Year B, Proper 22 October 4, 2015
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.”
I would like everyone to read the Book of Job over the course of October. Really. This is important. Over the next four Sundays we will be considering, contemplating, discerning the Word of God as revealed to us in the 2500 year old story of Job, a man who was “..blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil…” and who suffered tremendously.
Engaging with these words, the Word; we don’t do that enough here, not from what I hear. I know I don’t. Tom Payne’s Ministry Moment last week about the ministry of Lector, the readers of scripture at Mass really got me thinking. Remember, the Sword and the Light? God, the mystery of God is revealed to us in so many, many ways, the beauty of mist hanging on an Oregon hillside or in a Bach cello concerto, the pang at the base of your spine when you encounter someone you love and who loves you, and God is revealed in a very particular way when we engage verse and stories handed down by our ancestors over 100 generations. We need more than just the thoughts and machinations of our own hearts and minds to make sense and meaning of the very biggest of things, the preacher preaches to himself. The sin of late free market capitalist culture is that everything lives and dies with the individual, we don’t need to hold anything in common if we don’t want to (well, if you can afford not to which is the cultural ideal). But heavens to Betsy do we ever need something in common, something we hold with reverence together. Scripture is one of those things that is beyond us, a common point of reference and contemplation with a storied lineage of human contemplation and the mystery of divine revelation. That is what we need to do when we encounter the very big things. Life. Love. God and Death and Grace. And in the case of Job, the deep aspect of existence under consideration is a persistent and confounding one: the book of Job is about suffering.
Maybe it is fitting that we are entering a cycle with Job as we witness yet another tragic fit of violence in yet another school, this one very close to our homes. I’ll leave the politicizing of this moment to the people who should be politicizing it, our leaders in government. This is a deeply political issue, for it is not only about how we manage weapons and the place of weapons in our culture, but also about how we manage the larger culture itself which is the actual source of the nihilistic violence like we saw in Roseberg this week. Alienation. Invisibility. Detachment. But right now the politics, our politicians are failing, so the culture is left to other guardians, other stewards, or at least it needs to be collectively witnessed. So that’s what we do, witness, as a church we witness, in the face of horrendous evil such as this, we witness. We do what the women at the cross did. The women who had the courage to stay and witness the horrors that they saw their son and brother and friend and teacher and great high priest suffer. We witness the suffering. Half of what I do on the street is witnessing the suffering of very broken and very poor people in our community. I witness it out there then witness it to you in here and to others who need to know it. The church is a witness. We can’t avert our eyes, we musn’t filter it, candy coat it, lighten it… No, we kneel with eyes wide open and let the horror in and we commit it to memory. We commit the suffering we witness to memory. We do not forget it. And we make sure that everywhere we go, no one else forgets it. Terrible things are happening right here, right now, in our name. Don’t forget. People you know and love suffer, innocently and in secret. Don’t forget. Jesus died for you. Don’t forget that, either. We need to witness. Remember, witnessing is a two way street. We observe, we encounter, we experience. We bring whatever we witness into our memory and then we put it back out into the world, helping others commit it to theirs. We need to proclaim what we have experienced. We need to witness our faith. We need to witness all sorts of things, joy and wonder, miracles and angels., hope and resurrection, but right now, we are talking about suffering. No one should forget suffering. We are called by God to pray, to grieve, to make our laminations, to witness so that no one forgets the suffering of the innocent.
That is what Job is about, the suffering of the innocent. Job was innocent, “blameless and upright…” and he suffered. Now Job was a sinner, he freely admits that. We all are, sinners, distant from God in some way, out of right relationship with God ourselves and everything. But being a sinner does not mean we are bad, it means we are human. Job the sinner was innocent, he had integrity. At the end of Chapter 1, Job, suffering great loss already displays his integrity as he worshiped, calling out, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked shall I return. YHWH gave, YHWH has taken back. Blessed be the name of YHWH.” Integrity here means not just an honest character, as in you want your realtor to have integrity. Integrity also implies a completeness, a wholeness marked by internal stability or solidity. After an earthquake we inspect buildings for their integrity. That’s a worthy spiritual goal, to have integrity like that. And Job had it, AND he suffered, and that was his beef. The book of Job is about suffering, specifically the suffering of an innocent. But it is not about why we suffer, the whole wager with Satan the accuser is just a literary device, it says nothing about how God acts in the world. Job is about how to talk about God, how to understand God in the face of the suffering. It is about how to have faith in God in the face of the suffering of the innocent.
Read Job this month. It is not easy to read. It is not easy to understand the cultural context, and most of it is written in verse which I know makes it harder for me. The Jerusalem Bible version is very good. The New Revised Standard Version, which we use on Sundays, is good, too. The Oxford or Harper-Collins Study Bibles have really good footnotes. Read it.
We already know how the story goes, right? It starts with today’s reading, though it is edited for the Lectionary in a funny way. We are introduced to Job, but then skip a big chunk, like we miss that fact that Job is fabulously wealthy: he owned 7,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen… He had seven sons and three daughters, each of whom was successful and delightful and they loved gathering together and throwing parties for each other in each others homes. A parent’s dream! His life was blessed with abundance and he was grateful to God. Then Satan enters from stage right.
The loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head are actually Satan’s second wager with God. Initially, God bragged on how devout Job was and Satan observed, of course he is devout, look how abundant his life is. Take that away, Satan wagers, and he’ll curse you by sundown. “OK,” God says, “but don’t hurt him.” So in the course of a day his livestock is stolen by raiders, his servants are put to the sword, and a wind out of the wilderness collapses a tent and all his children are killed. Devastatedthough he was, Job worshiped God, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, naked shall I return.”
Satan is proven wrong, Job persists in faith in the face of tragedy, so the accuser doubles down. That’s where today’s reding picks up. “Skin for skin… touch his bone and his flesh and he will curse you to your face.” “OK,” says God, “but spare his life.” So Satan did, but just by a thread, and Job sits in a heap of ashes, putting on every symbol of suffering in his culture, the sores, outcast, a cranky wife. “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!” she says.
As I said before, this is just a literary device, it is in no way implying that ours is a God that plays with our fates in a parlor game with Satan. It is a way to set up the story to show that there is absolutely no justification for the suffering he is about to undergo. It is like the cyclone that takes Dorothy from Kansas to Oz, the cyclone isn’t the point, getting to Oz is. That Job is suffering blamelessly is the important part, not how the suffering came about. Karl Barth calls this part a “concrete confirmation” of the innocence and uprightness of Job.
Job’s suffering was enormous, so enormous that three of his friends, Eliphas the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamaite came to be with him, to console and comfort him. And that’s the set up for the next 38 chapters, the “consolation and comfort” that these three friends, each astute theologians, offers. Each offers their thoughts on why the suffering is happening, and to each individually Job responds. Back and forth they go, the friends maintaining that Job must have done something to deserve the suffering, and Job maintaining his integrity, his innocence and faith. “No, I don’t deserve this. And your conventional theology is not sufficient to my experience.” And the frustration builds. Then from out of nowhere a fourth arrives, Elihu, a young man and probably a later addition to the text. Elihu condemns them all for getting nowhere, and then gives his take on suffering. By then, Job, still maintaining his faith, is just calling for God to explain why? Why does he, an innocent suffer? Job feels so abandoned, so unloved by God, and all conventional wisdom makes meaning of that, saying that God blesses the just and curses the evil and Job knows that that is not true, not in this case, and he still wants to love God, and he still wants to have faith, he just wants God to tell him why, “Why do I suffer? And in chapter 38, God answers, “from the whirlwind.” We’ll hear a bit about that on the 18th. After God answers, Job repents of his hubris, and his fortunes are restored, and even greater then before (though maybe not in the eyes of his first set of children and servants). That is the story of Job.
What we are offered in witnessing Job and his friend’s encounter with the suffering of an innocent is again not about the suffering itself, not about the suffering of innocents. It is about making meaning of the suffering of innocents. It is about how to speak of God, how to believe in God when we witness horrendous evil, how to have faith in God when we witness the suffering of innocents, when we, the innocent suffer.
This is all a deep mystery. Please read Job this month. Encounter that mystery face to face. AMEN