Sunday, October 18th, 2015 – Sermon on Job 38:1-7, 34-41

You can listen to this sermon here.

Job 38:1-7 [34-41]

1 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: 2 “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? 6 On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone 7 when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

 34 “Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, so that a flood of waters may cover you? 35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go and say to you, “Here we are’? 36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind? 37 Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, 38 when the dust runs into a mass and the clods cling together? 39 “Can you hunt the prey for the lion, or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, 40 when they crouch in their dens, or lie in wait in their covert? 41 Who provides for the raven its prey, when its young ones cry to God, and wander about for lack of food?

It was my senior year of high school. I was practicing my trumpet, as I was prone to do a lot at that time. And then there was the knock on my bedroom door. It was my sister. She had come to tell me that my 28-year-old cousin, Jenny, was in a bad car accident.

I had just seen Jenny a few months earlier at my grandmother’s funeral, where she graciously abandoned the company of the other adults to spend time with us young ones, who had no idea what to do at such an event. She was so cool.

It was a fluke accident. Jenny and her husband, Craig, and their two-year old daughter, Zoe, were driving on a two-lane road. The driver in the other lane hadn’t properly hitched his boat to the car, allowing the boat to break loose and crash into the passenger side of this oncoming car, where Jenny was sitting. Craig and Zoe – unharmed. The camera between Jenny and Craig? Not a scratch on it. But Jenny? Gravely injured. And three days later, she was taken off life support and died.

I don’t know when it was for you, but that was my first entrance into the world of tragedy. A death of someone so young. So underserving. Like most of us, I didn’t know what to say or think or feel.

Since then I’ve known an 8th grader who died from an accidental overdose. A father who died leaving behind a wife and his four daughters under the age of 14. A high school friend struck down by a brainstem stroke. I have friends who have lived through miscarriage after miscarriage. I have watched as cancer ate away at the body of a man so full of life and love.

Those are just some of my stories. Knowing only a fragment of what some of you have been through, to quote a professor of mine, “There is enough grief and heartache in this room alone that could freeze one’s blood.”[1] Everyone has experienced suffering.

The book of Job is often where people are told to go during such a time. Job is a man who suffers an unfathomable amount of loss and grief in his life. And he deserved none of it.

The book begins with these words, “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” Now, if you look for Uz on a map, you will not find it. As far as anyone can tell, it is a place that has never existed. Which could mean that Job is a nobody from nowhere. Or it could mean that Job is everybody. From everywhere.

Job, like so many, is a man who suffered such loss and grief in his life though he deserved none of it. It is a story that is meant to help us ask the hard question – why? Why do we suffer so? If God is a loving God. If God is all-powerful. If God is all-knowing, then why does such evil and heartache still exist in the world?

Many of you know the story. Job has the perfect life. Perfect family, perfect faith. No one loved God more than Job. But then along comes Satan who whispers in God’s ear that Job only loves God because God has given him so much. Take all that away, Satan says, and Job’s love for God will fade too. God disagrees and accepts Satan’s bet, letting Satan have his way with Job. As a result, Job loses everything he has. His property, his livestock, his family, and eventually his own health, as boils and sores develop all over his body.

If you read just the first two chapters, you will get one answer. Why do we suffer? Because God can do what God wants to. Though innocent of wrongdoing and ignorant of God’s bet with Satan, Job has the stamina to say in faith, “The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. Should we accept the good without also receiving the bad?” Or translated for our time, “Everything happens for a reason.” Or “God must have needed another angel.” Neither of which has ever soothed my soul, I have to say.

If I were in the midst of a tragedy and someone told me to read Job, I’d slam the Bible closed right there in the middle of chapter 2. But if you can get past that, to see what happens next, then I think the book of Job is still a good recommendation for those who are suffering.

Job is a biblical celebrity, known for his patience in his suffering. But that’s just at the beginning. Which is just like us human beings. We try to be strong at first. But the strength doesn’t last. And neither does Job’s patience.

At the beginning of chapter 3, the volcano in Job’s heart explodes with grief. And anger. And Job curses his own birthday. The unedited version says, “God damn the day I was born.” Which is raw just like the open sores on his skin. But it is truthful. And any reader who has made it this far breathes a sigh of relief and nods their head, because this Job they can relate to. Their world has been shattered and so has Job’s. And now Job had finally released his death-grip on being righteous and faithful (or proper, or manly, or strong, or stoic Norwegian or whatever else holds us back from really feeling our grief), and Job lets the world and God see what was really inside of him. Anger and despair.

You see, Job lived in a world that use to make sense – a world where you get what you deserve. That was all you needed to know. If you had a good life, if you were healthy and wealthy, then God has blessed you for your righteous godliness. But if you suffered loss and pain, then God has punished you for your sinful behavior. That was the way God and the world worked in Job’s mind. But that world didn’t exist anymore – not for Job anyways. Because Job was innocent. And Job was angry about it. He didn’t deserve one ounce of what was handed to him.

Job’s friends, who knew nothing about the bet between God and Satan, try to convince him that he’s wrong. Instead of defending their friend, they hold tight to their religion and they defend God. God is just, they say. Therefore you must have done something to deserve this. The Almighty – the One who hands out rewards and punishments – that One does not make mistakes. If you are in pain, then you must have brought this upon yourself.[2]

But Job is not helped by them. And neither are we. So Job – impatient, heartbroken, grief-stricken-Job – gives God an ear-full. Chapter after chapter, Job howls and howls at God. Speaking to God in ways that do not sound like a righteous man and demands an answer to the question we all ask: why?

But God is silent and nowhere to be found. “If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. (Job 23: 1-9).

For 28 long chapters of time, Job complains to God and God has nothing to say. Which is perhaps the greatest loss of all for Job. The loss of God.

But then.

But. Then. When Job cannot find God, God finds Job.

And God speaks. Finally. You just heard it, beginning in chapter 38.

Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? 3 Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. 4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. 5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Now, to my ears, God sounds a bit cruel. But to Job, I think it sounded entirely different.

If you have ever been in an argument with someone giving you the silent treatment, then you know that the silence is the worst part. The waiting. The unknowing. Longing so much for them to just say something. Because until they do, it can seem like they just don’t care at all. And then when they do finally speak, the words are secondary to the immediate relief now that they have finally acknowledge you and cared enough to respond.

I wonder if that is what it was like for Job when God finally spoke. If it was a relief just to have the silence broken and to hear from God. And not only that, but to hear so many questions from God, meaning God wanted Job to respond. Almost as if there was a conversation going on between them. A relationship between Job and God. When Job does respond, he makes a startling claim: Before this, Lord, I had only heard of you. But now my eyes see you. (Job 42:5).

Job has moved from a distant relationship with God to one that is so close, Job can see him with his eyes.

For four whole chapters, Job gets to listen to the voice of God. And in the end, God was not angry at Job’s anger toward God. In fact, God scolds Job’s friends. Listen – God says to them, “You have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” (Job 42:8). According to God, Job’s friends and their easy religious answers were wrong. And Job, with his howling and his protest, was right.

Job’s friends defended God, and God defends Job. Which goes to show that God prefers Job’s outrage to Job’s friends’ religious answers. Let that be a lesson to all of us.

In the end, God does not answer Job’s question of why we suffering. Only God knows. But God does restore Job’s family twofold – giving Job twice as much as he had before. Which goes to show that it was not God whom Job lost. It was his understanding of God that he lost. Job lost his understanding of a just God who gives people what they deserve.

But this God is not just. This God does not give people what they deserve. Which is the bad news. The bad news is we do not get what we deserve. But it is also the good news. The good news is we do not get what we deserve. No, God gives us more than we deserve. More love. More forgiveness. More grace.

Job lost the God he believed in, but gained the God he needed. In the end, God’s presence was more valuable to Job than God’s justice.[3] That might not be enough for you, but it was enough for Job.

If you have ever lost God in the midst of suffering, the wisdom of Job teaches us that the ingredients for rekindling that relationship is both lots of howling and lots of time. And then upon seeing God face-to-face, we learn that we may have lost sight of God. But God never lost sight of us.

Zoe, that 2-year-old daughter of my cousin Jenny, is now 17, and applying to colleges. In her application essay, she writes about her mom’s death and the impact it has had on her life. I think Zoe’s words are too profound to only be shared beyond with college admission offices. So, I will leave you with her words.

I have no memories of (my mother), and nothing hurts more than that. It seems like everyone around me has an endless collection of beautiful memories of her, and I have nothing… I would give anything to meet this amazing woman whom I only have fragments of. I think she might have fragments of me, too. And yet, as much as I grieve the loss of my mother, I can’t deny how much I love and am blessed by the family I now have… My dad is now remarried. He and my new mom have two children of their own, and a few years ago our family began fostering. We eventually adopted a little girl out of the foster care system, and one year later we adopted her younger sister as well. I am now the oldest child in a family of seven, and I absolutely adore every single one of my siblings. For most of my life, I’ve struggled with reconciling my feelings about The Accident. On the one hand, I desperately wish it never had happened. I wish I could experience life with the woman who gave me half of myself…But on the other hand, I am so thankful for everything that has come from it. I was supposed to be an only child, but I cannot imagine life without the constant chaos of four much younger siblings running around under my feet. The thought that I never would have known any of these beautiful children breaks my heart. I understand that there will always be a part of me that craves the love and affection of the mother I never knew, even as I appreciate and cherish the beautiful life that blossomed from tragedy. I will not feel guilty for loving the people around me, and I will not bury the past. Instead, and as best as I can, I will love the thing that I most wish had not happened.[4]

I think Job would agree.

Amen.

[1] Terence Fretheim

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Sermon “The Failure of Religion”, 1999. This sermon was greatly informed by the sermons Barbara Brown Taylor preached at Chautauqua Institution in 1999.

[3] Barbara Brown Taylor.

[4] This last sentence is a Stephen Colbert quote, from his interview in GQ in 2015. Zoe Belford quotes Colbert at the beginning of her essay.

Sunday, October 4th, 2015 – A Collaborative Sermon on Mark 10:2-16

You can listen to the sermon here.

Mark 10:2-16
2 Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” 3 He answered them, “What did Moses command you?” 4 They said, “Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her.” 5 But Jesus said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart he wrote this commandment for you. 6 But from the beginning of creation, “God made them male and female.’ 7 “For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined to his wife, 8 and the two shall become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh. 9 Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.” 10 Then in the house the disciples asked him again about this matter. 11 He said to them, “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; 12 and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery.” 13 People were bringing little children to him in order that he might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. 15 Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” 16 And he took them up in his arms, laid his hands on them, and blessed them.

Over the past couple of months, Pastor Pam and I have gone back and forth between preaching from the pulpit and preaching from the aisle. Some of you have appreciated that change of pace. Some of you haven’t. Which is okay too.

But mostly, some of you have wondered – why? Why preach from the aisle? I can’t speak for Pastor Pam, but, for me, there are just times when it feels…appropriate. That there is a need to be closer to you.

And today feels like one of those days for me. Especially after hearing what we just heard from the gospel of Mark. A reading that makes us catch our breath in fear. A reading that stings with judgment. A reading that hurts so many of us.

I’ve been a bit frightened of this text all week. But a couple of weeks ago, I said that we don’t need to be afraid of any scripture because God’s relationship with us is not fragile nor easily broken. So, we can face this one together too.

Which was the gift I’ve received this week – the gift of wrestling with this text in the company of others. With staff, with some of you in our weekly bible study, and with other clergy. So any insights that I might have into this text are not my own, but rather have been born out of that communal reading of this text.

And what was so beautiful about those gatherings this week with each group was the great care and caution with which everyone approached this reading. Because we all knew the danger for this text to cause great pain and to alienate people in our community. Few of us have remained untouched by divorce or broken relationships in our life or the life of family and friends.

And we also knew that for far too long, this passage has been used as bully text to hurt people. It has been used against those who have had to make the gut-wrenching decision to end a marriage. It has been used against those who have fallen in love with someone of the same-gender.

There is no doubt about it, this text has been used as a Scriptural stone by self-righteous people to throw at those deemed sinful. And yet, also in Scripture, Jesus is the one who says only those who have never sinned can throw stones, which renders us all empty-handed and passive.

So, I simply cannot believe that Jesus intended for his words to be used as a weapon against others. To hurt or to judge. But rather, as Mike Skunes said this week, maybe this passage is not meant to be a knife that hurts others but rather as a mirror that shows us about ourselves.

So, let’s have a look in the mirror. The first thing that happens is Pharisees test Jesus with a question, “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?”

The first thing were learn from this passage is that it is in the context of Jesus being put to a test. Jesus did wake up one morning and decide he’s going to announce how divorce and remarriage shall be viewed for the rest of time. There is a context here.

You see, there was a big debate going on back then about when a man could divorce his wife. Could he divorce her for any reason – like burning your toast – or could he only divorce her for committing adultery?

Do I have to wait for her to have an affair, or can I divorce her now for ruining breakfast? Tell us how we can use the law to divorce our wives, Jesus!

But Jesus won’t do that. Because they miss the whole purpose of the law. The purpose of the law is not to justify you getting what you want. The purpose of the law is to protect the vulnerable. Which is why Jesus reminds them that a man must give his wife a certificate of divorce – it protected her from great societal risk. But the Pharisees don’t seem to mention that.

They want Jesus to weigh in on the debate about how can we divorce our wives and Jesus will have nothing to do with it – except to emphasize the call to protect the vulnerable – not dismiss them.

Which is why Jesus changes the focus from what the law allows to what God intends. Jesus pulls us from the law of Moses to the creation story, which first says that God made them male and female. Meaning they are equals. Meaning that it shouldn’t just be the men who are the boss in the relationship. But then the creation story says that God made us to be in relationship with each other, to be one. And what God has brought together, let no one separate.

Jesus isn’t interested in debating how one can legally get out of a relationship. Is it legal, yes, it is legal, but if your first concern is how you can lawfully (and therefore cleanly, or guilt-free) get out of a relationship, then you’ve missed the point. It would be like if a groom on his wedding day said, “So, if this doesn’t work out, I can just divorce her, right?” Well, yeah, you can, but you’re kind of missing the point of today.

Marriage isn’t a contract that can be casually entered into and casually broken. And the heartache and the pain that some of you have lived through because of broken relationships and betrayal and hard decision goes to show that there is nothing casual about divorce. It is not simply a legal matter.

This is about a relationship. And God’s intention that humanity be in relationship with one another in a way that honors and cares for one another. And whenever that doesn’t happen, it isn’t simply a legal issue. It is a human issue.

God doesn’t intend for divorce. No one intends for divorce. God intends for humans to be in relationship with each other. But that doesn’t always happen. Which is why it is legal to get a divorce. Jesus never says that the law of divorce is wrong. It just isn’t the primary concern. It’s about how can we be loving and compassionate with each, even though the relationship is ending.

And then Jesus says that thing about remarriage. Which is almost the hardest part. To imply that anyone who gets divorced and then remarried is committing adultery.

That’s been the real bear this week for me. What to do with that. And the way that I am currently making sense of it is notice that Jesus doesn’t say anything about the rejected partner in a divorce and their remarriage. He only speaks about the one who initiates the divorce. So the only way I can make sense of it is that Jesus is still speaking to those who are taking marriage too casually – that if you see someone else that you’d like to have an affair with, well you can just divorce your current spouse and marry that person, and still be above the law. As scholar Matt Skinner has said, “(Jesus’) point is that divorce does not offer a legal loophole to justify adultery.” If you are using divorce just to discard someone and legally get something or someone else, than you’ve missed the point of and misused marriage.

I do not think that Jesus is saying that getting remarried after getting divorced is committing adultery. I think Jesus is saying that using divorce in order to justify and legalize satisfying our own selfish desires is the same as adultery.

Do you see how there is a back-story to this conversation on divorce? Do you see how there is more going on? In fact, there is always a back-story to every conversation on divorce. There is always more that has gone on behind the scenes. Which is where too often the church has gone wrong on this topic. I’ve heard of people who were told they weren’t welcome in a church or weren’t allowed to communion because they were divorced and remarried – no questions asked! No concern about the backstory. This past week, I learned about a couple that has been married for 25 years, but it is their previous divorces that they keep a secret from their church, constantly terrified that anyone will find out.

Too often the church has used these words of Jesus without thinking about the backstory and too often the church has condemned and dismissed and discarded those who have been divorced without listening to their backstory. The backstories of abuse. Of broken promises. Of personality differences. Of rushed commitments. Of addiction. Of insurmountable grief. Of differing hopes and dreams. Too often the church hasn’t listened to the backstories of all the heartbreaking reasons why a couple would decide to end a relationship.

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus’ concern is always focused on the vulnerable and those in need. A those who are in an unhappy, unhealthy and destructive relationship are people who are vulnerable and in need. Wouldn’t we want to embrace them rather them push them away? Would the church, or God for that matter, rather that a miserable couple be bound to each other to be miserably married for a long time or that they be set free? Which is maybe the best way for them to be loving and compassionate to each other. To set each other free from the promises that they can no longer keep.

Sometimes relationships need to end. It isn’t what anyone, including God, would’ve hoped for, but no one should live in a loveless or hostile relationships. And no one should have to live alone – and so we find love and friendship in other places, by the grace of God.

The Pharisees wanted to make this about what’s legal, but this isn’t about what’s legal. It is about the heartache of God when we become a fractured people. Which is what they mirror of this text shows us. That we are a fractured people. Broken relationships – both intimate and other – divide us. When what, since the beginning, God wants is for us to be one. One people of God. This isn’t about living up to God’s law. This is about our universal need for the grace of God when we fail to be what God has made us to be.

As I said, this sermon was born out of the words of many, so I’ll leave you with the words of my friend, Eric Clapp. “Jesus calls us back to (the creation story) as a reminder that we were created not to live in isolation, but in community. And sometimes that community or that relationship is broken and dies. But even in that brokenness and death, God is actively working to bring wholeness and new life. The story is not over. The story ALWAYS ends in resurrection. It always ends in life. In the midst of your brokenness, may you remember that your story is still unfolding, that there is a God who created you as a part of a beautiful creation, and that you, the whole you, all of who you are, is redeemed by a God whose love knows no end.” Amen.