“What We Are Learning”
(Job 23:1-10; Mark 10 :7-22; John 14:1)
By Dr. Daniel L. Migliore
October 10, 2021
Remember that Sunday in March last year when in-person-worship services were first cancelled? I remember it well. I was scheduled to lead an adult study class on the Lament Psalms at a nearby church. Little did I, or members of the class, know then how timely a study of the biblical prayers of lament and protest would be in the months to come, not just for members of our class but for people everywhere.
As we all know, early in 2020, a virus called Covid-19 most of us had never heard of before spread to the United States and around the globe. It has killed millions of people worldwide and has taken the lives of 700 thousand Americans. That’s more deaths of Americans than was caused by the great flu epidemic of 1917, and more than the combined number of military personnel this country has lost in all its wars. Now as we gather this morning, virtually again, the virus is still with us, and we are about to face another winter of masking and social distancing and getting our Covid vaccines. Thankfully, some progress has been made in containing the virus, but it is likely that in the coming months more people will get sick and some may die.
Pondering our situation today, I am reminded of the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazi regime for his opposition to its reign of terror and genocide. From his prison cell, Bonhoeffer wrote that in such times as the world was then going through, Christian life and witness had to be born anew.
He was convinced that following Jesus had now to concentrate on two life practices: worship of God and work for justice and peace. Well, today we have a perfect storm of crises—a terrible pandemic, ominous climate change, vast human migrations, and a widening chasm between rich and poor. The tumultuous storms we are facing make Bonhoeffer’s words as relevant to our time as to his. A faithful following of Jesus today will be marked basically by honest worship of God and courageous work for justice and peace.
The point of my sermon this morning is that faithful Christian worship and courageous Christian witness will happen only if we are learning something in our time of crisis, learning to see the world differently, just as Bonhoeffer learned, in his situation, to see the world differently, to see it, as he said, from below, as Jesus saw it, from the eyes of the poor and the despised of the earth.
This morning I invite you to join me in asking the question, what are we learning during this Covid era, stretching now from weeks and months into years? To be clear: I am not asking: What are we learning about the inconvenience of wearing a mask? or What are we learning about these invisible things called coronaviruses? or What are we learning about our wobbling political institutions? or What are we learning about the fraying of our social bonds and the breakdown of our common values and common purpose that hold us together as a people? You can learn these things far better from doctors, historians, and social scientists than from anything I might be able to say in this sermon. We are here this morning, albeit virtually, for a very different purpose: to worship God and to consider our lives in the light of the Word of God. Accordingly, when I ask the question: what are we learning in this difficult time, I mean: What are we learning about our faith? What are we learning as believers in the God of the gospel? What are we learning as members of a congregation of Christians who are trying to live our lives as followers of Jesus?
As I meditated on the biblical texts for this morning’s service, I asked them this question: what are we, or what ought we to be, learning in these months of living with Covid? And the first answer I found was in our morning reading from the book of Job. What the story of Job tells us is that people of faith then and people of faith now learn in times of great suffering that grieving deeply and protesting passionately against crushing injustices is not contrary to but an integral part of the life of faith. We are learning that the life of faith includes asking hard questions and refusing to accept injustices, even in our prayers to God. Intense grief, bitter complaint, yes and righteous anger run deep in this book of Job. He has lost everything, his family, his property, his health. “Today,” Job says, “my complaint is bitter… Oh, how I knew where I might find God… I would lay my case before God and fill my mouth with arguments.” You see, Job is not just voicing protest; he is protesting to God.
I suspect that even though we are inclined to hide it, in these Covid days we experience moments when we want to shout out our questions, let go a cry of grief and complaint, not just to ourselves or to a friend, but to God. And it’s not just some anger about the inconvenience of wearing a mask; or disgust with our fellow citizens who refuse to wear a mask or get vaccinated; or irritation about finding the shelves at our grocery story once again empty of items we’re accustomed to seeing there. No, the protest goes far, far deeper. It’s a protest about why all this suffering is allowed to happen, about why there’s so much injustice in the world, about what possible sense or purpose there could be in all this suffering and loss. And this protest is finally directed to God.
In his autobiography titled Growing Up, Russell Baker, a former opinion writer for the New York Times, recalls a traumatic childhood experience. When Baker was five, his father died quite suddenly. Weeping over his loss that afternoon, Baker was consoled by Betsy Scott, a friend of the family. Baker writes: “Betsy listened patiently like a saint while I sat in her kitchen and cried myself out.
For the first time, I thought seriously about God.“ Betsy told me about the peace of heaven and the joy of being there among the angels and the happiness of my father who was already there.” “This argument,” Baker says, “failed to quiet my rage.” “Between sobs, I told Betsy that if God could do things like this to people, then God was hateful, and I had no more use for him.” “That day,” Baker continues, “I decided that God was not to be trusted. After that I never cried again with any real conviction, nor expected much of anyone’s God except indifference, nor loved deeply without fear that it would cost me dearly in pain. At the age of five, I had become a skeptic.”
Like Russell Baker, Job too is angry with God, and he fearlessly asks God hard questions about the outrageous evils and horrendous injustices at work in the world. But remarkably, Job does not become a sceptic. And the reason he does not is largely because he expects and knows God will hear him out. He trusts that God is not offended by these fierce questions. That’s one thing I hope we are learning in this time of Covid. Job waits for God to speak, and at the end of the drama, God does speak to Job out of the whirlwind. And what does God say? Unlike Job’s accusers who say he is suffering because he must have sinned, unlike a Texas pastor who said that as the virus is surging, the world is being purged of a lot of sin, unlike the governor of Mississippi who said Christians aren’t afraid of death because they believe in eternal life, which in our present context seems to imply that that if you are a true Christian and believe in eternal life you shouldn’t worry too much if people die unnecessarily of Covid or are consigned to a life of perennial poverty and pain--no, unlike all the smooth talking defenders of God in Job’s time and in ours, who try to justify injustice and render the sufferings of this world inconsequential, God hears Job out. His single warning to Job is to remember that God’s ways are mysterious and beyond Job’s capacity to fully comprehend.
Some critics of the book say this answer of God to Job is a cop-out. I disagree. God asks Job, can you understand why I created the mountains goats, and the ostriches, the hippopotamuses, and the whales, and all those countless other wild creatures that seem so senseless and useless to you? Can you really understand why I created them and love them, God seems to be asking Job? If the book of Job were being written today, God might ask, can you fathom why you live on a little planet called earth that is part of a small solar system that is part of the Milky Way galaxy that is one of billions of galaxies? Aren’t you simply stunned with wonder and amazement?
Critics might say, “God’s answer that we can’t understand all the ways of God sounds cold and distant. A kind of divine put down.” But I think the implication of God’s answer to Job is that God has created and loves all these creatures, and God loves Job and is present with him in all his joys and sorrows. I admit, however, that this is a reading of God’s answer to Job influenced by the revelation of God’s coming to us and to the world, not in a whirlwind but in Jesus’ healing ministry, in his self-giving love even to death on the cross, and in his glorious resurrection.
Yes, amid the ravages of Covid one of the things we are learning is not simply that there are limits to our understanding of God’s ways—which of course is true--but that God listens well to all our bitter questions, welcomes our passion for a world of justice and peace, and responds in costly love to our cries. That is surely one of the meanings of the cross of Christ, it is not? God does not condemn but hears us patiently when Why? Why?, when we cry out against injustice, when we voice our outrage at the misuse of God’s name by religious and political charlatans who seek to cover over injustice and thereby enhance their own lives at the expense of the well-being of others. We’re learning this in the time of Covid.
As I further pondered our Scripture readings for this morning, I found a second answer to the question, what are we learning in these Covid-blighted months. It’s an answer present in Mark’s story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus asking, what must I do to inherit eternal life? The young man says he has kept all the commandments of God, and Jesus commends him for that. But Jesus loving the young man says to him, “One thing you lack, go and sell all your possessions, and give them to the poor, and come and follow me.” Shocked and dismayed, the young man walks away in sorrow because, we are told, “He had many possessions.”
You see, Jesus invited the rich young man into the life of a new community that follows Jesus, includes the poor, and hopes for the coming of God’s kingdom. And the young man, well, he chose instead to live alone surrounded by his many possessions. What we are learning in the time of Covid is this: a way of life that cherishes possessions more than people; that chooses living for oneself rather than participating in an open and joyous community marked by sharing, mutual forgiveness, and service of others—such a choice is a dead end.
If we hadn’t known that before, isn’t living amid Covid urging us to us to learn it? How often during these months have we wished we could be together in person rather than seeing one another on a computer screen in the loneliness of our homes? How often have we yearned to sing praises to God in embodied togetherness, to hear the word of God spoken and heard in person together, to gather around the Lord’s table and receive together the bread and the wine, the real presence of Christ surrounding us and touching our lips. How often in these days have we wanted to give and receive a hug, share a cup of coffee, be part of a community witnessing to God’s love in our worship and practice of mutual care and forgiveness among ourselves and in our common service to others in West Orange and around the world?
What we are learning in the time of Covid is how important such community, embodied community in Christ, really is--if what we are seeking is salvation, fullness of life.
The rich young man, the story says, “had many possessions.” How we Americans love to acquire and consume many possessions. After all, it makes our world go round, or at least it makes our economy go round. But as I can attest, and many of you I am sure would agree, one of the lessons of getting old is learning to let go of things we thought were so important. Letting go is also something necessary to learn in our journey of faith. Day by day we indeed learn that is more blessed to give than to receive, more blessed to love and be loved, than to possess and consume.
What? Someone might object, you’re telling us that being a Christian means having to become a monk or a pitiful poor soul roaming the streets begging for food. No, that’s not what I think this Gospel story of the rich young man is saying. The real point of Jesus’ response to the rich young man is this: Break out of your imprisonment to your possessions; befriend the poor, the excluded, the marginalized; experience the joy of new community with those you once shunned because you thought they were so different from you and so unworthy of your respect and love. What Jesus’s response to that rich young man will mean precisely for each of us will of course be different. But in whatever way we say yes to Jesus’ invitation, “come, follow me,” it will lead us to participate in a new community that follows Jesus as its Lord. To be sure, its life is flawed, and is at best only a hint and foretaste of the kingdom of God. But it can be an honest witness to the coming kingdom when it is a community of sharing, not hoarding; of inclusion not exclusion; of simplicity not grandiosity; of truly loving not secretly despising all those considered “other,” the undesirables, the outcast, the poor.
As I further pondered the Gospel story of the rich young man who had many possessions, it occurred to me that material possessions are not the only kind of possessions we cling to, and that Jesus calls us to let go of. No, no. Consider, for example, what we hear celebrated as freedom in these days. Think of the way freedom is invoked by those who think it means being able to carry a gun in public gathering places such as a grocery or a church, or of who those who claim freedom means begin able to disregard the most basic public health measures in the middle of a pandemic. Freedom, so many of us Americans think, is unlimited free choice, freedom to do as we please, regardless of the consequences to ourselves and to others. Maybe this false understanding of freedom has become the all-American prized possession….?
What we are learning in this time of Covid is that the God who calls us to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with God, the God who has come to us in Jesus Christ, gives us true freedom, and it is altogether different from doing what you please. Freedom, as we have been taught by the gospel is first of all God’s amazing freedom to be with and for us, and then also God’s gracious gift of freedom to us, the freedom to live gladly with and for others. True freedom is not the prison of self-chosen loneliness; the deepest meaning of freedom is the freedom to love as God loves: abundantly, expansively, joyfully. I think we’re learning this again in our time of Covid.
Finally, I found one more answer in our morning Scripture readings to the question, what are we learning in this time of Covid? It’s in the brief invitation of Jesus to his disciples in the Gospel of John: “Trust in God, trust also in me.” A simple sentence, but it says it all.
Surely what we are learning or relearning in these difficult days is to trust again: to trust our common sense; to trust one another to work for the common good; to trust what is sometimes called our better angels and not our worst instincts, or what the Apostle Paul calls the law of Christ, which is the law of love. Most basically, what we are learning, or learning again, is to trust in God incarnate and revealed in Jesus.
I deliberately say learning to trust again because there has been so much in our common life in recent years that has eroded our trust. Our trust in our political institutions has been badly shaken by elected leaders who have brazenly lied to us. Our trust in congress has been rattled by its spirit of divisiveness and legislative paralysis. Our trust in the promise of social media to facilitate rapid exchange of ideas and information between billions of people around the world has been soured by their failure to disallow messages that spread lies and hatred and seduce children into destructive behavior. And God have mercy, our trust in religious institutions has been undermined by clergy abuse of children entrusted to their care and spiritual nurture, and by groups like Q-Anon that merge religious zeal with preposterous hate-filled propaganda. All with the result that many of our young people are saying goodbye and good riddance to the joyless and hopeless way of life that their elders are bequeathing to them.
Yet… yet, even if we are experiencing a painful breakdown of trust in our time, there is, my friends, good news. In the time of Covid we are learning to hear again the gospel message, and every time we hear it, we are called and empowered once again to trust. Human beings want to be able to trust that the heart of reality is good and trustworthy. They want to believe that peaceful, just, and joyful life together is somehow possible, that there is hope for the healing and transformation of our personal and common life, for the coming of a world of justice and peace, of forgiveness and reconciliation, of flourishing life for all. But our capacity to trust isn’t sustained automatically.
Did you hear what the whistleblower said last week in her testimony to a committee of congress investigating the unregulated policies of the social media giant Facebook and the damage that is done by the lack of accountability. “Do you trust Facebook,” the whistleblower was asked. “Trust has to be earned,” she replied.
“Trust in God,” Jesus says, “trust also in me.” Look, God doesn’t have to earn our trust. God wins our trust. Note that Jesus doesn’t say simply “trust in God.” The word God can mean so many different things. In the name of God, the crusaders went forward to slay the infidels. In the name of God. Christian pastors rallied troops to defend the institution of slavery. In the name of God, misguided religious zealots drove their planes into the twin towers. Jesus doesn’t just say, “Trust in God.” He adds, “Trust also in me.”
The gospel speaks not simply of God but of the “God of the gospel,” the God made known in Jesus, in his ministry to all manner of people, in his giving of himself even to death on a cross to call us all to a new way of life, and in his resurrection and its promise that God is making all things new. “Trust in God, trust also in me,” Jesus says.
What we are learning in Covid time is learning to trust God again, the God who wins our trust in so many ways but most decisively in the coming of Jesus. So in the months ahead, let us continue to listen for the Word of God, continue to gather around the Lord’s Table, continue to sing Christmas carols and Easter anthems, continue to forgive and help one another, continue to serve our needy neighbors, and as we do these things, we will be learning to trust God again, even in our era of Covid.
So, my friends, what are we learning in the time of Covid? We’re learning the importance of asking hard questions and of keeping alive the passion for justice and peace; we’re learning to let go of things we once thought so essential and in their place we are discovering new life together in reconciled and inclusive community; we’re learning to trust again, beginning with trusting again in God in life and in death, the God who has come to us and to the world in humility and grace in Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus,
the love of God, and
the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.