Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sermon - 25 October 2009

21 PENTECOST / PROPER 25 — 25 Oct 2009
Trinity — 7:45, 8:45, & 11:00

Job 42:1-6,10-17 Ps 34:1-8,[19-22] Hebrews 7:23-28 Mark 10:46-52

“I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.”

You may have noticed — or you may not have noticed, and that’s okay too! — that for the past few weeks we have been taking our first reading from the Book of Job. Four Sundays. Not a lot for a book that is 42 chapters long, but it’s more than we had before. And I think Job is worth some attention.

How many of you have actually read all the way through the Book of Job? [A number of hands raised.] That’s good — but those of you who haven’t, I’m not trying to make you feel guilty about it. It starts out fairly easily but then gets a little harder. I do encourage you to give it a try.

The Book of Job addresses the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” You may be familiar with a book from a few years ago, with pretty much that same title, written by Rabbi Harold Kushner. It’s a very good book, and I commend it, although he doesn’t really solve the problem; but then, neither do any of the rest of us. (Including the Book of Job itself!)

Job is apparently based upon a middle-eastern folk tale, which we see reflected in the first two chapters (three weeks ago) and then the last part of the 42nd chapter (which we hear this morning). In the story, Job is a man of great wealth but also of great virtue and faithfulness to God. Well, one day the heavenly host comes before God, and the Satan — in Hebrew ha-satan, which means “the accuser” or “the adversary,” sort of “the Devil’s advocate,” but he isn’t to be identified with “the Devil” yet — the Satan says to God, “Well, yes, this Job fellow is very faithful to you, but why shouldn’t he be? Look at all the stuff he’s got! Let’s take it all away from him, and see how faithful he stays!”

And God says, “Okay.”

(Yeah, I know. Just go with me on this, we’ll come back to this later.)

So the Satan sets it up that Job loses all his flocks and herds and camels to rustlers and to lightning storms, and all his hired hands are killed, and then his seven sons and three daughters are all killed by a tornado, and finally Job himself is struck by loathsome sores all over his body and he is left sitting in the ashes, and his wife tells him, "Curse God and die!" But “in all this Job did not sin with his lips,” it says — Job remained faithful to God.

Along come Job’s three friends to console him. And they have a great dispute in superb Hebrew poetry for the next 29 chapters, in which the friends argue, “Admit it! You are guilty of some great sin, that’s why God has done this to you!” And Job says, “No I’m not! I'm innocent!” And then a fourth friend pops in, and he chews on Job for six chapters more. Then out of the whirlwind God intervenes and answers Job, “You don’t know what you’re taking about! Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who do you think you are?” And God then goes on in this vein for another four chapters, and it’s really a quite wonderfully impressive celebration of God as Creator. And then today we hear Job’s reply, “Okay, I finally get it! I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you — I now see the mystery of you, I see that you are not to be called into account. Therefore I despise myself and repent, for I am but dust and ashes.”

This first part of today's reading is the conclusion of the poetic discourse that began between Job and his friends, and then continued from God to Job, and ends today with Job’s reply. The rest of the reading today is the final resumption of the old prose folktale with which the book began 42 chapters earlier. God restores Job’s fortunes — twice as many flocks and herds and camels as he had before, and a new family of seven sons and three daughters.

Well. How nice.

Too bad, I guess, about the first set of kids.

So after hearing God blithely let the Satan take all Job’s stuff and kill his children, we’re now supposed to think that it’s all okay because God gives Job a new set of stuff? [*] That’s right, it’s a cop-out. At least on the surface.

Please understand that I am not trying to put down the Book of Job! On the contrary, Job is a very complex and sophisticated reflection on the suffering of the innocent, perhaps the first really sophisticated such reflection in all human literature. And I include, maybe even especially include, the naïve or pseudo-naïve telling of the folktale with which the Book of Job begins and ends. There is significant dissonance between the folktale, and especially its conclusion that we hear today in the second half of the reading, and all that has gone on in the poetic dialogues up through the first part of the reading. And we should not assume that the author of Job just didn’t notice this dissonance! This book wrestles with very hard questions about God, and God’s power, and God’s justice, and God’s love. And to say, as I would say, that the Book of Job does not successfully resolve these hard questions is not to disparage it: we don’t successfully resolve them either. But we can be enriched by sharing in this book’s wrestling with the reality of suffering and evil in the world and the ultimate justice of God.

But we do have one advantage, one that the author of Job did not have (and one that presumably would not have occurred to Rabbi Kushner either): We know the cross of Jesus Christ. (And his resurrection: but first his cross.) God does not manipulate our suffering in the world — God shares it with us.

That doesn’t make it any easier; in fact, it may make it harder for us. There are no easy answers for us. There are no easy answers for God either.

[*] At one of the services a child cried out at this point, "No!" which of course was quite right!

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sermon - 4 October 2009

Proper 22 / 18 Pentecost — 4 October 2009
St. Luke’s, Cedar Falls — 9:15 am

Job 1:1; 2:1-10 Ps 26 Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 Mark 10:2-16

One of the good, and sometimes exciting, and sometimes challenging things about the Revised Common Lectionary is that it forces Old Guys like me who serve as supply priests in other parishes not to just dive into the sermon barrel and dust off a homily that I’ve preached before. Actually, some years back for this Sunday, I wrote what I thought (and still think) was a pretty good sermon on the Gospel reading for today. In those days the reading was just the first part, about marriage and divorce; it hadn’t had the second part about “Let the little children come to me” added yet. I wrote it for a parish I was supplying, and then three years later I dug it out and preached it again (over at Waterloo, as a matter of fact). But it seemed to me that at this present point in the life of the Episcopal Church, we probably don’t really need another sermon about sex, particularly from a visiting priest!

So then I looked at the Epistle, from the Letter to the Hebrews. But Hebrews is not easy to preach from, since it’s really a fairly complex essay and doesn’t lend itself to reading in short snippets, as the Gospels do (even John, although they are longer snippets!), and even Paul’s letters, although it helps if you are aware of his overall argument. (Don’t rely on quotes from Romans without bearing in mind the whole letter!)

And then I thought, well, it’s St. Francis’ Day, and we’re blessing the animals, so maybe I should talk about the animals, and so there immediately came to mind a thing that was on the internet lately. Maybe some of you have seen it — two churches across the street from each other, having a church signs duel. (By the way, this posting was entirely an internet construct, and never occurred in real life. You can create and post a church signs duel like this yourself. Here are the URLs: )

[In the sermon as given, this posting was described.]

In the past, on Sundays we have never read much from the Book of Job. There was one year when we picked up on the “I know that my redeemer lives” verses, and another Sunday when we heard the part near the end where God tells Job to stop whining, and yet another Sunday when Job gets it, and repents, But these are bits and pieces and the context isn’t very clear, and there’s no attempt to wrestle with what the Book of Job as a whole is about. Now, at least in Track One, we have a four-Sunday sequence (which is still just bits and pieces, but it’s still a sequence) in which we hear the beginning of the story (today), next week we hear a representative sample of Job’s lament, then the week after that the part closer to the end where God says, “Just who the heck do you think you are?” and then finally in 3 weeks the end where Job repents and gets all new stuff. That’s a start, anyway. So let’s go with it.

“Stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to his face.” The Lord said to [the] Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

How many of you have read the Book of Job (all the way through!)? [A number of hands are raised.] Good! But I’m not trying to make the rest of you feel guilty or ashamed! It really is quite all right, and very understandable, if you never have read Job, or even if you tried you never finished it. (My guess is that some of you have read it more often, and more deeply, than I have!) But let’s face it, five or six chapters in you are very likely to say, “This is heavy going!” But I encourage you to persevere! Take notes — it helps if you can keep track of who is saying what. Chapters 3 through 37 are long poetic dialogues between Job and his friends.

Do not try to read the Book of Job this afternoon while you are also watching the football game.

I have absolutely no idea what a rock-hard fundamentalist Biblical literalist would make of the Book of Job. (Even ordinary conservative evangelicals have pretty much the same problems with it as the rest of us.)

Basically the Book of Job is about “Why does bad stuff happen to good people?” It may represent the first time — at least the earliest instance of religious literature — that seriously tries to deal with this question, or is even aware that the issue exists. Probably — not certainly — Chapters 1 and 2, and the last part of Chapter 42, are, or are derived from, an older middle-eastern folk tale, which in our Bible is in Hebrew prose, and then Chapters 3 through 37 are Job’s poetic dialogue with his friends who come to console him and explain to him why God is letting all this bad stuff happen to him. Job doesn’t buy it. Chapters 38 through 41, also still in Hebrew poetry, is God challenging Job for challenging him. Then in Chapter 42 Job says, “Okay, I give up,” although it’s not entirely clear why he should, and then in the last part of Chapter 42, back to the old prose folk story, God gives back to Job all the family and property and health that Job had lost in Chapters 1 and 2.

No, this is not at all satisfactory, for a whole variety of reasons. Not the least of which is that Job’s original family of sons and daughters are still all dead. But that’s a question that will arise for you in three weeks on Sunday the 25th. And for me, too, since I am scheduled to preach in Iowa City that day!

The reading this morning leaves out most of Chapter 1. That’s where God grants to the Satan (ha-satan, the adversary, the accuser, sort of God’s inspector-general, not yet The Devil) the power to take away all of Job’s flocks and herds and finally even his children. Even so, Job does not blame God for his misfortune. Then in Chapter 2, which we hear most of this morning, the Satan gets permission to ramp up to step two in the testing of Job, and he takes Job’s health away from him. That’s more than Mrs. Job can stand. But Job himself remains faithful to the Lord.

Incidentally, when I was in seminary, we put on a production of Archibald MacLeish’s “J.B.” based on the Book of Job. I played J.B. Typecasting, no doubt. The classmate’s wife who played J.B.’s wife (“Curse God and die!”) gave a very moving performance.

Okay, let's review this story. Job is filthy rich, but he is blameless and upright, and he has seven sons and three daughters, as it goes on to say in the part that gets left out of the reading today. (I don’t see anything nefarious in that omission, it’s just a matter of editing for length.) Well, the “sons of God” as they are called — the heavenly court, the angels, whoever they are — not “Sons of God” in the sense that Jesus is — get together and the Satan says, “Well, sure Job is blameless and upright! Look at all the stuff he has. But take it away and we’ll see how long he stays blameless and upright!” And God says to the Satan, “Okay, take away all his stuff. Just don’t hurt Job himself.” Then a series of disasters follows, and Job loses his 500 oxen and 500 donkeys, and then his 7000 sheep, and then his 3000 camels — together with all the servants who took care of them — and finally all his children who are killed while they are having dinner together when a great storm blows the house down on top of them. (Hmm. Job lives in the "Land of Uz".... Naaahhh….) And in all this Job did not sin. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Then we come to the next part, that we hear this morning. Not having been successful in the first round — foiled in his attempt to prove that human beings are faithful to God only as long as God is faithful to them — the Satan gets God’s permission to continue in a second round, and to strike Job’s own body, save only his life. Yet even now Job does not sin; he does not curse God.

Well, I hope we see there are some problems in all this. Do we want to say that God is a God who can pull this kind of stuff on us (or specifically allow this kind of stuff to be pulled on us)? I certainly don’t want to say that. And yet it’s true that Stuff Happens, and God doesn’t seem to stop it. What are we to make of that? We have to admit that we know people — and sometimes we are people — who are God’s fair-weather friends. If God does not take care of us, why should we care about God? If God abandons us, why should we not abandon God?

We do need to remember that the God in whom we believe is not first of all the God of the Bible; first of all we believe in the God who is the Father of Jesus Christ of Nazareth. And yet this God also let Jesus die on the cross. God raised Jesus from death, but first God let him die. God will raise us from death, but first God will let us die.

This is hard stuff. There are no easy answers, and the Book of Job does not provide any easy answers. It makes an honest effort, perhaps the first honest effort, and it offers us a lot to meditate on and to pray about, but my judgment is that in the end it does not succeed. I think that ultimately Chapter 42 is a copout, though I guess we’ll all see in three weeks what we think about that!

Jesus is not in this story. Not yet. And in our own story, in this story when it has become our story, Jesus is the center, Job is prelude. But it’s still very hard stuff.