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Sermon for October 21, 2018: Humility and Comfort (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Updated: Aug 14, 2021

When my daughter still lived at home, she would often go upstairs to her room, allegedly to do her homework, but while she was up there, I would sometimes receive email “forwards” from her. These were inevitably cute cat pictures, which sent me into fits, because a) she was clearly not doing homework, and b) I had decided that silly cat pictures represented everything that is wrong with young people. Why, I moaned, was she wasting her time with such foolishness? Now I am forced to admit that maybe adorable animal photos are not a waste of time – and I think today’s Hebrew scripture from Job backs me – and Katie – up on this.

We have been following the sad story of Job for several weeks now. Job, as you will remember, was the object of a “bet” between God and the Satan. The Satan believed that all human beings are self-interested and believes that if he took everything away from Job, Job would curse God. God disagreed. In last week’s scripture, Job bemoaned his inability to sense God’s presence, and called out to God to come and listen to him. Today, God showed up – and, as so often happens, God did something Job did not expect: God answered Job’s questions with a few of his own. “You want to know why I allowed the Satan to cause you suffering? WelI, Job, let me ask you this: where were you when I created the universe?” Then God proceeds to detail everything that God has done, and how very, very small and unimportant human beings are in the scope of it.

This made Job feel pretty low. Poor Job- he did absolutely everything right. He was loyal to God against all odds, retaining his integrity in the face of tremendous loss, and instead of God thanking him for his faithfulness, God made him feel small and unimportant. It seems unfair – until you think about who Job was talking to; he was talking to God, the creator of all things.

As if this isn’t made clear enough in our reading from Job, today’s psalm drives it home powerfully. God made everything – not just human beings and, perhaps more importantly, not especially human beings. If you notice, of all the actions that are attributed to God by the psalmist, none of them have to do with humanity. God controls light, spreads out the heavens, makes the winds his messengers and fire her servants. The earth is full of her creatures – but human beings are not named as being particularly special among them.

This suggests that in the scope of God’s creation, human beings really are pretty unimportant. This may be a shock to some of us because, honestly, we human beings are pretty prone to thinking we are the center of the universe. We can’t seem to stop ourselves from worrying about our problems, about making things, “all about us.” It is comforting to know that Jesus’s disciples were no exceptions to this kind of behavior. In today’s gospel passage, we are told that James and John were so eager to be important that they came right out and asked Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hands in his glory. This made their friends very angry – but Jesus himself did not get angry with them. “You do not know what you are asking,” he patiently told them – although they really should have - because this is the third time in Mark’s gospel that Jesus explains to his disciples what it means to share in his “glory” – that his “glory” will happen on a cross, and that the people who will be on his left and right will be criminals. The cup that Jesus will drink from is filled with poison. It will lead not to power and prestige, but to suffering and death. It is a cup filled with humility.

It is also a cup filled with promise – the promise that the disciples and all humanity can be redeemed through the blood that Jesus will shed. It is the promise that God will always love us. This is actually the same promise that echoes in God’s words to Job. Think about it: we may be nothing in the scope of God’s power, but God still cares for us. The point of God’s speech to Job is not just what God is saying, but that he is saying it at all. As humiliated as Job may feel, what is important is that God is with him, just as Job has prayed God would be. God’s lesson in humility to Job and Jesus’s explanation to his disciples are not only about the smallness of humanity, but also about the fact that God loves us anyway. “In the larger context of [the gospel], Jesus’ words may … be read as an extraordinary promise: ‘You will not always be driven by your fears and your need for security. Rather, you will be empowered to take up your cross and follow me... Here is the great promise for [us too]. We need not always live in fear; we need not continually seek our own security. Rather, we have Jesus’ promise that we can and will live as faithful disciples as we seek to follow him.”[1]

That is what it means to be chosen by God – to know that although we are not individually or collectively the center of the universe, we can still do much to make it better – to bring about God’s kingdom. It is what it means to be a priest for God. The word “priest” is actually best translated as “bridge.” Priests, then, are people who seek to serve as a bridge between human beings and God – by preaching God’s word and participating in the sacraments that bring us closer to God. In the Protestant Episcopal tradition, we often speak of “the priesthood of all believers.” This is our belief that every single one of us – not just ordained people – is called through our baptism to do the work of God in the world. “As baptized ‘priests’ we are given all the power, vision, and grace to be who we are called to be – not because we are perfect, but because God’s grace is made perfect in us.”[2]

This is both exciting and terrifying. Who are we, to think of ourselves as “called” by God – as “priests,” as worthy servants of such an all-powerful being? The answer is that we are the creatures that God loves, that God answers, that God saves. “God chooses us, and will not let us go. The only appropriate response is obedience, a commitment we keep forgetting. This is why we end up with impetuous Peter, arrogant Paul, lusty David, stuttering Moses, frustrated Martha, weeping Mary, and bitter Naomi. This is why we end up with members who annoy us, leaders who forget meetings, and… clergy who disappoint us. Somehow God needs each one of…us…to be the priestly body of Christ in the world.”[3]

I find this comforting – the knowledge that I am both so small as to be virtually invisible in the scope of God’s creation and yet God still loves and needs me. As flawed as I am, as unlikely as I am to be able to do what is asked of me, and as anxious and fearful as I become when thinking about my own problems and those around me, I am still called by God. And, truthfully, God only asks one thing of me: to be obedient to God’s will and to do it as best as I can- and that is something even a human being can do. Like those adorable internet animal photos, today’s scriptures tell the story of something small and relatively unimportant, something that we might be tricked into thinking God is wasting his time with – but they also say something much greater. We, like those online animals, also serve to remind one another – and perhaps God – of what is hopeful, loving, and comforting – and that’s worth spending some time on. AMEN.

[1]Charles L. Campbell, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 193.

[2]Susan R. Andrews, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 184.

[3]Susan R. Andrews, (2009), in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year B, Volume 4: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 184.

Children's Homily for October 21, 2018: Baptism Day! (The Rev. Dr. Deborah White)

Today we are having baptism! Who knows what

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