Job 38:1-7, 34-41
October 18, 2015
The Rev’d. Gretchen S. Grimshaw
Episcopal Parish of St. Paul, Newton Highlands, MA
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? !Gird up your loins like a man, !I will question you, and you shall declare to me. !”Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? !Tell me, if you have understanding. !Who determined its measurements– surely you know! !Or who stretched the line upon it? !On what were its bases sunk, !or who laid its cornerstone !when the morning stars sang together !and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? ” !”Can you lift up your voice to the clouds, !so that a flood of waters may cover you? !Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go !and say to you, `Here we are’? !Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, !or given understanding to the mind? !Who has the wisdom to number the clouds? !Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens, !when the dust runs into a mass !and the clods cling together? !”Can you hunt the prey for the lion, !or satisfy the appetite of the young lions, !when they crouch in their dens, !or lie in wait in their covert? !Who provides for the raven its prey, !when its young ones cry to God, !and wander about for lack of food?”
Good morning! I don’t think I can avoid it any longer. Preaching on the Book of Job.
It is among the most enigmatic and misunderstood Books in our Holy Scripture. It is also among the most popular and contemplated, if the number of poems and parodies written about it are any measure. For it’s themes tug at the most central themes of the human condition. Why do we suffer? How do we suffer? Why do bad things happen to good people? What is fair? And how much faith is enough; at what point does our faith cross the line between inspiring and insipid?
Job was written….well, that is up for serious debate. But most scholars worth their salt say sometime after the flood, but before Moses. Job was likely a contemporary of Abraham.1 It makes sense that this morning’s reading from Job about the Creator of all of creation would have taken place around the time of…..creation. When the measurement of the earth was decided. When the cornerstone was laid. And the argument could be made that this book is fundamentally about creation, and the way that God works therein.
Job is known in the Hebrew Bible as wisdom literature. And I would love to give you a simple overview of it’s wisdom, but it’s complicated. Very, very complicated. It starts with a verbal duel between God
and Satan. And the upright and blameless Job, the most faithful of God’s servants on earth, becomes the pawn in this divine duel. Satan bullies God by saying that Job is only faithful because Job is fortunate. And the very first chapter of this book tells us just how fortunate Job is. He is rich. He has much land and thousands of livestock. He has ten beautiful children. And many, many servants. See how faithful Job is when he loses all of that, says Satan. And God, in a shockingly adolescent retort responds: you’re on! And the ensuing 30 chapters outline Job’s excruciatingly painful loss of….everything. His children disappear. His livestock and his fields are destroyed. And his body is covered in a rash of painful and unsightly boils, which make him not only stunningly uncomfortable, but a social pariah, as well. And to add insult to injury, his wife and his friends are wholly unsupportive. “What did you do to deserve this curse,” they insist. “You must have done something! And something really bad!”
And God, not only allows Job to thusly suffer, God actually inflicts the suffering. And then God sits back and watches; while Job seemingly loses everything that matters to him. And, contrary to Satan’s prediction, Job refuses to curse God. And so phew, God wins!
I don’t know about you, but I want to know who let this book into the canon? Honestly! You who chose the books in our Holy Bible, who refused to include the Gospel of Thomas because it presented a vision of God that seemed….ungodly. But you let Job into the mix?! A book that presents Almighty God as……tantamount to an insecure teenager? If Job were a movie, God would probably be played by Freddy Prinze, Jr.
Job is the Hebrew Bible’s version of the Book of Revelation. Not in style or content, but in its orientation to God, its overall presentation of the divine in terms good and evil, black and white. Both of these biblical books feel like they are taking us to Wonderland. And I have to admit that, like Revelation, I am very tempted to pass by Job altogether.
But unlike Revelation, Job feels, in many ways, very….real. We can feel our own life stories in the suffering of Job. We can relate to the undeserved pain that he feels in ways that are so visceral, few biblical texts can compare. And so Job sucks us in. We realize that we have felt as he feels. We have asked his questions. And too, we don’t know where to go with our own undeserved pain.
Job is, of course, a fairy tale. And it’s not.
Some of you know that Josh is my nephew. Although, I’m not sure if he is still my nephew. Technically. By the age of three, he and his fraternal twin Joey had been passed through seven foster homes. And who knows what those homes thought they were fostering, but it had nothing to do with love. Josh and Joey had both endured multiple broken bones, almost every bone in their baby bodies said the DSS report. And the broken bones might have been hidden, but the myriad cigarette burns on their feet were not. They were barely three years old. Already broken and burned, almost unto death.
My brother and his wife and their biological son Judson adopted Josh and Joey about twelve years ago. They intended to offer these abused children of God a true family, a loving home, and a modicum of personal security. The brothers names were not Josh and Joey, but my faithful brother want all of his children’s names to begin with J…..like Jesus (although in hindsight, maybe more like Job). It was a tough transition from a life of abject abuse to a life surrounded by love. And there was a lot of acting out. Joey manifested his abuse by clinging very closely to his new mother. He understandably feared abandonment and rejection, and so he clung to the gentle woman who had claimed him as her own. Finally, he had an experience of a mother’s love.
Josh, on the other hand, manifested his abuse by dissociating. He had been so traumatized, that he cut himself off from the trauma, and all feelings of pain. And so he had a terrifying ability to inflict pain without any empathy whatsoever. None. And as most kids his age strived for attention in ways that stop short of disrespecting the dignity of life, Josh knew nothing of the dignity of life. No one had ever extended that basic birthright to him. And so in May of 2007, when he was angered by his brother’s refusal to share a video game, Josh poisoned Joey with his own Klonopin. Joey was hospitalized for….a long time. He had extensive organ damage and almost died. And Josh was whisked away by the authorities to a locked psyche ward in the local hospital, later to be transferred to a group home for kids who had committed egregiously dangerous crimes. Josh was never returned to my brother’s home. Never returned to that family setting. He was too dangerous. And so, in the end, my brother and his wife had no choice but to un-adopt Josh, as painful as that was for them. Again, Josh found himself detached from the basic human right of belonging somewhere. And very likely for a reason that Josh, like Job, does not to this day truly understand.
I doubt that Job was more blameless than Josh. And so I often wonder when Job pops up in the lectionary (or anywhere else) how this story might have been told differently by my nephew; because they seem to me to be very similar situations. How might the lens of the storyteller change the story? What if Job had become dangerous? Would we hear his suffering in a different light? And what parts of the story would remain the same? What parts would be universal despite the individual telling? That is, how much of the Book of Job is real?
I am betting that this story might even have been told differently through the lens of Job’s family and friends. Who knows if his children really disappeared? Because they showed up again fairly well-heeled at the end. Maybe they “disappeared” as most young adults disappear when they begin to leave home to sow their own life’s oats. Maybe Job only perceived them as leaving.
My friend Pam Werntz has been studying her family history of late. And she recently came upon some letters between her great aunts and uncles who were German. And their letters explain that their families all spoke German until the First World War. And thereafter, they began to speak English. It was a nationalistic political point that they seemed to be trying to make, as if to say: “We were all German, and then we were corrupted and began to speak English.”
It’s good that Pam did not spend too much time trying to analyze what that meant, because she quickly noticed that the postcards from the children of these adults had been written in English, since well before the First World War, since just about the turn of the 19th century. Who knows why there was such a blatant discrepancy in the facts from one generation to the next. But there was. Maybe the younger generation did not want their parents to know they were speaking English. Maybe their parents did not want to acknowledge that their children were no longer speaking German. Maybe it was something else altogether. There are myriad possibilities for why the adults proclaimed one truth, and the postcards from their kids belied another. But my point is that the perspective, the agenda, the world view of the teller of every story is as important to the truth of that story as is the narrative itself. I am guessing that we all have stories, famous in our families, that are told quite differently by different people.
I think The Book of Job is just such a story. And so when we hear this terribly tall sounding tale, I think we would do well to ask ourselves: Whose story is this? And what is at stake?
So, we pick up Job’s story this morning with God’s response to Job’s insistence that he deserve a fair trial to acquit his innocence….which seems to be Job’s primary concern. The piece that seems to be most painful to Job is that all of this pain insinuates his own guilt. And so he wants the record to show that he is innocent.
Job desperately hangs on to the notion that if he can just show God, prove to God that he is innocent, then all will be well. And so in the depth of his suffering, he spends the bulk of his energy refuting his friends and his wife and all who try to make him admit that he must be, in some way, deserving of his horrible fate – I mean how could a completely innocent soul possibly deserve to lose his children and his livelihood and his health…everything he had, except his faith that there is some justice in the world and that justice is grounded in fairness, and that fairness is grounded in the notion that there is a connection between good behavior and good fortune. If we are good then good things will happen to us, and if we are not….Job holds tight to his old notions of right and wrong – almost as if those notions themselves were the source of comfort. His certainty that fairness will prevail becomes his idol. And so he refuses to curse God, not because he trusts God per say, but because he trusts that God has made a mistake….because Job has done nothing to deserve this pain. Job knows that he is nothing if not innocent. And that is all that he can see.
And so what he trusts is that God will correct the mistake as soon as God…gets it. Job, suggesting, insisting, demanding that God wake up and realize that a mistake has been made….that such pain and suffering should only be inflicted on…..well, someone else, someone less blameless than himself.
And this is where this morning’s divine monologue comes in. God responds to Job’s legalistic demands by lifting his eyes from his own pain and sense of injustice to the glory and majesty and complexity of creation. Mary Catherine Batesman, the daughter of famed anthropologist Margaret Meade says that the sense of wonder that is lifted by God in this reading is the whole point of Job. The wonder of creation is what we miss when we focus on our singular selves….on our narrow lives that are bound to be filled, at one time or another, with undeserved pain.
And I think this is a very interesting thesis. Born out very frequently in my own pastoral experience. Very often when I sit with someone who is dying, or suffering mightily, their solace comes when they lift their eyes with gratitude to the awesomeness of life……to the brilliance of creation……to the unmitigated, undeserved grace that comes with every breath we take. Who made the earth? Who measured it? Who put wisdom in your heart? Who numbered the clouds? Who provides for the rave?
And you may remember my sermon from September when we talked about the Zohar, the foundational literature for the Jewish mystical tradition called Kabbalah. It was written in Aramaic in the second Temple period, the 500 years or so before the birth of Christ. An esoteric version of the Rabbinic midrash. And in the Zohar, Who is the ancient name for God. God is referred to, not as the great I am, but as the question Who?…..to which the answer is always, Yes!
Who made the earth? Who measured it? Who put wisdom in your heart? Who numbered the clouds? Who provides for the rave? Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Of all of the names for God, of which there are 1000 in the tradition of Islam. But of them all I think “Who” best reflects the mystery, and that mystery of life and love and mercy that is God’s response to Job’s focus on fairness. Look up, says God, Who gave you that breath with which you bring your case against the living God? Yes, it was Who.
Today is the start of our stewardship season….fitting that it rides in on the heels of Job. But it is fitting that our theme this year is: Who we are and Who we want to be. Yes? Yes. Although, we might be more precise if we were to substitute reflect for the “to be” verbs. Who we reflect and Who we want to reflect. Because Who is etched on each of our hearts. And so for the next few weeks we will be asking this question of ourselves…..in this community, as we make our pledges of time and talent and treasure to do the work that God has put on our hearts to do in this world. Work that cannot be done alone. Work that must be done in community.
In the end, Job is returned to his former prosperity, sevenfold! He is even richer and more blessed than before – payment for his steadfast faith through inestimable suffering. And Josh too, has found a new family. One better equipped to love him in a way that takes his pain and lifelong scarring into serious account without endangering siblings. Because Job is a fairy tale and it is not.
The piece that I think is lost in this ending of Job, with its apparent message that prosperity follow steadfast faith, is that parents do not lose their children, families do not lose their livelihoods, and bodies do not endure ravaging illness without incurring life-changing scars.
And so for all of Job’s questioning, the only question that counts is also the answer:
Who will heal our hearts when life pains us to near death?………Yes. Who will heal our hearts.
© October 2015 The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw