A sermon preached at Southminster Presbyterian in Boise, Idaho
July 9, 2016
Job 3:1-10, Job 4:1-9, Job 7:11-21
Our first reading tonight from chapter 3 is from a horrible and beautiful poem in Job’s own voice, where he curses the day of his own birth. This is not just “woe is me!”. This is deep out of the depths of the soul—anger, sadness, fury, grief.
It is a reversal of creation. In the creation story, God speaks light and life out of chaos and darkness. In Job’s lament, Job speaks and calls darkness and gloom out of the light.
It is also a declaration. Job’s friends have gathered with him. We’re told at the end of chapter two:
“They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”
I wonder if after 7 days and nights of sitting together in the dust, maybe Job was picking up signs from his friends that they were starting to think they understood his grief. Maybe they were starting to claim his experience as their own. They’d sat with him in the dirt for a whole week, after all.
I don’t know.
But there is something in Job’s cry that reminds me that his experience is not mine. And he won’t let his friends, and he won’t let us, pretend that we know what it is like to sit in his particular pile of dust.
Have you experienced that? I have. It is the most maddening thing for someone who has never been in your situation to tell you, “I know what you’re going through”.
I’m sure I’ve even said those words at some point. What I try to say now is “I can only imagine what your grief feels like. If you want to talk about it and share, I’m here with you. If you want to just sit here in the dust, I’m here for that too. You are not alone.”
We sang “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry” after we read that first passage because I wanted us to really feel the contrast in Job’s lament and in our usual speaking of birth.
I would never, could never imagine saying Job’s words about cursing the days any of my three boys were born. I hear Job saying those words and I want to stop him. I want to tell him, “look Job, I can see you’re upset but I promise your mother never cursed the gift of your life. She was there to hear your borning cry. Your life matters!”
It is similar to how I felt last week, reading you that quote from Elie Wiesel’s book, Night. I wanted to go to him and soften the hard, painful edges of his words, to make them more palatable and polite. To make me feel more comfortable and less convicted.
And that is not our work to do.
To be clear, I still don’t like Job’s words. But they are his words. Not mine. They are based on his experience. Not mine. I need to spend some time imagining, sitting in the dust of my discomfort and unease.
In the aftermath of Job’s tragedy, it seems fair that he should be the one to break his silence. I would hate for someone who had been through something that horrific to feel they were stuck in silence forever and had lost their voice. It matters that Job is able to speak of his own despair. Job’s voice matters.
The second passage we read is a response from Job’s friend Eliphaz. This is one of the friends who has just sat with him in silence for a week. He clearly comes to this with love and care for Job. He points out how Job has done wonderful things for others. He asks if Job can handle a question. And then he says some horrible things, seeming to blame Job somehow for the deaths of his children and the loss of all he had.
I read his words and I recognize the attempt to silence Job, to reprove him for using his voice and claiming his own experience. Eliphaz tries to put other words in Job’s mouth. “I know you’re upset, but I’m sure you meant to say…..”
At this point of his journey, Job is deep in nihilism. He’s ready to end it. He doesn’t see hope. He doesn’t want hope. And we are people of hope. There is a fine line to be walked, however, between denying that suffering is the final word and simply denying that Job is suffering.
One commentator on this passage said, “what makes chapters 4-5 so deeply offensive is not that they attempt to integrate suffering into a context of meaning but that they are the attempt of someone who is not suffering to silence the “unacceptable” words of one who is.” (New Interpreter’s Bible, vol 4, page 383)
It is not for Eliphaz to take suffering away from Job. Job’s suffering matters.
I also heard the voice of Eliphaz this week in the news when our nation was suffering after the deaths of two more black men, Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, and Philando Castile in Minneapolis.
I heard Eliphaz say, “If only they had been unarmed” (even though we live in a country that prides itself on the freedom to bear arms). I heard Eliphaz say, “if only they had obeyed the law” (even though you and I can drive with broken tail lights without fear of death).
Every time someone is killed at the hands of law enforcement, Eliphaz speaks to explain away the experiences of the victims who are suffering things I can scarcely imagine.
Eliphaz spoke after 12 police officers were shot in Dallas too, saying that if people hadn’t have gathered, the officers wouldn’t have been there.
I do not know what it is like to fear the police.
I do not know what it is like to put myself in harm’s way in order to just do my job of protecting the public. It is not for the person who is not suffering to judge another’s suffering. We are called, however, to remember we belong to each other, despite our different experiences.
I think we forgot that this week. We belong to each other.
Job doesn’t let Eliphaz get away with trying to explain away Job’s experience. He tells Eliphaz at the end of chapter 6, in Robert Alter’s translation: “How forceful are honest words. Yet what rebuke is the rebuke by you? Do you mean to rebuke with words, to treat the speech of the desperate as wind?”
Job is having none of it. He will not be silenced by one who is not suffering. We need to be on guard too, when we hear Eliphaz speaking today, and remind his voice in our heads that we can’t silence and ignore the experiences of people whose suffering is different than ours. We need to be aware of the way our sensitivity about racism keeps us from owning our complicity in a system where “white” is “normal”.
Because we have to deal with this. Just as Job’s life matters, and your lives matter, black lives matter. And it shouldn’t need saying. But it does. Because the wounds of our nation are bleeding disproportionately on the bodies and in the lives of black Americans. And we have to say it until we figure out how to heal the wounds in our nation. We are suffering.
At the start of the 3rd passage we read tonight, Job says,
“‘Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;
I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
I will complain when my soul is bitter.”
And he doesn’t just complain to his friends. He complains straight to God, by taking the beautiful refrain of Psalm 8 and dumping it on its head.
The psalmist says, in a beautiful psalm of praise about how wonderful it is that the God who created the heavens would take notice of us, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?”
“What are human beings, that you make so much of them,
that you set your mind on them?
Why do you visit them every morning,
test them every moment?”
I totally support Job crying out and crying to God. I promise us that God can handle our anger, sadness, grief, and pain. I confess I get uncomfortable when Job gets a little snarky in his quoting of scripture back in God’s face. If you’ve ever met me, clearly I’m a fan of biting sarcasm. But I think Job’s re-interpretation of the Psalm is more than that.
To me, Job’s cry out to God reveals that his awareness of his suffering exposes the way I try to hide my own suffering, pretending the world is okay when it is not.
As one of my friends said when we were talking about this passage in Bible Study this week, “we’re all suffering. Job is the one who is aware of his suffering. We just try to pretend everything is fine.”
We are gathered here tonight at the end of a week of violence, in the midst of a year of increased violence, in the midst of a world of increasing violence. And I am suffering. I suspect we are all suffering.
So be like Job.
Sit in silence for a week.
or Tell your friends when they are being boneheaded and wrong, bless their hearts.
or Yell and scream at God and demand answers.
or Protest at the Capitol and write letters to your congress members.
or Join us tomorrow at 5 at the Ann Frank Memorial for a time of prayer and conversation and silence.
or Do whatever it is that will allow you to care for yourself as you sit in the uncomfortable dust of sorrow.
It is a hurting world out there. And so it is good that we gather together and acknowledge the pain of the world. We gather here because we know we can offer our pain to God and that God can take it. We gather here because we need people who will sit in the dust with us. We gather here because we know that for all the brokenness of the world, we find wholeness in God. We gather here because we know that in community we are reminded of love, and hope, and joy, and life. And in a few minutes we will gather at the Table and be fed and nurtured and prepared to go out with God’s love and light.
You were given a tear drop when you came into the sanctuary tonight. Each drop symbolizes the tears of Job. They also symbolize the tears we shed for each other. Hold it in your hand and take a brief moment to offer to God a situation known to you personally, or a situation you heard about on the news. When we come forward for communion, I invite you to place that tear drop into the baptismal font and be reminded of the ways the waters of baptism surround us in our pain, as well as in our celebrations.
When you see the font, remember that the waters of baptism unite us. Water is thicker than blood. As you think about the tear drop you are holding, watch this video and imagine how our tears can come together to be the waters of justice that heal the world.
Here are some articles that might be helpful to you if you are not sure how Black Lives Matters matters to you, or if you just want to read some new perspectives:
11 Ways White America Avoids Taking Responsibility for its Racism
Who Benefits, Who Loses by Laura Cheifetz