Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sermon -- 25 June 2006

Proper 7 / 3 Pentecost—25 June 2006
St. Alban’s, Davenport — 8:00 & 10:15
Job 38:1-11,16-18 Ps 107:1-3,23-32 2Cor 5:14-21 Mark 4:35 -5:20

They woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind. . . . Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

The Old Testament lesson this morning is from the concluding part of the Book of Job. Job is a marvelous piece of literature, a theological elaboration of an old Semitic folktale, and represents a major step in the growth of Israel’s understanding of their relationship with God. It’s not without its problems, however.

You know the story of Job. Job was a rich and prosperous man, whom God allowed the Adversary to smite with calamity as a test of his faith. (That’s a major problem with the story right up front!) Job lost his riches, he lost his children, he lost his health, and ended up sitting in the ashes scraping his sores, and even his wife spits at him, “Curse God and die!” And along come Job’s three friends to comfort him (with such friends who needs enemies?): Eliphaz the Temanite, Zophar the Naamathite, and of course the shortest man in the Bible, Bildad the Shuhite. Their “comfort” consists primarily in trying to get Job to confess his sin, for such calamity can come only as divine retribution for grievous misdeeds. But Job protests, with complete justification within the context of the story, that he is innocent, and therefore, under the burden of all this suffering, “Why me?”

The very fact that we can raise what we call “the problem of evil”—if there is a good God why do the innocent suffer?—demonstrates the advance in moral consciousness which the Book of Job represents—the recognition that the innocent do suffer. In prior stages of spiritual development, human beings generally assumed that suffering and calamity were punishment for sin, and bad things happened to people because they deserved them. Job in his integrity protests, “I don’t deserve this, and I demand an accounting.” That takes us through the first 37 chapters of Job, up to the part we heard just now. And here in chapter 38 God is saying, “And who are you to demand an accounting from me?” God goes on in this vein for 4 more chapters (the Book of Job is not short!), whereupon Job repents, and is restored to prosperity.

Now as an answer to the question, “Why me?” this is really not very satisfactory, frankly. And in fact God does not really answer Job’s question at all. God simply reveals the divine self, and in doing so invites Job into fellowship with God: the creature with the Creator.

From the dawn of human history we have practiced a sort of “vending machine religion”—in which our relationship with God is transactional. We make deals with God, quid pro quo—“God, you give me this and I’ll do that for you.” We deposit our spiritual coins in the divine vending machine, prayers or good works or whatever, and we push the button, and down the chute is supposed to come the requisitioned item — health, or prosperity, or forgiveness, or peace of mind, or whatever. And you know how we are with a vending machine that takes our money and doesn’t deliver our candy bar! If we do right by God, God has to do right by us. We think. And too bad for any God who doesn’t hold up his end of the deal!

And maybe putting it that way can help us to see how far off the mark this ancient and widespread paradigm for understanding the nature of the relationship between humankind and God is. This transactional model just doesn’t have anything to do with it. If we are looking for justice in this human life, we are likely to be disappointed. Even God didn’t get justice in this life—and still doesn’t. Godliness is still very likely to lead to crucifixion.

These are very serious matters, and I don’t want to seem to be giving trivial or cheap answers. But I think we need to recognize that the response, if not exactly an answer, to “Why me?” is “Why not you?” (Mattie Stepanek, the wonderful young poet who died of muscular dystrophy at the age of thirteen, knew this; we seem to have a harder time understanding.) And to the protest, “If there is a good God, why do the innocent suffer?” the response, again not an answer, “If there isn’t a good God, where do you get your righteous indignation?”

In the Epistle this morning, St. Paul writes: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us.” And Paul goes on to explain that God has taken on all our stuff so we can take on all God’s stuff.

In the Gospel the disciples come whining to Jesus because they think they’re all about to drown. Jesus calms the storm—this is the thematic link back to the first lesson—and then he asks, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” Not, I think, “Didn’t you believe that I would keep you safe from drowning?” but “Didn’t you have faith that as long as you are with me nothing else really matters?”

We look for answers, but I’m not so sure that God always gives us an answer, not the kind of answer we’re looking for. God is not a divine vending machine but a divine companion and our final lover. What God says is, “I who made you am with you always. Therefore whatever befalls you in this life, nothing can harm you forever; and in the end I shall make all things new.”

© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead

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