Sunday, August 18, 2013

Silent Witnesses: A Sermon on Job 1-2

"Job" • pen, ink & wash • by Chuck Berk; Donated by the Artist for relief 
of Tsunami and Earthquake Victims in Japan

Scripture can be found here...

I can’t say they didn’t warn me.

My clergy friends, the ones I gather with each Wednesday morning to have breakfast and discuss our preaching plans for the week. They warned me about preaching Job. They said, “Really?” They rolled their eyes.

And now, after our very slow start-up over the past two weeks, in which we listened to the opening verses, we are in it. The part they were warning me about. Here we are, with the original version of “When Bad Things Happen to Good People.” And for people of faith, people who give praise to God, the story is pretty hard to take.

To recap: Job is a man who is “blameless and upright,” who “fears God and turns away from evil.” Job is who each and every one of us is trying, hoping to be. He’s not perfect—no one is perfect but God—but truly good, on the right track.

Job is the father of ten children, who are close, who enjoy feasting together. And like any good person of faith who is also a parent, Job prays for his children. Well, he does the ancient near-eastern version of praying for them: he offers sacrifices to God, to atone for any sins they may have committed, even within the interior walls of their hearts.

And God has taken notice of Job. He turns to Ha-Satan, also known here as “Satan”in Hebrew, the Adversary, the Opposer—and says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil” (Job 1:8).

Now, Satan is a member of God’s heavenly court. And as I said last week, his job is to bring to God’s attention those things God may have not considered. He is the original Devil’s Advocate, trying to poke holes in God’s theories, so that God might always have the best information.

You may have noticed something about this notion of God. The notion of God that is operating in this story is that God doesn’t necessarily know everything. God has a heavenly court to help with this problem. I bring this up, because this is not our notion of God. Our understanding of who God is and how God is has evolved from this more primitive understanding. We tend to believe more in the God of Psalm 139, God to whom we can pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.” We don’t assume God needs any help with this.

God draws Satan’s attention to Job as an ideal of humanity. Here, it’s Satan who rolls his eyes. His response is to claim that Job is only good and upright because he has had it too easy, he’s soft. “You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:10-11). And God replies with an answer that rocks our world.

“Very well, all that he has is in your power…” And though God initially prohibits Satan from harming Job himself physically, eventually God allows even that.

The book of Job is actually taking a pretty sophisticated stance here, one that is consistent with many contemporary Christian thinkers. It does not claim that God directly tests his faithful servant Job. It does not place the events that follow directly at God’s feet. It makes the distinction between God causing suffering and God allowing suffering. And we only have to glance at the headlines to know that this is true: at the very least, God does allow suffering. Political unrest, war, genocide, unemployment, homelessness, hate crimes, domestic violence, child abuse… the evidence is undeniable, even before we turn our attention to the ordinary, garden-variety suffering we know firsthand. God allows suffering.

God has allowed Satan to curse Job’s life and fortunes. God has allowed the suffering of this man. And what follows is heartbreaking and overwhelming.

All of Job’s herds of oxen and donkeys and sheep and camels, carried off or killed.

All of Job’s servants, killed.

All of Job’s wealth, gone.

All of Job’s children, killed.

Total devastation, leaving Job with only his wife plus a handful of friends.

And Job’s response?

Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. He said, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  (Job 1:20-21)

Job is not your average person of faith. Job does not do what most of us do in the face of terrible tragedy, at least not as his first response. He does not immediately ask “Why?”—the most automatic and human and understandable response. He does not rail. Not yet. He makes a kind of bare bones faith statement: Human beings come into this world with nothing, and they go out of it the same way. God took only what God gave in the first place. Let God’s name be blessed, because God is God.

But did God take it away? The first chapter tells us God did not, God merely allowed it to be taken away. But I’m going to let you in on a little secret. To Job, to you, to me, the emotional truth is: it hardly matters. Loss is loss. Pain is pain. Devastation is devastation. Whether God participated actively or passively hardly registers—it’s like having an argument over the relative merits of the different handles on knives when we’re bleeding to death. All we know is, we’re bleeding. And Job cuts through to the essential: If all the world is in God’s hands, all the world is in God’s hands. He is going to keep trusting in that, for better or for worse.

Then Job’s friends come. And here, in this moment, Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite do something also very human, very automatic, and very understandable. They show up in an attempt to offer comfort. They weep, and they tear their clothes and put dirt on themselves—traditional signs of mourning. And then they sit with Job.

You’ve been that person. You’ve shown up at the bedside, or the graveside, or on the front porch, holding flowers, or a little packet of Kleenex, or a casserole. In the face of terrible loss, you’ve been that person. You know you have. But have any of us been able to do what these three do next?

They sit with Job on the ground. They sit in silence. They sit for seven days and seven nights in silence, because, as the bible tells us, Job’s suffering was so great. They say nothing because there is nothing to say. They say nothing for the exact same length of time Jews traditionally sit shiva, the intense first period of mourning after a death.

And this time of sitting in silence, bearing silent witness to Job’s suffering, is the best, and most loving, and most faith-filled thing these friends do.

It is incredibly hard to be in the presence of deep suffering. Not as hard as it is to endure deep suffering yourself, of course. That is far worse. But the experience of witnessing suffering is difficult because another completely automatic and human and understandable response to suffering is to want to make it better.

And I don’t want to deter us from our attempts to make suffering better. Do you have an opportunity to feed someone who is hungry? Definitely do it. Do you have the possibility of giving clothes to someone who will otherwise be naked or cold? Yes, of course, do it. Do you have an opportunity to help rebuild a house that was damaged in a hurricane? By all means do it. Do all these things—which traditional Christian theology calls “the corporal acts of mercy,” things that help suffering bodies to stop suffering. Do them, do them!

But the suffering of the body and the suffering of the spirit often go hand in hand. And sometimes our desire to help to ease suffering causes us to say things—things offered in love, things offered hopefully—but still things that are better left unsaid. On the Sunday immediately after our Mission Trip I mentioned a pamphlet put out by Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, “A Volunteer’s Guide to Offering a Ministry of Presence.” In that pamphlet there was a helpful list of things NOT to say… things like:

“I know how you feel…”

“I was blessed not to have been hit (by the tornado)…”

“At least you have another child…”

“He/ She is in a better place…”

“This was God’s will…”

It is one thing for Job to ascribe what has happened to God. It is one thing for a person who has suffered a tragedy to find meaning in it. And… human beings are meaning-makers, it’s in our psychological DNA. We do that. We do it all the time. Given time to heal, and to reflect, and to pray, we may well find ourselves able to say of a certain terrible situation, “This is what it meant, this is what God had in mind.” Or, we may never ever get there, no matter how hard we try. But it is another thing entirely for a well-meaning friend to try to make meaning for us. It is far, far better for friends… loved ones… neighbors… co-workers… to emulate Job’s friends in this moment of gracious, God-inspired wisdom, in which they simply sit in silent presence and witness.

And don’t worry! Job’s friends get to be imperfect friends next week, when they finally do open their mouths. But for today, in the face of unspeakable loss, they understand that it is better not to speak.

And, in case you’re wondering, there is a list of “Do’s” along with the “Don’ts” in that pamphlet… things like:

“Listen…Tune your heart, eyes, ears, mind, to the person to whom you are listening…”

“Accept all persons as they are…”

“Cry if you need to cry…”

Say things like “My heart goes out to you…” or “I am sorry for your loss…” or even nothing at all, just offer respectful, mindful presence.

My friends warned me. Job in the summertime is a challenge. But the world keeps spinning, doesn’t it, and with each turn we get to witness joys and sorrows, challenges and triumphs. There are Jobs all around us, and we have endless opportunities to be with them in their loss. And we will each take our own turns at being Job, and we will find what it is to be surrounded by friends and loved ones who care and say the right and wrong things, just like we do. It’s ok. It’s ok. I’ll let the pamphlet have the final word:

[In times of loss] you are Christ’s Hands and Feet and Eyes and Ears for the survivors. The most important gift you give them is your very presence. Your being there gives them hope, connection, and love… 

Hope, connection and love. Until that day when God stops being a silent witness, and whispers in each heart, and helps us make sense of it all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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