Transcribed from the sermon preached October 25, 2015
The Reverend Max Lynn, Pastor
Scripture Readings: Job 24:1-12, Job 33:13-28
A Church member has had her fair share of suffering and tragedy in her life. Her father was absent, her mother was bitter and critical, yet given that she was an only child, when mother became sick she wound up caring for her for years, bitterness and all. The childhood proved psychologically challenging and continued to be the source of mental suffering in later life. Every once in a while after she has expressed something of the struggle she continues to suffer from, she says, I can’t complain too much. I am not a Syrian refugee or a mother fleeing violence and poverty in Central America. Today in Job, we see that while Job comes to this spiritual struggle with God at first through his own personal suffering, his new found sensitivity opens him up to the suffering of others. He realizes there are many, many people who suffering unjustly in this life.
It is common in psychological counseling and pastoral care to help people try to identify feelings which they may be denying, and then to try to identify where in life those feelings they would rather deny developed. Many of the feelings that develop and impact our personality and personal well being are not logical. Children, for instance, may feel that parents split up because they were not good enough children. If only we had been good enough or strong enough or loving enough, then that bad thing wouldn’t have happened: Mom and Dad would still be together; both our parents would still be here to love use. So we may spend our life beating ourselves up for not being good enough, while at the same time we work morning, noon and night to achieve perfection so that eventually, everything will be alright. Sometimes the desire for a world we can explain and have come control over is greater than our desire for innocence and truth. It is frightening to feel so out of control.
A while back a person born with a handicap told me that his parents had been members of a very conservative denomination. The mother and father had become pregnant before they had been married. When their child was born with a handicap, rumors were heard that people thought that God had punished their sin by making this person handicapped. A similar kind of argument is used by Job’s friends as they try to explain Job’s suffering. But Job doesn’t buy it. Everything is out of proportion. The logic does not follow. What kind of sin should the child be suffering for when they have physical difficulties or are born into a family to parents whose love is an ambiguous mixed bag?
We want to package the world and God up into a neat formula, but it simply doesn’t work. After experiencing personal tragedy, Job begins to sympathize with the poor. Job points out how the rich and powerful have their way, extracting wealth from the poor. This cannot be God’s will. “Men remove landmarks; they seize flocks and pasture them. While I was in Guatemala, a large cattle rancher decided he didn’t want to ship his cattle to market over the muddy road. He carved a big swath out of the land of the nearby village so that he could move his cattle to the river and take them out by boat. One night someone removed a fence post of the corral. The next day the cattle rancher came down to the village with the local military comandante and two young soldiers with M-16 rifles. The message was clear, the rich rancher got to do what he wanted, and the villagers needed to stay passive and quiet if they valued their lives. This was not God blessing the rancher and punishing the indigenous people. The villagers were kind, hardworking people, and yet their children struggled with malnutrition and disease.
To make the story sadder, the people had fled the land they were located previously in order to escape this kind of treatment. They fled exploitation way down a jungle river to hide. Yet as Job observes, “They thrust people off the road; the poor of the earth all hide themselves.”
Then Job goes on to note that the wealthy wicked man exploits the labor of the poor: The poor glean the vineyard of the wicked man.
Hungry they carry sheaves.
Among the olive rows of the wicked they make oil;
they tread the wine presses but suffer thirst.
From out of the city the dying groan
and the soul of the wounded cries for help;
yet God pays no attention to their prayer.
Ouch! From his own sense of personal injustice, Job’s view is expanded so that he sees the injustice suffered on a regular basis by the poor. Job, who had been a righteous and faithful man from the beginning, begins through his personal suffering to develop deeper solidarity with the poor.
Now it is Job’s contention that we gain our sense of righteousness and justice from God, and therefore he will not bend his sense of justice just to go easy on God. He continues to call God out. Yet it is precisely Job’s integrity and honesty which he maintains because of his faithfulness that gives us a prophetic vision and critique which we might expect from a just God. In other words, Job’s strong positive faith is expressed in his cry out against injustice in the world.
If there is not a just and loving God, then human wealth and power are ultimate. Justice becomes a flexible thing where the winner is the highest bidder or has the most guns. Without a just God, the sneakiest, meanest, most brutal win. Yet the very idea that we think there should be justice speaks to us of a morality higher than wealth and power. Job will not give up on such a God, even when the evidence is lacking. He cannot imagine the world otherwise. He refuses to give up.
Now our second reading from Job is from a new character. Elihu is not one of the three friends. They have finished their arguments and moved on. Elihu is a young man who has sat quietly while the elders spoke. Finally, he can’t help himself and jumps into the fray. He says God speaks to us in bed at night, in the thoughts we have before and after we fall asleep. And he says that we also learn lessons from God through suffering.
It is true that sometimes we may take a wrong road until we hit a dead end. Sometimes the consequences of our actions catch up to us, we suffer, our behavior leads to others suffering, and we realize we need to change our ways. Many of us may go through life paying attention to the wrong things. Then when somehow we have a life threatening experience, we are reminded of what is truly valuable in life. We know this can be true. Often through fighting through suffering, we gain wisdom and a capacity to experience joy and gratitude we never would have had. We may also gain in strength. As Job points out, we gain compassion and solidarity with others as well.
Sometimes our suffering can be a wakeup call to change our ways. Sometimes through suffering we learn valuable lessons, strength and compassion and solidarity for others. But that still doesn’t explain Job’s complaints away; these possibilities are not always the reason or result of our suffering. The mystery remains, and so does Job’s integrity.
I have left out other readings so that we take in Job on his own terms. I resist delivering a sermon with a neat ending because the resolution of our issues, of suffering, of God’s answer to our prayers doesn’t always happen quickly and neatly. Sometimes it takes a while to get an answer from God, and sometimes we are not ready to listen or hear.
Part of what it means to be the Church is that we are a people and community that will sit and pray together even when we do not have the answers and cannot neatly solve the problems.
Church growth literature tells us that people like neatly packaged answers: simple answers to difficult questions. But Job is having none of that. There is a time when the simple answers are no longer adequate, and we cannot wrap things up all neat and nice. Some of us may find confusion; our anger and sadness threatens our faith. Then it is the job of others in the community to hold them, to not run from the darkness, or too easily solve the problem, but sit together with patience and hope. This week we continue to sit with Job. He has charged God with abandonment and injustice. He has added the evidence of the plight of the poor. God has yet to answer. God’s answer comes next week.