17 October 2009

The voice from the whirlwind: Sermon for the Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child, Proper 24, Year C

Job 38:1-7,34-41, Psalm 104:1-9,25,37c, Hebrews 5:1-10, Mark 10:35-45


Marcus and Dana (Note: Names changed for their privacy), as a father myself, I’d like you welcome you to the select elite of mankind: parenthood. We’re here today to give thanks for the safe birth of your first child, Daniel, and I can’t tell you how happy I am for you. Now, as a welcome to that elite of mankind, I’d like to give you a little bit of a heads-up: Parenting, as you no doubt know by now, is not always fun and games. Children can be difficult, even maddening. A friend said of his son that »he’s going from the ›terrible twos‹ straight on into the I’m-going-to-freakin’-kill-him threes«.

One of the ways your child will also certainly drive you crazy is with a one-word question. My daughter has discovered this question lately. That question is, »WHY?«

The child will pester their parents, wanting to know this or that, until it in variably ends in a sequence of »why« questions with no end other than the parent gritting their teeth and saying »just because« or »because I said so, now go to bed«.

The thing is, as childish and innocent as that question is, it is still gnawing at us even as adults. We still don’t really know »why«. We grope around such questions, asking why we’re here, why this Universe even exists. Science, of course, tells us all about the how, but it falls silent on the why.

In today’s readings, Job finds himself in exactly the same spot. He asks God that question, »why«, and gets a magnificent booming voice from the whirlwind. Yet what I think is fascinating about this is that God does not give Job simple answers. Instead, God answers with a serious of questions. Each answer opens up a new question. Life, as Job learns, is a never-ending sequence of questions, and only God has the fullness of knowledge and wisdom. Only God has all sides of the truth. We mere mortals are confronted with our basic human limitations: We only see just so much of the puzzle. We try our best to connect the dots, but ultimately final answers will elude us. We are reduced to children asking their parents, »why?«

So the question is, how do we find God? How do we come into that direct personal experience of God? Job had the whirlwind, Moses had the burning bush, Elijah the chariot of fire. They had the luxury of at least directly experiencing God. But what about us?

Jesus, in the Gospel of Luke, gives us a clue. Jesus overhears people sending the children away, because they are (to the adults) being such a nuisance. But Jesus rebukes them, and says, »Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.«

As I grew into being a father, over time that line has resonated with me more and more. Because I came to recognize that children hold the secret. I see God in the eyes of my children. In particular I am reminded of a favorite story from the Sayings of the Desert Fathers, which I’d like to retell now:

One day some old men came to see Abba Anthony. In the midst of them was Abba Joseph. Wanting to test them, the old man suggested a text from the Scriptures, and, beginning with the youngest, he asked them what it meant. Each gave his opinion as he was able. But to each one the old man said, »You have not understood it.« Last of all he said to Abba Joseph, »How would you explain this saying?« And he replied, »I do not know.« Then Abba Anthony said, »Indeed, Abba Joseph has found the way, for he has said: ›I do not know.«

Abba Joseph, in other words, humbly accepts his humanity for what it is. He cannot and will not know everything. The thirst for knowledge is one that will never be quenched. Each question we ask of God, or of science, opens up new ones. We will keep asking »why« until the ends of our days.

But what Abba Joseph and Abba Anthony both also know is that they can put their trust in God that all will be well in the end. God is infinite knowledge, infinite love and infinite compassion. When we see terrible things happen to us – whether it is the death of a child, or a natural catastrophe that kills millions – our first reaction is naturally to blame God, to get angry with Him, to demand answers. But God answers us from the whirlwind: »Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, ›Here we are‹? Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together?« Who indeed but God Himself, and none other.

We must avoid the hubris of thinking we have all the answers, or even can have all the answers. We must accept that as terrible as things may seem, God really does love us, and it is all worth it in the end. To a child, sometimes parents may seem cruel, heartless, spiteful. They don’t understand why we have to ruin their fun by taking away the markers they used to decorate your antique lamp, or what’s so terrible about tearing out the pages of Mommy’s favorite book. Through those negative experiences, though, we all learn. As Paul says in the Epistle, »Although Jesus was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered«. Children figure out pretty quickly that their parents know more than they do, and accept what their parents have to teach them, because they know the love that is there.

We must learn to love God and one another as a child loves – with simplicity, trust, open eyes and open hearts. We must remind ourselves to come into the presence of God through the sacraments of the Church, so that we can reconnect with that real presence, with the grace of God. Rather than intellectually seek God, we need to feel God. And the means to do that is frequent prayer and experiencing the sacraments of the Holy Church.

Indeed we went to great lengths today to have the Eucharist as part of this service. Rev. Feldes agreed to fill in for our priest today, who is on sabbatical, because Rev. Feldes and the Anglican rector in Berlin sensed how important the Eucharist is to us. And it is doubly important because of what we celebrate today – thanksgiving for the birth of a child. The word Eucharist itself means »thanksgiving«, and what better way to give thanks for the birth of Daniel than by communing with God in the most blessed of sacraments. For that reason I’d like to thank Rev. Feldes for making the trip from Berlin so that we could do just that.

Thus, Marcus and Dana, when your child asks you »why« over and over and over again, accept it with love and learn to see the divine in yourselves, but especially to see the work of God in your child. As today’s Psalm ends, »O LORD, how manifold are your works! in wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures.« The voice from the whirlwind assures us, all will be well, there is a plan, and the Kingdom of Heaven awaits us all: it is there for the taking. Amen.