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.

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