Cause and Effect

You might not remember this from elementary school, but learning about cause and effect can be very difficult for young children. Once, back in my teaching days, I tried, pretty unsuccessfully, to explain cause and effect to a group of fourth graders, and what I realized is that the kids were quick to pick up on correlation, but slower to understand causation. For example, it was confusing to many of the kids that although my birthday is always in winter, the winter season does not cause my birthday to happen. They wanted to attribute a cause and effect relationship to any two things that go together.

And while we would all like to believe that we have a much more refined mental acumen now than when we were in the fourth grade, I’m afraid that we all fall into the habit of attributing a cause and effect relationship to any two things that go together. This past week, Taylor Swift posted a plea on Instagram for her fans to register to vote. The next day, 65,000 people registered to vote in the state of Tennessee. Many people, myself included, were thrilled to see so many “TSwift” fans responding to her call to action. But it’s more likely that this is an example of correlation, not causation. The day those 65,000 people registered to vote was the registration deadline.

We order our lives around the concept of cause and effect, because without it, we slip into utter chaos. There must be consequences for actions. There are scientific explanations for natural phenomena. What goes around should come around. But sometimes, our determination to find cause and effect between things that happen to go together can be dangerous. Especially when it comes to our spiritual lives. Because while this is how our society is organized, it’s not how the Gospel calls us to live, and our scriptures are rich with this lesson today.

Job is a fascinating and, in my opinion, elegantly organized literary work. The book opens with God and Satan chatting, I presume over coffee, in heaven. God is singing Job’s praises, but Satan is convinced that Job’s faithfulness is superficial. So, God allows Satan to take away all of Job’s wealth, as well as his children, and to send a series of natural disasters his way, to see if Job remains faithful, and this is all in the first two chapters.

Then, as readers we are transported down to earth to see how Job fairs, and the next 24 chapters are a series of conversations between Job and his friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. The three men take turns trying to convince Job that he must have sinned and earned this misfortune. The only possible explanation for such a horrible fate is horrible wickedness. Job, of course, continuously denies that he has done anything wrong, and, miraculously, he also continuously denies that God is anything but good and righteous. This is why Job is heralded as a pillar of our faith.

But Job, too, falls prey to the misconception of cause and effect. This morning (evening) we hear as he cries out that if only he could have an audience with God, and could explain his woes, God would remedy the situation. His underlying assumption is that he deserves better treatment, and if all were as it should be, he would get what he deserves, because consequences must match actions, and what goes around, must come around.

But this is where the concept of cause and effect goes off the rails in God’s Kingdom. In case you haven’t have a reminder recently, here’s how grace works. God blesses us endlessly, without any reason other than how much God loves us. We don’t deserve grace. We can’t earn it, we can’t cause it. Grace just is.

Now there are many moments in our lives when this concept of grace is welcome and easy to accept. When we narrowly avoid disaster, when we fair much better than we think we deserve, when we can’t find a cause or explanation for our good fortune. In these moments, we love to talk about grace.

But today’s readings show us the grittier side of the Kingdom, the side Job is all too familiar with, in which we cannot find a cause or explanation for our bad fortune. The challenge in the lectionary today is that if we embrace the grace of the Kingdom when things turn out in our favor, we still have to embrace the Kingdom when they don’t.

This is precisely what Jesus tries to teach the rich man in Mark’s gospel. Just like Job, the rich man thinks that the effect of obeying all the laws is that he will be able to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven. And if the rich man is anything like us, I bet he also assumes that two things that have gone together in his life, his wealth and God’s blessing, have a relationship of causation. When Christ tells the man that he cannot earn a place in the Kingdom of Heaven, and that he must get rid of his possessions to know God’s blessings, he leaves devastated.

It’s important to note here that Jesus does not shame the rich man. In fact, Mark makes a point to tell us that Jesus loves him. Instead, Jesus ends his lesson with a familiar quip, “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” This is Jesus’s way of trying to get people out of their earthly logic and into the mindset of the coming Kingdom.

God’s love and grace can’t be measured, they simply are. Jesus isn’t telling us that in the Kingdom, rich people become poor and poor people become rich, he’s telling us that there will be no rich and poor at all, everyone will experience God’s abundance equally. The rich man didn’t want to hear this, and if we’ve been listening neither do we. Because in order for this equality to come about, we will have lose our wealth and privilege.

This is not what the young priest who just bought her first house wants to hear, I can tell you that. But the right response to this morning’s Gospel is not for me to sell my house and everything in it and live off the land as a witness to God’s love, because as we’ve established, that won’t earn me any grace.

No, I think the message today is all about the slow in-breaking of the Kingdom, the slow but steady reordering of our way of thinking, letting go of our need to attribute that cause and effect relationship, and embracing God’s grace, even though it makes no sense to us, and even though it means we can’t prevent all misfortune with good behavior. I hope we can all remember this the next time we ask in dismay, “what did I do to deserve this pain?”

Because this new way of thinking, this new way of being in the world according to the Gospel is transformative. It makes it possible for us to weather storms, and to let go of our wealth and all other excess we can’t fit through that eye of the needle. This Gospel is not always what we want to hear, but its effect will set us free. Amen.

Hannah Hooker