Sunday Morning Message by Rev. Heather Weaver-Orosz Trinity United Church, Beamsville
Sunday, October 21st, 2018 22nd Sunday after Pentecost World Food Sunday
” My life flows on in endless song, a bove earth ’s lamentation. I hear the sweet, though f ar off hymn that hails a new creation. ”
(Robert S. Lowry, Voices United 716)
Scripture Job 38: 1-7, 34-41 (The Message)
38 And now, finally, God answered Job from the eye of a violent storm. He said: 2-11“Why do you confuse the issue? Why do you talk without knowing what you’re talking about? Pull yourself together, Job! Up on your feet! Stand tall! I have some questions for you, and I want some straight answers. Where were you when I created the earth? Tell me, since you know so much! Who decided on its size? Certainly you’ll know that? Who came up with the blueprints and measurements? How was its foundation poured, and who set the cornerstone, while the morning stars sang in chorus and all the angels shouted praise? And who took charge of the ocean when it gushed forth like a baby from the womb? That was me! I wrapped it in soft clouds, and tucked it in safely at night. Then I made a playpen for it, a strong playpen so it couldn’t run loose, And said, ‘Stay here, this is your place. Your wild tantrums are confined to this place.’ 34-35 “Can you get the attention of the clouds, and commission a shower of rain? Can you take charge of the lightning bolts and have them report to you for orders? 36-38 “Who do you think gave weather-wisdom to the ibis, and stormsavvy to the rooster? Does anyone know enough to number all the clouds or tip over the rain barrels of heaven when the earth is cracked and dry, the ground baked hard as a brick? 39-41 “Can you teach the lioness to stalk her prey and satisfy the appetite of her cubs as they crouch in their den, waiting hungrily in their cave? And who sets out food for the ravens when their young cry to God, fluttering about because they have no food?”
Message “The Great Rebuttal”
I guess I don’t need to tell you that there is something rather difficult about having this passage from Job put in front of us as it is today. Whether or not you count yourself as familiar with the book as a whole, you can likely tell that this snippet of conversation is just that: it is one portion of a much longer exchange between God and Job. The Lectionary (of suggested weekly Scripture selections) is set up such that we might have been reading from Job for the last 3 weeks or more; and since we haven’t been doing that, I had some hesitation in dropping this in as a one-off. Clearly I went against my own hesitation and have decided that these verses are able to stand on their own in the sense that they call us into a larger conversation about context (in life and in suffering) AND about the sometimes ignored voice of God in the midst of our reactions to life’s sufferings.
I’ll stop there for now, and simply suggest that we ground ourselves and this whole conversation in the context of prayer…
God of words and ways beyond our understanding, may we open ourselves to your speaking – ancient and still new every morning, creating and re-creating us in the shape of your unending, holy Love. Amen.
I don’t have official, collected data, but I’m confident in saying that lots of folks like to refer to today’s reading from Job as ‘God’s rebuttal’; God’s response; or God’s exasperated return volley, perhaps? Others refer to it as Job’s comeuppance. I’m more inclined to hear the latter, but that would be a fairly narrow reading.
Job is not a fella I’ve preached on or about very much. It hasn’t been an intentional avoidance, but he is a little intimidating. The centuries of conversation about him are more than a little intimidating. Among the many
commentators (theologians and otherwise), Alfred, Lord Tennyson called the Book of Job “the greatest poem of ancient and modern times”. How on earth you tackle something like that in this one space is beyond me.
There are a few other pieces of background you might also like to know. For literary and Biblical context, the book is thought to have been written somewhere between the 7th and 4th century BCE, and most likely closest to the
6th century BCE (so, quite a while ago). We don’t really know who authored it, but scholars are fairly certain that the story of Job is offered as a parable, drawing on a figure of antiquity known for righteousness, and loss, and for his
attempts to reconcile the two.
Along with Ecclesiastes and Proverbs, the Book of Job is categorized as ‘wisdom literature’ – in other words, it is considered part of a genre, a tradition through which wisdom might be received or attained. In the inimitable words of my United Church colleague Gord Dunbar, there are essentially 3 kinds of wisdom, as gathered from the Hebrew tradition. In Gord’s words, “storing beer in a cold place is a good idea; building political alliances like Solomon did for the security of his kingdom is shrewd; but loving one another by giving of ourselves is the greatest wisdom of all and most faithful to who God is.” (Gathering,
Pentecost 2 2018; p. 15). Gord’s suggestion, and mine, is that it’s the latter kind of wisdom to which we are called, and drawn into thinking about, through passages like today’s.
For now though, before we dive in deeper, we should know that the waters into which we’re dipping our spiritual toes are some of the most studied – in part because they dip into some of the most complicated spaces for which
humanity has always sought answers. Job is a book of theodicy; on suffering and evil and the relationship of a good and just God to bad and unjust realities of our world. Easy-peasy, lemon-squeezy, it is not.
In Paul Capetz’ summary of the book of Job, he says, “In the story about Job, these assumptions [that God is a moral agent who does everything that is just and righteous] are put to the test by the incredible suffering of the innocent in history. Job challenges the very justice of God in ruling the universe and then waits upon God to answer this challenge.” (p. 170, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4; eds. David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor) In short, in the chapters leading up to what we’ve heard this morning, Job has been railing against everything that is wrong – and in his life, he has experienced exceeding
amounts of things going wrong. The Coles Notes summary includes the loss of all his wealth; all his sons and daughters, all his servants. Job has been through the ringer with his health, and he’s coped with a life partner and some friends
who do their best to help him cope but aren’t really all that helpful. Job’s suffering is beyond their understanding. Job’s suffering is beyond Job’s understanding. In response, he challenges God for an answer. And, perhaps
much to his surprise, God answers – from a whirlwind we are told. God answers. Or at least God comes back with some questions of God’s own.
Who are you?
Where were you?
What do you know?
(Thomas Edward Frank, p. 170, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4; eds.
David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor).
God challenges Job’s seeming expectation that he is alone in it all. And while this is admittedly not the end of their conversation, this particular place in the exchange leaves us – or it certainly leaves me – with the uncomfortable
possibility that maybe I’m not seeing the whole picture. Maybe I can’t. Maybe I don’t want to?
How do we even have this conversation, how do we even raise those questions about human suffering without falsely suggesting that we should not lament our pain. We certainly can’t pretend it’s not there – not honestly anyway.
I don’t have to list for you the sufferings of this world, this community, this church family, this life that is your own.
We live in a local culture that requires places like Gillian’s Place, right next door – a necessary social support for women and children who have experienced abuse. We live in a national culture in which our United Church Moderator
needed to go to Parliament Hill to remind our Prime Minister and legislators that we’ve been in an economic crisis of growing poverty and food insecurity… for decades. The list is endless, and I haven’t even started to name what’s gone on
in your life story. To that point, it seems no accident that in The United Church worship resource called Gathering, on the same pages in which some cursory thoughts are offered on excerpts from Job, so too is there an advertisement for a
book called Lose, Love, Live: The Spiritual Gifts of Loss and Change. In said advertisement, author Dan Moseley is said to quote someone else as saying that ‘Life after all is fair. Ultimately it breaks everybody’s heart.’
It’s not quite what we could call encouraging news. But it is honest. None of us can escape the moments of heartbreak. Even if we don’t come to the depths that Job does, we will not move from birth to death without a moment or multiple moments of ache that simply defy language.
So what are we to do with all of this? In a text that does not yet answer or justify or even explain – but seems to come with a comeuppance?
One of my suggestions (believe it or not) is this: that we challenge ourselves to adopt John Wesley’s eschatological homiletic – which sounds a little daunting or scary, to be frank. Homiletic is the word to describe preaching theory and practice (roughly speaking). Eschatology is that million dollar word often claimed by folks who want us to have deep and dramatic conversations
about the end times; about the almost phantasmagoric times to come in which all things are reconciled and you better hope you’re on the right side of the reconciliation. This is not what I mean when I talk about a Wesleyan eschatology… which may not be entirely faithful to what John Wesley had in mind, but here goes anyway.
John Wesley preached in a style that I’m fond of calling ‘Malt Cross’ preaching. He happened to grow up in a time and space, in 18th century England and beyond, when one of the primary places you went to get information – on community life, on your neighbours, on political and economic news, you name it – was at the centre of the town square. More often than not
in that era, the centre of the town square included a stone monument, with a cross at the top.
John Wesley, as you may know well, was an Anglican preacher by trade. He eventually came to be credited as the founder of Methodism (one of our UCC primary roots), but in his day, he defended his Anglican roots to the end. His intention was never to create another denomination. His intention, and his arguably burning desire, was to offer the Good News of God’s love and mercy in a context in which people would hear it… really hear it, and know that it was and is for them. Eighteenth century Britain was not an easy environment by any stretch, and suffering abounded for so many. In an almost timeless sort of way,
suffering was starting to obscure the promise of a faithful, accompanying God. The words didn’t ring true anymore. There was too much that seemed to the contrary.
In response, with 18th century Jobs all around him, John Wesley preached and prayed himself, and his brother Charles and other close friends, into a new and renewed way of being church in which they did not wait for folks to enter the church building. They were scorned and they were ridiculed, but they persisted with a style of open-air preaching that moved into the centre of people’s lives; literally, right into the centre. Folks like Wesley knew firsthand that there was and is no real escaping from the pain of this life’s unfolding – even when we’ve become stunningly good at trekking into town and responding
with a smile and a nod to all who pass us by. ‘How are you?’ they say. ‘Fine, thank you’, we say in return – even when our lives feel more like Job’s than our own.
As if anticipating us to be not much different than all our ancestors, Wesley preached and he prayed in a way that reached into the realistic spaces of people’s lives, and then carefully but assuredly drew them up and out to a place where they could start to see beyond their present reality. That’s the eschatology part. That’s the intentional practice of drawing the eyes of God’s
people up and out to a horizon beyond the present moment… which is not to diminish the present moment. It is to say, this is not the end of the story. This present suffering will not define your story. You are not your suffering any more
than you are your mistakes. There is a greater sum to be totalled in God’s merciful mathematics, and it begins and ends with the reminder of a vastness beyond our understanding.
And here we are back at Job again – or at least here we are back at God’s response to Job, chapter 37, 1-7 and 34-41. For here we are, with front row seats to listen to the ways that God challenges Job’s limited, seemingly finite perspective, countering it with reminders of the vast intricacies of Creation as a whole. In the words of J.S. Randolph Harris, God does not dismiss Job or his questions. God reorients Job within a larger awareness (J.S. Randolph Harris, p. 175, Feasting on the Word, Year B, Volume 4; eds. David L. Bartlett & Barbara Brown Taylor). God does a little Malt Cross preaching, if you will – with a firm but loving swoop that says, there’s more than you can see right now. There’s more than you can know of the past. There’s more than you can imagine in your future. And while it is certainly rather tempting to give up on it all; to give up on God and the pursuit of God; to pack it all in and rely instead on the snippets of wisdom imprinted on the tag of a tea bag or any of the many other spaces beyond here that are willing to impart nuggets of truth – the truth is, that I don’t think you will find a more faithful presence than the Holy Mystery who speaks into our questions. The speaking may not always have immediately satisfying
answers or explanations – but the speaking is real and persistent, loving and patient and kind. The speaking is our still-speaking God, who says as many times as possible, inside out and backwards, that there is nothing that can
separate us from the love of God. Nothing. And from there, we can start to figure out something.
On the way to there, I have the distinct feeling, the already unsatisfying feeling that this will be an unsatisfying end to a message. No neat and pretty bows offered here. That is, in large part, because they do not exist in the realm of suffering. There are pieces I cannot reconcile – certainly not in this lifetime. But I can cling to the promise of the One who suffered himself; he who says from his living, his dying, and his rising that this is not the end of our story. And so we press on, to the next horizon.
To God alone be the glory! Amen.