Questions from Suffering Series (#5)
Job 38:25-27, 41:1-8, 42:1-6; Matthew 7:7-8
A sermon preached July 31, 2016 for Brookmeade Congregational UCC
Let’s begin with a game called “Famous Questions in Advertising”:
Does she . . . Or doesn’t she? (Clairol)
How do you spell relief? (R-o-l-a-i-d-s)
Aren’t you glad you use ___? (Dial) Don’t you wish everybody did?
“Where’s the Beef?” (Wendy’s)
“Can You Hear Me Now?” (Verizon)
Can you hear me now? Because how frustrating when we CAN’T hear!
We count on our cellphones — engineered to bring a distant voice into the ear — made so that any of us can be heard at any time — whenever we have something to say. Can you hear me?
The story of Job gives us an ear-full. Remember that we first got to overhear God and the sa-tan — “The Accuser” — making a bet of sorts about Job. What would happen — “The Accuser” wondered — if Job — “blameless and upright” Job — lost all of his possessions, his business and his loved ones? How “blameless and upright” would Job be then? “The Accuser” taunts. God says, “Do what you want with him and we’ll see.”
So that’s how we get to hear the very awful, very tragic story of how it comes to pass that Job’s possessions and business and servants and ten children are all taken from him.
We get to hear how Job was afflicted with an unsightly skin disorder.
We overhear Job and his wife arguing when she tells him to go ahead and curse God and be done with it.
We get to listen in on the advice of Job’s three friends — interspersed with Job lamenting.
We hear the well-meaning extravagant idealism of Job’s young friend Elihu (ee-LAI-hyoo).
And we get to hear — after dozens of chapters — Job finally saying, “I’m done talking. God, it’s your turn.”
That is an amazing moment all on its own. Job can only relinquish the microphone to God who is there — God who is listening. We say “God is still speaking.” How about “God is still listening?”
God is still listening, no matter how long the rant or how god-less seems the arena.
God is still listening, no matter who is speaking or for how long.
God is still listening, even when God is unnoticed — unwelcome — not expected to actually BE there.
God is still listening.
What is God hearing?
Imagine God getting an earful over the last couple of weeks as our two big political parties have had their big parties. With those big stages and center-stage microphones and lots of people speaking — lots and lots of people speaking. We heard our fellow Americans, each one had the ear of a nation desperate for some good news.
There were pray-ers — offering prayers — so God’s presence was invited, God’s presence was expected. What was God hearing? What was God hearing over the past couple weeks from dozens and dozens of people who had the ear of this convention hall or that?
God was still listening. What WAS the still-listening God hearing?
We can imagine. We heard.
There were voices I adored hearing — they uplifted me and called me toward an appealing future.
Those diverse voices rang out great hope and bright vision and exhilarating challenge. Each one, a person who had been through some kind of life-shaking hell —
parents still grieving the death of a soldier son,
a transgender woman,
a lesbian sheriff,
a child of a president,
survivors of the deaths of good police officers by violent citizens
survivors of the deaths of good citizens by violent police officers
public servants whose political careers have been sideswiped by many dangers, toils and snares —
Just about every inspiring speaker stood — some still shaky — some teary eyed — but still standing on the future, not mired in the past. Each was beginning to live as a the changed person they were after living through whatever hell had eventually led them to claiming a hope to share or a challenge to offer or a vision to cast.
There were also voices at microphones that were — Very. Hard. To. Hear. — painful to stay with, voices that sounded a whole lot like Job in the midst of suffering. Voices powered by fear, anger, and grief. Voices that came out sounding self-righteous and accusing and disjointed and blaming and rambling and hopeless — yes, sounding a lot like our Job — when Job was still talking and God was still listening.
God is still listening, and I confess that I am still talking. Because I see the problem, lots of problems. And I want to help the light to get in. I want to make the hope happen when it seems like cynicism and accusation have claimed a friend or loved one or a certain segment of my diverse Facebook friends. I keep talking hoping they will listen to reason.
That sounds an awful lot Like Job’s friends — the ones who passed judgment on Job — because they knew Job’s sin — and gave him advice — because they knew a better way — and schooled Job in a better outlook.
I so clearly see the problem that *they* and their followers and their media brought on themselves — don’t you? — and I see the error of their ways — don’t you? — and like those friends of Job who needed to talk, I have a mouthful of smooth put-downs, sage advice and even a bucket-full of extravagantly fear-free idealistic solutions — and an occasional plea for common-sense. I share those on Facebook *all* the time! — and in person (as you know). I want to make the crying stop.
I’m still talking the good talk. Who is listening? I can imagine God is listening to me not listening.
Can we say again that listening is hard? We say that all the time: Listening is so hard, we say. Do we really HEAR how hard it is to listen? Especially — right now — Can we listen to the Jobs among us, and in public life? Those who glare and stare down the world, angry at the losses and resistant to the change, digging in, doubling down, plotting retaliation, popping off at the mouth, self-destructing.
Job may be an extreme case. We know Job. We are each “the Job” from time to time. Job’s story starts to change — and our stories begin to change — when the digging in stops and the mouth shuts. Stop, look and listen. It’s not just for street crossing.
Here’s what got my attention and shut my mouth:
Diana Butler Bass — theologian, author — [on Facebook (July 30)] — made a statement about baptism promises compelling us to see the dignity of all human beings. She spoke of a particular public figure who is speaking and acting from what must be a place of brokenness and woundedness and lack of awareness of what it means to be human.
That rings a bell that I hope is familiar to you. It was familiar to me. For you see, the very essence of what it means to be human is to be that person. To be human is to be broken, to live with wounds, and to attempt to conquer life by being more than human.
Don’t believe me? Do you ever act like you have all the time in the world? Or, do you ever lament that there are only 24 hours in a day? We’re all that person.
Anyone here ever say, “If this is going to get done, I am going to have to be the one to do it. No, don’t try to help me. That will just mess it up.” If not out loud, have you thought that? Or act as if that depends on solely you? We’re all that person.
Anyone here ever said many things to avoid saying, “I’m hurting right now.” Or, anyone here ever gone the long way around someone to keep from hearing them say, “I’m hurting right now”? Not wanting to hear the victim because we don’t want to see the victim in ourselves — we are all that person. Each and every person has been through a broken time or a shattered time, been wounded in the course of life.
And we’ve all been in suffering Job’s place: attacked, afflicted, out of the mainstream, suffering alone, no one understands, no one can help.
We have a choice of what to do when life is unfair and out of control and painful, whether it’s our own crisis or when someone else’s suffering is anguishing all over us — or when the world’s issues become the world’s pain:
The first way is to take matters into one’s own hands and be one’s own savior — I can fix this all by myself — obviously I *will* have to be the one who will get this done — I have the answers — for what ails me, for what ails you, for what is wrong with the world . . .
OR . . .
We can finally take a break from talking and be quiet for a minute or an hour or a day . . . take time finally *to* *listen*.
No one heard the stories of dozens of women who have suffered through sexual harassment at a major news network.
No one heard in school the story of slaves building the White House and we still haven’t heard very many of the stories of how slaves and their descendants built this country.
No one heard the stories of we-don’t-know-how-many Black Americans who have been killed by “law enforcement” and it took cell phones and body cameras to begin to get those stories heard.
Are we — in the liberal church — ready to stop and listen to Black voices — to hear in 2016 the stories of how white privilege has hurt our country — how white privilege diminishes life for each of us white people — and how our unexamined white privilege continues to inflict damage every time we say “I don’t see color” or “We are way beyond all that.”
Can we hear them now?
Can we — in the liberal church — hear Holy Spirit’s determination to not let us be tomorrow who we are today?
Can we — in the liberal church — reclaim salvation as the business we are in? Call it something else: changed lives, growing into Christ-like-ness, becoming more infused with the gifts of the Spirit — it’s being saved from what we are to become MORE who we were put on this Earth to be.
Job came out of it all a changed man. With God in the story, changed lives is the outcome. Always. Change is not what Job asked for at all. Job liked the “before” picture. It’s human to want to stay in a good “before” picture, and it’s no way humanly possible to take that past into the future.
Your sermon extra is another assignment: Listen. I’m tempted to give instructions here, but no . . . .
God is still listening.
Let’s listen in.