Sharp About Your Prayers

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Fix My Life

April 26th, 2010 · 1 Comment · Sermon Bin

“Fix My Life”
Job 19: 13-27
Fourth Sunday in Easter
Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church
©Scott Black Johnston

Job 19:13-27 13 “He has put my family far from me, and my acquaintances are wholly estranged from me.  14 My relatives and my close friends have failed me;  15 the guests in my house have forgotten me; my serving girls count me as a stranger; I have become an alien in their eyes.  16 I call to my servant, but he gives me no answer; I must myself plead with him.  17 My breath is repulsive to my wife; I am loathsome to my own family.  18 Even young children despise me; when I rise, they talk against me.  19 All my intimate friends abhor me, and those whom I loved have turned against me.  20 My bones cling to my skin and to my flesh, and I have escaped by the skin of my teeth.  21 Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!  22 Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?  23 “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!  24 O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!  25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;  26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,  27 whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!”

Three weeks ago, on Easter Sunday, after the 11:00 service, I stood on the steps of the church greeting people.  It was a gorgeous afternoon.  Blue skies.  Sweet, cool air.  People parading along Fifth Avenue in flowered hats.  The triumphant notes of Widor’s Tocatta bursting from our sanctuary, proclaiming to the world: “Christ is Risen!  Halleluiah!”

I was exhausted, but happy.  Too little sleep.  Too much adrenaline.  Now, it was over, and it had been a good day.  Our sanctuary was full to bursting.  Our choir was amazing.  We had done it; we had completed the marathon of Holy Week with trumpet peals and grace.

Shaking hands, I looked forward to an afternoon nap and a walk in the Park with Amy and the kids.  Talk about “Halleluiah!”

Then it happened.

In my Easter sermon, I described an e-mail from a parishioner who said, “I have been out of a job for eighteen months, and Scott, I am eager to see that Pascal Candle come down the center aisle.  I am really hungry for the good news of Easter!”

Referring to this story, a woman in the greeting line grasped my hand and said, “I am not the person who wrote you that e-mail, but I have been out of a job too, for a long time, and I just didn’t get the point of your sermon.  What’s the answer?”

I looked at her, trying to be encouraging, and responded, “The point?  The point is that Christ is Risen!”  “Hah,” she guffawed, “That’s no help!” and walked away.  For another thirty minutes, I continued to shake hands with people on our steps—individuals who were swept up in the joy of the day.  Yet, I couldn’t get this woman’s response out of my head.

Here it was Easter, our most sacred day; the occasion when we proclaim the good news that lies at the heart (at the absolute center) of the gospel—the announcement of the empty tomb.  You know how it goes:  Christ is Risen.  He is Risen indeed!  Except, that’s not how it went.  Out there on our steps, the ancient litany took an unexpected turn, “Christ is Risen!”  “That’s no help!”

My first response was to feel a bit deflated.  Golly, you mean my sermon didn’t ring the bell for you?  Oh well.  Beyond that, though, I was surprised and saddened.  After all, Easter is supposed to be a game-changer; shifting how we look at the world and our place in it.  To say “Christ is risen” is to watch the bars of reality bend. To say “Christ is risen”  is to taunt the monster of death.  It is to utter an old, old phrase that still gives Christians the spiritual chutzpah to lean into every day with hope and joy.  Right?

Yet, somehow, for my companion on the steps, Easter wasn’t cutting it.  Sure, it is all well and good to proclaim a two thousand year old story, but hope, real hope, for this woman meant no more waiting for a job.  She isn’t, of course, alone.  We are all waiting for different things: for grocery money, for a significant other, for vitality and health, for a baby in the womb, for some sign that our lives have significance.  With each passing day, we may look back at Easter and agree… So what?  God may have raised Christ from the dead, but how does that help me?  Will it fix the things that are wrong in my life?  I want to know what God is up to now, preacher!

That is a good question.  Is God still cooking up Easters?  Is the One who spun the galaxies into being actively trying to make our lives better?  What is God up to now?

This past week I had the opportunity to attend the NFL Draft.  I am draft geek.  For years I have watched it on ESPN.  I love the drama of the clock ticking down as teams decide how they will use their picks.  I love the excitement of players (surrounded by their family members) holding up their new jerseys.  I love the strategy involved as coaches weigh the gifts of various athletes and try to assemble a successful team.

Now when I attended, this past week, our own Greg Aeillo, spokesman for the NFL, and somewhat of a scamp, tweeted that I was in attendance, and named me “The Official Chaplain of the NFL Draft.”  It may be my life’s singular honor!  Moments later, I kid you not, one fan sent back an electronic prayer request, “Please God, please make the Raiders do something stupid again.”

It was a joke, of course, although it reminded me that we have very different beliefs about what God actually will stoop to do.  How involved do you think that God gets in your life?  One of the players chosen yesterday concluded that his selection in the third round of the draft was God’s plan.  One of my mother’s friends regularly claimed that God would help her find a parking spot.  Clearly, there are those who think that God micro-manages the universe.  They contend that no event is too small (or too insignificant) for divine meddling.

There is something appealing, something true, I think, in the notion that God participates in the opening of every tulip in Central Park; is present in every college admissions process; and shadows our every step.  Yet, the belief that God is ready to assist us at every juncture in our lives (no matter how small) raises troubling questions.  Is that really how God operates?

In the parades I watched as a child, there were horses and occasionally a pair of oxen marching along the designated route.  Immediately after the animals passed by, a cavorting clown would come along with shovel and a bucket.  They were there just in case manure might happen.  We called these clowns: The Pooper Scoopers.

Sometimes, we act as if that is who God is… a jovial Pooper Scooper who sweeps along behind us cleaning up little messes.  The problem, of course, is that if God is engaged in helping us find lost keys, then why wouldn’t God prevent an earthquake in Haiti?  What about the bigger messes?  The diseases, the economic collapses, the fractured lives?  What is God doing about those?

That brings us to Job.  The book of Job is one the most hair-raising stories in the Bible.  It tells the tale of a happy man, a righteous man, a Fortune 500 man, Job, whose life goes straight down the tubes.  He loses his livestock to robbers.  His pension plan goes belly-up.  His family members succumb to disease.  Eventually, he loses his own health.

For most of the story, we find Job sitting in abject misery, his body covered in sores, his life in ruin, as his friends come to comfort him.  And what comfort do they give!?  One by one, they sit down next to Job and list the things that their buddy must have done to get God so royally hacked off.  This is the only explanation that makes sense to them.  “God has to be angry, Job, because we all know that God micro-manages reality, and, well, just look at yourself! “

As each of his friends comes by, Job does two things.  He denies that he has done anything to deserve his horrible fate, and he refuses to abandon his faith in God.  These two things don’t seem to fit together.  Do they?  Life sucks, but I’m going to stand by God!?  If Job really is blameless, shouldn’t he be furious at God for his circumstances?  His wife thinks so.  In the second chapter of the book, she advises her husband to “Curse God and die!”  Rough words from your beloved!  Yet, ones that echo down through the ages.

Is the universe uncaring and cold and prone to lashing us unsuspecting fools with all manner of undeserved calamities?  Maybe Shakespeare’s Macbeth got it right.  Life “is a tale, told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”

Strangely enough, that’s not where Job comes down.  Having lost hearth and health and loved ones, he says to his accusing friends, “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!”

Now, what in the world is this poor, sick, broken man talking about?

In Hebrew culture, a “redeemer” was typically a friend or a family member who could rescue you in a time of trouble.  If you were in jail, a “redeemer” would testify on your behalf—would bail you out of prison.  A “redeemer” could set you free.  “Somewhere out there,” says Job, “is my redeemer.  Somewhere out there is a friend who will believe me and not blame me, who will see that this mess I am in is not fair, not fair at all, and who will fix it.”

It is quite a speech… heart-rending, beseeching, insisting that there has got to be someone somewhere who can make it all right.  As we listen to this plea, one thing leaps out.  Job is not expecting God to be his redeemer.  Oh, he says that he plans to look upon God “after his skin has been destroyed,” but for now he is clearly waiting for a person, someone standing on the earth, who will redeem him from his suffering.

Can that be right?  Is Job’s response the faithful one in times of suffering?  Are we supposed to be looking for redeemers in each other?

I want to tell you a story reported by Skip Hollandsworth in a recent Texas Monthly magazine.

On October 17, 1973, John McClamrock bounded out of bed in Dallas, Texas, threw on his bell-bottom jeans and headed to Hillcrest Highschool.[1] He was, according to his girlfriend, “the All-American boy, just heartbreakingly beautiful” with blue eyes and black wavy hair.  He was seventeen years old.  He was a football player.  That afternoon, covering a kickoff return for the Hillcrest Panthers, he dove to tackle carrier.  His head collided with the other boys thigh, and a crack like a tree trunk snapping silenced the fans.  John lay face down on the turf.  He wasn’t moving. Not at all.

The ambulance carried him to Presbyterian Hospital.  Doctors asked his mother, Ann, what religion she was.  They suggested she call her pastor, because it did not look like John would make it through the night.  If he did make it, they said, he would be permanently paralyzed from the neck down.

Ann McClamrock, 54 years old, looked at the doctors, her hands trembling, and said, “My Johnny is not going to die.  You wait and see.  He is going to have a good life.”

Well, John made it through the night, and then another, and then more.  After six months in the hospital, they called the family in for a conference.  John’s neck damage was so bad that he could not sit up in a wheelchair.  One of the staffers then said, “We have found that ninety-five percent of families cannot handle this kind of care.  Here is a list of nursing homes that would be good for your son.”

At this, his mother stood up and said, “We will be taking Johnny home, thank you.”   There they fixed up his room with a hospital bed.  Every day, his mother fed him, bathed him, changed him like a newborn, and turned him to prevent bedsores from developing.  Over and over and over she turned him.  She cared for him.

In those first months, they would talk about him better, walking again, but eventually that conversation ceased.  From his bed, John could hear the sounds of Hillcrest Highschool, especially on football nights when the band playing would float through his window.  He knew the exact the place in the fight song when the cheerleaders would kick their long legs.  “Right there,” he would softly say, “Right there.”

His mother never left him, except on Sunday morning when she would go to church, and John’s brother, Henry, would watch over him.

Over the years, the McClamrock family continued to absorb difficult blows.  First, Ann’s husband, John’s father, Mac died of acute emphysema.  Then, Henry contracted throat cancer.  John himself, made repeated trips to the hospital (every couple of months), for infections, and pneumonia, and bedsores so severe that one required plastic surgery to repair it.  Each time though, he rallied, and he and his mother would return to their daily routine.

In the morning, Ann would shower, dress up, and then should would come in and care for John.  After feeding him and cleaning John up, Ann would field calls throughout the day for an air conditioning company.  John often read the encyclopedia, hoping, one day to get on Jeopardy.  At night, they would watch television together, and then before going to bed, they always read together a Prayer of Thanksgiving printed on a little laminated card.  “Lord Jesus, may I always trust in your generous mercy and love.  Amen.”

In 1986, much to many people’s surprise John made it to his thirtieth birthday.  The next day, Ann went out and bought an exercise cycle.  She was 67, and she realized that to continue to care for her son, she would need to stay in good shape.  Now, every evening, after turning John one last time, she peddled away.

The years rolled by.  Ann caring, and peddling, and turning.  John going in and out of the hospital.  The nightly prayers flowing.

In 2007, at the age of eighty-eight, Ann fell at home and broke her shoulder.  She had to be hospitalized, but she left two days early (against doctor’s orders) to get home to care for John.  It was then, according to Henry, that she added another line to the prayer of thanksgiving.  Please God, let me live one day longer than John, one day so that I may care for him.

In January 2008, Ann and John and Henry celebrated Ann’s 89th birthday.   Days later John was taken to the hospital, the doctors told him that his skin and his organs were worn out.  The end was near.  Henry brought Ann to the hospital to visit.  Smoothing back his wavy black hair, Ann McClamrock looked at her beloved boy and promised, “Johnny, we’ll be back together soon.”

“I know we will,” John said.

Then he told his mother something he had never said before. “I know how hard it’s been for you.”

“Hard?” Ann asked. “Johnny, it’s been an honor.”

The next day, John died quietly.  On the day of his funeral, his mother was not present.  She had been rushed to the hospital.  Within a few weeks, she too was dead.  Ann and Johnny are buried next to each other in a cemetery near Love Field in Dallas.

“I know that my redeemer lives,” says Job.

Surely, my friends, this is how God works.  Instead of trying to find parking spots for people in midtown, our unbound savior is loose in the world, calling us to acts of solidarity, binding us to one another with a ferocity that boggles the mind.

Christ is risen.  That’s precisely why, when the response comes, “That’s no help!”, we will not turn away.  We will stand a little closer.  We will clasp hands in prayer.  We will hang to each other.  Because that is what Easter people do, that is “the point” of the resurrection.

We are here—we exist—to be co-opted into the redemption of the world.

“I know that my redeemer lives,” says Job.  He’s right, of course!  All that remains to be seen is whether we will answer the call.

Please join me in affirming our faith in the God who calls us to acts of redemption, using the words of The Brief Statement of Faith which can be found printed in your bulletins…

[1] Skip Hollandsworth, “Still Life” for Texas Monthly, May 2009.

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