October 7, 2012
19th Sunday after Pentecost, Year B, Proper 22
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.”
Job. The book of Job was the decisive take on theodicy by the people of ancient Israel, and we haven’t come up with an upgrade in all these thousands of years. The Book of Job about sums up the plight of existence, it unfolds theodicy marvelously. Theodicy, what does that word mean? “The vindication of divine goodness and providence in view of the presence of evil.” The word has Greek origins, a conjunction of the words God and Justice. The theological shorthand is “the problem of evil.” What does that mean, “the problem of evil?”____ Right, that if God is an omnipotent God, all powerful and all good, how could (or why would) God have left evil in the world. That is a very, very good question. Why do bad things happen to good people? How could terrible things befall those who, like Job, are upright and blameless? That is the question of the hour, or at least the next 15 minutes.
The Book of Job. Try not to get hung up on the bet between God and Satan. This story is not at all about the capriciousness of God. The conversation that starts the tale is only a literary tool to set up the story. It provides a pretense to illustrate that there is no rational reason for suffering, no divine will behind the terrible things that befall people, there is no rhyme or reason for most human suffering. The story is told to set up that the arguments of Job’s friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu. Their reasoning is that suffering happens only when God wills it and that God wills it only on the wicked. The form of the story makes that logic preposterous: we know that Job is blameless and upright, God knows this, the narrator tells us that God knows, but bad things still happen to him.
So I hope we are here beyond the developmental stage of believing that bad things happen only to the deserving. Right? We all know that terrible things happen to un-terrible people. We know that God does not rain punishment down on the wicked like Jerry Falwell would have us believe, blaming 9-11 on lesbians and Wiccans. Beyond ridiculous. What this story is teaching us through the millennia is that we cannot possibly know why bad things happen to good people, good things happen to bad people and why most of us in the middle just take it as it comes. The lesson of Job is that we cannot know the hows or whys of the workings of the world, we cannot explain fate, nor assign blame. It is beyond our abilities to comprehend so deal with it. Somehow, “resolution is to be found in the depths of a pious life lived before a mysterious God.” Thank you Mr. Job.
Is that satisfactory? Does this explain to us how evil can occur in a world created by God? Not really. Remember, evil, theologically speaking, is a large category. There is evil as in evil-doing, nefarious activities, predation, greed, inflicting harm on others kind of evil. That is easily explained away in the doctrine of original sin, that we, humans have a choice to close with and meet God or to turn away from God. War is an explicable evil. Poverty is an explicable evil. Humans have resisted relieving the suffering of poverty by not sharing, so that’s evil. In turning away from God we will hurt others. That is the easy evil.
The hard evil to explain away is a tsunami that kills 280,000 across the Indian Ocean or small pox that killed 300,000,000 last century. HIV/AIDS is an evil. Cancer in its infinite varities is an evil. Each of these evils are what theologians call “natural evil.” Evil is best thought of as simply a source of suffering. Anything that causes suffering, by intention or simple consequence, fit in the category “evil.”
But again, when it comes to all things theological, the question is how does any of this help us in our day in, day out lives? Job lays out the idea of theodicy, the understanding that God is not involved in the creation, propagation and execution of evil. Does this help us deal with any given Tuesday morning? Does this make the bad news we have received, or some day are guaranteed to receive any easier to bear? Does it? ___ I don’t see it. So what is the point? Was Job foolish in remaining faithful? And where does that leave us?
Thursday was the Feast of St. Francis. We, that is ten dogs and twenty people celebrated it on the side lawn that evening. The gospel for this feast is from St. Matthew, and includes the passage, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens… For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Does anyone know anything about yokes? Hannah Maeve and I are reading “The Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. We are on the third book, Farmer Boy, which tells the story of the Upstate New York boyhood of Almanzo Wilder, Laura Ingalls’ eventual husband. Almanzo’s father gives him a pair of steer that he is to train as oxen. Key to this gift was the yoke that Mr. Wilder carved of light, strong cedar. From the first training session, Almanzo paid close attention to that yoke, molding it perfectly to the curve of their necks with a piece of glass, wiping it down after each use so the moisture did not soak in, keeping it clean, hanging it properly, all so that it would not irritate their necks. Oxen can bear incredible loads, can made heavy burdens light so long as the yoke is easy, that it fits perfectly, that it does not strain or chafe or irritate.
Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior is our Savior in that he offers us a yoke that makes the heaviest burdens bearable. He is that yoke. His life and death and His Body that persists in the Church, the Christ event carved, honed, smoothed that yoke so that we all may take it upon ourselves and bear the loads we all have to bear, or will have to bear. Even the unbearable.
You get that cancer diagnosis. Your child falls ill, very ill. You never saw that other car. You lose your job and your home and everything in your life is turned upside down. The specter of depression descends upon you again. There is no reason for this. God is not to blame. You are not to blame. Bad things happen; how good or evil you happen to be has no bearing on what happens to you and how. There is no explanation: this is the lesson of Job and his chapters of lament against unjust, underserved suffering, but we must go on. We must live our lives as well as we can, no matter what is happening. That is the will of God, which is revealed in our will to live. It is that same force that through the green fuse drives the flower that drives us to keep breathing, to keep our hearts pumping, to keep us reaching out to each other, giving and receiving love. We must bear what is sometimes unbearable. It is not fair. It is not right, but there it is. And, and, thanks be to God AND, there is Jesus Christ, standing before us saying, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
There is no discernible reason for evil and suffering, but there is a discernible balm. So much human suffering is caused, or at least is deepened by isolation, by feeling isolated, alienated from the world, from friends, families, from our own bodies, everything. So much of the suffering I witness in you all, the people I serve here is related to feelings of aloneness. In God, you are never alone. In Christ, you are never alone. In the Holy Spirit, you are never alone. In community, be it Divine or temporal, you are never alone. This is the mystery and gift of faith. To the skeptic, the unbeliever, maybe all it comes down to is a metaphysical slight of hand, that if you have faith, if you believe hard enough that you are not alone, in fact, you will not be alone. Fine. That is the resolution of Job. Would he have persisted in proclaiming the injustice of his suffering if he felt alone? Would he have endured? Could he have endured without the existential calm, the holy equanimity of faith? Not faith that it will get better but faith that you are not alone and that you can bear it.
Jesus Christ does not promise to heal our bodies, though mysteriously some are healed. Jesus Christ does not promise protection from evil, though somehow, some are protected . Jesus Christ, our church, our religion does not, cannot promise you that everything is going to be OK, because often it is not going to be OK. Moms die. Children die. Floods happen. Lightening strikes. But somehow, deep in the recesses of mystery, taking on the yoke of a Savior, sharing your burden with the One who bore so much, you will find comfort for your journey, no matter where you are, no matter where have been and no matter where you are going. In faith you are never alone. In faith, in Christ, your yoke is easy and your burden is light. AMEN