101721 Pentecost 21 From Expectation to Hope

The sermon beings at minute 18:15 of the video

Job 38:1-7; Psalm 104; Hebrews 5:1-8; Mark 10:35-45

        Have you noticed how our expectations often get in the way of obtaining what we want and hope for? Sometimes we set up an expectation in ourselves to get a particular response from someone, and what we get disappoints us. At other times our expectations impede the realization of our hopes. For example, we expect honesty and putting constituents first from our City Council representatives. We were disappointed again last week with news that Mark Ridley Thomas is accused of bribery – the third council member in two years to face corruption charges. We also experience disappointment because we expected that people would agree to wear masks and get vaccinated because science has shown that doing so reduces the spread of COVID. I’ve done this at a more personal level when I have expected a deep conversation with someone, and we ended up just having fun and not really talking. In spite of the fun, I felt disappointed. How have your expectations set you up for disappointment?

       We also have expectations of God. In fact, they are one reason for many failures of religion. When we institutionalize our expectations, we miss out on what we really hope for. The story of Job is a dramatic case in point. In today’s reading, God responds to Job’s complaints. Job was described as blameless and upright, fearing God and turning away from evil. He suffered every loss imaginable: loss of physical wellbeing; loss of property; loss of family; and loss of reputation. He was even alienated from his friends, whose orthodox religious beliefs could not touch Job’s true anguish. Job’s complaint was bitter; he wanted to make that complaint directly to God.

       God finally responds to Job and his friends from a whirlwind, showing that, although there might not be a clear answer to the problem of human suffering, God is neither absent nor indifferent in the midst of that suffering. The whirlwind appeared earlier in Job as a source of terror: Even if they accumulate riches, terrors like floods and whirlwinds stalk their lives. So God’s appearing to Job in a whirlwind is a way of saying that God and truth are bigger and more terrifying than humans expect. But that is good news rather than bad. The reality-we-know-as-God embraces both love and suffering. God appeals to the beauty of creation to reveal this: morning stars singing for joy, water tumbling down from above, the hunt of the lions, the cry of the young ravens hungry for food, tender births and violent deaths, wild animals laughing in the face of fear. In response to Job’s complaint that the world is not fair, God appears in a whirlwind and offers a panoramic view of life – wild and beautiful, glorious and chaotic, life and death. 

    When we’re hit by a whirlwind of suffering or love, it comes as a shock to our system. Whether we fall head over heels in love, or receive a diagnosis of cancer, it wreaks havoc in our lives. As Richard Rohr says, it awakens us from sleep, derails us from our routine, rips up our scripts, and throws us unprepared into a new scene on the stage of life. Felicia Murrell further describes this experience: In liminal space— sitting with our truths; the place of mystery, the unknown; the place where we let go of our injured expectations to be seen, to be known, to be welcomed —we offer ourselves what we’ve longed to have given to us. We acknowledge our feelings—the power and depth of each one—giving them space to roll through us, to breathe and take on life. Instead of projecting outward or looking for resolution, we sit with them, breathe through them—allowing them to be as they are within us. We see so much projecting outward, so much avoidance of terrifying truth, so much fixing instead of reflection; and our world is the worse for it.

     Sometimes this shocking experience comes when we are blithely waltzing through life with our expectations unquestioned. That’s what happened to the disciples in today’s Gospel. James and John came to Jesus and said, ‘Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.’ For whatever reason, they felt entitled to be given privileged positions. Their expectations blinded them to the truth that Jesus was trying to reveal. He kept saying that liberation and love would come through suffering. They kept not hearing it because their expectations were so strong in the opposite direction.

       Something happens on the road from truth itself to appropriating that truth. When we appropriate truth, we tend to add demands to it. “If it’s true that you are my daughter (the truth), you should visit me when you’re in town (the demand).” I defend the demand by insisting that it is based in truth, which it is; but between the naked truth and the appropriation, it gets hijacked by demand. We get to this place of demand and expectation when we lay claim to the benefits that we believe should come from the truth before we express gratitude for the gift. We see this in the arrogance of Job’s friend’s with their orthodox theology, demanding that God conform to their belief that the just are rewarded and the unjust are punished. Creation and life and all their benefits are God’s gifts to us. The problem is, once we have them, we tend to think they are ours by right.

       Likewise, when we go from hope to expectation, we move from wishing something could be otherwise, to believing it should be otherwise. “I really wanted to get that job; it’s unfair that they gave it to that other person.” What really brings life is hope, which is different from expectation. Like truth, expectations come with demands that are not present in hope. Hope is rooted in gratitude. We don’t reduce hope by eliminating expectation. When we embrace love and suffering, the hope that lives in gratitude doesn’t have to be demanding.

       But this doesn’t happen when we’re on autopilot. We can’t just roll back to hope from a place of expectation. There is a bump on the road back to hope. Getting over that bump requires spiritual practice. It requires constant spiritual practice to overcome this pattern of demand. The Psalmist seems to have done this spiritual practice: O Lord, how manifold are your works! in wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Those are words that come from one who acknowledges what God said to Job: Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Whether or not the Psalmist experienced the depth of undeserved tragedy that Job had, those are the words that come from a true encounter of God in the whirlwind.

       God responds to Job and the Psalmist responds to the Creator with beauty. Job cast a vision of a world overshadowed by pain and suffering. God responds by showing him the beauty and hope of the same world. Those responses don’t negate each other. Beauty does not cancel out suffering. It widens the view. Besides suffering and grief, there is beauty, grace and hope. Neither suffering nor beauty can be explained; they can only be experienced; and they both change us.

       We need to cultivate both – an awareness of the suffering of humanity and an awareness of the beauty of creation, the remote absence of God and the divine closeness of God in creation. Job pleads with God to look at the world and bear witness to its suffering and pain. God pleads with Job to look at the world and bear witness to its beauty and glory. Perhaps that is what the mystics mean by prayer as conversation – me pleading with God, and God pleading with me. The story of Job begins in the divine courtroom, where God and Satan wagered, far away from Job. It ends in an earthly courtroom where God is intimately present in every corner of the earth. Here beauty and suffering are held in tension – a dance between the divine and the human, rapturous beauty and constant wounding, a courtroom in which there are no losers and both discover what they had been missing. Perhaps that is the spiritual path from expectation to hope.