Delivered at First Christian Church
on July 10, 2016
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
REMEMBER, WE LIVE IN THE ASHES
I mentioned last week that I was worried about preaching on Job off and on all summer, that I thought I needed to find a way to sell this sorry story so that it didn’t become a summer off. I wish the news of the last week hadn’t reminded me that we are already living the sorry story. I wish our world did not require us to learn the language of Job’s ash heap over and over again.
RECAP AND UPDATE
To review: Job was a very rich man and a religious man. An adversarial force came into God’s presence. God bragged to it about Job’s faith. The adversarial force suggested that faith was built on God’s protection and special treatment of Job, that Job’s faith had no integrity. Of course it is easy to be faithful when you get everything you want!
God told the Adversary to take away all of his riches and see—Job would never forsake God. So Job loses his whole family to invaders and natural disasters. And God is right: Job does not forsake God. Then the Adversary, with God’s permission, destroys Job’s skin. Job literally throws himself away, scraping at his sores while sitting in and on the garbage dump.
Job is alone until he is approached by three friends, who sit silently with Job for seven days and seven nights, “for they saw that (his) pain was very great” (2.13).
JOB AND ELIPHAZ
After that week, Job speaks. This is the first third of our scripture today. Oh, that I was dead. Oh, that I had never been born. Save me from my own conception! Let the night of my parents’ intercourse have never happened! I would be obliterated in all ways, my self and my line never existing.
Last week I also emphasized how old the fable of Job is, how it has passed through countless centuries and cultures. Is it any wonder? The physical ailments, death, and lost future—the pains that Job would end through his own annihilation—are still parts of our own lives.
Oh, how this cancer hurts! Oh, how I mourn the loss of this pregnancy! My home is destroyed by flood, by tornado, by violence, and a Dumpster my only refuge. Oh! Let it end! Oh, let me end! We can literally feel Job’s pain.
Then Eliphaz, one of Job’s three friends, responds: “If speech were tried against you, could you stand it?” Meaning, don’t get all defensive when I tell you why I think this happened. As you yourself have professed in the past, only the guilty are punished, only the sowers of mischief reap wretchedness. This is all your own fault. So, deal. Let all that righteousness you nurtured allow you to admit your wrong doing. Then all will be right again with God.
Up until this point in his life, Job understood goodness, or at least security, to come from a system of rewards. I do rituals to appease God, God gifts me. Any bad my children might come to do will already be counteracted by my religious workings. It’s a system of exchange between the created and the Creator, a mechanistic morality. Job bartered for blessing, he worked for it. Eliphaz simply affirms that model.
But Job cannot any longer. Job is having the realization that that the mechanistic morality on which he had based his life no longer rings true. Job knows he didn’t do anything bad! Job knows he didn’t do anything to earn this wreckage! Job’s revelation on the ash heap is that his system did not work. The religious system that Job relied on to interact with the world and God failed.
It was always going to fail, regardless of this wager in the holy court. Disorder and loss are built into the fabric of life.
Let’s look at Genesis again. How many accounts of creation are there? Two! There is no perfect tale of beginnings because life is too messy for that. And as a result, so are we. How soon into creation are the humans banished? The third chapter. And before the first murder? The fourth chapter.
Neither we, nor Job, have reason to believe any system can protect us from losing our innocence, those we love, and our own lives.
OUR SYSTEMS ARE FAILING
Which we don’t really need the Bible to tell us. We know all too painfully that none of our systems are working, either.
Our system of gun ownership is not working.
Our system of justice is not working.
Our system of citizenship is not working.
Even our system of religion is not working.
We here profess a faith in God through Jesus Christ the one who disquieted the comfortable, and fed the hungry, the one who resisted empire, and was willing to love unto death. Around his table all are not only welcome but invited. His table is not a passive first come, first serve buffet. The table of Christ is a space of active invitation, active liberation, and active reconciliation.
So why, as just one example, do separate white churches and black churches still exist? Why do we look as divided, as segregated, as the world we are called to unite?
Our systems are not working.
And I don’t know about you, but I am tired of it all. I am tired of them not working.
After Sandy Hook and Tamir Rice and Mother Emanuel and Orlando and Sandra Bland and Anton Sterling and Philando Castile and Dallas, I am tired of bloodshed and contempt. I feel hungover from grief and anger and the hard work of resisting apathy and paralysis.
Some days I wish I had never heard the name Jesus. I wish God would let me be so I wouldn’t have to care about anyone but myself. Maybe you feel the same way.
So what good news do we have to rest on this day? From where does our hope come?
Everywhere. Just as Job’s is not the entire story of God neither is this week’s gore the entire story of us. Let me say that again: Neither this ancient story nor the all too contemporary ones of murderous loss are the whole of what God is or who we are.
Take this alleged wager between God and the Adversary. Is that the God you know? Is that the God of manna and mercy? No way! That wager is, in great measure, a plot device to enable a much-needed conversation between holiness and humanity.
So I can say with confidence that pain is not God’s will. If you have cancer, if you have lost a pregnancy or child, if you cannot find work or a stable living arrangement, God is not doing that to you. God is bigger than that and God is better than that.
And just because our systems are not working doesn’t mean we cannot. We know for a fact that we can.
Why is there more affordable health care in Ames? Why will there be more affordable housing in Ames? Why are there already mediation circles between Black Iowans and the police force in Des Moines?
Because of us. Because we have developed a broad base of power through our membership in AMOS and used it for real good. If there is something causing pain, we have the tools to make it stop and in many instances already have.
I so wish we did not have to sit with our nation on this heap of ash and blood and bones this day. But I know we have the means to ensure we will not have to tomorrow.
So as God finds survivors in the hush arbors, as God stands among the honor guard at funerals, let us give God reason to brag on the integrity of our faith.
Let God be proud that we have recognized the systems that are not working and picked up again the only one that does: loving God with all our hearts and our neighbors as ourselves.
It will not be all sunshine and roses. We will have to listen without defensiveness and compromise without bitterness. It will cost us in ways we have not yet been willing to pay.
But think of the holy banquet, free of bloodshed and contempt, that awaits.