Hope in Poetry: Job 14.7–15; 19.23–27; 31.35–37

hopestillatworkDelivered at Ames UCC
on July 31, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie

Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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THE MADNESS OF JOB?
Has Job gone mad? I ask this not in a lighthearted way, not in a way demeaning of mental illness and trauma. But, really, has Job disconnected from reality?

He has lost everything in his life. He is grieving the death of all of his children and children’s children. His wife has left him. He has no money and no capital. His body is decaying. His friends stood by him for a time, but bailed when Job refused to accept any blame. And so he sits in the trash heap, yearning for death:

Would that You hid me in Sheol,
concealed me till Your anger passed,
set me a limit and recalled me.

I think we can all understand that. I think we can sympathize with his desire to be done, to ask God to limit the pain he must endure. But then here’s where Job seems to go beyond the rational: he expresses hope.

Even though a tree has been cut down, Job says, even though the roots are dried and shriveled, the mere scent of water can make it bloom. Yes, man dies but I will hope until my last. Life is so powerful, he says, that even the hint of life’s force can revive a felled tree. And even though we all will die, there is yet hope in that life force. Not hope of resurrection or reversal, but the hope born of that rushing, quenching presence that is creation.

God was right. Job’s faith is unshakeable. But it is not born of madness. It is born in spite of clarity.

THE CLARITY OF JOB
Remember that when we first meet Job he is a most righteous man, a man whose righteousness came from proper ritual. He believed in the theology of his day, namely that right ritual led to a safe life, and unsafe lives must be a product of wrong ritual. Job’s was a mechanistic faith.

Then that mechanistic faith is proven wrong. His ritual was perfect, but his life is now trashed. And Job knows it. Job knows that nothing in his life has worked the way he expected. But we are not looking at a man in a haze of grief blathering about rainbows and unicorns, one so deranged by grief that he doesn’t know any better.

Job expresses this hope in life at the same time he is able to accurately detail the unfairness of his suffering:

I wish that the truth of my innocence would be memorialized in stone, brushed with lead to make it really stand out. There must be someone who will yet testify to my innocence, to redeem me in this great judicial test. Oh, I’ll endure these lashings and wear this false judgement like I would a crown. But with the confidence of a prince I will lay out the integrity of my days.

Job has not lost his mind. In fact, he has gained it.

If there was ever madness in Job’s life, it was in believing that blessing came from propriety as if faith was a great snack machine that called for ritual rather than quarters. The hope that Job can profess alongside his grievances is one that is no longer burdened by any expectation of reward.

The world does not work as Job believed, but he believes hope is still at work.

GROUND OF FAITH
I don’t know that many of you saw this, but last week a gentleman on Facebook engaged me about theology, namely the inerrancy of the Bible and human sexuality. Those are the go-to topics for both conservatives and liberals.

Conservatives want to get into a proof-texting/Paul-says-you’re-going-to-hell fight and liberals want to point out archeological evidence of the Bible’s historical emergence as if I don’t know about that.

At issue in both is what my faith is grounded on: a rulebook of absolutes that secures a line at the pearly gates or dimwitted ignorance. It’s a false dichotomy. Both are also kind of insulting, to me and, I think, to God.

We will hear more from God on just this point next week, so let me just stick with me, with us. We are like Job: clear-eyed about the way the world works and yet faithful to hope. Not because the Bible has told us so, but because the Bible has helped us to know it is so.

POETRY
For example, what do you see when you look at the scripture today? Lots of line breaks. What do line breaks designate? Poetry. We might not easily hear it as such because it lacks familiar rhyme schemes or rhythms. That is because it is translated to English from a blend of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic, neither of which are living languages.

Robert Alter, whose translation we have been using1, says that the author of the poetic portions of Job has, in those two languages, a vocabulary of “extraordinary breadth” (p. 7) and similar capacity for “metaphoric inventiveness” (p. 8). We miss some of that, though, reading it in English.

In fact, Alter says, such poetry “is bound to pale in translation…(and the translation) can be no more than intermittently successful.” (p. 10)

But to some degree, I don’t know that the issue of translation matters because it is poetry. Poetry in its very conceit includes open-endedness and the requirement of active interpretation. Even if the author includes full sentences, they are still often arranged in ways that point toward greater meaning.

joblikehopeNO BETTER STORY
So we know not to turn to the Bible for religious rules unaware of how it has been molded by the hearts and hands of other humans.

We gather around the Bible because it not only provides insight but teaches us of the requirement to seek insight out. The presence of poetry tells us that there are few direct answers in life. That same poetry then trains us on how to find for ourselves the very truth it expresses.

Because there will be a day in our lives when nothing makes sense any more. There will come a time—and I would say it is happening on a global level right now—such a time when none of the rules or mores on which we have relied can be counted on.

We have more reason than ever to give up hope these days. We need a Job-like capacity to read for hope, regardless.

Not the hope from the madness of a vending machine faith. But the hope that brings life to the nearly lifeless and can only come from a place far more grand and abundant than we can even conceive and so only poetry can describe.

When so much suffering abounds there is no better story than Job and no better form for that story than poetry.

CLIFFHANGER
The trouble with teaching scripture piecemeal is that some pieces leave us hanging.

Today we are dangling, on the verge of collapse, with the hope of only a finger or two holding us up, right before the rescue of that grand abundance is laid out.

But that is usually how life and hope go. Life does not fit into tidy narratives. Hope is anticipation that goodness yet might come.

So let me leave you with this: Keep reading this week for hope. Even when the world does not work as we believe it should, hope is still at work. Look at the poetry of your life—the languages of love and grace and joy that may be broken and splintered across your page but are waiting for you to read aloud.

There the ancients and God await us all.

AMEN

1Alter, Robert. The Wisdom Books: Job, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2010).

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