There is a memorable line from one of Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry movies – after a villain has a fiery end, Harry pauses, squints his eyes in the Eastwood way, and says, “A man’s got to know his limitations.”
These lines could easily describe the two encounters in today’s readings. Job has lost everything – wealth, status, the esteem of his neighbors, and health. He’s in danger of losing his religion – at least the rewards-punishments religion he lived by, the religion of entitlement, the religion that asserts that the fruits of morality and faith are success, and that failure, poverty, and disease are the result of immorality. Job is faithful, even God says so, and yet he’s lost everything. He cannot claim now that God loves him more than others or that he’s entitled to any particular privilege based on social standing or wealth. He has nothing about which to boast. He has not abandoned God, but God is silent. Has God abandoned him?
He calls God to task and demands that God justify himself to him. Why am I suffering? I don’t deserve this. Is everything I previously believed wrong?
Then out of the whirlwind comes a great voice, and Job’s senses are opened and he sees the grandeur, beauty, and awesomeness of the universe. God doesn’t try to justify the inequalities of life. God is not responsible for them. But, look at the universe and look at yourself. You are but a small part of this great universe story. You matter in the scheme of things, but it’s not all about you; its about the whole creation, stars, planets, creatures of sea and land.
Jewish wisdom says that every person should have a note in each of her or his pockets. One reads: “For you the universe was made.” The other states, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.”
One of my favorite sayings, and you’ve heard it more than once, is “God is a circle whose center is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.” This is good news. It affirms that God is where we are, that we matter, and that we are always in the palm of God’s hand. It also affirms – and this doesn’t feel like good news at first – that God has the same consideration for all creatures. God is not the captive of our values or needs, although God wants what’s best for us. God must balance our needs – what’s important to us – with the needs of billions of others, with galaxies arising and perishing, with 14 billion years of evolution, and trillions of stars.
In other words, it’s not all about you, Job or Bruce or any of us. We are finite – a man’s got to know his limitations – and need to resign from being god or goddess and follow God’s ways.
In the vision God gives Job, God doesn’t explain evil or tragedy. God reminds Job that with all the pain and suffering – and our need to set things right and care for our planet – we are part of a much larger story. What we experience, what we accomplish, is important, but not all important.
I realize that I am getting into the Cosmic here. But, when we live with wonder and amazement, we begin to know our place – our limitations as well as our responsibilities. We can’t change everything, but we can – as the Serenity Prayer asserts – take responsibility for what we can and change the world for the best. We can’t influence the heat of the sun but we can in our short span of life protect the earth, work for justice, comfort the sick and lonely. We can do something beautiful for God as our gift to the tapestry of God’s creation.
That was the problem with the Zebedee boys, James and John, cited in Mark’s Gospel. They jumped out of line. They wanted power and authority, prestige and respect, but failed to realize that this sense of privilege, this desire to lord it over the others, would separate them from their companions. They also failed to realize that in God’s world it’s not about what you can get, but what you can give. John F. Kennedy captured this in the famous words, “And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you— ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world: ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the freedom of man.”
Those of us – like Job and the Zebedee boys – who have tasted the best life has to offer need to look beyond ourselves. We can affirm our gifts, enjoy good food and a comfortable home, but we also need to see others’ needs as being as important as our own.
It’s not about me, or you or our neighborhood, whether the village or Covell’s Beach. Jesus says, “it’s about us.” We all know this – we’ve given up comforts as parents and spouses – we know what it’s like to sacrifice self-interest for a greater good. We know what it means for institutions as well as nations. One of our nation’s greatest hours was in establishing the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe and Japan, including former enemies. “Shouldn’t we let them languish in ruin?” some complained. Yes, we wanted to fight communism; but we also recognized that our well-being as a nation depends on the success of other nations.
As a church, these same principles need to apply – we need to know our limitations in time, talent, and treasure – we are embarking on the yearly stewardship campaign and we have a finite amount of resource. Yet, we cannot let limitations limit us. We are part of God’s great universe, with resources of energy and insight constantly flowing through us. God has supplied our deepest needs, and challenges us to live by abundance – live by what we can do to help others and the planet – and not fearful scarcity.
In another Gospel story, a little boy knew his limits – five loaves and two fish – but when he gave them to Jesus, a multitude was fed. We aren’t the largest church on Cape Cod, but we can still do great things – we can see our limits and then the possibilities hidden in these limits. We can do beautiful things for God – nurturing children on Cape Cod and in India, comforting the sick and persons experiencing homelessness and addiction, providing meaningful learning opportunities that change lives. WE can do ordinary things with great love, going beyond ourselves to heal the world.
It is a wonderful universe, and we often feel dwarfed, but it is also a “wonderful life” and like George Bailey, we can change the world and not know it just by showing up, reaching out, lending a helping hand, and doing our part in healing the world. Thanks be to God!