Blessed Be

A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian Church

July 3, 2016

Job 1:1-22

Today, the Narrative Lectionary moves from 2nd Corinthians to a 5 week series on the Book of Job. Job is an old, old story. There are versions of Job’s story in other cultures of the ancient world too, although the details vary.

Job was a good guy—better than you and me. He was without fault before God and he was very blessed. A big family. loving wife. lots of cattle, sheep, goats, camels. You name it—big screen TV’s, riding lawn mower, platinum card—he had it all. He was also known for his great faith.

And one day in the heavenly courts, one of the heavenly beings says to God, “I know you like your servant Job, but I think he only likes you because you have blessed him with so much. Why wouldn’t he like you? He’s got the perfect life.

And so begins the wager.

How will Job respond when his family dies?
When his livestock and fields are destroyed?
When he loses all that he has?

Job’s friends show up and sit with him in silence as he grieves. But then they decide silence isn’t enough and start giving helpful advice—“your children must have sinned—that’s why they died.”

You must have cheated people. Because we know that God rewards the righteous and punishes the wicked”.

Just face it, Job. You must have done something for this to happen.

Job won’t accept that. He doesn’t know about the divine wager, but he knows that sometimes bad things happen to good people and that it is so not helpful for people to just explain things away.

Job’s friends take up many chapters in the middle of this long book. And I used to think those chapters were a master class in what not to say in times of grief and loss. And while that is true, the older I get the more I think those chapters are to remind us of the importance of showing up for each other and the reminder to remain in conversation and community when things are difficult.

It is clear that community is not easy in grief. Because you have to deal with boneheaded people saying stupid things. But there is value in our human connectedness and our importance, one to the other. Human community is imperfect. It is also what we’ve got.

We should see the story of Job as a parable, of sorts.
There was once a man with two sons….
There was once a man going from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers….
There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job

This story is told in extreme. Job doesn’t just have one setback or loss. Job has ALL setbacks and loss. He loses EVERYTHING. It is a preposterous story, right down to God making a bet with the Adversary about the life of his favorite man Job.

Also, because Job is told in such extremes, it keeps us from doing the comparison of grief. You know, that dance we do when something bad happens to us, and we immediately say, “I should stop complaining because _________has it worse than I do”.

I did that this week. I did something to tweak my knee when I was walking down the street Monday. I mean, when I was pulling three children out of a burning building….ahem. So, I was walking down the street, and then I had hurt my knee. And it’s a bummer. Because I have just started a new routine at a gym. And was feeling good about hiking, and it is summer, and blah, blah, blah.

And I don’t want to pretend that a tweaked knee is end of the world earth shattering bad news—certainly not when 6 people from our congregation were in the hospital this week, and when people are dying in Syria, and children are starving, and Bangladesh and Turkey  and Baghdad are being bombed, etc, etc.

Yet we do need to have space to acknowledge our own particular griefs and setbacks.

Grief is not a competition.

Occasionally people will try to out-grief someone. You’ve seen that too.  “Oh, that’s too bad about your one bad knee, Marci. I have TWO bad knees and I injured them while sitting in a recliner”.

You see where that goes.

And when we try to turn grief into a competition, we lose the ability to have compassion for either ourselves or for someone else. Grief is personal. It is not a competition.

When we try to turn it into a competition, we also run up against Job. I’m guaranteeing you that nobody could out-grief Job. He loses seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred yoke of oxen, five hundred donkeys, all of his servants, and ALL of his children.

As we skim through the book this month, we’ll see someone who is devastated by grief. And someone who fights back, demanding answers from God.

Others have said Job is about “why” bad things happen to good people. That leaves me unsatisfied too. Because in this passage, we learn that those terrible things happen because God makes a bet with the Adversary, and Job’s life is the collateral damage. That is NOT why bad things happen to us. This is a parable.

To to be clear, I do not believe in a God who would use us as an object lesson for entertainment in the heavenly court.

So the book of Job is maybe not so much about the “why” question. We should not look to it to find out why bad things happen to good people. Maybe it is more about the “now what?”, or “what’s next?”

Maybe it is more about how we respond to life once bad things happen.

Because they will.

We know that.

Yes, we do what we can to be safe, and be wise, and wear seatbelts, and not shoot off fireworks on Table Rock when it’s 100 degrees and bone dry outside. (ahem.)

photo credit Jarrett R Mitchell

TableRockFire.jpg

photo credit: Jarrett R Mitchell. Found here.

 

But we know we can’t control or manage life in a way that exempts us from bad things occurring, because boneheaded people will set off fireworks on Table Rock when it is 100 degrees and bone dry…..

We can control, to some degree, our response.

Job responded this way:
Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshipped. 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.’

He tore his robe, which is a sign of sorrow. Tearing your robe exposes the heart, a visible sign of heartbreak and loss. It is a visible reminder that the soul is bigger than can be contained in a body.

Job shaved his head, which is a sign of mourning and grief. A sign that takes a while to grow back.

And then, finally, he got down on the ground, put his forehead in the dirt, and worshipped God.

The Lord gave. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.
I hope we can hold all of those actions together when we think of how to respond to tragedy. Because Job is not being Rosie Sunshine, saying “no big deal. Everything’s fine”.

He’s not being a fatalist, saying that nothing ever was or will be fine.

He’s acknowledging the beginning of his grief, making a public sign of his loss and mourning, and then, and only then, does he turn to God, fall to the ground, and acknowledge that the whole of our lives—the good moments and the bad—are gift and are a part of our created creatureliness.

As we’ll see later in the book, when God answers Job out of a whirlwind, humanity takes its place alongside the deer, the whales, the birds, the cows, the jackals, and the Behemoth.

We are part of God’s wild and untamed creation. We are not the creator.

The Lord gave. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

I’d like to think I could be like that in the midst of deep grief— as even keeled as Job; as aware of my place in the midst of God’s creation.

It seems hard to keep that perspective.

I was talking with someone about this just recently. About how it is hard to imagine God’s perspective. It is a gift to live at the level of detail in which we live. Where we can see a world in a grain of sand, and heaven in a wildflower. We can smell the joy of a cookout on the beach. We can taste salt air. We can bend to the ground and marvel as ants carrying 5,000 times their body weight. We live life at ground level, with great and beautiful detail but limited horizon.

We can only see so far. We can only know so much about the galaxy in which our planet spins around our sun, which is one of the 400 billion suns in this one galaxy.

milky-way.jpg

Milky Way photo from here

 

I can’t give a whole lot of clear answers about God. But I am often struck by the tensions inherent in a Divine who created roses, wombats, and coral reefs in all of their beautiful detail who also sees the world with an infinite horizon. While we can only see from our own perspective, God can see beyond time and space.

The Lord gave. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

This statement is Job’s admission that he can’t see with the same perspective God has, but he will choose to be grateful. His response is grief, mourning, sorrow, and then gratitude.

How might we respond? Because our response is all we have.

Earlier I quoted a William Blake poem that begins with
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower…”

That poem ends with

Every Night and every Morn
Some to Misery are Born.
Every Morn and every Night
Some are Born to sweet delight.
Some are Born to sweet delight,
Some are Born to Endless Night.

What the poet knew, what Job grasped as he sat in the dust and misery of his grief, is that sweet delight or endless night are our choice. They are not predetermined by the circumstances of our birth. They are the consequences of our response to the circumstances of our life.

Are we going to be noticers of beauty and sharers of love? Or are we going to pass by the beauty and love in the world because all we can see is the hate and indifference?

The Lord gave. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Author and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel died yesterday. He was liberated from Buchenwald Concentration Camp at age 16, and he was known for being a chronicler of the Holocaust. He said he decided to devote his life to telling the story because he felt that having survived, he owed something to the dead.

If you have not read his book Night, I highly recommend it. It distills the horror of 6 million people killed into the story of one survivor.

He wrote:
“Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed,” Mr. Wiesel wrote. “Never shall I forget that smoke. Never shall I forget the little faces of the children, whose bodies I saw turned into wreaths of smoke beneath a silent blue sky. Never shall I forget those flames which consumed my faith forever. Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence which deprived me, for all eternity, of the desire to live. Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God himself. Never.”

It is important for us to remember the Holocaust all these years later, especially now, as candidates for office use a star of David in their attack ads on TV.

I did not know Mr Wiesel, but my friend Libby did. Yesterday she wrote:

‘When I was 18 I sat in a packed auditorium and listened to Elie Wiesel tell stories of hope 5 months after the World Trade Center attacks. Afterward, totally terrified, I asked him if he was ever angry. He put his hand on my shoulder, and with the quiet intensity with which he look at world leaders and other Nobel laureates, said “of course I was angry, I’m still angry, but from inside the faith, not outside, and that has made all the difference.

Wiesel ended up with many questions for God, much like Job. He decided that being in a faith community, even with your doubts and questions about God, is the way to come through tragedy. His faith was not a blind faith. It was questioning and doubting.

For Wiesel, the “now what” of his life, after tragedy struck, was to continue to shine light despite the presence of darkness. And he recognized that being in community is an important response to tragedy. It is the way to get through it.

He once said,

Look, if I were alone in the world, I would have the right to choose despair, solitude and self-fulfillment. But I am not alone.

He often wrote about how gratitude is the most important thing. He said, “For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone.

The Lord gave. The Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

Are we willing to face our struggles and trials in a way that put grief in the right perspective? Grief is real and important and something through which we sit with each other in the dust ashes. But grief is not a way of life.

Wendell Berry once wrote:

But grief is not a force and has no power to hold. You only bear it. Love is what carries you…

I can’t promise you a life of ease and constant good fortune. But I know Love is what carries us through it all. Let’s not bear our grief alone.

Amen

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