The Hunger for Security

Read the rest of the Via Negativa: The Hunger Games sermon series

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost:

The Almighty has terrified me. (Job 23:1-9, 16-17)
We have left everything and followed you. (Mark 10:17-31)
Welcome and entertain them all! (Rumi)

Our first song comes from singer and songwriter Carole King. In her career, she has won four Grammy awards and has been inducted into both the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. This song comes from her 2001 album Love Makes the World. The song is called “Safe Again.”

Seems so hard,
All I want to do is let down my guard
Laugh like a child and play out in the yard
I want to feel safe again

If you watch television for five minutes, chances are you will see this advertisement that seems to be on in every commercial break.

A woman is on the phone with a friend and says something like, “Okay, I’ll see you in an hour.” She hangs up, punches in the security code in her alarm system and hits the shower. As she’s cleaning up, we see a sinister man lurking outside her house. Suddenly, he violently kicks open her mostly glass back door, setting off the wail of the alarm.

The woman reacts in horror to the noise and the would-be burglar seems shocked by the blaring sirens. Suddenly, a disembodied voice booms: “Intruder, identify yourself!” The burglar looks around in further consternation, not moving an inch. “Leave the premises now!” the voice booms again, and the burglar finally finds his feet and takes off. The woman is visibly shaken and crying as the voice soothes her, “Ma’am, he’s gone now, the police have been dispatched.”

“Thank you,” she sobs as we cut to the couch where her worried husband and a police officer are comforting her.

Oh, if we could all just have that kind of security. Press a few buttons to set our life security system and whenever someone threatens us, that voice of God booms, “Intruder, identify yourself! Leave the premises now!” We have a deep hunger for that kind of security — that feeling of overall safety no matter what. It’s why that commercial, as irritating as it can be, is successful in convincing people to buy this company’s security system.

We crave security just as much as we crave anything — food, love, happiness. We do everything we can to secure ourselves — we save for a rainy day, we get alarm systems and guard dogs, extra locks on our doors. We work hard to keep our job, or find a job, or do whatever it takes to get the resources we need to simply feel as safe as possible.

In 1943, a psychologist named Abraham Maslow came up with what he called a “hierarchy of needs,” and safety is right up there with breathing, food, water, sex and sleep. Until we feel personally safe in our health, finances and well-being, we’re restless and distracted, and we may find it difficult to rise to higher needs like love, friendship and self-esteem. Feeling anxious about our safety can make us depressed and stressed out and affect us physically, mentally and spiritually.

Even though the commercials make it look so easy to be safe, there’s no security company in the world that can give us the kind of security we crave.

I don’t know,
What happened to you, where did you go
Wish I could not feel the cold wind blow
I want to feel safe again

Our reading from the Hebrew scriptures comes from the very familiar story of Job, who was a rich man with a big, wonderful family and prosperous farming life. He was the envy of his friends, and by all accounts an upright and good moral man.

Then disaster strikes as satan — who is not to be confused with the embodied sort of “satan” invented by Christianity — this is simply an “adversary,” an entity that makes a bet with God that, with enough suffering, a good and righteous man like Job will curse God and turn his back on the Holy.

This adversary wants to know why humans really love God. Do we love the Holy simply because we love the Holy, or do we love the Holy because we believe we have struck some sort of cosmic deal that if we remain good and righteous, God will take care of us and ensure our safety? So here we have this man, Job, who has done everything right. He’s kept God’s laws perfectly, has not sinned or transgressed. If misfortune befalls a man like this, will he still love God?

As you read through the book, it’s sort of touch-and-go for old Job. In today’s reading we find him lamenting God’s absence. “Oh, that I might find God,” he moans, but realizes, “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive her; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold her; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”

God is good and truly absent. His friends are present though, and they are really no help at all. They counsel Job like I suspect many of our friends — and often our pastors — do. They tell him he’s obviously done something wrong — think, man, think! If you have done nothing wrong, then none of this would happen. Repent, they tell him, humble yourself and pray harder and maybe God will stop punishing you for whatever you did. But Job has a different view of this suffering. Instead of repenting, he wants to pick a fight with God — if he could just find the guy.

We can still see these views of our relationship with God at work in the world.

We have some theological camps that tell us God is always right and our job as humans is to figure out what these trials are trying to teach us — and the faster the better!

Job, on the other hand, embodies a different sort of relating to God. Instead of going inward, he goes outward, wanting to argue with God. He doesn’t believe that suffering is there to teach him a lesson. Instead, he wants to teach God a lesson and show God that She’s wrong to bring suffering on those who don’t deserve it.

In Job’s world, God has violated Her own sense of justice. Job wants a God that doesn’t just lay down the law and expect us to follow it — instead, Job wants a deeper relationship with God where there is mutual accountability and the underlying rules of justice are acknowledged by both sides.

All Job wants to do, really, is to feel safe again — to have back that God he thought he understood — that God of justice and fairness.

Isn’t this our true fear, that God is capricious? That God really isn’t fair? That our suffering can be random, with no real lessons to teach us? Isn’t it really our fear that there is no true or absolute security this world, and that God has not made any sort of deal with us that our good behavior will be rewarded with safety?

Breathe deeply.

If only I could believe everything will soon be
Like all the fairy tales I’ve read
But I feel so lost and naked
And I wake up with the shape of a dream
In my head
Seems so hard,
All I want to do is let down my guard
Get through just one more day unscarred
I want to feel safe again,
I want to feel safe again
Safe again, With you

There is a Zen Buddhist teaching story that goes like this: During the civil wars in feudal Japan, an invading army would quickly sweep into a town and take control.

In one particular village, everyone fled just before the army arrived — everyone except the Zen master.

Curious about this old fellow, the general went to the temple to see for himself what kind of man this master was. When he wasn’t treated with the deference and submissiveness to which he was accustomed, the general burst into anger.

“You fool!” he shouted as he reached for his sword. “Don’t you realize you are standing before a man who could run you through without blinking an eye!” But despite the threat, the master seemed unmoved. “And do you realize,” the master replied calmly, “that you are standing before a man who can be run through without blinking an eye?”

The difference between this Zen master and Job are startling. Instead of angrily shaking his fist at the heavens, or cursing the Buddha for his misfortune at being confronted with immediate suffering and certain death, the Zen master faces his adversary with a calm confidence. For this Zen master, safety is not found in his livelihood or even in his family or wealth. Instead, it is found within. This Zen master has found such a deep peace with the overarching randomness and insecurity of life that he has become infinitely secure, even when death comes to visit.

He knew, as Rumi did, that:

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight.

This is the key to security, Jubilants. Welcome whatever comes to your door, even if the new delight it brings is your own death.

Breathe deeply.

Our next song comes from the Indigo Girls. The duo of Emily Saliers and Amy Ray started their career in the late 1980s in Decatur, Georgia, and have released 13 albums over the years. This song comes from their eponymous first album. It’s called “Secure Yourself.”

[Chorus] Secure yourself to heaven.
Hold on tight, the night has come.
Fasten up your earthly burdens,
You have just begun.

[Verse 1] In the ink of an eye I saw you bleed;
Through the thunder I could hear you scream,
Solid to the air I breath,
Open-eyed and fast asleep.
Falling softly as the rain;
No footsteps ringing in your ears.
Ragged down worn to the skin,
Warrior raging, have no fear.

[Repeat Chorus]

In our Jesus story, we find our guy preparing to go on a journey. As he’s leaving, he’s approached my man searching frantically for security. He wants eternal life and he’s heard this Jesus guy is one who can tell him how to get it. Now, what follows in this passage has been watered down over the ages, because this really is one of the hard teachings of Jesus — not just for the one percent of the wealthiest among us, but to all of us who are attached to our worldly possessions.

The guy tells Jesus he’s got all his moral ducks in a row. He’s not a murderer, or an adulterer, or a thief, or a liar, and he loves his momma and daddy. That’s great, Jesus tells him, but he still lacks one thing:

Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven, then come, follow me.

Oh, as people who may be living paycheck to paycheck, we love this passage and the following one where Jesus says it’s harder for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into heaven. We love it because finally, the rich get their comeuppance. They’ve amassed great wealth, often at the expense of people like ourselves, and Jesus says to the filthy-rich guy, unless you give it all up — and give it all up to the poor at that — then you’ll never be able to secure yourself to heaven.

And, oh, those disciples! Peter takes this opportunity for some brownie points and says, “Look, Jesus, we’ve given up everything to follow you.” Jesus isn’t so quick to praise their sacrifice, though. He stops him and says, “Sure you did, but that’s nothing to brag about, Pete, because giving up everything means you give up any right to feel superior to even this rich guy. Instead, your decision to give up everything for me simply means you have to dedicate your life to serving everyone — even that rich guy.”

This is why — even if we’re not the rich guy — we aren’t let off the hook by this passage. Some commentators, in their attempts to avoid this passage for themselves, point out that Jesus only ever asked this one guy to sell everything and give it to the poor. He didn’t even ask his disciples to do that! So, they reason, Jesus isn’t asking all of us to do that, or he’d make it a general, across-the-board rule. Okay, that’s fair enough.

But, what he does ask this poor little rich guy to do is give up the one worldly thing he cannot give up. Jesus asks this man for the one earthly treasure he refuses to relinquish — his wealth.

For those of us who don’t have earthly wealth, this is not the time to breathe a sigh of relief. Instead, it’s a moment where we must think about what it is we are unwilling to give up to secure ourselves to heaven.

What earthly burdens are you unable to fasten up? What is it that you value more than the Holy? What is it in your life that you would refuse to give up even if you knew it was preventing you from being fully with, and fully available to, the Holy? I suspect it’s different for each of us — but whatever it is, it is at the base of our sense of security.

For the rich man it was his money; for us it could also be money, it could be time, it could be a fear that if Jesus asks for one thing he’ll ask for it all, and we’re afraid of what that looks like. Perhaps it truly looks like selling everything we own and giving it to the poor. If that doesn’t make you immediately insecure — to give away all the worldly comforts you’ve managed to cobble together in this life — then that means you’re probably already without those worldly comforts.

That’s the heart of this request, Jubilants. Jesus is telling us that the only true way to secure ourselves to heaven is to give up anything on this earth that makes us feel secure.

Breathe deeply.

[Verse 2] Kneeling down with broken prayers,
Hearts and bones from days of youth.
Restless with an angel’s wing,
I dig a grave to bury you.
No feet to fall,
You need no ground.
Allowed to glide right through the sun,
Released from circles guarded tight,
Now we all are chosen ones.

[Chorus] Secure yourself to heaven.
Hold on tight, the night has come.
Fasten up your earthly burdens,
You have just begun.

In our Zen story, we don’t get to hear how the story turns out. The possibilities are endless, of course. The warrior could have been so taken with the master’s courage that he dropped his sword and allowed him to live, perhaps even becoming his student to learn the secret to such bravery. Or, he could have still run the old master through on the spot to see whether or not the old guy was bluffing, then went on about his business of pillaging and killing.

Job’s story ends much the same way as our Zen story — leaving us without a satisfying sense of closure between God and Job. God finally shows up, speaking in a whirlwind like any good drama queen deity would do. But by then, Job is in no shape to really launch his legal argument against his creator. Instead, God presents Her way of seeing the world — not as a place where God lays down the law and we follow blindly, as his friends see it. It’s not even a place where we argue and contend with God, as Job sees it.

Instead, the Holy’s view of the world is one of order and chaos, existing side by side. God recounts Her great acts of creation, how She created the plants, the animals, the mountains and the rivers. God reveals Himself to be wild, unpredictable and completely unfathomable. In short, God tells Job, if you want to know me, look around, because I am in, through and around the whole of creation.

Want to know God? Get to know a blade of grass, get to know a drop of water — heck, get to know yourself. Get to know the intricate design, the mysterious depths — the order and the chaos that went into making everything and continues within their existence. When you understand each molecule then maybe, just maybe, you’ll get a glimpse of God.

When you begin to think of God as the entire mystery of creation, Jubilants, you realize you’ve been seeking the wrong thing. Security doesn’t come from a bank account, a job, a relationship or anything else the world offers, because all of that can be taken from you in a heartbeat. Security comes right in the middle of our insecurity — the order in our chaos. Like the Reese’s commercial says:

“Hey, you got order in my chaos!”

“You got chaos in my order!”

Two great mysteries that taste great together. Order and chaos — the sweet mystery of life and the real nature of the Holy that we seek to be in relationship with.

It’s scary stuff, but know this Jubilants, we are all the chosen ones. Chosen to live and chosen to die. Our choice is in how we live all those moments in between. We can live it like that fearful warrior, fighting for certainty and security, armed to the teeth and ready to skewer anything that threatens us without blinking an eye.

Or, we can live like that Zen master, who has secured himself to heaven and embraced the paradox of order and chaos. He can open the door of his guest house and warmly welcome any visitor, even those wielding deadly swords, without blinking an eye.

[Verse 3] In the ink of an eye I saw you bleed;
Through the thunder I could hear you scream,
Solid to the air I breath,
Open-eyed and fast asleep.
Falling softly as the rain;
No footsteps ringing in your ears.
Ragged down worn to the skin,
Warrior raging, have no fear.

[Chorus] Secure yourself to heaven.
Hold on tight, the night has come.
Fasten up your earthly burdens,
You have just begun.
Now we all are chosen ones,
Now that night has, the night has come
Released from circles guarded tight
Now we all are chosen ones

Oh, Yeah!