PRAYER OF INVOCATION: Holy God, as we gather in your glorious presence, come and make us holy. Guide us this day, that we may receive your teachings and walk in your truth, even as we welcome others on the journey with us. Strengthen our holy communion, that we may create a community of belonging, where all are included, and where your grace binds us together in unity and love. Amen.
LET US PRAY: Creator Spirit, who hovered over the waters at creation’s birth, who descended in the form of a dove at Jesus’ baptism, who was poured out under the signs of fire and wind at Pentecost; come to us, open our hearts and minds, so that we may hear the Word of life and be renewed by your power, for you live and reign with the Father and the Son, now and forever. Amen.
Who among us has not practiced, at one time or anther, transactional theology? It goes something like this: Lord, if my cancer goes away, I’ll devote myself to good works, I’ll be a better wife, mother, and minister; Lord, if I survive this surgery, I’ll tithe and serve on the Session. A parishioner who didn’t attend church very often was facing risky surgery. He asked his minister: Do you think God would look favorably upon a gift of 50K to the church? The minister thought for a moment, and then replied: Well, it’s worth a try. This is transactional theology.
How many times have our stories not turned out the way we imagined them? Sometimes, we yearn for what we cannot have back: our health, a loved one, a marriage, a job. We want the terrible nightmare we’re living to be over and our lives to go back to what they once were. But the laws of nature cannot be suspended, and we are left to deal with the loss and its accompanying grief
The Book of Job takes the bad stuff seriously. There are Jobs all over the world, in this sanctuary this morning, and in refugee camps around the world. What do you say and believe when you’re in the boat, and that boat is sinking? The author of Job must have had sinking feelings because he created a script, which provides a safe place to ask who God is and where God is in times of trouble.
The character of Job is a fictional one.....a rich, successful patriarch with many children who was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. Do you know anyone who is consistently blameless and upright? I don’t. The land of Uz, also fictional, cannot be found on any map, either ancient or contemporary. However, this landscape provides the space for rich theological discussion.
There are at least three theological points that inform this story. First, what are we to think about God when the theology of reward and punishment goes against our experience? When we meet Job in our lectionary reading for today he is being tested a second time. God is still bragging about Job to Satan: He still persists in his integrity, although you incite me against him, to destroy him for no reason. Satan’s retort is that people will give anything to save their own lives – skin for skin. Go ahead, says God. Then come the loathsome sores. Job hasn’t done anything wrong. His punishment doesn’t seem to fit with his character and actions.
Secondly, you might ponder the question, silently if not out loud: If there is a God, why does God allow innocent people to suffer? There comes a point when even Job has to call into question God’s justice in light of the enormous suffering inflicted upon him. Does it do him or us any good to be loyal to a God that jerks us around without even telling us what is going on? If God is all God is cracked up to be, where is God in the midst of human suffering?
Thirdly: When good people suffer, why do they continue to believe? These are the questions we ask of the text. Sometimes when we think that God is not giving us what we have bargained for, by coming to church doing good works, by being moral and upright people, we rage against God and walk away. Then, there’s the example of the quadruple amputee whose life changed when a bomb in Afghanistan blew him apart. He approached his rehabilitation with these words: This is the story I have been given to live.
Gregory Knox Jones writes about living the story you have been given in his book Play The Ball Where The Monkey Drops It. This book about why we suffer and how we can hope, draws its title from the experiences of golfers in India when India was an English colony. When the colonists built golf courses in Calcutta, they didn’t take into account the monkeys who lived in the trees lining the fairways. When a golf ball came bouncing by, the monkeys would scamper down the trees, pick up the ball, and drop it in the rough, or play with the ball themselves.
Apparently, there is nothing quite as amusing to a monkey as humans going berserk when their little white balls are disturbed. Finally, after building fences, relocating the monkeys, and luring them away with food, the golfers gave into the reality that they could not control the game and developed a new rule: Play the ball where the monkey drops it. When the monkey drops the ball in a place where our skill at the game doesn’t make a whit of difference, like the quadruple amputee from Afghanistan, the opportunity we have is to live into the story that we have been given.
Most of us are influenced, whether we realize it or not, by Greek thinking that the world operates on a system of balances. Thus, our system of rewards and punishments. Hence our belief that life should be fair. However, this is not Hebrew thinking at all. Job says: Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad? At Calvary, there was only deadening silence. But we know that the silence was not the end of the story. The scales are not balanced, because the cross represents the supreme cosmic moment when God entered human suffering and defeated death once and for all. The resurrection is God’s victory. Period.
Gregory Knox Jones writes that after a great loss, the intensity of our grief lessens only gradually, and for that reason we must remain alert for the small ways in which God leads us into a new life with a new future.
Living into that story and dealing with the loss we are experiencing, we can do several small, but important things. First, Knox advises, develop an attitude of expectation. God communicates with us in a variety of ways: through people, events, scripture, prayer, and intuition. People detect the whispers of God in the most unlikely places. How can we become attuned to the whispers of God that seek to guide and transform us?
Spend time in thoughtful reflection, advises Knox. See your life as a piece of music where there are not just individual notes, but an overall pattern formed by those notes. If the music suddenly stops, someone who has noticed the pattern will be more likely to see how the music might go on. It’s the same way with God’s pattern in our lives. Where has God led you, blessed you, challenged you? If our life is interrupted by sudden grief and sorrow, being attuned to God’s patterns in our lives will help us better anticipate God’s persuasive activity around us.
God doesn’t have billboards, full-page ads, or prime-time commercials, but in scripture we see how God acts in human history, we see the things that God values, and how God expects us to act. Read Scripture. Distinguish between God’s voice and contrary voices. Take your heart and your mind to Scripture. God never tires of putting new possibilities in front of us and urging us to embrace them.
The God that we believe in, or don’t believe in, is the God that we will witness to in times of trouble. We don’t always feel God’s presence. Job experiences the absence of God, but does not doubt God’s existence even when terrible things happen to him. This is why it is important not to be defined by a present crisis or a present loss. God is both saving and hiding at the same time. Isaiah wrote: Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior. This hiding and saving God is the God that Paul witnesses to when he writes: I am convinced that neither death nor life....nor things present, or things to come.....not anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Believe that this is so. Amen.