Wednesday, October 24, 2012

At the Holy Creative Center

Scripture for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost includes Job 38:1-7, 34-41; Hebrews 5:1-10; Mark 10:35-45

In Mark’s Gospel we have two men seeking high office. One sees himself to the left of center, while the other places himself to the right. Neither says persuasively why he should be elevated to such a position of power, but they both expect it to be glorious and good for the kingdom of God if they are. And they picture that what they’ll be doing is a lot of is sitting in glory, in great authority, in places of honor, thrones, oval offices.

I wonder what today’s Bible readings could say to us, as we step into late fall 2012.

In his reply to James and John, whose nickname was Sons of Thunder, Jesus tells them that it’s not enough to want to win an election. It’s imperative to know what it is they’re asking for. Why do they want to sit with him in glory? What would they do with the authority they’re eager to wield? Wield it for what purposes?

And wherever do they get the notion that they will like it when they have gained such power as Jesus can give them? “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

How glibly they respond, “Oh, yes! Our whole lives, we’ve been preparing for this. Our family, advisors, and handlers all tell us it’s our destiny. We are James and John, sons of Zebedee, and we approve this message.”

It’s no accident that we’re also given today the voice of Job, a study in contrast to James and John. This portion comes near the end of Job’s long struggle with the unjustness of God, who has allowed many lifetimes’ worth of misfortune to befall this one good man. And Job has refused to relinquish his self-esteem, despite the clumsy coaching of his friends who assume he is somehow to blame for his own tragic losses, and the prompting of his overwhelmed wife who urges him to give up, to curse God and die.

If James and John could have stood in Job’s sandals and heard the Lord God of hosts speak of the infinite gulf between divine knowledge and the partial knowings that limit even the best mortal human being as he rises up and asks why things are as they are… why, James and John might, like Job, have ratcheted down their self-righteous expectation to get what they wanted.

After much more of this dramatic dressing-down by God, this sharp reminding of who is central to the universe and who is not, this putting Job in his place, when God has had the last word, the Book of Job will end with Job abasing himself before the Almighty. “I had heard of you,” he says to God, “by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

That is not an ending designed to please the modern hearer. We might want to consign it to the dustbin of unnecessarily dour piety. But it would be a shame to miss this point: God has honored Job’s longing for a day in court. God has climbed into the dock, to answer Job’s charge that God is profoundly unjust. For what other person in all the Hebrew Bible has God gone face to face? For Moses… and now for Job.

This ending tells us that for Job this is enough. He will not win this campaign debate by argument. He will not put down the Creator God who is central to the universe. He will not go farther down the hazardous road of making God his adversary when, in fact, God is the very ground for Job’s famous cry of hope, “I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth… then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.” (Job 19:25-27)

Job’s ending is a beginning of recognition that it is time for Job to shed the mighty chip he has had on his shoulder—understandably—since suffering so many losses. That feisty spirit has brought him as far as it can: face to face with the Inscrutable One who here reveals the desire to be known, the Magnum Mysterium who desires relationship.
We are given Job today to remind us of the virtues of humility, honesty, and repentance; and the roles these human powers play in creating responsible leadership.

James and John do not have these virtues, not yet. Notice how patient, how unrattled, how calmly Jesus responds to these two hot-headed, likely well-intentioned, disciples. None of the high-blown oratory of God’s challenge to Job, no trace of indignation, no rapping of knuckles. Jesus is pointblank but gentle: “You two just don’t get it, do you?” Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?”

Do you suppose he means to evoke the same meaning of self-sacrificing servant love that he indelibly attaches to the cup of wine that he will share with them at the last supper? “This is my blood of the new covenant which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins…”

And by holding up to them his own baptism by John the Baptist, when he through whom the worlds were made stood in line with hundreds of ordinary men and women to be immersed in the silty Jordan River, wasn’t that a public sign that he is one with us, bound to us, on our side (as Job would say); and wasn’t it precisely then that he was anointed, empowered, for his brief public ministry that forever would be remembered not for any lording over us, but for his serving us to make us servants of his?

Coming at the height (or is it the depth?) of a presidential campaign, these readings invite us to realize that every candidate for high office is a human being, just a human being. No candidate can be the center of our universe, nor even the center of our nation.

That center is a holy place, a crucible of creative leadership from which can come unification, progress, transformation—if the center is acknowledged to belong, not to a party or a president, but a nation, a diverse commonwealth of us, the people. Treated like a sanctuary, a place for repentance, reconciliation, honest amendment of life, and encounter with the transcendent, the center holds promise. The center is a place of grace.

No leader is the center of power and authority. A candidate who thinks he is will, once seated, find out otherwise. We place a leader near the center so that he or she will draw to the table all who are willing to work for the common good.

For either candidate to do that for us as president, he will, like Job, have to shed any major chip he has shouldered, repent of the role he and his party have played in desecrating the holy center, the creative center, of the people; and, in humility, demonstrate what it takes to respect and serve and lead from as near as he can get to that place of demanding and delicate balance.

For either candidate to do that for us as president, he will, like James and John, have to forego dreams of glory, in exchange for knowing certainly what he is asking of us, and what is required of him to become great—as a servant.

In a season when passions run high, these readings remind us that at the center of the Christian’s universe is the passion of Jesus Christ—his life, his death, his victory over death—and this passion beats with the pulse of new life. However we plan to vote on November 6th, whether to the left or the right of center, all Christians are centered in Christ, and we’ll do well to lay all our passions at the foot of his great passion, his indelible servant love for all people.