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From Armistice to Shalom: The Unfinished Journey of Peace (An Introduction and Five Meditations)

From Armistice to Shalom:

The Unfinished Journey of Peace

An Introduction and Five Meditations

 

I. Introduction

It was seven years and almost eight months ago that Frank Buckles died.

Aside from being 110 at his death, his passing marked another, larger passing in the collective memory of this country: Buckles had been the last surviving US veteran of World War I. This same passing of a generation had come upon all of the participating countries in that conflict save for Britain, whose last veteran of the Great War finally died about a year after Buckles.

Even as those last few veterans of the conflict were passing, in truth memory of that conflict had faded long before. Overshadowed in US memory by World War II (in which the US role was much larger, longer-lasting, and demonstrably more “successful”), the earlier conflict receded to the status of vaguely remembered prelude in the minds of most. For those (mostly) European nations whose involvement was whole, from 1914 to 1918, and who saw staggering, unthinkable losses of life and traumatic injury, the war remains a significant part of their memories. It is in those countries where one sees one of the simplest and most effective acts of memorial in existence; the basic red poppy lapel pin, inspired by the popular poem “In Flanders’ Fields,” worn in most every public place in those countries. 

The general absence of this war from our collective memory, mitigated slightly by the commemorations of its centennial over the past four years, is ultimately a loss for our understanding not just of this war, but of the human genius for war, and our rank inability to grasp the things that make for peace. We blunder forward, repeating mistakes and not learning. And so it has gone for a century, now.

We will never learn of peace – true, God-inspired shalom peace – without facing and taking in the lessons of our inability to resist war. This must bear – must bear – on us as the church, the followers of the Christ who called the peacemakers “blessed” and “the children of God,” most heavily of all. Let us therefore remember: remember those whose lives were taken in this conflict, those whose lives or bodies were irreparably scarred or torn apart, those who lived with the consequences of the war for generations, those whose lives could not be repaired.

Let us therefore, ever mindful of our mandate to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God,” listen and learn the lessons of this war. Let us know in our hearts the wrongs and horrors of its beginning, its fighting, and its ending; let us see how it has foreshadowed and fomented more war and conflict over the century that has passed; let us mark with sorrow how even the church failed in its witness during that war; let us be resolved in our hearts that this cannot be the way in which we live our witness; let us be called forth to be blessed peacemakers, children of God.

Hymn: God of Grace and God of Glory

 

Meditation 1: The Rush of War

Reading from scripture: 2 Chronicles 20:1-9

Give Jehoshopat credit for this much: he’s desperate. Invading armies are practically at the door, and they want in. His only real recourse is to plead to God for help. Jehoshophat was not a great king or even a good king, but he was wise enough to understand this much, at least.

Somehow, this does not seem to be how modern wars start. World War I was no exception. England’s king, Germany’s Kaiser, and the Russian imperial family were all related. England and Germany were each other’s biggest trading partners. Yet when one Austrian duke was assassinated on a trip to Sarajevo in July 1914, there was no one wise enough to do anything but be an obedient domino, falling as previously determined, rather than stand up and say “this is madness.” Within about a month, the whole continent was at war. 

The voices seeking caution were few and far between; rather, “war madness” set in. The British author Vera Brittain, in her memoir Testament of Youth, described the rush as follows:

“It is, I think, this glamour, this magic, this incomparable keying up of the spirit in a time of mortal conflict, which constitute the pacifist’s real problem–a problem still incompletely imagined and still quite unsolved. … but the challenge to spiritual endurance, the intense sharpening of all the senses, the vitalising consciousness of common peril for a common end, remain to allure those boys and girls who have just reached the age when love and friendship and adventure call more persistently than at any later time. The glamour may be the mere delirium of fever, which as soon as war is over dies out and shows itself for the will-o’-the-wisp that it is, but while it lasts, no emotion known to man seems as yet to have quite the compelling power of this enlarged vitality.” 

Even though it did not enter the war for another two and a half years, the US saw the same “war madness” set in as soon as it became clear that President Woodrow Wilson was steering the country towards entering the conflict. In particular, actions of violence or repression against Germans or German-American citizens living in the US became a black mark on the country, one which would be repeated against Japanese and Japanese-Americans twenty-five years later. 

That “warring madness,” as referenced in today’s first hymn by Harry Emerson Fosdick, even affected those responsible for planning for the war; the belief (on both sides) that the war would be quickly over and everybody would be home by Christmas proved grotesquely wrong, and the full horror of this war began to unfold itself before unbelieving eyes.

Hymn: O God of Earth and Altar

 

Meditation 2: The Disaster of War

Reading from Scripture: Psalm 53:1-6

In the midst of war, particularly a war with such new and horrific ways to kill one another being introduced regularly, it’s not hard to feel like the psalmist in these verses. In a world in which bombs could not only be lobbed from afar but dropped from the sky, soldiers were routinely ordered to charge into nests of machine guns, and – with the introduction of poison gas – the very act of breathing could kill you, how do you not believe that “they have all fallen away, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good, no, not one”? 

The truth must be told here: the church did not acquit itself well in this war. Too easily came the accommodating cheerleading for “our side,” without regard to the brutality and bloodshed at all. It was not lost on soldiers, this distance between the official line of the church and its representatives and the characteristics of Jesus. The soldier-poet Wilfred Owen marked this on many occasions in his poetry. One of his more terse examples was as follows: 

I dreamed kind Jesus fouled the big-gun gears;

 and caused a permanent stoppage in all bolts; 

and buckled with a smile all Mausers and Colts; 

and rusted every bayonet with his tears.

A more extensive, somber, and even bitter treatment of this idea came in his poem “At a Calvary near the Ancre,” referring to a crucifix marker that had, like so many soldiers, experienced harm in battle. Owen saves special scorn for those “priests” and “scribes” who had quite lost touch with, if not outright betrayed, the Christ it was their appointed role to serve, and had moved on and found other masters.

One ever hangs where shelled roads part.

In this war He too lost a limb,

But his disciples hide apart;

And now the Soldiers bear with him.

 

Near Golgotha strolls many a priest

And in their faces there is pride

That they were flesh-marked by the Beast

By whom the gentle Christ’s denied.

 

The scribes on all the people shove 

And bawl allegiance to the State,

But they who love the greater love

Lay down their life; they do not hate.

Of course, the staggering toll of lives lost in the war; those who did survive but at unspeakable cost of broken bodies and broken minds and broken souls…one is struck speechless to contemplate it all. Those who endured these horrors, as we have already observed, are no longer with us; we who now live commit dishonor of the worst sort when we cannot be troubled to remember their sacrifice and the horrors they endured.

Merciful Lord Jesus, grant them rest.

Hymn: O God of Every Nation

 

Meditation 3: The Aftermath of War

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 6:13-16

It’s as if Jeremiah was somehow granted a vision of 1,400 years into the future. His description in this reading is awfully apt for how the Great War ended.

To speak of an “armistice” on this day one hundred years ago means exactly one thing: armies in France stopped shooting at one another. It should not, however, be confused in any way with peace.

Germany sought an end to fighting for one simple reason: its people were starving. A German delegation was escorted across the lines the previous week to complete negotiations towards a cessation of hostilities. An unknown member of that delegation reported of their journey:

“It appeared to me that the drive was intentionally prolonged in order to carry us across devastated provinces and to prepare us for the hardest conditions which the feelings of hatred and revenge might demand.”

Any hopes for a quick peace were dashed quickly; the French, who had endured the vast majority of the fighting, set especially harsh terms for armistice, and also ensured that fighting would be redoubled and repeatedly intensified until the moment of armistice. The guns were to fire, as fast and as far as possible, until the very last second.

This was not an armistice devised with peace in mind. Nor was the final treaty, signed the following year, devised with peace in mind. The extremely harsh terms of the treaty crushed Germany’s economy even more, provoking a slide into totalitarianism that led, yes, to the rise of the National Socialist party, led by a resentful former Austrian army corporal named, yes, Adolf Hitler. Between this and the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, this is a lot for World War I to account for. And this doesn’t even address the carving up of the Middle East by England and France, setting the stage for a century of conflict in that region of the world that still rages today.

What President Woodrow Wilson somehow managed to call both “the war to end all wars” and a war to “make the world safe for democracy” had in fact done the opposite of both; it set in motion the events that would lead to World War II and unleashed more tyranny in the world. 

Then there were those who survived.

Many survived with grievously wounded bodies, and many with grievously wounded minds. The term “shell shock” emerged from this war to describe what today sounds awfully similar to post-traumatic stress disorder. Siegfried Sassoon, who unlike his fellow war-poet Wilfred Owen survived the war, penned a poem on the haunted lives of those who survived. The final stanza:

Do you remember that hour of din before the attach – 

And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then

As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?

Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back

With dying eyes and lolling heads – those ashen-gray

Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

 

Have you forgotten yet?…

Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you’ll never forget.

Hymn: Dona Nobis Pacem

 

Meditation 4: The Challenge of Peace

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:21-24

War isn’t a good way to make peace. 

The ongoing such of war, hot or “cold,” that filled the twentieth century would surely lay to rest Wilson’s claim (borrowed from H.G. Wells) that the Great War would be a “war to end all wars.” But what does make for peace? 

We followers of Christ need to be jolted awake to one very crucial thing: the State or Nation – any State or Nation – will never make peace. It is, frankly, not in a state or nation’s interest to do so. Have you looked at military budgets lately? Have you any idea how much money is spent on that? 

Furthermore, wars have been so deeply ingrained in our collective conscious as a nation that we are thoroughly incapable of separating our national identity from them. Were you to ask a representative sampling of Americans what the two most important or most defining events in American history were, there’s a very strong chance that your top two responses would be the American Revolution and the Civil War. The country was born in one war, and defined in another war. How do we escape such pervasive definition of war in us?

For we who claim to follow Christ, there is only one possible answer:

Remember whose we are.

In a country that often assumes that ‘Christian’ and ‘American’ are exactly the same thing, that’s a strong – even dangerous – countercultural claim. Yet how do we state otherwise? How do we make any kind of claim to follow that Jesus who, again, called the peacemakers “blessed” and “children of God”?

The headlong rush to revenge at the end of World War I, Wilfred Owen’s priests who were “flesh-marked by the Beast by whom the gentle Christ’s denied”, the mad rush of clergy of all stripes to be the biggest cheerleaders of almost any push towards war, all call into question the degree to which we as followers of Christ truly understand what it means to call ourselves that. 

Augustine of Hippo, in his monumental treatise City of God, offers up what it means to be a follower of Christ – to live in that City:

…it follows that justice is found where God, the one supreme God, rules an obedient city according to his grace, forbidding sacrifice to any being save himself alone; and where in consequence the soul rules the body in all men who belong to this City and obey God, … But where this justice does not exist, there is certainly no “association of men united by a common sense of right and by a community of interest.” 

Aye, there’s the rub. Peace – actual, not-just-nobody-fighting peace, requires justice. And we humans are awfully bad at that. Oh, we’re good at “law and order,” but bringing about genuine justice, and therefore being able to live in peace … well, we aren’t there.

One of my old high school teachers was wont to bellow “define your terms!” at us when we started to solve word problems at the chalkboard. Maybe that’s where we are? If we truly want to seek a world of justice and of peace, maybe we need to define what those terms mean.

Hymn: We Wait the Peaceful Kingdom

 

Meditation 5: The Meaning of Shalom

Reading from scripture: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

So what is peace, anyway?

We read dreamy invocations like that of Isaiah 11, where the wolf lies down with the lamb and the leopard with the baby goat, and it’s beautiful, but it’s…imaginary to us. How can we possibly get there from here? How do we get from that Armistice mindset of seeing only an enemy to be whacked with all the vengeance we can muster to a place of peace, not merely absence of conflict but true, justice-rooted shalom? 

The Apostle Paul calls into question our angle of vision. Once, he says, we saw from what he calls a “human point of view,” and saw everything and everyone – even Christ – from that “human point of view.” But that’s not how we see anymore, if we are truly a follower of Christ – if we are truly “in Christ,” to use Paul’s words. We are new; the old vengeance-based mindset is gone. The only way we know to view others is as Christ sees them – as children of God.

Then, and only then, can we even begin to start. 

As the hymn said earlier:

When wars of desolation and hate come to an end,

When nation meets with nation and calls the other “friend,”

Still peace in all its fullness will only have begun:

Shalom for all creation begins with justice done.

We need a bit of Amos to go with our Isaiah and Paul. You will remember that Amos is the one, in chapter five of that book, who speaks of God saying “I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies…” and refusing the sacrifices and the songs of the people, “…but let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like and ever-flowing stream.

There is the rub. The world cannot be at peace – true, pervasive, shalom – until justice is practiced in the world. We will never be able to do justice until we are able to see the world around us, and all those who live in it, the way the God we claim to follow sees that world and all those who live in it. As much as I hate to admit it, that terribly sentimental song that starts cropping up around the holidays actually does have something to it: “Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin in me…”

Until that day, the violence and bloodshed that is the ongoing progeny of the Great War cannot hope to be ended. There will be no beating of swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks as long as we cling to our very human, very revenge-oriented view of others only as “enemies” or “friends” instead of “children of God.” Laying aside that oh-so-comfortable, oh-so-culturally-popular way of seeing the world, is risky and uncomfortable and may even put us in the crosshairs of those wed to war; but there really is no other way of following Christ. 

The journey from armistice to shalom is far from over. We are still so beholden to ways of seeing the world that are painfully human, not divine. But this is the journey to which we are called and chosen. Christ calls us, Christ guides us, Christ waits for us. Let us go forward.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymn: O Day of Peace


Order of Worship for “From Armistice to Shalom: A Service of Worship for the Unfinished Journey of Peace”

From Armistice to Shalom: A Service of Worship for the

Unfinished Journey of Peace

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 11, 2018, 11:00 a.m.

 

Chiming of the Hour

Welcome and Introduction

Responsive Call to Worship:

Leader: In a world filled with violence and war,

People: we gather together to celebrate the promise of peace.

Leader: In a world filled with tyranny and oppression,

People: we gather together to celebrate the promise of justice for all.

Leader: In a world filled with hunger and greed,

People: we gather together to celebrate the promise of plenty for all.

Leader: Our hope is in the name of the Almighty God,

People: the Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer of earth.

All: Let us worship God!

*Hymn #307, God of Grace and God of Glory

 

Scripture Reading: 2 Chronicles 20:1-9

Meditation1: The Rush of War

Hymn, O God of Earth and Altar (see insert)

 

Prayer of Confession:

God of peace, forgive us when we have participated in that which turns people against each other, for fueling anger and harboring vengeance, for not heeding your call to love one another. Inspire us never to give up on the hope that your life offers us, and the courage to see past war and desolation and live for the day when it will be peace. (Silent confession) Amen.

Assurance of Pardon:

Amidst the clamor and rancor of conflict, the waters of the font are still filled, reminding us of the unshakeable hope that is ours; in the redeeming love of our Lord Jesus Christ, killed in an act of state violence and yet risen and living, our forgiveness is sure and constant. In Jesus Christ, you are forgiven. Thanks be to God!

*Gloria Patri, #581:

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end; Amen, Amen.

 

Scripture Reading: Psalm 53:1-6

Meditation 2: The Disaster of War

Solo: Requiem: Pie Jesu                                                                                              Gabriel Fauré

Julia Freeman, soprano

*Hymn #756, O God of Every Nation

 

Scripture Reading: Jeremiah 6:13-16

Meditation 3: The Aftermath of War

*Hymn #752, Dona nobis pacem

 

Scripture Reading: Matthew 5:21-24

Meditation 4: The Challenge of Peace

*Hymn #378, We Wait the Peaceful Kingdom

Anthem: O Sing of Peace                              Ruth Elaine Schram and Jean Anne Schafferman

 

Scripture Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Meditation 5: The Meaning of Shalom

*Hymn #373, O Day of Peace

 

Scripture Reading: Romans 12:15-21

Responsorial Prayer of Commemoration (see insert)

Offering

*Doxology, Hymn #606:

Praise God, from whom all blessings flow;

Praise him all creatures here below;

Praise hymn above, ye heavenly hosts;

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Amen.

 

*Offering Prayer

*Hymn #103, Come Now, O Prince of Peace (O-So-So)

 

*Charge and Blessing

*Postlude


Sermon: The Immigrant

Grace Presbyterian Church

November 4, 2018, Pentecost 24B, All Saints

Ruth 1:1-18

The Immigrant

It has been long a tradition in the church to mark, at the beginning of November or the Sunday immediately after, the occasion of All Saints’ Day, in which the church marks the lives of those, in the words of the Book of Common Worship, “whose baptism is now complete in death.” As the tradition overcame Protestant phobia of the word “saint” (I’m quite sure Bill Cutler would have something to say about this were he still with us) and began to enter the practice of at least mainline churches, it has taken particular care to note the passing of those who at least partly lived out their lives in the particular church at hand. For us, as well as Bill Cutler, we also mark the lives and witnesses of Doug Bartz and Grace Gillespie, who have left us since last All Saints’ Day. It is also appropriate for us to mark in particular the passing of Louise Beatty, who had been the last surviving charter member of this congregation until her death just a few weeks ago in South Florida, and in so doing to mark the lives of all those saints who founded and sustained this church since its beginnings seventy years and a few weeks ago.

[silence]

Part of the problem that kept All Saints from becoming a thing sooner, at least among Protestants I suspect, is the way we tend to lapse into a particular image when we hear the word “saint.” You know what I mean: all in old fashioned robes of some sort, hands possibly folded in a gesture of prayer, possibly a halo around the head which is permanently tilted at a particular angle so that the saint’s glance is alwaysheavenward. And as much as we seek to honor the memory and remember the service of Grace or Doug or Bill in this church and among this people, it’s kind of difficult to reconcile our memories of them with this subconscious but pervasive characterization of “saint.” In our rational moments we know better, of course, but that doesn’t rob the caricature of its power in our minds.

In the sense of the word we use today, the “saints” are those who have lived and served among us who now enjoy their eternal rest. Presbyterians aren’t in the business of canonizing saints (with the possible exception of Mister Rogers), so we’re not speaking of any kind of superheroic figures; they are ordinary people who shone in extraordinary moments that stay with us.

And no, they weren’t always so saintly. Sometimes their stories have some definitely weird, downright strange, or even just a little bit scandalous parts to them. Take, for example, this story of Ruth, to which we just heard the beginning a few moments ago.

I hope you got to read the book as recommended – it’s certainly not too long to sit down and read in the manner of a short story, which is roughly what it is. It definitely has a few plot twists along the way, and in the manner of many popular such short stories, it has a happy ending, for the most part. But in case you didn’t, the really fast recap:

Naomi, her husband, and their two sons migrate from Bethlehem to Moab due to a famine, where the two boys marry local women, Orpah and Ruth (in case you’re wondering, “Orpah” actually is the name on media star Oprah Winfrey’s birth certificate; it somehow got changed along the way). After some years, all the men die, leaving three widows behind. The famine then switches places, striking Moab while relenting in Bethlehem, and the embittered Naomi resolves to return. She presses upon the younger women to return to homes; she finally wears Orpah down, but Ruth will not desert her at any costs, a resolve captured in 1:16, easily the most well-known verse of this entire book.

In Bethlehem, Ruth sets out (at some personal risk) to provide for the two of them, and ends up gleaning grain from the field of an upright local citizen named Boaz, who takes a particular interest in her, due to the loyalty she has shown Naomi. As it happens, Boaz is a distant relative of Naomi’s late husband, and the widow hatches a plan to get Ruth the security of a marriage. She instructs Ruth to, er, present herself to Boaz in a particular situation, which the younger woman does despite the strong potential for ending up in a compromising situation. Fortunately Boaz is a better man for that, and resolves to do his familial duty to Naomi by marrying Ruth; after clearing some legal obligations the two are married, Naomi’s security is made sure, and the couple is given a child named Obed.

One of the seeming quirks of this story is that God doesn’t really “show up” in the way God has been accustomed to doing – no dramatic interventions or overturnings or miracles. No: the action of God in the book of Ruth is found in the actions of God’s people, the faithfulness and kindness and generosity shown by Ruth to Naomi, by the women of Bethlehem to Naomi, and by Boaz to Ruth and ultimately to Naomi as well. The people of Bethlehem ultimately live up to the instruction in the levitical code to “receive the stranger in their midst,” and in such is the action of God in this book.

Not that this hospitality always goes smoothly, mind you. Ruth’s identity as a foreigner – specifically a Moabite – doesn’t go unchallenged. The Moabites were a people so disdained by the Hebrew people that that same law code forbade Moabites to be admitted to the assembly of the people at all. And at least on occasion Ruth’s foreignness didn’t go unremarked; take 2:6, when Boaz’s overseer refers to her as “the Moabite who came back with Naomi from the country of Moab.” He sounds like a modern politician who won’t stop calling people “foreigners” until his followers start shooting them.

Nonetheless, even those employees of Boaz do manage to practice at least basic hospitality to Ruth, in that they follow Boaz’s orders: don’t assault her, and leave behind extra grain for her to glean. By this hospitality Ruth is able to provide for Naomi and herself through harvest season and some weeks beyond.

It’s a really strange story in some ways, with turns bitter and edgy and salacious, decidedly patriarchal in its insistence that Ruth’s only option for security was a good marriage, and seemingly void of dramatic intervention by God. And yet here it is, and with one past plot twist to offer.

Remember that baby Obed? Well, he would grow up and have a son who turned out to be kinda famous, named Jesse. Jesse, in turn, had a whole passel of sons, the youngest of which turned out to be kind of a big deal. Maybe you’ve heard of David? In the end this twisty little story produced the grandfather of the greatest king of Israel recorded in Hebrew scripture.

The gospel of Matthew adds one more twist to that twist: in that seemingly interminable genealogy at the front of the book, that bit of royal lineage (in which Ruth is one of only four women to be acknowledged) is extended, finally leading to one Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. So Ruth’s gamble in leaving her homeland, her dogged faithfulness and service to her mother-in-law, and yes, her marriage to Boaz enshrine her as one of Jesus’s earthly ancestors, important enough for Matthew the evangelist to mention by name. Not a bad means to informal sainthood.

Most of the time this is what saints look like, even when things look a little wacky; they are showing hospitality and kindness, even to the stranger, the foreigner.

So, go be saints. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnalunless otherwise noted): #65, Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah; #—, Receive the Stranger in Your Midst; #506, Look Who Gathers at Christ’s Table!; #326, For All the Saints

 


Sermon: The Reset Button

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 28, 2018, Pentecost 23B

Job 42:1-17

The Reset Button

After everything that has been said and done in this book, the last eight verses of this final chapter feel…strange. Odd. Maybe even like a little bit of a cheat.

The first six verses of the chapter are fairly clear. Whatever else may be the case, Job gets itat least on some level: in his questioning and interrogating God, he didn’t know what he was talking about, in the most literal sense of that phrase. The “cosmic nature hike” on which God took Job in chapters 38-41 apparently made enough of an impression that Job is at least somewhat compelled to back down from his previous posture.

We have to note, though, that in this backing down Job is notin fact renouncing his claim of innocence; he does not say that he somehow deserved the suffering that came upon him. No: what he renounces is his claim against God as somehow being unjust towards him. He recants of his arrogance, in the words of John C. L. Gibson, in trying to bend God’s will to his own. That’s plenty to recant, to be sure, but do understand that this is not the same thing as saying that he deserved the suffering that had been thrust upon him (a thing that God never says either).

It is compelling, this brief response from Job. He even quotes back some of God’s words to God – “Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?” for example, which you can almost imagine Job saying while pointing at himself in exaggerated fashion – and responds to those quotes with his own acknowledgment of how he has been changed and corrected by his encounter with God. Verse six is, unfortunately, a bit of a mishmash in Hebrew, and made worse by odd translation choices; it would probably be better understood as Job rejecting or recanting the “counsel without knowledge” with which he had challenged God, and perhaps even rejecting or recanting the “dust and ashes” in which he had been perched for most of this book. The time for mourning is done, and any more of this ash heap would be wallowing in self-pity.

The next three verses would seem rather satisfying for Job. Those three so-called “friends,” Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, get a pretty fierce tongue-whipping from God and an order to seek forgiveness from Job by means of a burnt offering, with Job being charged to offer prayers on their behalf, lest God otherwise “deal with you according to your (the friends’) folly.” While it might well (and understandably) have chafed at Job to be charged with seeking forgiveness for those who had been so merciless towards him, for the three accusers it must have burned mightily for their own fates to be even a little bit in the hands of one whom they had been so quick to brand as wicked based on nothing more than his suffering.

To this point, as a culmination of this story, it frankly looks pretty good. God is still God, Job is chastened for is arrogance but not condemned for undeserved suffering, and the three jerk friends get what they had coming. It looks good. It would look very good, except that the story doesn’t end in verse 9.

Instead, we get verses 10-17, which looks for all the world like a giant reset button has been pressed and everything gets put right back the way it was before all the bad stuff happened. Actually, a reset button times two: verse ten makes clear that “the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before,” and in case that wasn’t clear verse twelve actually runs the numbers. “Fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a hundred yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys,” it says, and that’s exactly double what is recorded as Job’s inventory in 1:3. Oh, and ten children again (at least Job didn’t get double the children!). I guess things must have gotten better with Job’s wife too, in that case.

It still feels like a cheat.

After all this poetry and dialogue that specifically and dramatically destroys the idea of retributive justice (Job’s old idea that God rewarded the just with material favor and cursed the unrighteous with suffering) in God’s monologue to Job, and especially in God’s rebuke to those friends that just happened in the previous three verses…we’re going back and saying “nah, just kidding, you humans can go back to kissing up to God to get good stuff”?

Maybe not.

It’s possible that something else is going on in these final verses of the book of Job. It’s possible, just maybe, that Job and his newly acquired understanding is being put to the test – and even more, that Job is passing the test.

First of all, notice how that reprimand of Job’s friends ended. The three men had been charged to offer up that burnt offering, and beseech Job to pray for them. In verse 9 we read that the three did what God had commanded, “and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer.” However bitter a pill it might have seemed to be charged to pray for his persecutors, Job evidently did it.

Then see how verse ten follows that: “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends.” (emphasis mine) Step one: being able to be concerned for the welfare of others, even when they’ve been pretty awful to you. Job passed. Now comes step two: how do you handle the restoration of your fortunes, Job? How do you respond to being a father again? Are you capable of being a good steward of these herds (again, a borderline ecological catastrophe just waiting to happen) and being a good husband to your wife and a good father to your children? Did you really learn what you say you learned?

Maybe, in this seeming “reset button” restoration, what is actually happening is that Job is being challenged not just to tell God what he learned, but to show God.

We get a clue to this, I think, in the record of Job’s ten children. (Unfortunately we don’t get a clue as to how Job handled all those animals.) We are told in verse 13 that, like before, Job (and presumably his wife!) had seven sons and three daughters. What is recorded about his family this time around is quite different that what we learned back in chapter one.

Back in that introduction to the story, the main thing we learned about his family is that the sons would hold feasts in each other’s houses, each taking his turn, and making sure their sisters were invited. Then, in 1:5, we get what seemed a mild quirk about Job; when those feasts had run their course, Job would get up early the next day and spend his day offering sacrifices, just in case one of them had somehow sinned or “cursed God in their hearts.”

On the surface, it looks harmless, and maybe even a little heartwarming – aww, Job’s looking out for his children – but maybe there’s something different going on underneath the surface. Is all that sacrificing and fussing about Job’s children, or about Job? Is it about their righteousness, or his own?

Things are quite different here in Chapter 42. This time, we learn something about those children – more specifically, about the daughters. It’s no longer about the sons and their feasting; it’s about the daughters – and they have names! Interesting names at that, which roughly translate (in order) “Dove,” “Cinnamon,” and (really different one here) “Rouge-pot.” We learn that they are quite beautiful, and more importantly that they shared in the inheritance of their father, along with their brothers. This was not donein the culture in which Job lived, yet here it is. And we don’t get any indication that Job was constantly running around trying to offer sacrifices for them in case they did anything stupid. Job treats his children very differently.

Ellen F. Davis, in her book Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament, offers two key observations on this seeming change in Job before and after the horrible things he suffered. As to this new family, Davis points out that (as any parent who ever lost a child, or anyone who ever lost a spouse, could tell you) it isn’t a question of “replacing” the lost child or the lost spouse. Instead, as Davis puts it, “The real question is how much it costs Job to become a father again.”[1] Job (and presumably his wife!) know how hard the world can be, and yet choose to be parents to children again – even having experienced the brutal loss of children. Job really seems to have learned something from this encounter.

More broadly, Davis addresses the question we are left with by the story of Job: “The great question that God’s speech out of the whirlwind poses for Job and for every person of integrity is this: can you love what you do not control?[2]

Stunning question, isn’t it?

Can you love this wild and untamed creation that God created, knowing that it is not your place to tame it?

Can you love those grown-up children, moved away and on their own and raising your grandchildren in ways you wouldn’t have possibly done, but no longer under your control?

Can you love God, far more vast and exuberant and untamed than the eye can see or the ear can hear, whose will cannot be bent to conform to your will?

It seems that maybe, after his experience of tragedy and his experience of God, Job found a way to answer “yes” to those questions.

What about us?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #624, I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art; #659, Know That God Is Good; #794, O Savior, In This Quiet Place; #852, When the Lord Redeems the Very Least

 

[1] Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved With God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, MA: Cowley, 2001), 142.

[2] Ibid., 140.

 

 


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Sermon: Your Arm’s Too Short to Box With God

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 21, 2018, Pentecost 22B

Job 38:1-11, 34-41

Your Arm’s Too Short to Box With God

You know the saying “Be careful what you wish for?” Job is about to find out what it means.

Remember how Job was all agitated, in last week’s reading from chapter 23, to find God so he could plead his case in person, so to speak? After all his lamenting, his increasing distrust of God’s justice, and the ongoing berating of the three so-called friends, with a six-chapter interlude of more berating from a new character, Elihu, Job finally gets his wish: God appears, “out of the whirlwind” and challenges Job to speak. Except, no, God doesn’t really challenge Job to speak. To be blunt about it, God challenges Job to shut up and listen.

Job had imagined something like what we would call a courtroom situation, in which Job would argue his case and convince God that his suffering was not right and not deserved. Instead, God tells Job to get suited up, and takes him on what amounts to a field trip through creation, for most of chapters 38-41. Even when Job tries to back down in the early verses of chapter 40, God is having none of it. Somehow, God’s answer to Job’s demands for justification is a cosmic nature hike.

God first interjects Godself into the ongoing debate with harsh words: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” In truth that could be directed at any of those involved in the conversation thus far, but Job is the one out front, and Job is the one who is going to take the heat here.

After challenging Job to put on his big-boy pants and get ready to be cross-examined, God takes off. In the course of chapters 38 and 39 we are reminded in short order that Job has been neither present for nor involved in:

  • Measuring and laying the foundations of the earth, sinking the base of the foundation and laying its cornerstone, to the accompaniment of rejoicing from the stars and heavenly beings;
  • Sealing up the raging rush of the seas “when it burst out from the womb” (some serious feminine imagery applied to a part of creation!), enrobing it in could and mist and fog, and setting its boundaries;
  • Ordering the dawn and the morning;
  • Plunging down into the depths of the sea and knowing its mysteries;
  • Knowing where light itself lives, where the snow and hail gather to descend upon the earth, carving out the channel for the rain and a path for the thunderbolt;
  • Ordering the stars in their courses and constellations;
  • Calling forth the rain and lightning;
  • Hunt down the prey by which the lion might feed its cubs;
  • In chapter 39, knowing the ways of the beasts of the wild, hooved animals and birds and the whole lot.

The title of this sermon comes from a sermon/poem by James Weldon Johnson, “The Prodigal Son” from his collection God’s Trombones. Like that prodigal son, Job finds he cannot possibly contend with God, and attempts to back down at the beginning of chapter 40. God’s not done, though. picking up again in chapters 40 and 41 with a downright rhapsodic celebration of two particular beasts, Behemoth and Leviathan. While some commentators try to equate them to native animals of the nearby Nile delta – the hippopotamus and the crocodile – they frankly sound more like creatures that should be featured in the Fantastic Beasts movies than anything we see walking around on earth. (It is after this that Job’s final reckoning with God takes place, but that’s for next week.)

It is wild and wonderful poetry, brash and exuberant and, yeah, a little proud in a way that a deity has a right to be. Truly, I do recommend that at some point you read these four chapters for yourself – not trying to discern the mystery or unlock some secret that will tell you when the Rapture is coming or anything like that; just read them as you might read from a book of poetry for once, and let the sheer beauty of God’s good creation wash over you and overwhelm your senses in its wildness and over-the-top breathlessness.

Still, though, we are left hanging, or so it seems. Yes, that’s lovely and all that, one might ask, but what about Job’s suffering? It’s still not fair. What does all of this have to do with that?

Theologians have grappled with this one for centuries, sometimes ending up in the theological equivalent of throwing one’s hands up in the air in resigned despair of ever coming up with an answer. I have no intention of claiming to be smarter or more gifted or more Spirit-guided than they; I can do no more than offer up one possibility. It’s deeply unsatisfying in a way, and might even throw into question Job’s declared “innocence” in this whole matter, not to mention the our own.

It is possible, that in all of this dialogue and diatribe and accusing, Job hasn’t even come close to asking the right question. (His “friends” have been even worse.)

There are many, many possible interpretations of this monologue from God here in chapters 38-41, more than can possibly be attempted in one sermon. However, the following takeaways from this monologue might be suggested, as a means of ordering what all of this means for Job, and for us, in understanding a place in creation:

1) God orders creation for God’s own purposes and for the good of ALL creation – not just us humans.

This challenges us. This challenges how we read the Bible, and frankly how a lot of the biblical writers wrote. We tend to think that everything about creation is done for our own personal pleasure and comfort. We tend to sing songs and pull out Bible stories that make us the center of the universe.

We’re not, not by a long shot.

Look again at the creation as described here. It is broad and vast and unbounded and all the good words we say and sing about it without truly understanding what they mean. If we take this passage seriously, we have to understand that we are part of creation, and not masters of it.

2) God orders and controls creation. God does not, however, tame creation.

Wild things are meant to be wild. God made them that way. Based on how Behemoth and Leviathan are described, God seems to likewild things that way. Not just the animals; wild winds, wild seas, Wildness is a feature in the fullness of God’s creation, not a bug.

Also: remember The Lion King? The big hit Disney animated movie with all the creatures of the African savanna and the young lion with Matthew Broderick’s voice who had to learn to grow up and take his place as the head of the lion pride? Do you also remember the big song as this whole assemblage, this network of creatures, played out on the screen before us? What was it called?

[singing] Circle of Life?

Thing is, though, when you invoke that phrase – “the circle of life” – there’s something included in it that isn’t so much fun to think about. Part of the “circle of life” is no less than death. Death itself is programmed into God’s ordering and controlling of creation. As such, we should know suffering will happen, and not expect creation to get out of our way and avoid harming us at all costs.

This thought leads to two related ideas:

3) If our lives seem disordered, we may need to examine whether we are truly living as part of God’s creation.

Have we as humans lived our lives so determined on our own comfort and control that we have broken our relationship with God’s creation? Have we so separated ourselves from living with that creation, as part of that creation, that we do ourselves actual harm, set off illnesses and injury to ourselves and broken our very bodies and minds by our pursuit of dominance over and exploitation of nature?

And closely related…

4) If creation seems disordered to us, perhaps we need to look at someone other than God for a reason. Perhaps we should look in a mirror.

This is where it gets touchy for us, living as we do in one of those places where our relationship with creation, the struggle over living with creation or as part of creation against taming or dominating creation, is etched deeply within our very existence in this state.

In the John Sayles movie Sunshine State, a developer who acts as something of a Greek chorus commenting on the movie’s action makes a few trenchant observations about living here in Florida. People come to Florida, or at least some do, because of (what they perceive to be) nature, the “natural beauty” of the land.

Tricky thing is, though, if many of those people saw actual natural Florida, with swamps and wild grasses and prairies and mosquitoes the size of birds, they’d run screaming in the opposite direction. What they want is tightly controlled “nature,” highly groomed and manicured “nature” instead of the sheer wildness of God’s creation. That developer in the movie freely acknowledges that this is what he sells, describing it as “nature … on a leash.

Trouble is, as we see too often and too easily these days, our attempts to “tame” nature and put it “on a leash” only make things worse.  We tame and grow things with thoroughly unnatural chemicals and end up with red tide and toxic algae. We take out native plants and animals and bring in plants and animals that don’t belong here, and we end up overrun with the less desirable plants and invasive species (ask one of your south Florida friends about Burmese pythons). And yes, we overheat the earth so badly that, just for one recent example, the Gulf of Mexico becomes a tropical pressure cooker, turning a fledgling tropical depression into a nearly Category 5 monster (speak of a behemoth!) just in time for it to slam into the Florida Panhandle. Not to mention our nasty habit of thinking we tamed nature enough that we think it’s o.k. to build to the hilt right up on the coastline, right were those behemoth storms come crashing ashore.

If we think creation is disordered, yeah, we’d better look in the mirror. Norman Wirzba, now of Duke Divinity School, puts it this way in his comment on Job:

An adequate understanding of creation and an honest estimation of our place within it require that we see creation in terms of God’s intention and scale. Attempts to reduce creation to the scale of human significance invariably result in pain to ourselves and in death to creatures around us.[1]

Let us be clear here; Job’s moral universe, that which has formed all of his questioning and complaining, is being challenged for being entirely too small. And yes, Job’s presumed innocence is being questioned as well.

For example, what about those massive herds Job had kept before? “Seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys” just for starters in 1:3, with his ten children feasting regularly and Job praying that they didn’t do anything stupid.

I invite you to imagine the size of that farm. Imagine, if you dare, the smell of being anywhere near it. I learned enough living on the edge of the Plains that I can say that being anywhere near an agricultural operation large enough to manage or control that many animals is never more than a step away from an environmental nightmare. Was Job really managing those herds in a way that honored God’s creation? What was the effect of that massive operation on Job’s neighbors? Was Job really that innocent, in the full scale of creation?

And what, dare we ask, about us? What does our footprint do to others that we don’t even know of?

We may need, in the end, to quit peering through the microscope focused ever so tightly on our own desires and comforts, and to spend time looking through the telescope that opens up God’s full creation to us. We may need to think less about how the world is crashing in on us, and more about how we’re crashing in on the world. It may be time for us to change glasses, go outside, and look at … everything, and ask not if it is ours, but where we belong in it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #32, I Sing the Mighty Power of God; #34, Bless the Lord, My Soul and Being!; #775, I Want Jesus to Walk With Me; #625, O Lord My God (How Great Thou Art)

 

 

[i]Norman Wirzba, “God’s Measure of Creation,” Christian Reflection (2002), 24-29.


Sermon: My Complaint Is Bitter

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 14, 2018, Pentecost 21B

Job 23:1-17; Hebrews 4:12-16

My Complaint is Bitter

One could preach two different sermons on this part of the Job story, and I’m not sure which one is more appropriate. In either case some catching up is required, so let’s get that done first.

In last week’s passage we heard essentially the prologue of the story, setting up the unexpected and seemingly undeserved suffering of Job, as first all of his possessions and children, then his own health are taken away, leaving him sitting in an ash heap scraping sores with a broken-off piece of pottery, cursing what he calls his wife’s foolish tongue.

The first thing that happens after this is that three friends of Job – Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar – arrive to see Job. So shocked are they at Job’s appearance and condition that they are unable to speak; they sit in silence with Job for seven full days. (Spoiler alert: this is the last good thing these friends do in this story.)

Job, in chapter 3, begins to let his steadfast guard down, cursing the day he was born. This is the trigger that sets off those three friends, who each in turn begin to insist that Job mustbe guilty of … of … well, of something to be afflicted with so much suffering. In turn, Job answers each with an avowal of his guiltlessness, mixed in with increasing laments of his condition and increasing indications of despair that God will ever hear his complaint. As we come to chapter 23, we can see how this pattern is playing out. Chapter 20 features Zophar insisting that wickedness deserves just retribution, and Chapter 21 offers Job’s reply that the wicked often (as far as humans can see) go unpunished; Chapter 22 brings back Eliphaz for his tag-team assault on Job’s innocence, insisting that Job’s wickedness must be truly great.

Chapter 23 brings Job’s reply, or part one of it. It is somewhat different, in that Job is less consumed with declaring his innocence to his friends than with lamenting that he cannot find God, in order to take his complaint directly to him. Chapter 24, following this lament, continues with Job’s observation that not all wickedness is evidently punished, seeing that violence and wrongdoing still proliferate on the earth. Bildad will then launch his next assault on Job, and the cycle will continue until Chapter 31, … but that’s for next week.

But back to Chapter 23. “My complaint is bitter.” That’s not really a typical phrase, is it? And it’s not exactly the way Job has been speaking in most of his defenses so far in the book. It’s an indicator – a small one, but an indicator no less – of the way that Job’s mind is turning. Most of his replies to his so-called friends so far have been defensive – “my complaint is just” – or lamenting – “my suffering is great”. Using the word “bitter” seems like a turn, and indeed the chapter is much concerned with what Job sees as the absence of God. “O, that I knew where I might find him … I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. … There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Job is getting itchy. It’s no longer enough to protest his innocence to his friends; now he wants to find God and make that protest. He wants to convince God. He believes if he could just find God and make his case he would be vindicated. It’s really not a way we’re accustomed to thinking, is it? Most of us don’t think of approaching God as some kind of judge to plead our innocence – especially not descendants of John Calvin, he of the theological idea of “total depravity,” that all humans are enmeshed in sinfulness without exception, and that “innocent” does not apply to any human being save for the grace of Jesus Christ. But for Job, steeped in the belief that his former riches are verification of his goodness, God just has to be convinced.

So, about those two sermons that might be preached here: on the one hand, lamenting one’s condition is in fact a healthy thing, and the church needs to be a community that provides a space for those who are in sorrow or hurt or suffering to give voice to that sorrow or hurt or suffering without fear of being shamed or having their faithfulness belittled.

Let’s be clear; that lament is not necessarily about bemoaning how the suffering is “somebody else’s fault,” or seeking to blame everyone but oneself for mistakes one has in fact made. It’s not about blaming others for our own mistakes. What it does offer is the opportunity to lament those things that happen to us for no reason – the ancient question of “when bad things happen to good people” that provoked that popular book of some years ago.

Speaking of books, one of the most popular books in churchy circles right now is one with the provocative title “Everything Happens For a Reason … and Other Lies I’ve Loved.” The author, Kate Bowler, is a professor at Duke Divinity School. Fresh from an academic success in latching onto a dissertation topic that morphed seamlessly into her first book and a plum teaching position at her alma mater, with a loving husband and new son, she was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. The book is by turns funny, poignant, maybe a little whiny at times, but mostly acting to give voice to lament that is not tempered or moderated. It’s honest and it’s blunt, and there’s no happy ending; the book ends with her admission that, in the end, the cancer will win.

The church needs to be a place where such lament can be voiced, and such bluntness can be heard without judgment and without being flooded with false promises. If we cannot be honest with our sorrow here among the body of Christ, we really are without hope, aren’t we?

But then, is there another possibility? What about that other sermon?

The blunt truth is that, no matter how we might try, we simply cannot listen to Job’s lament with the same ears as the book’s original readers might have heard it. No matter what tragedy besets us or how deep our despair, we are still the body of Christ. Today’s reading from the epistle to the Hebrews reminds us that we aren’t children of an indifferent God, no matter how much it may seem so at times. In verse 15 from that reading we are reminded that our “high priest” as the author has called Jesus is not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but…in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.” That certainly includes physical suffering – Jesus was killed by one of the most painful tortures ever devised by humanity; and also emotional loss – remember his tears at the death of Lazarus. This is not an indifferent God; this is a God who has been there.

Does that mean, possibly, that our reaction in time of suffering and seeming absence of God might need to be modified just a little? Maybe there comes a point when the crying out in grief and lament, as needed and inevitable as it is, needs to give way to something else.

Remember how Job’s friends initially sit with him in silence for seven days? We don’t necessarily get an insight into what’s going on in Job’s mind during those seven days, unless you take it that he spent those days getting ready to curse the day he was born. Maybe for us, whose theology must include a God who has suffered and grieved and lamented like as we, the task is to take those silences and do something different with them.

Maybe we need to listen.

Maybe we need to turn off the noise of our own crying and listen to God’s own tears.

Maybe we need to be reminded of the suffering of Christ – as innocent as possible, and yet crucified, tortured – when we begin to plead that we don’t deserve this.

That’s not a popular God. Let’s be blunt about it; we want our God to, in popular parlance, kick butt and take names.

Remember that memoir mentioned earlier, Everything Happens For a Reason … and Other Lies I’ve Loved? Kate Bowler’s highly successful first book was about the prosperity gospel and its adherents in the United States. After her cancer diagnosis Bowler was jolted to realize how much of that prosperity-gospel mindset had seeped into her own thinking. You see, it’s not just about God making you rich if you’re good; the opposite also holds true. If you suffer – whether by loss of that good fortune or by the advent of illness – it’s a sign of God’s disfavor. If something like cancer happens to you, it’s a sign that you’ve done something wrong and that God is punishing you.

Remember, this is the underlying mindset against which Job is struggling. I haven’t done anything wrong, Job insists. Why am I suffering so?

Let me be explicit about this: that’s not Jesus. That’s not gospel, not even a little bit. God is not a vending machine giving out goodies to those who insert the right coins or check off the right do’s and don’ts or butter up God to stay on God’s good side. Remember the words of Matthew 5:45, and how the rain is sent to fall on both the righteous and the unrighteous.

Job’s comeuppance is coming. For us, it is already here. God is not absent; God is not aloof from our pain. But God is not ours to manipulate. God is God, and we are not. Our suffering is an occasion for lament, but not for blame, and not for claiming God owes us.

So, which sermon is the right one – welcoming and receiving lament, or being silent and listening? I suspect the answer is “both.” There is a time, to borrow from Ecclesiastes, for both crying out our grief and taking in God’s answer, even if the answer is silence.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal unless otherwise noted): #—, Eternal God of Time (insert); #793, O Christ, the Healer; #797, We Cannot Measure How You Heal; #724, O Jesus, I Have Promised


Sermon: Once Upon a (Really, Really, REALLY Bad) Time

Grace Presbyterian Church

October 7, 2018, Pentecost 20B

Job 1:1, 13-22; 2:1-10

Once Upon a (Really, Really, REALLY Bad) Time

“Once upon a time…

We know what that means. When we hear those words we know pretty clearly what we are about to hear; a fairy tale.

I think we’ve done this before, acknowledging how an opening sentence can tell us so much about what is to come. Think of:

“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…”

Or:

“Space…the final frontier…”

Here’s another one to add to your repertory of opening lines:

“There was once a man…”

In fact, even today that kind of gives away what is to follow; maybe not quite a fairy tale, but definitely some kind of folk story; a tale with a moral, possibly, or at least some kind of encouragement towards a particular behavior that is “right” in the eyes of the one telling the story. And indeed, to some degree, that’s what we get here; an ancient story, one that was probably in circulation long before anyone wrote it down to be included in this particular book of wisdom. This opening that we just read most of – perhaps best thought of as a prologue to the larger book – and the last eight verses of the final chapter of Job are part of this profoundly ancient folk tale, which has been adapted by the author of Job as a framework for a much larger volume, extremely different in nature – poetic, almost epic instead of folk tale.

And it’s not a particularly happy story, at least not the part we hear today – like the Brothers Grimm on about their bleakest, darkest day possible. To this “blameless and upright” man is directed as complete an utter a reversal as possible – a wipeout, really. All of his possessions are destroyed in the first sweep, and his own body is wrecked almost beyond livability in the second. [As to the exchanges between God and “Satan” – a word that translates as “accuser” and who seems to be functioning as some kind of roving heavenly prosecutor seeking to undo what he perceives as the façade of Job’s righteousness – it is best considered a plot device and not a genuine insight into the daily operations of heaven.] In all this, according to our author, Job still does not sin. His wife might disagree, given the particular harshness of his curse upon her, but as this prologue comes to an end Job has suffered about as much as a human can suffer, and has not abandoned God.

Before this downfall Job might have seemed almost the ideal of the more modern “prosperity gospel,” which holds that earthly riches accrue to the most faithful. Even without going that far, Job’s life as described before this reversal seems clearly connected to his steadfast, upright righteousness; it sure looks like he has been rewarded for his faith with material success, which was not an uncommon pattern of belief in the time in which this book was written. Furthermore, this kind of belief system tracks closely with other examples of Old Testament wisdom literature, especially the book of Proverbs, which at times can sound, if not read carefully, like a chipper little prescription for material success and happiness in five easy steps. What happens to Job, and how the rest of this book plays out, makes it pretty clear that this righteousness-equals-success formula is going to be challenged, and challenged hard, before this book is over.

But suffering is something we can all comprehend, because most of us have been there. Maybe we have not suffered anything like Job’s level of suffering, but then we wouldn’t generally claim Job’s level of righteousness either; at any rate we’ve known loss of family, friends, or possessions, and we’ve known physical hardship as well. We know loss, the kind of loss of loved ones that can leave us as what the singer-songwriter Bruce Cockburn called a “shattered heart and soul, held together by habit and skin*.” We know the kind of pain that is the whole reason the musical genre called the blues exists. We know suffering. We don’t have trouble identifying with it, even if it isn’t on the level of loss that Job experienced.

We’ve also known others who have experienced suffering, and known the challenge of being a supportive friend in Christ during those times. Sometimes this is the greater challenge. We fumble for words, not knowing what to say but feeling the need so say somethingin the face of so much pain. Sometimes we let slip some truly awful things in those moments, awful in theology and awful in sensitivity – please, pleasepromise me you don’t say things like “God needed another angel in heaven” at a time when that friend has just lost a loved one, OK?

But then there are the times we don’tactually acknowledge or respect the suffering of others. We cast doubt on it. We imply it couldn’t have been that bad. Have you heard in the last few weeks sentiments like these expressed?

*”She obviously had it coming.”

*”If the assault was that bad, why didn’t she report it when it happened?”

*”She can’t possibly be remembering it right.”

*”Somebody paid her to do this.”

We are perfectly capable of dismissing or belittling suffering when it is inconvenient for us. Job’s friends who appear in the chapters following today’s reading, who keep insisting that Job musthave done somethingto deserve all that has befallen him, have nothing on us when we get right down to it.

This sermon must necessarily remain unfinished. The book of Job does not, no matter how one tries, suffer any one portion of its lengthy substance to be summarized apart from the whole. Those so-called friends of Job are coming; Job’s patience and faithfulness are going to begin to show cracks, as he moves toward the believe that if I haven’t done anything wrong, there must be something wrong with God; God will in fact show up to answer Job by refusing to answer; and in the end (at the risk of spoiling too much) Job gets all his possessions back and a whole new family to boot. But along the way, Job’s whole ideology is going to be in for a rude shock; his belief that being righteous is principally about being rewarded is going to get shaken to its core; and the ever-asked question “why do bad things happen to good people?” will get a not-at-all satisfying answer.

And so, to use another one of those phrases that is oh-so-familiar and tells us exactly what to expect: “Tune in next time…”

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #689, When the Morning Stars Together; #796, We Come to You for Healing, Lord; #508, Come to the Table; #339, Lift Every Voice and Sing

*”Don’t Feel Your Touch,” from the album Big Circumstance