The sermon for week October 07, 2012
October 7, 2012 HC
Not as a Stranger
Job 1:1: 2: 1-10 Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2:5-12 Mark 10: 13-16
Once upon a time there was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.
Thus begins one of the earliest stories from Israel's wisdom tradition, the story of a man who did everything right and whose pay-off was every kind of wrong.
We are all familiar with the story of Job's iconic struggle from the suffering imposed by a heavenly wager, and the advice he received from his three insufferable friends to God's restoration of Job's losses in the end.
The Book of Job is believed by many to be the earliest record of God's relationship with a human being. It is a prose poem recounting the story of one man's endurance in the face of unexplained suffering.
The narrative suggests that God favored Job because he was blameless and upright. So Job became rich by the standards of the day with a loving wife, ten children, 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 pair of oxen, 500 donkeys and enough servants to look after the entire menagerie.
But then Job lost it all. Anything that might have been considered a reward for virtue was stripped away. In confusion and grief Job tore his robe, shaved his head and lay face down in the dirt. "The Lord has given, and the Lord has taken away," Job conceded. "Blessed be the name of the Lord."
Things were bad for Job; but they were about to get worse.
Job was afflicted with loathsome sores from the top of his head to the bottoms of his feet. His suffering was so intense that his wife told Job to curse God and die, and his three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, provided nothing but the false comfort of long speeches. At last Job cried out to God in despair, "I have done everything you asked! Why is this happening to me? Answer me!" Job demanded.
Finally God responds, pining back Job's ears with a voice that thundered from a whirlwind. God answered Job's pleas with a series of questions: "Who is this whose ignorant words smear my design with darkness? Stand up like a man; I will question YOU. Where were you when I planned the earth? Tell me, if you are so wise. Do you know who took its dimensions, measuring its length with a cord? What were its pillars built upon? Who laid down its cornerstone, while the morning stars burst out singing and the angels shouted for joy?"
God's rebuttal goes on for four whole chapters; but God never answers Job's question. Instead God maintains an ineffable distance from Job's suffering, a distance that God maintains throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. Job's question was about justice. God answered with omnipotence.
Poet and novelist, Virginia Woolf, once commented on the Book of Job in a letter to a friend, “I read the Book of Job last night," she observed. "I don't think God came out well in it."
Job may be the most ancient of Biblical books, but it remains remarkably current. As long as people continue to ask about God's role in the suffering of the world, the Book of Job will continue to provoke questions, if not answers.
As recently as the two political conventions, we heard our fellow citizens testify about the suffering they incurred as a result of job loss, foreclosures and other hardships resulting from the meltdown in financial markets and the downturn in the economy. These losses have prompted people to join Job in asking, “Why me?" and they're demanding answers from the powers that be. We work hard, pay our taxes and vote. At times like these we want a candidate who feels our pain. We want a candidate who will listen to our stories, visit us where we work, and care about our needs.
These are the same attitudes we often carry toward God. We work hard, attend worship, help others in need, read our Bibles and pray. We expect "the God who is still speaking" to hear us and answer our prayers.
The pathos of Job's suffering is real to us for we have either tasted such suffering ourselves or lived through it with others. At such times we understand, at the deepest possible level, Job's longing for God to acknowledge his suffering and to make God's presence known. God's silence feels like God's absence.
While serving as a Chaplain at local hospitals I called on many patients who were in personal crisis brought on by illness or accident. I heard countless stories of suffering and loss. On one occasion I met a woman who suffered from a chronic and incapacitating illness. She and her husband were retired and looked forward to enjoying their senior years by traveling together, visiting friends and relatives, seeing and doing all those things they had postponed during decades of hard work and raising a family. She was a devout Christian who had earnestly prayed for God's healing power to intervene on her behalf. Yet the healing she longed for seemed to be denied.
She was deeply troubled by the false comfort provided by her friends. Helplessness in the face of suffering is intolerable, so like Job's three comforters, her friends implied she must not be trying hard enough. They suggested she needed to demonstrate more faith and pray with deeper conviction in order to bring about the healing which seemed to be continually thwarted or delayed.
Guilt is coin of the realm of such "Boot Strap" theology. We tell ourselves, and sometimes even our friends, that we could have done something more, something different.
"God helps those who help themselves," is quoted more often than most creeds. This aphorism, thought by many to be scriptural, is actually attributed to Ben Franklin in the Farmer's Almanac in 1736. It seems to suggest all we need to do is find our own boot straps and pull. When we've exhausted a litany of self-accusation, we may seek relief in self-pity asking ourselves, "Why me?" or "What did I do to deserve this?" It is the dilemma of the human condition that prompts such questions and none of us has gotten an answer out of the whirlwind.
Human suffering searches for an explanation when tragedy, accident or illness occur, or at the very least, someone or something to blame. We want the world to make sense. We want straight lines to provide a sense of direction; we require walls and solid structures to feel safe, some kind of pattern we can fit our lives into. The human soul longs to shed the tangled web of ambiguity for the reliable choices between good and evil, the predictable outcome of cause and effect.
Every time I ask myself, "Why me?" The reply I hear is, "Why NOT you?" And when I ask myself, "What did I do to deserve this?" All I hear is silence. Silence requires that I let go of my persistent need to know the answer. Silence is where the struggle ends for every prodigal son or daughter who learns best by taking the longest and most hazardous way home. "Silence is the ability to trust that God is acting, teaching and using me even before I perform, or after my seeming failures.” writes Richard Rohr in Contemplation in Action
When my family moved from Detroit to the Bible Belt in the 50's I quickly learned the importance of going to church and having an opinion about God. I walked the aisle of the nearest Baptist church as a teenager professing my faith in Jesus having decided that Jesus would take me where I wanted to go on life's journey. I chose a Bible verse as a reminder of the commitment I had made that read: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." I carried this verse from Paul's letter to the Philippians with me at all times like a warranty against breakage and loss.
I learned to read into scripture the support I required for my own agenda. It's something I'm reminded of when I see sports figures make gestures that suggest they are doing the same thing. I truly believed I had God's support for achieving my life's goals. All I needed to do was trust God and try my best.
There are many voices on the religious landscape who promise that if we follow their lead we will be on the right road to eternity, have peace of mind, prosper in our work, and create a community like Garrion Keiller's Lake Wobegon "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average."
We seldom challenge the theology we grew up with until the circumstances of our lives prove it to be inadequate. Sometimes it's a national recession or a troubling diagnosis that causes us to question what we've been told. But it could just as easily be the anticipation of a phone call that never comes, or a family wound that hasn't healed which exposes the weakness of a faith that subsists on the mythology of happy endings and a theology of goodness rewarded.
When Job lost everything he called out to God, not to restore his losses but to help him understand them. Job recognized the chasm that existed between himself and God, "For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him, that we should come to trial together." Job is unable to bridge the distance on his own. He needs an advocate, a high priest, to plead with God on his behalf. Thus Job, one of the earliest books in the Bible, anticipates the need we all have for a Savior.
The dilemma for Job and all persons of faith who follow after him is the distance created by our inability to see God. It is a disability that creates the illusion that we are separate from God in this life and with only a slim hope for the next.
"Seeing God is classical language for a mystical experience, an intense, immediate experience of the sacred. The contrast between hearing and seeing is the key to the climax of the Book of Job," according to Marcus Borg. "What Job had heard was the conventional understanding of God as fervently repeated by his well-intentioned friends. But tradition no longer fit Job's experience. Everything Job believed was called into question by his suffering. Job not only rejects the wisdom of his friends; but expresses a strong desire to meet God face-to-face that he might confront God with the unfairness of his suffering," Borg writes.
Job's desire is granted, but the encounter with God turns out to be something other than he had imagined. God answers Job from the whirlwind with the overwhelming experience of God's sacred presence. Job's cries are silenced with awe. Job is transformed by the experience which is captured for us in the final movement of Handel's masterpiece the "Messiah” when the Soprano stands to sing the words of Job's confession of faith:
"I know that my Redeemer liveth, and He shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though worms destroy this body yet, in my flesh shall I see God."
What Job believed has become what Job knows. The hope that sustained him during his trials has become the faith Job expresses when he proclaims, "I know that my Redeemer liveth."
Job has discovered in his suffering a kinship with God he could discover in no other way. "He whom I shall see will take my part," Job declares. "I will recognize him standing at my side, even God himself and not a stranger." With these words Job gives voice to the hope that sustains us all. Once and for all the illusion that we are separate from God is overcome! God is no longer a stranger, but one of us!
For Job, Abraham, Moses, and the Hebrew prophets and for many of us the only familiar pathway to God was the uncertain path of good works. But a God that can be manipulated through good works is no God at all.
The mystics have taught us that the goal of the spiritual journey is realized when we surrender the illusion that we are somehow separate from God. But we sacrifice our autonomy reluctantly, often preferring, the illusion instead.
That lingering tension between creature and Creator is captured beautifully by an unknown source who writes:
"We may desire to bring to the Lord a perfect work. We would like to point, when our work is done, to the beautiful ripened grain, the bound-up sheaves, and yet the Lord frustrates our plans, shatters our purposes, lets us see the wreck of all our hopes, breaks the beautiful structure we thought we were building and catches us up in his arms and whispers to us, 'It's not your work I wanted, but you."
Jesus' disciples were among the first to discover that in Jesus of Nazareth it was possible to know God, rather than simply know about God. "But we see Jesus!" declares the writer of Hebrews in our reading for this morning. The difference is significant because what we do not know we cannot truly love. Jesus in his own flesh brought God near.
"Let the little children come to me," Jesus said, and taking the children in his arms he blessed them, saying "To such as these belongs the Kingdom of God." (Mark 10:14f) We can be grateful that none of us earns a place in the Kingdom of God or at the Table we share today. We never outgrow the child within us, the child that God loves, the child that loves God.
In the liturgy of Holy Communion we often recite, "God is as close to us as breathing and distant as the farthest star." It is Jesus who spans the distance offering to heal our suffering and alienation by bringing our lives into his own. "This is my Body, this is my Blood" he offers.
God so loved the world that he gave his only Son. For all that ails us there is no remedy to compare with the sense of God's presence with and among us. This morning may we receive the Mystery of God's self- giving with the understanding that it comes not at a distance, but as close to us as breathing; and not from a stranger but one of us.
Thanks be to God! Amen
Quote from Marcus Borg is found in Reading the Bible Again for the First Time.