfect: An Improbable Life (Ballantine Books, 2012), p. 41.

[ii] See Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People (Avon Books, 1981)

[iii] Thomas G. Long, Evil, Suffering, and The Crisis of Faith (Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2011), p. 146-7.

[iv] Richard W. Swanson, Provoking the Gospel of Mark (The Pilgrim Press, 2005), p. 237.

[v] Walter Bruggemann, Inscribing the Text (Fortress Press, 2004)

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