The readings this sermon responds to are Joel 2:23-32; Psalm 65; 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18; and Luke 18:9-14. If you’d like to read them, this link will take you to the full text: https://lectionary.anglican.ca/nrsv/?date=2019-10-27.
Now, I don’t know how you all have been doing lately, but I’ve had a weird few weeks. The kind of weeks that remind me that good times and bad times are sometimes only separated by a few hours. There is bitter cold and blowing snow outside, and warm evening sharing food with loved ones inside. People around me are getting engaged; people around me are getting very sick. I had some big victories at work, and we had a meeting with our boss’ boss to tell us that the provincial budget is going to cost many of us our jobs in the coming months. I had a friend celebrate a wedding, then return from her honeymoon to hear that her grandmother was dying. It feels impossible, doesn’t it, to somehow make sense out of all the good and all the bad that somehow manage to fit into the same month, the same week, the same family, the same life.
And so in many ways, the prophet Joel is a perfect reading for today. One commentator calls it “a slippery little book”, only three chapters long and overflowing with intense and evocative language: “days cloaked in darkness, armies that conquer like consuming fire, and the moon turning to blood”. While today’s lectionary gives us a little snippet full of healing and joy, we more often read earlier passages from Joel on Ash Wednesday when we repeat his invitation to “Consecrate a fast; call a solemn assembly… Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the Lord of your God, and cry out to the Lord”. If that doesn’t have you shaking in your boots, how about this section from the book’s opening: “What the cutting locust left, the swarming locust has eaten. What the swarming locust left, the hopping locust has eaten, and what the hopping locust left, the destroying locust has eaten.” In a brief three chapters of scripture, Joel describes a devastating locust swarm, a call to repentance and healing, and finally, a vision of what God’s restoration will look like once the nation is reconciled. Read it too fast, and you might get whiplash.
And while we’re trying to make sense of Joel, we come up against St. Paul, speaking of his absolute conviction of God’s goodness and his own salvation while going through suffering, betrayal, and imprisonment.
Those of us who are not prophets like Joel or apostles like Paul likely have a harder time than they do reconciling suffering and healing. I recently read an incredible book called Everything Happens for a Reason, and Other Lies I Have Loved. It’s a memoir by a woman named Kate Bowler, a thirtysomething professor at Duke divinity school, who is diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The book is a raw, faith-filled account of her struggle to understand how the love she feels from God and her family can co-exist with a terminal diagnosis that will leave her young son without a mother. Bowler writes how immediately after her diagnosis, “The world of certainty had ended and so many people seemed to know why. […] “God has a better plan!” “This is a test and it will make you stronger!” Sometimes [she writes] these explanations were peppered with scriptures like “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good” (Romans 8:28). Except that the author, Paul, worshipped God with every breath until his body was dumped in an unmarked grave.” (xvi)
I don’t mean to make Bowler sound dismissive of people who believe in God’s power and healing. Quite the contrary–she believes in these things herself! But she also knows that suffering and tragedy run alongside restoration and joy, and that neither side of the coin can be ignored.
Here’s a passage from a section describing her time in treatment:
“I can’t reconcile the way that the world is jolted by events that are wonderful and terrible, the gorgeous and the tragic. Except I am beginning to believe that these opposites do not cancel each other out. I see a middle-aged woman in the waiting room of the cancer clinic, her arms wrapped around the frail frame of her son. She squeezes him tightly, oblivious to the way he looks down at her sheepishly. He laughs after a minute, a hostage to her impervious love. Joy persists somehow and I soak it in. The horror of cancer has made everything seem like it is painted in bright colours. I think the same thoughts again and again: Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.” (123)
Joy persists somehow. Life is so beautiful. Life is so hard.
I have a friend whose father was a priest. He was a charismatic Anglican, someone who was unshakably convinced of the presence and power of the Spirit in the world, and with a deep belief in God’s ability to transform and heal God’s people. After many decades of presiding over prayers for healing and restoration and, I imagine, witnessing miracles in forms I can’t fathom, he developed a tremor in his hand. The tremor turned into full-blown Parkinson’s disease, which he died from several long and painful years later. My friend likes to say that his father had an excellent theology of healing, and a terrible theology of suffering. He was primed for joy. He had every reason to expect amazing things from God. And yet, in the end, he was not healed.
I’m probably the opposite of my friend’s father. I have an excellent theology of suffering. You want someone to sit with you while you fall apart and say yes, it’s awful, I’m so sorry, you want someone who won’t try to gloss over how hard the battle is, who won’t tell you to think positive thoughts, I’m your girl. But I have a pretty terrible theology of joy. I am always a bit suspicious that I am being offered joy in its cheapest forms. Having been through some hard years recently, I am wary of opening myself up to the possibility that the hard times might be over. Just as my friend’s father needed other people to help him sit with suffering, I need other people to tempt me to risk being joyful.
Life is so beautiful, life is so hard, and none of us has to make sense of that alone.
And that, I think, is the really good news–the Gospel message–in today’s passage from Luke that helps us make sense of the complexity of Joel: we need each other, we need God, and God, in God’s infinite wisdom, has given us both.
God never asks us to face the suffering on our own. In fact, God condemns self-sufficiency, individualism, and autonomy as sin consistently throughout the scriptures. What else was Adam and Eve’s sin in the garden if not thinking that they didn’t need to rely on God? What else was the idolatry of the Israelites when they decided to cast their own God out of gold? In today’s Gospel reading from Luke, the sin of the Pharisee is thinking of himself as in control of his own salvation. Thank God I am not like other people, he thinks. He is separate. Better. He has control over his own life, does all the right things, and as long as he behaves exactly correctly, he believes he will be justified. Yet Jesus tells us that the tax collector who throws himself on God’s mercy, who knows he can’t do this alone, is the one who sees the world clearly.
We need God. And we need each other. We need each other in part because we don’t know the end of our own stories, and so our lives are always incomplete until the final moment. Some of us are Abraham, looking back on a life well lived and knowing that God has fulfilled his promises. Some of us are Job, unaware that all that we have is about to be taken away in the blink of an eye. And none of knows which we are. We might be Mary of Bethany, raging at God and weeping over our dead brother, not knowing that miraculous healing is around the corner. Or we might be Saint Paul, praying for the healing of a thorn that will stay in our flesh until our death. So much of our stories is beyond our knowledge, and beyond our control.
And yet we want that control so badly. We are often the pharisee rather than the tax collector. When we look at the world’s suffering, we want to address it. We feel as though we can’t give enough, can’t work hard enough, can’t be angry enough at all the injustice we see. And when we operate from the belief that we are in control, our lack of control feels like a personal failure and becomes a source of shame and anxiety. I see this in my husband all the time. Despite the fact that he stands up for what he believes in, and puts his money and time where his mouth is, he will often beat himself up for not doing more, not acting perfectly. This is why pretty much every conversation in our house about world events involves me holding up my hand and saying sweetie, YOU’RE NOT JESUS. You can’t save the world. You’re not meant to.
We are not Jesus. We are not the one who can hold the ugliness in his hands and somehow, someway, redeem it. The impossible bundle of joy and suffering that make up our existence is too big for any one of us to wrap our hearts around. I hope that we can forgive ourselves for what we see as our limitations, and embrace what God sees as our gifts. We are not Jesus, but we are made in God’s image and we are given skills and capacities that enable us to contribute to the work God is already and always doing all around us. We don’t have to do it all, but with God’s help and in community with each other, we can care for the tasks that we have been given in the time we have.
This is often slow, and vulnerable and complex work. But there is a reality to it and a potential in it that we can’t get to if we try and fast forward to the day of triumph. Catholic priest Rev. Patrick Walsh puts it this way:
“The posture of invitation and welcome that releases the power of the Holy Spirit upon our sick world is vulnerable and uncertain, and requires us to be in communion with people we don’t understand. It requires us to act with tenderness toward people who hurt others. It requires us to accept the parts of ourselves that are ugly, and offer them up to God to polish away all that mars his original creation. It requires us to accept our beauty, the beauty we have not because we are special holders of all the correct answers, but because we are, like every other human being, the unique object of God’s jubilant and unconditional love.”
So let us weep with those who are weeping and rejoice with those who are happy. Let us hold impossible extremes of joy and sorrow together, without thinking that we have to make sense of it all. And most of all, let us lay down our love of control, our desire to be self-sufficient and our shame at our own need, and say with the tax collector Lord, have mercy.
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