Shalom Mennonite Congregation, Harrisonburg, VA November 7, 2013
Just a little warning: I'm going to start off this sermon with a sweet story but most of it is going to be a downer so if you care to take a long bathroom break or head to the Little Grill a bit early or suddenly get the urge to help make the coffee, I understand.
About 15 years ago my younger sister, Janet and her husband who live in Vermont, did some serious home renovations. Because there is little building code that has be followed and inspected, my siblings and I headed up to help with most of the demolition and construction. I enjoyed using the sledge hammer to tear down walls and throw chunks of sheetrock in a dumpster a story below. They popped the top of their house so new joists, beams and roof were installed. Before it was closed up we got sharpies and on the joists we wrote messages of blessing for their lives in this house that had weathered well since 1810. We wrote messages to the future homeowners about the good care and love that had filled the house before they owned it. I remember having a feeling of awe as I tried to imagine 50 or 100 years from then these words being uncovered and read. Through this simple act I felt connected to the future. While no one who would read these messages of blessing and hope in the future would know our family personally, I felt that I was adding something important to the world and the future.
I thought of this as I read Job's desire to etch his message of suffering in a rock. As we wanted to create a permanent record of our blessings in my sister's house, Job wanted a permanent record of his suffering for those in the future to see and connect with. With tools that cannot be erased, Job wanted to write down his suffering and declare his innocence. It was imperative that it be recorded, not in something to be read just during Job's lifetime, but a record of suffering that would stand the test of time. This permanent record was for the future as a testament of Job's innocent suffering and all those who suffer throughout history. All those who rail against those who persecute them, friends and even God who have abandoned them, they want to know their suffering is not in vain. Suffering is real and an enduring part of what it means to be human.
And we too suffer. We know what it is like to lose something or someone that we loved or depended on. We too have felt the grief of knowing we will never have our old life back, things have been done that cannot be undone, and we wonder how we will carry on. We dare to ask why. We want to understand, to fit this turn of events into some scheme of how life is supposed to go. We want to keep our identity; our ego intact and hopefully in control.
So it's interesting to look at how Job struggled with what it means to suffer, and how he tried to understand it. This story is not an easy one to comprehend and while the story eventually has a happy ending it is not so clear cut, especially if we want to know the key to ending suffering and God's role in it. This story offers then, not an escape from suffering but a way through the inky, fog of pain and suffering to a life that is transformed. This transformation is a re-arrangement of our priorities, of how we think and feel and react to life. It is seeing the world through a different lens.
Job is part of the wisdom literature category of the Hebrew Scriptures. But unlike Proverbs or the Wisdom of Solomon, Job is not a set of useful, pithy, bits of advice. Job instead tells a story of extreme suffering of one person, inviting us to wrestle with how the human and divine relate to each other in the midst of suffering. Not only is this a heavy, agonizing story, the ``answer'' that Job comes to, is to accept the Mystery of God and life. Not an answer that is obvious or that we can wrap our heads around.
I first have a couple disclaimers: 1-I am NOT going to be making any statements about how God is portrayed in the story of Job, except to say that I disagree with pretty much every aspect of it. I don't believe God makes deals with Satan, I don't believe God tests us to see if we're worthy, I don't believe God struts and flexes HIS muscles to show how powerful, omniscient, and mysterious HE is. I don't believe God gives wealth and health to people once we get it right or when we have enough faith. I believe in a God who is just the opposite: an all-loving, merciful Being who wishes wholeness for all people and yet lets us choose.
Another message I want to disavow here is that God calls us to suffer. God does not wish suffering on anyone. There is nothing redemptive about suffering for suffering's sake. Suffering does not make me a better or happier person no matter who the suffering is for. However, suffering it part of life, and God calls us to walk with others in their suffering as well as their joy and happiness, and we are to help alleviate suffering especially at the hand of injustice.
That being said, let's look at the story. As you remember, Job is a story about a wealthy man who had everything, a wife, children, property, possessions. Through a bet between God and Satan it was all taken away from Job and he was left with nothing except his wife and sores on his body. God wanted to show Satan that Job was so righteous that Job would not turn against God and sin, even though Job suffered.
While Job did not curse God and die as his wife told him to do, he cursed just about everything else. He cursed the day he was born and he rails against his 3 friends who come to tell him he must have sinned at some time and that's why all this bad is happening. While Job does not curse God, he certainly is consumed by his misery and pleads that God let him know why and release him from his suffering. However, Job never wavers on his belief of his own merit and lack of sin. There is nothing he has done to deserve this. Over and over his friends encourage him to remember when he must have done something that brought this on him, and to repent because God is just and only punishes the wicked. Job is steadfast in his declaration of misery and his lack of guilt and sin.
Then we come to our text for today, in the very middle of the book. In his despair Job wants to leave a permanent record of his suffering and innocence. Not just writing his words down in a book but with an iron pen and with lead engraved on a rock forever. His experience is not to be forgotten.
In the middle of this passage is the verse ``I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth and after my skin has been destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God.'' This is a well known text from Handel's Messiah. Taking it out of its context in Job, it seems rather triumphant; coming from someone who has it all together. But when we look at it in the context of the book of Job, that is far from the truth. If we keep reading through verse 27, ``then in my flesh I see God, whom I shall see on my side and my eyes shall behold and not another. My heart faints within me!'' And he goes on to warn his friends that if they continue to judge him harshly, they will suffer under the wrath of the sword. This is not a man who has gotten to the other side of suffering yet. He is smack dab in the middle. He desperately wants to know the why of it, and who to blame, and know that somewhere there is justice. He wants to have a sense of control.
At this point, Job doesn't know how he's going to get to the other side, but he clings to the hope that he will be redeemed and even live to see the day. The story goes on with his friends continuing their unending speeches about the wicked getting their due, and then Job responding that the wicked often go unpunished and on and on. This goes back and forth and then Job speaks directly to God, asking why this was happening and God answers. Instead of answering Job directly though, God asks Job to recount and explain how all aspects of nature happen, who is in charge and why. After several more chapters of this, Job finally says at the end, ``I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.`Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. `Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.'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.'' God then restores Job's fortunes two fold and though God rebukes Job's friends God forgives them only because Job prays for their forgiveness.
The ``why'' of our suffering is unknowable. If we try to understand the why of our suffering we too will go on chapter after chapter in circles with no answers. It doesn't mean we don't have hope but our hope isn't in finding those answers. Our Redeemer does not save us by giving us control. Instead, it is in our letting go of our need for answers, no longer depending on our own strength, our ego or will, that we will find a way through our suffering. While we may etch our suffering on a rock it is not our private, unique suffering that makes it matter, but that we are part of the suffering of all of humanity. It is truly a mystery to be entered into, not to understand.
Our willingness to enter into our suffering results not in the return of literal fortunes, but becoming wholly human, or wholeness. As we let go of our agendas, our egos, our need to be right, we are no longer separate from God or from others. Carl Jung says, ``The attainment of wholeness requires one to stake one's whole being. Nothing less will do; there can be no easier conditions, no substitutes, no compromises.'' It's through our suffering that we find the ability and the necessity to let go of ourselves into the Mystery of God, every part of ourselves, nothing can be held back. But the result is that we see that we are already part of something so much bigger and more whole than we ever thought we could be.
I have been so impressed by Pope Frances's willingness to be present to the suffering of the world. The photo that was going around the internet this week was his embracing a man disfigured from boils on his face and body. A couple weeks ago the pope showed gentleness and acceptance of a child who hopped on stage and sat in the pope's chair and hugged his legs. It is a testament of someone who is not afraid of weakness and suffering. It seems he seeks it out, to be present to it, and offer acceptance and love, not judgment. Can I come to the place of not seeing suffering and weakness as something to avoid but just part of my life, and everyone's life. Accept that it as part of the human experience and is embraced and loved in the Divine Mystery.
So I offer this to you and to myself, our suffering does not need to be in vain, and if we are willing to stay with our suffering, enter into it, claim its reality along with all those who have and will suffer, we will be transformed. However, it comes at a price. Transformation happens only if we are willing to let go: let go of control, of knowing why or who is to blame. Our hope then is not in having any answers in the end, but in embracing that our lives are held in the Mystery of God. While our suffering is ours, we do not suffer alone or apart. When we see ourselves as part of and linked to all of creation and the Creator, not separate, we stop striving to understand or to escape it.
Mary Oliver has a poem that speaks to our letting go of our strivings in order to be really present to our suffering or despairing and others' suffering. This helps us see how we fit into God's glorious and mysterious embrace along with the rest of creation.
Wild Geese You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting- over and over announcing your place in the family of things. Job 19:23-27
23``O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!24O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!25For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;26and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,27whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!