A sermon from 10/7/2012
Proper 22B/Ordinary 27B/Pentecost 19
What if there are things God cannot know? Such a thought used to feel sacrilegious to me. But I no longer feel that way.
In Moneyball a numbers cruncher builds a winning team on a tight budget by calculating all the statistics about ball players performance and combining them in a way that predicted a good team. But knowing all that stuff only increases your odds. There is no way of knowing how on a particular day player A may have been dumped by his girlfriend or player B may be coming down with a stomach virus or whether player C will be “in the zone.” But you can increase the odds of predicting the outcome by extensive review of past statistics of performance.
Which is to say making odds is not fail safe.
The only way to know who is going to the world series for sure is to play the games.
They say they are talking about letting the bowl games become college football playoffs so the best team can be determined on the field instead of on paper.
In the set up for the poetry of Job we have this little drama in heaven.
Satan parades in, proud and a little cheeky.
God:”Where have you been?”
G:”Did you see my Job? Isn’t he a prince of a guy!”
S:”How do you know Job isn’t good because it has always paid him handsome dividends?”
Satan is in the business of raising questions about “How do you know?”
Remember the tree ?( I know– it was a snake, but the voice was Satan’s) “How do you know you will die? How do you know God is not hiding the real reason why he doesn’t want you to eat this lovely, sweet-smelling fruit? Don’t they call it the ‘tree of knowledge’?”
“The adversary” is always raising the possibility that you can’t trust the goodness, the honesty, the fidelity of — God, or a friend, or a spouse, or “good people.” The itching doubt he raises is “Scratch the surface and they are sinister, or self-serving, or pretending to be something they aren’t, or a fake.”
How do you know Job doesn’t love you for the stuff he’s getting and not because you are you.
But how could you know for sure just by thinking about it? without some experience, without watching the game, without seeing it through the long haul?
So maybe God can only know the odds, can only guess that Job is faithful for deeper reasons. How does God know what Job would do in some circumstance till Job does it? How in fact will Job know for sure what he will do till he goes through it?
When they train Marines, they don’t just lecture, they put them through challenges of training. The way they know they can make it before training, is different from the way they know they can make it after training. Now this may seem awfully cruel, to those of us in the armchair, but to the successful Marine is rather seems like it has made his confidence and commitment real.
We all imagine what we would do if we lost our parents, and then we go through it and it is different. What would you have done on United Airlines Flight 93 and you knew you had been hijacked and terrorists had aimed you plane on Washington? Would you have been one to say “Let’s roll” and face that death they faced?
Life puts us in situations in which courage, or faith, or trust, or compassion are not theoretical but real. They are proved not by syllogisms but by decision that results in action.
In our gospel lesson this morning Jesus is asked about divorce and answers by talking about the true intention of marriage. Humans were created to achieve unity.1 But unity is not the result of a wedding or a piece of paper, or a prenuptial agreement. It is begun maybe in the first date, but it is realized over the decades. You find out by ratifying your decision day after day.
There are things that we cannot fully know except by experience, and for that reason we are warned never to experience them. Don’t put your tongue on the frozen flagpole, for instance. I heard of a fellow in textile plant that cut off a finger in a machine. The company engineer, in trying to find out how to make things safer, asked him how it had happened. “Like this,” and he lost another finger.
You don’t have to try it all. I hear that some people who try methamphetamine are hooked from the first time they try it. They know the terrors of addiction in a way that I don’t want anyone to know. Scripture has a lot of “thou shalt nots” that are there to show you don’t have to try everything. Some things make your life smaller, destroy possibilities, will depress you and deplete you. You don’t have to experience what will kill you.
Maybe a little deeper, the Satan is the shadow side of God that asks, “How do you know so much about these humans. You may have designed them and given them life. But how can you really know what it feels like? How can you be so sure what they are capable of?”
This is the real stress test.
There is something profoundly disturbing about God letting all that tragedy go on just to settle whether Job could remain faithful.
All that collateral damage.
God tells Abraham that he is off to inspect Sodom and Gomorrah and if it is as bad as he has heard, it will be destroyed. Abraham thinking about his nephew living there, intercedes.
18:23 Then Abraham drew near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? 24 Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city. Will you then sweep away the place and not spare it for the fifty righteous who are in it? 25 Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” 26 And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will spare the whole place for their sake.”
27 Abraham answered and said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. 28 Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking. Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” 29 Again he spoke to him and said, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” 30 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” 31 He said, “Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” 32 Then he said, “Oh let not the Lord be angry, and I will speak again but this once. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” 33 And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham, and Abraham returned to his place.
Far be it from you to do such a thing, to put the righteous to death with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”
Abraham leaves it at 10– which became the number of men needed to constitute at synagogue.
But could he have pushed it further?
The New Testament picks it up again to ask: Would God save the whole world for the sake of one righteous man?
Of course what is meant in NT is not that they are spared from some disaster. Saved means more profoundly that they are set right, turned around toward something worthy of eternity. Redeemed, washed, made new
But back to Job. Now the disturbing thing about the prologue to Job is that God would allow an experiment on an innocent person to determine how much they could take and still be true. But maybe the point is deeper. How do you know short of going through suffering the capacity to trust God.
The gospel says that God did something more than put a good human in a tight spot to see if humans could be faithful. After all who would he find to qualify as Job, completely “righteous and pious”?
God decided to enter our situation. To know by experience what it is to be human. To expose God’s self to the suffering which is part of the finitude of our human condition. To learn, to be caught in the middle of uncertain outcomes, to be betrayed by a friend, forsaken by people you trusted, misunderstood by those who loved you, and wrestling with the options to servanthood and trust, feeling the dizzying possibility that God has let go:”My God, My God”. God emptied God’s self to become our brother.
And–dare we say?– God learned something by doing this. Knew from the inside. God-in-Christ was completed by suffering like we do. (See Hebrews 2:10)
And we learned something when God in Christ he did this– learned not by syllogism but by witnessing the act. We see in the suffering the love of God completed. Jesus became our trailblazer, our model, our savior and our way home.
Abraham argued theodicy with God (Genesis 18) and said that real justice would be willing to spare Sodom and Gomorrah for 50, no, 45; no, 40; no- 30; no-20; no,- – 10! righteous. What the New Testament suggests is that God was willing to go all the way down to one, one righteous, faithful human. And more, God was willing to take that place.
We don’t see humans living up to their created goal, “but we see Jesus” nothing less than God come close to us, God proving to us and experiencing in as completely human what can only be known by livinga human life with all its limits and hazards. “For this is the way that God loved the world….(John 3:16).
1( footnote)When that unity is broken, something of creation’s good intention has been lost. But the achievement of becoming one is not completed once for all but in a long succession of everyday choices that make the two one again and again in more and more levels and in deeper faithfulness. And the tragedy of divorce is “how do you know your spouse will remain faithful?, how do you know you can? can only be answered by a lifetime together.
This week there was a piece on radio about the “Convicted Women Against Abuse” for women who are serving time for killing abusive husbands. In some cases their arrest photo showed the bruises of the husband they killed in self-protection. And you hear of women like the one who wrote asking what to do, she did not know if it was right to leave her abusive husband. When the letters stopped coming, it was discovered he had killed her and her infant. (NPR, October 05, 2012,by Gloria Hillard)