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!

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