Tuesday, October 20, 2015

More Compassion, Less Correctness

Brad Sullivan
Proper 24, Year B
October 18, 2015
Saint Mark's Episcopal Church, Bay City, TX
Job 38:1-7, (34-41)
Mark 10:35-45
More Compassion, Less Correctness

“Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind: ‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?’”  Prior to this, Elihu, one of Job’s friends had been defending God to Job.  Job and his friends all had a pretty basic understanding of the universe and the causal relationship between human sin and human tragedy.  If something really bad happened to you, it was because you had done something really bad.  Job questioned how it could be so, since he hadn’t sinned in some terrible way.

Elihu, Job’s friend, on the other hand, defended God to the hilt, telling Job how bad he was and how righteous God was.  There was no compassion with Elihu, or very little.  There was no question in Elihu’s mind that he was right.  He used scripture to pack his arguments, and he gave platitudes and simple answers to Job’s misery.  I think when it comes down to it, Elihu basically made himself feel better – the world was still flat, God still never allowed anything bad to happen to anyone good (and therefore Elihu was safe), and everything was in its place.

“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?”  God responds.  You don’t understand all that is, Elihu, nor for that matter, do you, Job.  The world is far more complex and mysterious that you allow, and simple answers to complex questions don’t actually help.  Thanks for trying to defend my sovereignty, God was saying, but my sovereignty really doesn’t need your defense.  Try instead for some compassion towards your friend.  Remember, Elihu, it’s love God and love each other, not defend God’s sovereignty at the expense of each other.

Imagine if Elihu had simply continued to sit with his friend Job, as he had when he first arrived, grieving with him, and when Job began to question, he had said, “I don’t know why all this terrible stuff happened to you, my friend.  You were a really good guy, and this totally sucks.  I don’t think you deserved this.”  What if when Job had begun questioning God, Elihu had not been afraid to allow Job to question God?  What if he had simply said, “Yeah, I get why you would questions God’s fairness right now; it doesn’t seem right what happened to you.  I love you Job, and I’m with you.”  What if Elihu had been willing to question and wonder with Job?  They may not have become so entrenched in being right that they ended up “darkening counsel by words without knowledge.”

We’re going through a difficult time right now in the Episcopal Church with folks divided over a difficult issue, some folks rejoicing that marriage has been extended to include homosexual couples, and some folks deeply disturbed by the same.  At the heart of this issue on both sides, is people, and people on both sides of this issue are hurting.  There are people within our congregation on both sides of this issue, people we love, who are hurting. 

I think one desire many of us share is for everything to be settled and done.  Let’s just quiet messing with it, let’s just quit talking about it.  There’s a desire just to know with absolute certainty all of the correct answers, or at least to be able to put the issues and the others out of our minds.  One key lesson I find in the book of Job, however, is that the Kingdom of God desires compassion more than it desires correct answers.

Folks on both sides of this issue often don’t understand what folks on the other side of the issue are going through.  Sometimes even believing on one side of the issue is hurtful to folks on the other side, and yet we often don’t see that or understand that.  When people we love are going through difficult times that we don’t understand, Job teaches me that a good response might be, “I don’t quite understand what you’re going through, but I do understand that it is extremely difficult and painful for you.” 

I think that might have been a response more pleasing to God that Elihu could have given to Job, compassion more than correct answers, God’s grace more than theologically righteous grandstanding.  We’re reminded in Hebrews, after all, that Jesus is not unable to sympathize with us in our weakness, but knows exactly how hard it is to be human in this world.  Jesus gives us grace precisely because it is so darn hard to be human in this world. 

Like James and John, we often want power and glory to make our way a bit easier in the world.  With enough power and glory, you can pretty well have things go the way you want them to and get people to do what you want them to do, but Jesus wasn’t offering power and glory.  Jesus was offering grace. 

When James and John ask in a new way for power within Jesus’ kingdom, he tells them that that place of authority and power is not his to give.  That’s a pretty kind answer at that point, “sorry guys, it’s just not mine to give.”  I have a feeling if it had been me, I’d have been pretty frustrated with James and John at this point.  “Good Lord, guys” I might have said to James and John, “I’ve been teaching you for over a chapter of Mark’s gospel now that the kingdom of God is not about seeking power and glory, and here you two are at it again.”  That’s a bit more like what the other disciples were thinking anyway.  They were angry at James and John, saying, “dude, I can’t believe you tried to pull that over on us, getting power over us,” secretly thinking, “whew, glad you built up the gumption to ask before I did.”

The disciples were angry, and Jesus gave them grace.  Jesus simply offered another moment of teaching for his beloved disciples.  “Guys, the gentiles seek power and glory over each other, and they become tyrants over each other.  That’s not who we are.  Among us, greatness comes from serving each other.  Among us, greatness comes from risking losing everything for the sake of the beloved.  I’m not going to squander my life,” Jesus taught, “by seeking power and glory for myself.  I’m going to live my life and give my life for the sake of all humanity, giving up myself for the sake of my beloved.  I know how hard it is for you all, my beloved disciple, my beloved humanity,” Jesus was saying, “so I will give my life so that you may receive grace.”   

We are called by Jesus to give each other that same grace.  “Feed my sheep,” Jesus told Peter.  Peter was a bit hurt during this conversation, remember?  “Lord, you know all things,” Peter said, “You know I love you,” as Jesus asked him three times, “Do you love me.”  “Then feed by sheep Jesus told Peter.”  In this short exchange, Jesus showed great compassion for Peter and gave him great grace.  Jesus knew Peter’s heart was breaking over denying Jesus three times, so Jesus gave Peter three opportunities to profess his love for Jesus.  Rather than just keep it quiet and let Peter assume, “I guess everything’s ok; we’re having a fish fry; I guess everything is ok.”  Rather than let Peter assume all was forgiven, Jesus gave Peter the grace to know that all was well.

Then, “feed my sheep,” Jesus told Peter.  You don’t know everything.  You get things wrong about as much as you get them right, and I want you to feed my sheep.  You don’t need to be powerful and mighty, Jesus was saying in today’s Gospel.  I don’t even want you to be powerful and mighty, Jesus said.  I just want you to feed my sheep.  I want you to serve others.  I want you to give compassion to others.  I want you to offer grace to others. 

When we feel threatened by others, or when we are disturbed by disagreements over deeply held and difficult issues within our church, we tend to want to be able to exercise power and authority over the other, making sure things go our way.  Looking at God’s response to Elihu and Job, looking at Jesus’ response to James and John, I think Jesus has taught us to feed each other with compassion, rather than with correctness.  I think Jesus has taught us to offer grace to each other when we hurt each other, rather than ignoring the problem and hoping it will eventually just fade away.  Grace and compassion are what Jesus gives to us, and then he tells us to feed each other with the same.  Amen. 

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