October 22, 2000
I didn't win the lottery last night; did any of you? Oh, but I admit I thought about winning it. Wouldn't it be nice if I did? Or would it? If I had that much money I could…….. I fantasized about paying off all my debts, sticking some in the bank for retirement and my sons' education, splurging on a couple of wonderful things and then giving the rest of it away. And yet, at the same time a voice within kept whispering, "Do you know what you are asking?" I've read the stories about people who have had that much money fall into their laps and the stories don't always have happy endings.
Did I really want the money or did I want some peace of mind. What was I really asking? And would the money give it to me?
Yesterday I went to the wedding of a dear friend. She's a bit younger than me and for years she has longed for the kind of relationship about which she'd feel safe in making a permanent commitment. At the wedding, she and her husband-to-be gave off a glow that filled the church and brought tears to the eyes of many present. She got what she had asked for - but - it didn't look quite how she expected. Her husband has Muscular Dystrophy and moves through life in a wheelchair. Their future will have challenges that will ask much of both of them but they trust that the deep love they share and their faith in God will carry them through.
Let me tell you about Randall. Randall knew from a young age that he wanted to follow in the steps of his father and be a successful business entrepreneur. He put all his energy and time into years of hard work; he sacrificed much knowing that it would be worth it to have his father proud of him. Last spring his company finally hit the million-dollar profit mark; Randall was exhilarated. Two months later, Randall's father had a heart attack and died. Now on many days Randall just can't seem to get out of bed. He stays there mourning his blindness to his real desire: to have a meaningful relationship with his father. He suffers deep regret over his being unable to ask directly for what he really wanted.
A small church in the south Seattle area desired to increase its membership. The current members covenanted with each other to pray daily for more people to come to their church. And the people came. First a few, then a few more, then there were 15 new people there. During prayers of the people one Sunday, a long-time member stood up and spoke honestly and boldly: "I want us to stop praying for new members; this is enough. I don't feel like this is the same place anymore." Although many were shocked at her statement, others knew deep in their heart they were feeling a similar reluctance about the change.
What is it that you want? Do you know what you are asking? These are the questions Jesus asked his disciples in our scripture reading this morning. These are the questions Jesus asks us.
When James and John asked to sit in Jesus' glory at his right and left hand it probably seemed to them like he'd be honored by their request. Instead they hear from him, "You do not know what you are asking." He goes on to explain to them that discipleship is not about power and position. It is not about being served, but about serving. The disciples were blind to this. They truly did not know what they were asking but Jesus challenged them to think more seriously about their request.
In the book of Job, from which we read this morning, there is a lot of asking that occurs. Why is there suffering? Is God a God of justice? Job and his friends try to make sense of the calamities that have befallen him. He puts questions to God. After a multitude of them, God finally responds as we heard in our reading this morning: "Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. There is a sense of frustration in God's response; an echo of the challenge we heard in Mark this morning: You do not know what you are asking!
God's response to Job seems puzzling; the divine speeches do not address Job's questions directly but are mostly concerned with an elaborate description of the created world and God's role as creator.
But, Carol Newsom, a biblical scholar, suggests something radical is going on here. "God reframes the issues," she notes. "Job's speeches were oriented to themes of rights and injustices in the human realm and to a God who should see that justice is always done. God speaks of the ordering of creation: the foundation of the earth; the birthing of the sea; the ordering of day and night; and the mysteries of water in its myriad forms of snow, hail, rain, frost and dew."
In verse 18 in this chapter God says: Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? (NSRV) Have you an inkling of the earth? (Jerusalem Bible) God is asking Job to consider a larger context. Once again we hear the question: "Do you really know what you are asking?"
Perhaps Job didn't know what he was asking. Newsom says that Job's starting point was inadequate. "Job's categories had been too narrow, his conception of God hopelessly anthropocentric (solely focused on the human). Both Job and his friends had assumed that God primarily reacts to human conduct, a view of the world that puts the individual human being at its center.
Job's categories of rights and wrongs and his conception of God as a larger version of himself are simply inadequate to encompass the vision God shows him. This new image is one of God as power for life, balancing the needs of all creatures, not just humans, cherishing freedom, full of fierce love and delight for each thing without regard for its utility, acknowledging the deep interconnectedness of death and life."
The scripture readings this morning challenge us to expand our awareness and enlarge our world of understanding. And we're asked to do that in ways that are contrary to our normal ways of thinking. To be great we need to become a servant. To be first we need to be a slave. To understand God we need to stop thinking of God only in human terms and priorities.
This is wisdom that will help us guide our church into its future. What do we want to be asking for this church?
Perhaps a more important question is who we want to be asking about this church's future. Most of us probably have some ideas about what this church could become. It's important to be in conversation with each other about that. But, we must be mindful that God's desire for this church may have a different path than we're able to presently see. Our response to that needs to be prayer. Prayer for guidance and an openness to being led by the Spirit.
If we are to be faithful followers of this morning's lesson about serving rather than being served then we need to be asking the larger community of Monroe how we can serve it. What are the needs in this community that our church can fill? What kind of voice needs to be heard loud and clear in this community as spoken by this church?
How can we be God's presence of justice in this community; who in this area yearns for our support of their freedom? How can we serve the land, water and air that bless us in this valley?
God will reveal these answers for us if we are truly seeking them; if these are truly the questions we are asking. As we respond God will become more visible in each one of us and abundant life will be present in our church and our larger community.
Listen to this story:
God decided to become visible to a king and a peasant and sent an angel to inform them of the blessed event. "O king," the angel announced, "God has deigned to be revealed to you in whatever manner you wish. In what form do you want God to appear?"
Seated pompously on his throne and surrounded by awestruck subjects, the king royally proclaimed: "How else would I wish to see God, save in majesty and power? Show God to us in the full glory of power."
God granted his wish and appeared as a bolt of lightning that instantly pulverized the king and his court. Nothing, not even a cinder, remained.
The angel then manifested herself to a peasant saying: "God deigns to be revealed to you in whatever manner you desire. How do you wish to see God?"
Scratching his head and puzzling a long while, the peasant finally said: "I am a poor man and not worthy to see God face to face. But if it is God's will to be revealed to me, let it be in those things with which I am familiar. Let me see God in the earth I plough, the water I drink, and the food I eat.
Let me see the presence of God in the faces of my family, neighbors, and - if God deems it as good for myself and others - even in my own reflection as well."
God granted the peasant his wish, and he lived a long and happy life.
God's powerful presence makes itself known in the paths of service and compassion that we can travel every day in our lives. Asking how we can serve God may lead us to unexpected places and answers but we know that God will always be there waiting for us. And isn't that truly what we most are asking for? A loving encounter with our God.
*King and peasant story quoted from Peacemaking Day by Day.