Delivered at Ames UCC
on August 28, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read. Please join us for worship at 10:30 a.m. on Sundays.
I was a little worried about starting a series on Job in the summer. Summer is a happy, sunny time and Job is such a bummer. His is a winter tale, not a lure to come to church when you could be out on a kayak or hike.
But over the last few weeks our church has experienced a surge in suffering: cancer diagnoses, cancer treatments, emergency surgeries, housing loss, relational loss, imminent death, and death itself through disease or depression.
I have never believed life is or should be easy, but the particulars and the volume combined have shaken me at times. And more than one of you now have either asked, “Does this make me Job?” or otherwise referenced this sad and serious story.
There is no right time to study Job because the trauma the poem describes will always come at what feels like the wrong time.
JOB SO FAR
Job actually began, though, with a prose prologue, not poetry. We see God and the sons of God at court, suddenly visited by an adversarial force. God challenges the force to prove Job is anything but utterly faithful. Job, a most wealthy and anxious and religious man, then loses everything to war and natural forces. But he remains loyal to God.
I suggested that this representation of God is inaccurate, though ultimately useful.
The alleged wager between God and destruction illustrates our tendency to put God, without even realizing it at times, in the role of master planner. But because we know through our other holy stories and lived experience that God never intends destruction, let alone the death of our children, we are forced to recognize and let go of that tendency. By describing something false, we are reminded of what is true.
Then Job is visited by friends on the pile of garbage on which he’d thrown himself after his body began to break down. Eliphaz reiterates the traditional religious belief that good deeds lead to good outcomes, so any bad outcomes must be the product of bad deeds. Job’s suffering must be Job’s fault.
Job disagrees, knowing he had done everything right. In that moment, Job let go the entire religious system on which he had based his life. It is our work, likewise, to identify the false systems that are keeping us and others in places of pain rather than grace.
But this realization and release did not come easily to Job, with a light heart. He didn’t say, “Gee whiz, I was sure wrong. Oh well and ok!” No, Job railed. He was sick and hungry and all of his babies were dead. Job, understandably, screamed at God in indignation and betrayal. He may have let go his false system, but that didn’t mean he was happy to have been forced to do so by irrational violence and loss.
And so begins the epic poem that makes up the bulk of the book of Job, the ancient tale sandwiched between the more contemporary prose prologue and epilogue.
By giving Job expression through poetry, the authoring community point toward the open-ended, interpretive process that is truth-seeking. God and us, we do not relate in concrete-linear ways. We speak through metaphor and fragments. We paint pictures of what is and what should be, sending and receiving colors, scents, and sensations, rhymes that reveal reasons.
God reveals to Job—and us—that our questions are not God’s, our worries are not God’s. While we narrow in on our own bodies and families, God is spinning the stars and playing with monsters. The scales of justice that God is managing are on a balance point of cell development, the silence of space, and the song of a storm.
We are in there, too. God attends to all parts of creation. Even when we are most tattered and feel most abandoned, God is with us because God is within us. God may not make the world just as we want it, but because of God’s presence, we will find a way to make the world as we, as in all of us, need it.
BUCKET OF CLAMS
A couple of weeks ago Carla and I were watching an old Jean Harlow movie and Harlow got bad news and said, “Well, isn’t that a bucket of clams!” And I thought, “A-ha! Now I have a church-appropriate word to use in response to the end of Job.” A rotten bucket of clams. Hogwash. Bilgewater. The end of Job smells rotten to me and, I suspect, to many of you.
We’ve done all this work to let go comforting yet false theologies of cause and effect, accepted that the language and ways of God are both opaque and glorious, and come to rest in somber awe and acceptance with Job, proclaiming
By the ear’s rumor I heard of You,
and now my eye has seen You.
Therefore do I recant,
and I repent in dust and ashes.
Then God suddenly turns into a prejudicial magician. Today we have God chastising Job’s crummy friends and asking for a ritual in order to get back in good with God, the very system that failed Job. God heaps wealth back onto Job and over time he has ten new children, whether by his first wife or another, we don’t know. And Job has a nice long life with many heirs, the end.
A bucket of clams!
Not only does this prose epilogue contradict the poem, it betrays Job. Job cannot be restored. Rebuilt, maybe, like a rebuilding of resources. Someone could get back to her or his same financial and materials status, sure. But Job’s original children could never be replaced. Job’s soul, anyone’s soul, would be permanently changed by what he’d endured.
After cancer, we have the worst knowledge of what cancer is and can do. After losing a job or a relationship, we may always carry the burden of distrust and worry. And death? Once we have been in proximity to death’s permanence, we truly appreciate the precious good days that we have.
Living the life that gushed forth from the sacred womb of God always marks us. There is no going back to “the way things used to be.” Not by the power of God or by our own magical thinking.
Like the introduction to the poem, this ending is a demonstration of how hard it is for us to accept that life is not only beyond our control, but not controlled by God. Even with forty chapters of God saying the world is wild and not all about us, our predecessors felt the need to frame that wildness with a fantasy in which we can blame God for doing things to us and God rewarding us when we do things right.
But this prose epilogue got one thing right:
And all his male and female kinfolk and all who had known him before came and broke bread with him in his house and grieved with him and comforted him…
They were late, but they did show up. Men and women with food and sorrow. Family biological and chosen who knew how essential it was to provide sustenance for Job’s starved body and spirit. That’s no bucket of clams. That is the frankincense and myrrh the wise men brought to Mary, gorgeous scents of hope in darkness.
Care, both practical and spiritual, are under our control. They are within our power. And for every new instance of loss in this community this summer, I have seen responses of such care.
My prayer is that in your ash heap days you know no Eliphazes, only kinspeople with food and comfort. And that when your own body is not ravaged by sores and loss, you will act as a kinsperson to all who come through these doors.
We cannot understand God’s great universal balancing act, but we can ensure that no one need sit alone in sorrow or in doubt.
I love the book of Job because it restores God to the size, to dimensions, that warrant worship and praise. And I love Job because even as it reveals to us our worst tendencies, it does the same for our best habits, like faithfulness and food.
There is no wrong time to study Job because it is always the right time to let God be God and care for the needful.