Sunday, September 29, 2013

On Moses and the Jersey Shore

In this morning's service at Union Presbyterian Church, our mission team reports back from our week in July at the Jersey Shore, rebuilding homes in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. This brief meditation was followed by that presentation.

Scripture can be found here...

Today our passage tells us about people in pain, people in distress, calling out to God for help.

The descendants of Jacob have been living in Egypt.  They came as immigrants fleeing a place of want for a land of plenty. They stayed in hopes of finding a better life. For a time, that is what they found.

But eventually, these immigrants seemed threatening to the Egyptian Pharaoh. The people who had come as guests were taken into slavery.

The government treated them as unwanted vermin, even trying to exterminate them at birth.

“The Israelites groaned under their slavery, and cried out. Out of the slavery their cry for help rose up to God. God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” [Exodus 2:23b-24]

Now, to say “God remembered” in Hebrew writing does not mean that God had forgotten. God had not lost track of the Israelites over the past 400 years. God does not lose track, then or now.

To say, “God remembered,” is to mean, “God acted.” To say, “God took notice,” is to mean, “God had a plan.”

That plan included Moses, a man who felt entirely unfit for the task. “Who am I?” he asked.

“I will be with you,” God answered.

God’s continue to be in pain and distress, today. In 2012, Hurricane (aka “Superstorm”) Sandy became the deadliest and costliest hurricane of that season, and the second costliest in history. 286 people were killed by the storm. $68 billion in damage was done to countless homes, businesses, and other structures.

And again, God had a plan. God still calls people to help one another. God remembers, and God places it in people’s hearts to answer the call.

Like Moses, many of us wonder, “Who am I to do this enormous task?” And as God replied to Moses, God replies to us: “I will be with you.”

Sunday, September 22, 2013

A Real Human Being: Sermon on Genesis 27:1-4, 15-23; 28:10-17

"The Dream of Jacob" by He Qi

Scripture can be found here...

There are two sides to every story.


Take Jacob, that ne’er-do-well, the one whom Hebrew Biblical scholar Renita Weems called “the first real human being” in the book of Genesis. Today we see him at his worst and also perhaps at his best. But which moment is which? Is he at his worst when stealing his brother’s blessing or his best? Is he flying high when he receives his angelic and godly dream-visitation or is he at his lowest?

Perhaps beginning at the beginning of Jacob’s story would be helpful. Readers of Genesis first meet Jacob while he is still in the womb—in chapter 25, the pregnant Rebekah is at her wit’s end because there is such a battle raging inside her. She prays, and has the distinction of being answered, very clearly and directly.  God tells her, “Two nations are in your womb, and two peoples born of you shall be divided; the one shall be stronger than the other, the elder shall serve the younger” (Genesis 25:23). Congratulations, Rebekah! You and Isaac will be the proud parents of twins! And… they’re not going to get along so well.

The boys make their entrance into the world with the second-born one gripping the heel of the firstborn, and that second-born is Jacob, a name that means “heel-puller.” That’s a Hebrew euphemism for “scoundrel.” We are also given the helpful information that the firstborn, Esau, is remarkably hairy, and also that he will grow up to be a good hunter. The reader also learns that the parents do not hesitate to play favorites. “Isaac loved Esau, because he was fond of game; but Rebekah loved Jacob” (25:28).

And we’re off. In our passage today, we enter the story just as Isaac, described now as old and practically blind, sends his firstborn Esau to hunt up some of his favorite food for a kind of final celebratory meal before he expires (27:1-4). Then we skip over some verses and come to a scene between Jacob and his mother Rebekah. She is dressing him in Esau’s best clothes and even fitting his hands and neck out with animal pelts, preparing him to go into his father disguised as his older brother.

We witness the deception. Jacob pretends to be Esau. Isaac senses something amiss, touches the young man and talks to him, and knows it’s Jacob’s voice he hears. Still, the animal pelts on the hands do their trick: It may be Jacob’s voice, but it seems to be Esau’s unmistakably hair hands that have brought him the savory food he loves. Isaac gives his son his blessing. The wrong son.

There are two sides to every story. In one sense, this is Jacob’s moment of triumph! This is the moment in which the oracle spoken by God to his mother has come true: the elder shall serve the younger. The blessing is his!

What exactly is this blessing, though? It’s a good question. In our day, we use words of blessing almost casually, often superstitiously—“God bless you!” we say, whether we mean those words as a hopeful commendation of someone into God’s care, or simply responding to the fact that they’ve just sneezed. God bless you!

In the biblical era, a blessing was not casual, nor was it superstitious. A blessing was potent. It was efficacious, closer to our understanding of a sacrament, even bordering on an incantation. Words of blessing helped to both create and recognize a deep reality, a reality with all the power and authority of God at its center. If we read the words of the blessing Isaac confers on Jacob (our passage skips that part too) we realize exactly what the blessing does: This blessing settles once and for all the issue of succession; it gives Jacob all the rights and privileges of the firstborn son, including the inheritance of the covenant promises first given by God to Abraham. The blessing functions as a last will and testament.

And so, after skipping some more verses, when we find Jacob settled on his stone pillow dreaming of angels and stairways to heaven, and we find God confirming, re-iterating the covenant promise to him—it is a glorious moment, isn’t it? We spoke of it at the session meeting the other night. We imagined the night sky in the desert, a thousand years or so before Christ—no noise pollution, Jacob seeing what we know as the Milky Way but calling it by its Hebrew name, Nehar di-nur, the Fire-Stream; and then that stunning dreamed visitation from none other than God, the Shekinah, the Divine Presence. “Surely the Lord is in this place—and I did not know it!” Just imagining the scene makes your heart race. What a glorious moment, in what Jacob calls “the house of God, the gate of heaven.”

There are two sides to every story.

We can hear the other side of the story by listening to the skipped verses.

We enter the story just as old and blind Isaac sends his firstborn Esau to hunt up some of his favorite food. The verses we skip give us vital information: “Now, Rebekah was listening when Isaac spoke to his son Esau…” (25:5a). In the skipped parts we learn, is not the dreamer Jacob who conjured up the deception against his father and brother—it is his mother and champion, Rebekah. There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold, and she is buying her son a stairway to heaven. Rebekah speaks to her son—no, commands him—to obey her words down to the smallest detail: he is to bring his father food, disguised as his brother, Rebekah says, “…so that he may bless you before he dies” (25:10). Remember, that potent blessing, that blessing that will ensure Jacob receives all the inheritance promised to the firstborn. Jacob objects. He points out the obvious problem with the plan—Esau is a big, hairy guy. But then he reveals his real fear: “Perhaps my father will feel me, and I shall seem to be mocking him…” (25:12).

And now we see Jacob, not as a one-dimensional character, someone we can just file away under “scoundrel.” Now we see Jacob for what he is: a real human being. One whose life is suffused with the presence of God, to be sure. But one who knows moments of doubt as well as fearlessness. One who knows humility as well as jealousy. One who is anguished by the thought that his father might think ill of him.

A real human being. Like you, like me.

He goes through with it, of course. We witness his success, obtaining that potent blessing. What we don’t see—because we skipped those verses—is his brother’s reaction, as well as his father’s, when they both come to understand what has happened. His father’s violent trembling (27:33).  Esau’s “exceedingly great and bitter cry… ‘Bless me also, Father!’” (27:34). And then his heartbreaking last-ditch question, “Have you only one blessing father?” And then more loud, anguished weeping. And finally, a steely resolve. “I will kill my brother Jacob” (27:38, 41).

There are two sides to every story. After the triumph of winning the blessing, Jacob learns from his mother that Esau wants his hide, and so he runs. He runs away from the mother with whom he has been allied in this family drama, as well as the father who unwittingly blessed him. He runs. In twenty years, he will manage to see his father one last time shortly before he dies. He will never see his mother again.

And so we find him on his stony pillow. I have been on that stony pillow. Have you? Have you found yourself lying awake, in the desert of your own anxiety? Thinking things will never be right again. Thinking, oh no. Thinking, what now? But then, a dream. A ladder has been set up, and its base is set on the earth—the dry desert ground where there is nothing but a rock for a pillow, and nothing but tears for food. And yet, somehow, impossibly, the ladder reaches to heaven, too, and the angels coming and going, rising and falling, climbing and descending, testify: Heaven and earth are connected. And the words of God testify too: “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you” (28:15).

“Surely God was in this place, and I didn’t know it.”

It is easy to imagine God’s presence beneath a glorious array of stars on a brilliant desert night. It is much harder to imagine God’s presence in a barren landscape of fear, and sorrow, and loss. Jacob has won the blessing, but so far, the cold, hard fact is, all he has to show for it is the knowledge that his brother wants to kill him, and the truth that he faces a long and lonely exile.

And yet he rises from the dream to declare:

“Surely God was in this place.”

God was in the place of fear. God was in the place of sorrow. God was in the place of loss. He never imagined it, we never imagine it. But it’s true.

In the Presbyterian Daily Prayer book, you can find a Friday prayer of thanksgiving that pulls me up short, each and every time I encounter it. In it, we give thanks for “the presence of Christ in our weakness and suffering.” The first time I saw it, I actually laughed. It sounded absurd. But the more I pray it, the more I know it is true.

Surely, God is in this place, and I didn’t know it.

God is in the last place we would expect. God is there in our joys, in our triumphs, of course. God is present in things that are beautiful and true, and moments that make our hearts sing. And that’s what we expect.

What we don’t expect is for God to be present in our worst humiliations, our hours of sadness, our moments of utter confusion. In our betrayals, given and received. In our weakness. In our suffering. But God is there. We just didn’t know it.

Know it now. God is here. In every hour. In every moment. Working the divine purpose out, with and without our assistance, using likely and unlikely real human beings. Like you. Like me. When the sun shines, when the stars twinkle, when the clouds mirror our mood, when the rain rushes into the basement. God is here, in this place. Know it, real human beings. Know it.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Binding: A Sermon on Genesis 21:1-3 and 22:1-14

"Abraham and Isaac Before the Sacrifice," Jan Victors, 1642

The Lord dealt with Sarah as he had said, and the Lord did for Sarah as he had promised. Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age, at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham gave the name Isaac to his son whom Sarah bore him.
~ Genesis 21:1-3

It’s like running into a high school friend in the grocery store after twenty years have passed. How do we even begin to fill in the gaps? The joys and sorrows and unexpected twists and turns of an entire life… in five minutes next to the artichokes.

Nineteen chapters of Genesis have flown by in the week since we last opened this book in community, and we are trying to catch up next to the metaphorical artichokes. The stories of creation made way for stories of human misbehavior, from the childish—eating a piece of fruit you weren’t supposed to touch—to the deadly—killing your own brother. The world suffered a punishing flood that the Creator very much regretted, and human misbehavior and self-discovery continued. And over the course of those chapters, the story narrowed. What began as the story of the whole cosmos has focused tightly in to become the story of one family, a family in whom God has taken a particular interest.

In chapter 12 God invites Abraham and his wife Sarah to get up and “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…” ~Genesis 12:1

This elderly couple is invited into a covenant relationship with God… a relationship based on promises.

God promises to make Abraham and Sarah a “great nation”… to give them children, and children for their children, children forevermore.

God promises to give Abraham and Sarah land, a place of plenty, where they will never know want.

God promises to make Abraham’s name a blessing… promises that all the earth will bless itself in his name.

All Abraham and Sarah have to do is get up and go… and leave the past and family ties behind.

Maybe we should have seen this coming. Once again, God tells Abraham to get up and go… and this time, to leave his future behind.

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.”
~Genesis 22:1-2

There’s something else that happened in the intervening chapters that I should have mentioned right away. It took Abraham and Sarah a really long time to have their son. Abraham, whose name means, “Father of a multitude,” is 75, and his wife Sarah is 65 when they receive the promise of children. Sarah finally gives birth to their son Isaac twenty-five years later.  Isaac, in case you were wondering, means “laughter.”

So in Hebrew our passage actually reads, “God tested Father-of-a-multitude. Take your son… Laughter… to the land of Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering…” Which casts a somewhat different light on this story. The names involved seem to me to suggest the distinct possibility that we are being set up for some kind of elaborate (though sadistic) practical joke.  

So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together.
~Genesis 22:3-6

Now it’s like we’re watching a terrible movie, an awful, cruel parody of taking your children to church. The child Isaac is made to bear the wood—the same wood that will, in a little while, bear him. It’s too much.

At the same time, the story offers glimmers of hope, and perhaps more evidence that Abraham knows there is something else going on. Notice what he says to his attendants: “We will worship, and then we will come back to you.” WE will come back to you. Even in the midst of this, is there some part of Abraham that knows—simply knows, deep inside, that his God will not require him to do this?

Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together. When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son.
~Genesis 22:7-10

I read an article a couple of weeks ago, titled: “The Five Most Terrifying Words in the Bible.”

“But where is the lamb?”

No matter what the author of the story is trying to signal to us, no matter the possibility of an elaborate practical joke, or even a guaranteed positive outcome, we still have at the heart of this story what one writer has called, “a nightmare place where the Imagination conceives its ultimate ordeal”[i]: the father coerced to kill his child, a child made to bear the transformation of his father into that willing killer.

Does it help to know that perhaps this may well be one of those “just-so” stories we find every so often in the bible, like the story of the Tower of Babel, that tells us how languages came to be? Does it help that this may well be the just-so story of “How God let us know that human sacrifice is bad”?

Does it help to hear Abraham’s words, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son”? Does it sound like Abraham is confident that God will provide? Or is Isaac the lamb?

Does it help to know that, while Christians call this story “The Sacrifice of Isaac,” Jews call it “The Akedah,” or “The Binding,” because Abraham binds Isaac with rope in preparation for the sacrifice? Could it also be called “The Binding,” do you suppose, because Abraham himself is bound by this terrible test, in which he is asked to relinquish all claims to the future God has promised?

Does it help to know that the Qu’ran tells the same story, only in Muslim tradition, it is Abraham’s older son, Ishmael, as the child who is almost sacrificed?

Does it help to know that the whole tradition of biblical interpretation, going back two thousand years at least, has struggled with this story, wrestled with it, trying to get a blessing from it? Does it help to know that Abraham, in Jewish tradition, doesn’t simply, silently agree, but questions God, challenges God. Here’s what the rabbis believed about how the conversation really went:

God: Take your son….

Abraham: I have two sons…

God: … your only son…

Abraham: Each son is the only son of his mother…

God: … the one whom you love…

Abraham: A father’s love for his children knows no bounds; I love both my sons…

God: … Isaac.

Does it help to imagine Abraham dodging and weaving, doing everything he can to stave off the inevitable, dreadful command to kill the son named “Laughter”, trying like crazy to say “no”?

But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.”  He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”  And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.” ~Genesis 22:11-14

Like a great novel or TV show, the story of God’s covenant is told in a way that keeps us engaged. God makes a promise, and then, instantly, the promise is in jeopardy. The promise takes years and years to materialize. And after it does materialize, it is jeopardized all over again.

Let’s not forget: in the end, God does NOT want Abraham to sacrifice his son.

And let’s not forget: in the end, God does not allow the life of one person to be sacrificed on the altar of the religious convictions of another.[ii]

In the end, God is faithful. In the end, God keeps God’s promises. In the end, God is on the side of life… the same life we saw God creating life with such joyful abandon last week, life as seen in bird and butterfly and buffalo, as well as in Abraham and Sarah and Isaac. God is on the side of life, and God is going to be a different kind of God for that reason.

In the end, God is going to be a different kind of God than the world has ever known. God is going to invite people into relationships based on love and not coercion. God is going to use Abraham, and Sarah, and Isaac, all kinds of unlikely people, to be God’s presence in the world and to share God’s blessings. God is going to be known, not only as Creator, but as re-Creator, the one who brings life out of situations that seem hopeless. And God is going to do all this faithfully, intimately, a God who wants us, not to be bound, but to be free.

The story of this different kind of God is our story as well. God invites us into relationship based on love and not coercion. God uses us—every one of us, whether we feel up to it or not—to be God’s presence and blessing in a world in pain. And God invites us into a partnership in which we, too, can help to create joy where there was sorrow, peace where there was conflict, and freedom from all that binds us. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[i] Peter Pitzele, Our Father’s Wells: A Personal Encounter with the Myths of Genesis (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1995).
[ii] Rev. Stephanie Boardman Anthony.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

It is Good: Sermon on Genesis 1:1-2:4a

Scripture can be found here...

And the people gathered in the sanctuary at Union Presbyterian Church, and they experienced worship as a kind of liturgical “Pop-up Video”…

Remember that? It was good.

VH1, noon, weekdays…

Pop-Up Video: Video playing while bubbles popping,

Bubbles, to tell you interesting or weird facts
about the artist,
or the song,
or the process of making the video.

Liturgical Pop-Up Video:
Worship going on while bubbles popping,
telling us interesting,
or maybe weird,
facts about worship.

And hopefully, it was good.

And it was time for the sermon,

that time when the preacher shares thoughts or insights
but always, hopefully something relevant to the faith journey,
hopefully, something God-breathed,
hopefully, something that opens the minds and hearts of the people
to the action of God in the world and in their lives.

And the preacher hoped and prayed with all her heart that it was good.

And one of the ways the preacher hoped to help it to be good
was by using the Narrative Lectionary.

The Narrative Lectionary—
a set readings that will take us through the bible,
beginning at the beginning….
the story of Creation,
and then the stories about God’s covenant with the people of Israel,
and then the stories of slavery and freedom in the Exodus,
and then the rise—and fall—of kings,
and then the time of exile and prophets.
And then—oh then!—Jesus.
Jesus, this year, as he is known in the Gospel of John.
And then the story of the early church…

And oh I hope and pray and trust in my heart,
It will be good.

In the beginning…it was good.

The story of God and God’s people begins in mysterious darkness…
there is water,
and there is a wind from God,
Spirit of God, breath of God.

God is an artist, and artists need light…
So God spoke and there was light.

And it was good.

And one by one the days… or maybe it was millennia… of creation unfolded.

And God saw God’s good creation unfolding, or maybe evolving…

And God’s creation, God’s artistry, was good, so very good.
All of it, God-breathed:

Every leaf
Every blade of grass
Every luscious blueberry
Every dewy-eyed cow
Every color, fragrance, temperature, elevation
Heights of mountains, depths of ocean,
Sparkle of stars…

All of it, every thing, too many zillions of things and places and specificities:
All of it, the God-breathed, the Word of God, the breath of God creating:
And it was good, so very, very good.

And God created people,
people to be co-creators with God.

That’s what sets us apart.

An amoeba can find food.
A human being can plant and grow food for the specific purpose of giving it away.

A deer can find a cool stream.
A human being can help to bring safe water to parts of the world 
where people are dying for lack of it.

A sparrow can create a nest, a shelter.
Human beings can figure out how to shelter one another.

A pride of lions can hunt a herd of gazelles.
Human beings can find ways to live together peacefully.

This is what sets us apart. God the Creator has given us creative capacity.
We are God-breathed creations, and very specific creations at that:

God created humankind in the Divine image,
in the image of God we were created;
male and female we were created.

We were created to be creative:
We are co-creators with God.
We are called to think creatively, to act creatively,
To solve problems creatively.
That is our gift.

And it is, it can be, so very, very good.
When we use it.

So let us be who we were created to be:
Living images of the Creator.

Let us know that the tomato from the vine is, indeed, good,
And it is better when we give it away.
Let us know that we are God-breathed for dominion, not domination,
And “dominion” is tender care.
Let us know that we are called to use our God-breathed hearts, souls, minds, and strength,
All in the loving service of the one who gave us breath,
and in service of all the God-breathed creation.

And it is all very, very good.

All praise and thanks be to God our Creator.


Sunday, September 1, 2013

The Wager: Sermon on Job 31:35-37, 38: 1-11, 42: 1-6, 10-17

William Blake: God Answers Job Out of the Whirlwind

Scripture can be found here...

I am a swimmer. And these days I do my swimming at the downtown YMCA, but I grew up swimming in the Atlantic Ocean.

Swimming in the ocean isn’t like swimming in a pool. The water in a pool is clear and the pool is marked with wide lines down its length, so that you can be a good neighbor and stay in your own lane as you swim your laps. The ocean is turbulent, and the turbulence kicks up the sand that makes up the ocean floor. There are no guidelines. The times I have endeavored to swim straight out into the water, on a course perpendicular to the coastline, I have found that I usually end up on a wide diagonal from my starting point—thanks to the waves and the current. And, except for the occasional big splash when someone jumps or dives in, there aren’t usually waves in a pool. In the ocean, the waves are part of what makes it both fun and scary: enormous waves can lift you and throw you around. Fun. They can also swamp you and smash you into the ocean floor. Scary.

Also: in the pool, you always know exactly where the lifeguard is. Help is no more than about thirty yards away. If you are swimming in the ocean you can very quickly get yourself a significant distance from help. By the time people get into trouble help can be a quarter of a mile away. For the swimmer, a quarter of a mile means the help is all but invisible to you… you have no idea where the help is.

I lift my eyes to the hills… from where will my help come?

Job is a swimmer, navigating the sea of life, and for more than thirty chapters of the book that bears his name, he has been calling for help. The seas he is swimming in have been dangerously rough—he has been slammed around by waves that have caused the destruction of nearly everything he holds dear. He has been trying to keep his head above water while calling out. So far, he hasn’t heard a sound in return.

But Job is staking his life on this hope: that help is out there. That God is out there. That somewhere, beyond his sight, God—all-powerful, all-loving, and all-knowing—stands ready to answer his call.

One of the few books that actually stayed with me from my days as a philosophy major in college was Pensées by Blaise Pascal. (Pensées means “Thoughts”). Pascal was one of those renaissance men who excelled in just about everything—he was known, among other things, as a mathematician, an inventor, and a Christian philosopher. Pensées falls into that last category.

Probably the most famous moment in Pensées is a passage known as “the wager.” It goes something like this: Either God exists, or God does not exist. And every person bets their life on one or the other of these possibilities. And we have to make the wager—it’s not optional. We have to decide. For Pascal, the question is: what is the potential benefit and loss to each bet?  He writes, “Let us weigh the gain and the loss in wagering that God is. Let us estimate these two chances. If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is.”

Pascal does a quick cost-benefit analysis of faith. And his conclusion is that the upside of believing far outweighs the upside of not believing.

Job has made that wager. He has staked his life on his faith that God is out there, ready to answer his call, to respond to his questions, to hear his cries.

Before she left for college, my daughter Joan helpfully clarified the problem for me, as it was outlined in one of her religion classes. People of faith hold to three basic things about God: God is all-powerful, God is all-knowing, and God is all-good. The problem of suffering seems to challenge our ability to hold all three of these together. We can hold to any two of them, and it all makes sense. For example, if God were all-knowing and all-good, but not all powerful, we would simply understand that God can’t prevent suffering. If God were all-good and all-powerful, but not all-knowing, we would assume God didn’t realize what suffering was taking place. If God were all knowing and all-powerful, but not all-good… it would be a terrible realization, but one that we could comprehend. But our problem and the problem as outlined in Job’s story, is that we—and Job—firmly want to hold on to all three of these attributes. We won’t let any of them go, so our only hope is to get to see God face to face, so that we can ask our questions directly.  Our only hope is that God will show up and provide us with some answers.

And God finally does show up. Job finally has the face-to-face contact he has been longing for. But God has no answers for Job. God has only questions.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding… Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb?—when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? ~Job 38:4, 8-11

There are a few different ways we can look at this response. To stay with the ocean swimming analogy, there is something about this that feels a little like trying to reason the swimmer out of drowning. But you could also look at it this way: instead of throwing him a rope, the rescuer has cast out a net and lifted the swimmer right out of the water. Now, instead of drowning in the violent waves, the swimmer is looking down at them.

God is trying to give Job a different perspective. Job is bogged down—he is drowning—in the sorrow of his losses. God tries to take him out of his one little life, and show him the entire cosmos. Rather than explaining the problem of suffering, God directs Job’s attention elsewhere. God gives Job the tiniest taste of what it is to be in God’s shoes—because, after all, even a few chapters of Divine poetry about the wonders of creation don’t actually capture the wonders of creation. God holds the divine Macro side by side with Job’s Micro.

As I have shared here before, I was in New York City, at the beginning of my second year of seminary, on 9/11/2001. Wherever you were in this country, that was a terrible day, a fearful day, and a day of great pain and loss. And we all respond to loss in our own individual ways. I had just taken a full year of Hebrew, and for some crazy reason I decided to pray the mourner’s Kaddish. The Kaddish is a Hebrew prayer, prayed by devout Jews every day for one full year following a death—usually a very close death, like the death of a parent. I decided to pray it for all those who had died, and to pray it for a full year.

So, I went online—Judaism 101 is a great website for such things!—and I found the Kaddish, in both English and Hebrew. I was shocked. I had expected a prayer of mourning. I had expected a prayer of sorrow and loss, a prayer calling out to God for comfort. Instead, I found a prayer of unabashed praise of God, in all God’s goodness and glory.

Yit'gadal v'yit'kadash sh'mei raba, Amein,… it begins

May His great Name grow exalted and sanctified, Amen,
in the world that He created as He willed.
May He give reign to His kingship in your lifetimes and in your days,
and in the lifetimes of the entire Family of Israel,
swiftly and soon. Now say: Amen.[i]

Judaism 101 explains:

After a great loss like the death of a parent, you might expect a person to lose faith in G-d, or to cry out against G-d's injustice. Instead, Judaism requires a mourner to stand up every day, publicly… and reaffirm faith in G-d despite this loss.[ii]

God’s response to Job is to invite Job into what will become one of the most enduring and powerful practices in Judaism: The wholehearted praise of God, and recognition of God’s greatness, even in the face of terrible loss.

Biblical scholars believe that the last chapter of the book of Job is a later addition, a framing device, added along with the opening section—essentially, everything in your bible that is not in poetic form. In this later-added section, God restores “all that was lost” to Job. But we know that God doesn’t actually restore all that was lost, because what Job lost cannot be measured in numbers—this many herds, that many children. Job’s loss is unquantifiable. The idea that giving Job more children will make it all better is a little shocking to parents everywhere who know what that loss feels like. We are left…unsatisfied.

But we are not left alone.

The book of Job does not explain God to us, because God leaves much unexplained. But it provides a faithful look at this problem of suffering, of bad things happening to good people.

We see Job’s faithfulness: He clings steadfastly to his trust in a God who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and yes, all-good and loving.

We see Job’s faithfulness: He speaks to God honestly and directly, he calls out in pain and anger. He is a model for us.

We see Job’s faithfulness, even in the weird post-script, as he dares to live and to love again, even after the terrible losses he has endured.

We so Job’s faithfulness, as one scholar put it, as he “[delights] in a world that is wild and beautiful and risky, trusting in the faithful God who created and still sustains that world.”[iii]

In the end, Job still stakes his life on God, still places his bets on God’s goodness and trustworthiness. In the end, Job invites us to do the same.

So, along with Job, along with everyone who has suffered, everyone who has been buffeted and tossed about by the crashing waves of life, everyone who has cried out to God, I invite you to pray with me the mourner’s Kaddish. I invite you to affirm with me the greatness and goodness of God, who would hardly be God if we could fully understand all God’s works and ways.

May His great Name be blessed forever and ever.
Blessed, praised, glorified, exalted, extolled,
mighty, upraised, and lauded be the Name of the Holy One:
Blessed is He,
beyond any blessing and song,
praise and consolation that are uttered in the world. Now say: Amen.
May there be abundant peace from Heaven
and life upon us and upon all Israel. Now say: Amen.
He Who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace,
upon us and upon all Israel. Now say: Amen.[iv]

[i] “Mourner’s Kaddish,” Judaism 101,
[ii] “Life, Death and Mourning,” In keeping with Jewish custom, this website is very cautious in writing out the name of God, and here uses the abbreviation “G-d.”
[iii] Kathryn Schifferdecker, “Notes for a six-week preaching series on Job,” Working Preacher,
[iv] “Mourner’s Kaddish,” op. cit.