Questions from Suffering: Where Are My Friends?

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Questions from Suffering series (#2)
Job 3:1-10; 4:1-9; 7:11-21 (Luke 17:20-21)
A sermon preached on July 10, 2016 for Brookmeade Congregational UCC
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When last we saw Job . . .

Job had a great life with prosperity, status and family —
And then Job saw it all die — his sheep, goats, cattle and camels were killed, his servants were all killed and his children were all killed.

The news was so devastating and so focused on Job — and so much not Job’s fault — that it was as if God had let go of the strings of Job’s life and some other force had taken over. That’s how the story goes, anyway.

Job grieves out loud. Spewing expletives, Job curses the day he was born. He is angry, wishing he’d never been born. He is making irrational statements and outrageous bargains with God: “If I hadn’t been born, all this trouble would never have happened.”

Job is not going to suffer poised and collected, reasoned and well-behaved. Job goes on and on . . . loud, strong, in your face ranting and raving, pleading.

We look at Job and say: “You know, Job, that’s hard on everybody else. We admire those whose suffering keeps their clothes unwrinkled and their makeup intact, looking out for everyone else, not playing the victim.”

All that loud lamenting and fierce cursing and insensitive self-focus:

That’s hard to watch.
It’s hard to listen to.
It’s hard to stand by and do nothing.
It’s even more difficult to stay engaged and do a good thing — or two.

The good news is that Job has friends.
“They sat with Job on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.” [Job 2:13]

Job’s friends did that for Job — sat with him — “no one spoke a word to him” — for seven days. Seven days.  That’s a long time to BE THERE — patient and respectful, holding space, surrounding with love.

Or did they?

Were his friends there — but asleep? Maybe Job’s friends slept through the whole thing.

Were Job’s three friends talking to each other — ignoring Job while he cried himself out?

Was it an uncomfortable silence? A fragile silence?

“You say something.”
“No, you first.”
“I don’t know what to say.”
“What if I say the wrong thing?  I don’t want to make it worse.”
“You think he’s OK?”
“Maybe I’ll say something in a minute . . . or tomorrow might be better.”

Because we all know: If you can’t say something absolutely perfect, it’s better not to say anything at all.

What to say?
That’s the struggle of those of us who preach in the midst of great suffering:
What to say?

What to do? That’s the struggle of all of us who witness the great suffering of Black America — in Baton Rouge — in Minnesota — in Dallas — all over this land — ever since this land began. Louder and more insistent come the groaning and the lamenting. The losses are adding up. The deaths and grief and pain is being televised.

As a preacher — I struggle with what to preach and my first thought is: not again. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland.

Please, God, I don’t want to do this again today because Alton and Philandro and Brent and Patrick and Michael and Michael and Lorne and Micah.

What can I say that will do any good?
How many times, O Lord?
Can this please be the last time?

Until this time, I had thought my “deliver me” plea was a reasonable request — an understandable lament — a heart-felt prayer for the end of senseless killing of black men in police custody. My desire for no more Black Lives Matter sermons is nothing other than my white privilege showing — a privilege I keep well hidden from myself.

My white privilege gives me the choice to preach Black Lives Matter when “their” suffering gives me cause or gives us pause — candles and all.

My white privilege allows me to choose Black Lives Matter from a range of issues that are interesting and make good sermons.

My white privilege gives me time to ponder whether Black Lives Matter might be a good issue for our church to tackle.

White privilege let’s me go home from church and let it go. Give it a rest. Let Job and all who suffer do their suffering over there. I’ll watch it on the news and cry from a distance.

Indeed, white privilege has created for me the illusion that I get to figure this out for myself so I can do better for Black America &/or my Black friends. Maybe I’ll even get my church to do something. Who knows?

Black preachers don’t have the luxury of choosing “not to preach about police killing Black folk in the street.” [Wil Gafney]

Black America does not have the luxury of leaving their suffering at church on Sunday.

I’ve spent my whole life in churches — many of which have been liberal, justice-oriented congregations of caring, intelligent white people. I do not remember ever having heard my white privilege described and challenged in a sermon, and that would include my own sermons. In more than 25 years of preaching, I have never before preached on white privilege. I also know I’ve never had a significant conversation in a church, with my church friends, about our white privilege, much less the damage that our white privilege is doing to our souls and our mission.

On a birthday of this congregation, it’s a good time to remember that  there is a history here of involvement with the world’s suffering and with taking stands for justice and peace and liberation. On this 63rd birthday, we have the opportunity to blow out the candles, remember the good times — and the glory days — and rest on those — or work up the energy to do what we’ve always done — again.

We can be like Eliphaz, Job’s friend who finally speaks. He addresses Job’s suffering but it doesn’t connect with Job because he’s talking at Job. He has not shared Job’s suffering; he has no experience of it. Eliphaz is the friend who tries to fix a problem that doesn’t exist for him.

Meanwhile, Job is wondering “Where are my friends?”

And I can tell you that Black folks are asking the same question of us: “Where are my friends?”

Are we the nice friends who are silent when racist comments are made?

Are we the sleeping friends who allow anyone’s racist opinions to show up on our Facebook wall?

Are we the fragile friends who stay away from controversy and hard situations?

Are we the jaded, know-it-all Eliphaz — so convinced that we have seen it all, heard it all, learned it all?

Could it be that, when we left Sunday School at age 12 — or so — we gave up on our own spiritual work?  On our more energetic days, we substitute a little social action or something. When we are asleep or jaded or afraid, we go back to “working on our church business” some more. With all the best intentions in the world. And I am only too happy to lead you in that.

Meanwhile, Black America is asking “Where are my friends?”

I don’t know how to answer that.

I wonder if we will take the time to notice what we are doing — and to get closer to the voices of suffering — so we can live fully as a Spirit-led, Christ-infused community sitting within earshot of great suffering, a community that is wondering out loud now, a little impatiently:

“Where are my white friends?”
“Where is the white church?”

I don’t know how to answer that.

I suspect that if we made time — and found ways to hear the stories of suffering that are going on in here right now — we might be ready to be with the suffering out there.

I suspect that if we focused our resources on creating a culture of transformation among us– cultivating all the new creations among us — then we might be some good with the great suffering of others.

I suspect that if we could bring our white privilege out into the open — and live through episodes of our own white fragility — we would be more prepared to offer ourselves to the work of ending racism in America.

Today, as we hear the story of Job, as we hear his insistent laments and his angry refusal to accept the unfair hand of great suffering dealt on his life:

What do you hear?
Whose cries do you hear?
Who is asking US as a congregation: “Where are my friends?”

We don’t have the luxury to stay asleep or stay safe, to do some version of what we’ve always done.

God’s realm is among us. Today. Already. What are we going to do with THAT?

And, what will be celebrating as a congregation on our 64th birthday?

Amen.

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