Year B, Proper 25 October 25, 2015 The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Then Job answered the Lord… I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”
So we have all read Job by now, right? Well, at least we have all heard the evening news highlights in the lectionary these past weeks. Rob’s wonderful sermon last week really brought the whole thing together, didn’t it? That to be a faithful follower of God, there will be suffering. To be a follower of Jesus Christ we must be willing to drink of that same cup that He offered to James and John. Yes, it is the cup of salvation, and yes, it is also the cup of suffering.
It is not the answer we are necessarily looking for is it? There is no answer to Job’s primary question, “Why am I, blameless and righteous, suffering as I am?” What the Book of Job teaches is that that is not the question, “why?” “I heard you by the hearing of the ear…” Job had been told by a lifetime of religious teaching, by the berating of his friends that there was a very clear why to all that was happening to him. Judgment and reward; judgment and punishment. That was the theological economy that he had been taught, that he heard.
But what did Job see with his own eyes in this story? He saw that he was blameless, he did everything he was supposed to do and did nothing he was not supposed to do. Well, according to his religion at least. In the eyes of God? Well, it is a mystery what God truly expects of us, if anything, or at least it is a mystery about how God’s pleasure or displeasure is meted out. But in the terms that he was taught religiously, most of all by his friends, Job had not transgressed, he did not deserve punishment by the standards they ascribed to God. With his own eyes he saw that his suffering was unrelated to his conduct, it was unrelated to his steadfast faith in God. How frustrating.
And then, definitively, with his own eyes he saw the whirlwind, with his own being he encountered God and knew fully that he did not, could not understand the workings of God, and that it is impossible for us fragile mortals to comprehend the workings of the universe in a meaningful way, or at least in a meaningful way regarding our own suffering and contentedness. What Job learns, what we are given the opportunity to learn is that when it comes to suffering the question we need to ask is not why do we suffer, but rather, how do we live in the presence of suffering, our own and the world around us?
Arrgh… that is a completely unsatisfactory answer. But not really. It really is the right answer. How much suffering does asking an unanswerable question bring us? Something bad happens in your life, a relationship disintegrates, an illness, chronic pain, something descends upon you or one someone you love, you open the paper on any given day and wretch, the world is descending into hedonistic chaos… how much energy do we expend on “why”?
I remember some years ago, I was just beginning to get a handle on my adult emotional life, an unfinished project to be sure. I was in Portland, interning at a huge downtown church, and there were all sorts of things going on: a sick senor minister who became unavailable for months; the run up to Gulf War 2 was being protested as only Portland can mount a protest and I was in the middle of it, up to the point of being arrested. It was a very targeted political arrest, I was specifically sought out because they believed I was a leader of the protests and that deeply unsettled me. I think they meant to scare me and they did. I did not have a lot of confidence in our government to begin with and that did not help. There was energy of all sorts swirling around me, good and bad, none of it indifferent and I, inside and sometimes out, was a disaster. I had never experienced attention like that (be it from the police, admiring congregants, the press), and everything just swirled and swirled around me. It was awful and I was not doing well as an intern pastor to that congregation. I was suffering.
One evening, I took my dog for a walk. I had a funny little dog, a rather giant and ancient Chihuahua named April. Long story how she came into my life. In any case, April and I were out for a walk in a park in NE Portland and it hit me… I am upset. I am upset, that is what is going on here. It was like scales falling off of my eyes, a great weight being lifted off of my shoulders. My mind had kept circling around these questions: Why is this happening? Why do I feel this way? Why is the world this way? Why did they do that? Why did they say that? Why? Why? Why? I realized that I was more upset by the questions I was posing myself, these unanswerable questions, then I was by what was actually happening. I was more upset about being upset then anything that was going on. In that minute epiphany nothing changed, but everything became different because what was causing so much of my suffering wasn’t the arrest, wasn’t the attention, wasn’t the jabs and barbs and kudos that flooded my inbox every day, it was recognizing that the question in the moment of suffering and confusion is not, “why is this happening?” No, the question is. “what to do now?” It is, “how am I to be now?” “How am I to live in the presence of these feelings and do what needs to be done?”
I think what YHWH in the whirlwind teaches Job and what Job in turn teaches us is that we should be a lot less upset by the fact of suffering, the why of it all, and spend much more of our time and energy on surviving the suffering. Coping with it. Enduring it. Doing what we need to do in relation to God and neighbor.
At the top of the first chapter of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ timeless book On Death and Dying, there is a selection from Rabindranath Tagore’s “Fruit Gathering” that is about this very subject. It reads:
LET me not pray to be sheltered from dangers but to be fearless in facing them.
Let me not beg for the stilling of my pain but for the heart to conquer it.
Let me not look for allies in life’s battlefield but to my own strength.
Let me not crave in anxious fear to be saved but hope for the patience to win my freedom.
Grant me that I may not be a coward, feeling your mercy in my success alone; but let me find the grasp of your hand in my failure.
We hear of the “patience of Job,” but patience is not what Job displays in this book, not in the first 41 chapters at least. No, the patience of Job is what Job learns through his awful ordeal, in this last, 42nd chapter. It is the same lesson Jesus Christ taught in anticipation of His own awful ordeal on the cross, represented in offering the cup to the disciples, for “…whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”
How did Job transcend his misery, how did he let go of the suffering, let go of suffering from the fact that he was suffering? Hint, it was before God restored his fortunes, even twice what he had before. What did he do? ___ He repented in dust and ashes. Yes. Repentance. What else did he do? We skip over the verses in the lectionary today, but it is alluded to in verse 10… “..when he had prayed for his friends…” Yes, forgiveness. God told him to pray for his friends and told his friends to make a sacrifice of burnt offering to atone, “…for you have not spoken of me what is right.”
There is a trend here. Repent. Forgive. Atone. Sacrifice. Put side the miraculous restoration of Job’s fortune, and Job’s gratuitousness with his restoration, daughters named, even giving his daughter’s an inheritance! Gratuitous! But these words, repent; forgive; atone; sacrifice, and then the following gratitude and generosity… that’s some old time religion.
Now I am not going to be so crass as to suggest that our stewardship ingathering next week is a time to atone for our sins and make sacrifice in the form of a pledge check and then our fortunes will be restored thirty and sixty and one hundred-fold. I am not going to say that because it is totally out of context for us. We, I don’t talk about stewardship enough, and not in this way. We don’t talk about how we practice the classical tenants of our faith: genuine repentance, thorough atonement, meaningful sacrifice, Christian gratitude, radical forgiveness. These things, old tenants of religious practice do translate into modern life, but it is a whole life, it is hard to do piecemeal. It is very hard to make sense of it if we are not fully in. I am far from fully in, heavens, but over these past few years, things have been shifting inside of me, and some of those ideas, repentance, atonement, sacrifice are starting to sink in deeper. I am behind on the gratitude and forgiveness, I’m working on it. But when that pledge check leaves our house and Windy puts it in the plate here at church, I feel something that I hadn’t counted on. It is a completeness. A wholeness. A closing of a circle. Everything we have comes from God and setting aside a portion of that, the first fruits even, setting it aside and offering it, we sacrifice it to God (in this case via God’s church not in the smoke of burning currency or oxen). Now my family has the pedagogical good fortune to be in a situation where in fact everything we have does almost concretely come from God (or God’s church in the form of the generous salary you pay me). We offered $3000 this year to the church from a salary of $61,000, about 5%. We are working towards a tithe, the traditional 10%, as I said, much of this is new to us, we’re learning. It is not easy, harder choices need to be made with that budgetary restriction, but it is on our list of non-negotiable outlays, and it feels strangely good. Not click your heels kind of good, but going to church in Lent kind of good, finishing stacking the firewood kind of good, or doing your taxes, getting that final final paper done, or grading that final final paper of the year kind of good. You know the feeling.
There is so little that we can do about this world, about the people we share it with. We have so little control over anything, and as we have learned, suffering happens. That is just how it is. “Resist not an evil doer,” right? But it is that old time religion that Job learned in this whole drama; repentance of his hubris, forgiveness of those who wronged him, gratitude and generosity to those around him… those are the fruits of his suffering. This is the same impulse that poor Bartimaeus followed as he cried out, “Jesus, Son of David have mercy on me!” The crowd shushed him, but he persevered, “Son of David, have mercy on me!” And Jesus called him up, and does Jesus cure him of his blindness? I don’t know. What is said is, “‘Go, your faith has made you well.’ Immediately he regained his sight and followed him on the way.” Just like Job, it is Bartimaeus’ steadfast faith and practice that sets him free from suffering and death. May it be so with us as we try to travel that same way. AMEN