Job 30:16-21 and Matthew 15:21-28
Just to be clear, I want to say that I picked out these Scriptures, this sermon title, months ago. I was not focused on what crisis we may or may not be in this specific week depending on who was elected last Tuesday. And no matter who you voted for, I think we can all agree that our country is deeply divided in ways we can’t even always explain. We are, in many ways, in a crisis of trying to figure out who we are going to be and how we can move forward together. And even if it wasn’t for our nation, we all know what it is like to face personal crisis and communal crisis, to have something happen in our lives or in the lives of those we love and to be faced with our own mortality and our own ugliness.
Which is why I planned a Sunday on finding God in times of crisis. We have been examining our stories in our Sacred Stories series. We have been delving into the Biblical story and how we enter into God’s story. Ever since I began planning this series last spring, I wanted to make sure that we had a Sunday where we explore what a Biblical response to crisis looks like. What do we do, as people of faith, when we are facing a time of crisis? Probably the number one thing I hear from people who don’t go to church, is that those of us in the church too often just pretend that everything is okay. And while I don’t think that that is really true, I understand the perception. We have a difficult time admitting when we are in the middle of a crisis because of something that happened to us last night or because of a family argument we had in the car on the way to church this morning. We have a rough time admitting when we are in pain. So I want to explore the Biblical approach to crisis this morning.
First, we have Job. Job has been through the ringer. His family has died, his home was taken away, he is poor and destitute; but probably worse than anything else, are his friends. Job’s friends are the worst. Because his friends keep telling him that it’s his own fault. That if he would just be a better person, everything would be fine.
Stanley Hauerwas, an author and theologian, wrote a book called Prayers Plainly Spoken. In one of his prayers he speaks to this:
Crucified Lord, your creation is full of pain. Our lives are full of pain. We must appear happy, to be OK, to others and ourselves. After all, we know no one likes to be around people in pain. So we cannot even be around ourselves. We refuse to remember because memory is just another name for pain — dull, meaningless pain that makes us numb. But you would have us be passionate people, filled with the Spirit, possessed by memory. We fear that if we remember, the pain will return and kill our present. Give us courage, which is just another name for friends, to stare down the terror in our own and our neighbors’ lives, that we may be your joyous people. Amen.
As people of faith, one of the ways that we find God in times of crisis, is to acknowledge— not ignore— the pain. We admit that we are grieving. We take the time to be courageous enough to talk about what’s ailing us.
Job does this well. He rails at God. I mean really rails at God. He’s at a point where there’s really nothing to lose. But instead of giving up or blaming someone else, he yells at God. And he is not alone. I appreciate that so many of the people who wrote the psalms express their anguish and anger in such vivid imagery, even as I often recoil at the vengeful language that they use. It is honest, at least. I grew up in an era where my Grandmother would’ve seen it as blasphemy to yell at God, and yet that’s what the people of Scripture often do. They wrestle, they yell, they bargain, they try to persuade, they do all of the things that we do in times of crisis.
Our lives are full of pain. And while it won’t do us much good to wallow in that pain, it is also the case that we so often miss out on being our true selves because we won’t even look at the pain— we always trying to put a pretty face on it so that we won’t embarrass ourselves or our friends. But when we fail to acknowledge the pain, what it does is separate us from the people we love the most. When we are hiding how we are really feeling from others and from God, we feel alone and isolated and terrified.
Patton Oswalt, the actor and comedian, has been publicly grieving because his wife died about six months ago. And what he said, when asked how it is that he has had the courage to share his feelings of grief and crisis, is, “If you don’t talk about it, then grief really gets to set up and fortify its positions inside of you and begin to immobilize you. But the more you talk, the more you expose it to the air and to the light, then grief doesn’t get a chance to organize itself. And then maybe you can move on a little easier and a little better.” (The Late Show)
God doesn’t want us to hide how we are feeling. God invites us to show up with all of who we are— to bring our pain and thus to be in relationship with God. How do the disciples recognize Jesus after he has been resurrected? They recognize him because of his hands— the place where he was speared— they recognize his pain. It hasn’t disappeared, he has moved through the pain and has been transformed through resurrection.
God promises to be in relationship with us. God loves us; nurtures us; and when we’re ready or sometimes when we’re not but need to be, God nudges us, pushes us, and empowers us to get up. And through it all, God is with us. God cries when we hurt, God laughs when we laugh, God celebrates with us when there is true joy. God walks with us all along the way and never gives up on us. Even in the book of Job as Job is yelling at God, letting God have it, wondering where God has been all of this time, God listens. And listens. And even when God speaks, defending the fact that Job is yelling at the one who made heaven and earth, who created the sea crea-tures and drives the wind, even then God does not call Job names, but holds him in love. God’s desire is to be in relationship with us, and that is truly a gift.
God also invites us into community. Hauerwas prays in his prayer for courage, which he says is just another name for friends. How true that is that our courage most often comes from community— people who remind us of who we are and how God is calling us. As much as we may not like it in times when we disagree or are awful to each other, God’s best most creative and loving plan is to put us all in this world together. And God doesn’t do that without a manual: What are the 10 commandments? Do not lie. Do not murder. Do not commit adultery. Do not covet anything your neighbor has. And then in the New Testament it got expanded: Love your neighbor. Love yourself. Love your enemies. Practice hospitality. Forgive not just seven times, but seventy times seven times. I didn’t say the manual was easy, all of these things are hard. And yet they are all transformative.
How often have you seen a glimpse of God’s presence — a thin space— because you were able to finally let go and forgive someone? How many times have you known the Spirit because you were able to see your enemy’s humanity? How often have you been a witness for what God can do because someone dared to tell the truth? While these practical practices are all difficult, and some would say impossible at times, when we do them, we come to realize that our faith deepens with each opportunity.
Leonard Cohen, a singer/songwriter died this past week. One of my favorite lines in one of his songs is, “There’s a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.” (From the song, “Anthem.”) We do not often get the choice of what crisis comes our way. We do have to decide how to respond to it and let our response be a gift to God. We have all known someone who has walked through a time of crisis responding in ways we can’t imagine. When his son was diagnosed with cancer, Richard Lischer, preaching professor at Duke Divinity School, a man who was used to offering people hope and light in times of difficulty, was astonished to find that his son taught him how to die well. It didn’t make the pain any easier, but it sure was a gift he never knew he needed or wanted. His son taught him how to be patient, how to be intentional, how to love the people around you really well. We see this in leaders within our nation and our world when they choose to respond with wisdom and love in horrible situations. How amazing it is to see people in our lives choosing to use their response in a time of crisis as an opportunity to share a gift with God, with the community, and with themselves. These times of crisis in our lives are most likely not what we would’ve chosen for ourselves, but we can make a choice to use the manual God has given us in how to treat one another. Communities don’t often know their own ability to offer grace, their own strength to stand up, their own power to partner with God until they face a time of crisis.
So God offers us presence and compassion and patience and endurance during times of crisis. And God offers us each other to walk together and not be isolated and not let the grief and the despair settle in. And, what is always the most shocking and awe-inspiring, God offers us resurrection— both in this life and in the next. In our passage from Matthew today there is a woman who is interrupting what Jesus is trying to do. He has gone off to be away from the crowds for awhile. He has gone into a region of non-Judean people on purpose so that he won’t be bothered, and here she comes— a mother of a young girl who is sick. And for all of us who have mothers, we know— there is nothing a mother won’t do for her child. This mother is not of Jesus’ faith. This mother is not within the appropriate boundaries of how to treat men in polite society. And this mother doesn’t care. She is in crisis. She follows him, interrupts his peace, is persistent in tracking him down, and when Jesus finally does address her and tells her that what he has isn’t meant for her, she has an answer for that too saying to him, “Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Her answer stops Jesus in his tracks. Because it’s true. Because it’s honest. Because this woman, in her courage to do whatever it takes to help her daughter in her time of crisis, prayerfully and determinedly calls Jesus out on how far God’s grace will extend. And in that moment Jesus turns and sees her for the first time and he says to her, “Woman, great is your faith.”
Even when Jesus got it wrong, he was able to turn, to repent, if you will, and to make it right—immediately. He brought life into a situation where there was only pain and soon to be death. God again and again and again brings resurrection to places of death; brings light to places of darkness; brings laughter to places where we have been weeping for so long. Joy does come in the morning. And God is with us through the night and is with us when we are able to see the dawn again. As Hauerwas so eloquently put it, “we are to stare down the terror in our own and our neighbors’ lives so that we may be God’s joyous people.”
Crisis can defeat us. But as people of faith, we also know that there are other endings too. That God offers us relationship through the crisis. That God calls us into community so we don’t have to live in the hell of being alone. That God brings resurrection out of death over and over again so that we can be God’s joyous people. That even in the middle of the darkness, God brings light and joy. Even joy.
Resources consulted or quoted:
Prayers Plainly Spoken, Stanley Hauerwas, page 109. Stations of the Heart, Richard Fischer http://www.patheos.com/blogs/laughingindisbelief/2016/11/patton-oswalt-and-stephen-colbert-discuss-grieving/