Suffering and Blessing

Sermon for Sunday, October 4, 2015
19th Sunday After Pentecost
Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Mark 10:2-16
At The Parish of the Messiah, Auburndale, Massachusetts

Those who have heard me preach at Trinity know that, from time to time, I will preach, not one sermon, but rather two or even three smaller ones.  Today is one of those times, as I wish to say something briefly about two of our readings, and also what we are about to do here this morning in the Blessing of the Animals.  (It’s a three sermon morning.)

First, I want to say something about the book of Job, from which we will be hearing this month.   In trying to understand Job, it helps to remember that the story of Job is about the timeless question – “Why do the innocent suffer?”  Job’s friends, who will shortly enter the story, are in the “you must have done something to deserve this” camp.  God is just, they argue, rewarding the righteous but punishing the wicked.  “You must have done something to deserve this,” they say.  “But I didn’t do anything,” says Job.

I remember when the masked stranger came up to Nancy Kerrigan and clubbed her right knee with a police baton.  Her first response was “Why me?”  I remember talking to my mother shortly after she had been diagnosed with lung cancer.  She asked, “What did I do to deserve this?”  (She had never smoked.)    When something bad happens to us, we want to know why; there must be some sort of an explanation.  Like Job’s friends we wonder, “What have I done to deserve this.”

The scriptures suggest several reasons why the innocent suffer.  Sometimes God uses suffering to discipline us:  “God disciplines us for our own good in order that we may share his holiness” says Hebrews (12:10).   Sometimes our suffering is for the benefit of others, like the Suffering Servant in Isaiah, or like Jesus, or like my immigrant great grandparents, who endured untold hardships in order that their descendants could have a better life.

But sometimes, we don’t know why we suffer.  Which is the case for Job.  After 40 chapters of wondering why Job is suffering, the book gives no answer.  When I read Job, I am reminded of the story of Cardinal Basil Hume visiting Ethiopia during a terrible famine.  When asked why God allowed the people to suffer so, Hume answered, “I have no idea.”    As much as we might want to know why we’re suffering, sometimes the most honest answer is, “I don’t know.”

So when people come to me and ask why something terrible has happened to them, I tell them what I’m about to tell you:  The two answers that make the most sense to me are 1) God is bringing you to a place where you can more fully see God’s glory, and 2) I don’t know.

Next, I want to touch briefly on this morning’s gospel lesson, Jesus’ teaching about divorce.  So many are divorced and for so many reasons.  And even though it happened many years ago, divorce can still stir up painful memories.  So when Jesus weighs in on divorce and tells us that it is only because of our hardness of heart that Moses allowed divorce, and “What God has joined together, let no one separate,” it can be hard to hear.  Let me give us some context for Jesus’ saying.  (And those of us from Trinity may have heard this before; bear with me, if you have.)  In Jesus’ time, divorce was something men did to women.  Women couldn’t initiate a divorce; only men could.  And when a woman was divorced, unless her father was still living and could still afford to support her, or unless some other man was willing to take on the stigma of marrying a divorced woman, the woman would likely be destitute, even homeless.  In this passage, I see Jesus standing up for women.

If you are divorced, I hope you hear today’s passage in its historical context, and I hope you hear that Jesus does not stand in judgment, but – as he does for all – Jesus has compassion for you, loves you, and wants you to have life abundant, and He is inviting you – as he invites all – to draw closer to Him.

Lastly, I want to say a few words about the Blessing of the Animals, which we are about to do.  As those from Trinity know, I have not always liked to do the Blessing of the Animals – it was too “cute,” I thought, and “cute” and good liturgy do not mix.   But I’ve had a change of heart.  Having heard enough stories about people experiencing something of God in their pets – God’s faithfulness, God’s love, God’s delight in them – I’ve reconsidered.  And recently, Pope Francis has helped me to make a connection between the Blessing of Animals and the Eucharist, which we are also about to do.  Listen to this, from Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si.

It is in the Eucharist that all that has been created finds its greatest exaltation.  Grace, which tends to manifest itself tangibly, found unsurpassable expression when God himself became man and gave himself as food for his creatures.. The Eucharist… is the living center of the universe, the overflowing core of love and of inexhaustible life.  Joined to the incarnate Son, present in the Eucharist, the whole cosmos gives thanks to God…  The Eucharist joins heaven and earth; it embraces and penetrates all creation…  In the bread of the Eucharist, “creation is projected towards divinization… towards unification with the Creator himself.”  (paragraph 236)

What we’re about to do here – eat and drink the bread and the wine, take into ourselves Jesus’ body and blood – connects us to God’s non-human creatures:  in the Eucharist we humans are “divinized” to better see evidence of the divinity in the creatures around us.

So, when we bless the animals, I hope we recognize God’s being present to us through them – that just as they are faithful to us, love us and delight in us, so is God faithful, love us and delight in us.   And when we receive the Eucharist, I hope we recognize God’s grace manifesting itself tangibly to us, that here God is “joining heaven and earth,” that here God is “embracing and penetrating all creation.”  Taken together, I hope we can see in these two rites how much God is loving us, not only in the sacrament, but in all that God has made.

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