The lectionary the church uses is called the Revised Common Lectionary. There is another lectionary that I use sometimes, called the Narrative Lectionary. It's a lectionary that is based on stories and usually covers several weeks. I will be using the Narrative lectionary for the next five weeks, focusing on the Book of Job.
As church seasons go, after Pentecost is celebrated and the sanctuary is decorated with red and images of fire and wind, we jump immediately into ordinary time and decorate with green. Green as the color of nature, represents the ongoing growth and life of the church. But June of 2020 is no ordinary time. So I am postponing Ordinary time for a few weeks. The Book of Job will be a perfect fit for us. There's suffering, and there's suffering during a pandemic, and then there's suffering during a pandemic and national social unrest.
The next five weeks we will have the opportunity to delve into the book of Job a little deeper while still reminding ourselves that the gift of the Holy Spirit that we celebrated with all of this red continues to be God's promise to us, and remains our greatest source of strength.
- If Snoopy were writing his novel, it would start out with, “It was a dark and stormy night….
- If Brothers Grimm were writing a fairy tale, it would begin with, “Once upon a time…
- If Margaret Atwood were writing a piece of fiction based on a folk tale, it would begin with “It was dark inside the wolf…..
- As a parable, we have heard before, “Once there was a man….
This story is not history. It is fiction. Job is not an Israelite name and no one knows of a place called Uz. It acts like a parable. It started out as a folk tale, an oral story passed down from generation to generation, and modified over the years. The book of Job is a parable with 42 chapters. It is one of the longest books in the Old Testament. The way it is written with some prose and narrative, and a great deal in poetic form, scholars place this book alongside other books that were written in the same tradition of Wisdom Literature. One of the hallmarks of wisdom literature is that it “often sets the question of the moral order of the world in terms of the structures of creation.” The book of Job does do that.
Some familiar things that people think of when they think of Job are 1) “The patience of Job.” Or, 2) “Job the rebel.” There's so much more. The advantage of using the Narrative lectionary and reading from selected portions of all 42 chapters is that we can explore some of the other religious issues, such as “the motivation for piety, the meaning of suffering, the nature of God, what is the place of justice in the world, and the relationship of order and chaos in God's design of creation.” In the next weeks we will consider some of these issues.
Today we see how this first section becomes the basis for the entire 42 chapters. This is the setting. The word Satan here is a not Satan, the dualistic opposite of God that we think of as the devil, as evil. That version of Satan was a much later development. The heavenly beings were members of God's judicial court in this story. The word satan, is the name for the function of one member of God's court. It is often translated as Adversary, or Accuser. The Satan has a specialized function which is to “seek out and accuse persons disloyal to God.” So when God says, where have you come from, The Satan answers, "From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” He was out doing his job, and coming to the Lord with all of the other heavenly beings, members of God's court, to report in.
The Lord begins to brag about his servant Job. Oh, speaking of earth, have you considered Job?! What a great guy! Loyal no matter what, has never done anything wrong. The biggest sin, speaking against God, is something Job has never done and will never do. The Satan though, feels sure that Job will curse God if given the right set of circumstances.
Sure, says The Satan, but that's because you protect him. 9 Then Satan answered the Lord, "Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face."
Does Job fear God for nothing? The Satan answers the Lord's question with a question. It's one of the theological question that the book of Job asks. It's an eternal question. Do we worship for what we get out of it? Is there such a thing as non-self-interest piety? Does Job praise God because he is blessed? Is Job blessed because he praises God? Is this an attack on the Good God doctrine, that says God is always good all the time, so suffering must be a result of sin? The Satan is sure that Job will commit the worst sin and curse God to his face.
God said ok! Virginia Woolf once said, “I read the book of Job once. God didn't come out so well.” It's as if God took the bet, at the expense of Job! He accepted the challenge. Or did he? We may each come up with a separate answer to that question at the end of the next five weeks.
12 The Lord said to Satan, "Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!" So Satan went out from the presence of the Lord.
God asked a question. The Satan asked a follow-up question, and set the terms that God should stretch out his hand and touch all that Job has, and Satan's point will be proven when Job curses God. God's reply though changes the terms. God will not stretch out his hand, but Satan will do the dirty work. In a way, even though God accepted the challenge, he also was able to have the last word and take his own hand out of it.
Here's another theological issue. If Job's suffering is not caused by God, then Job shouldn't curse God. But if God didn't stop Job's suffering, then Job cursing God might be seen as justified. Both viewpoints have the same issue at hand: “Justice should be the central principle of reality.” (NIB) Does God cause suffering, and if not, then why does God not prevent suffering?
Here are some Christian answers to the question of the meaning of suffering: (from workingpreacher.com podcast)
If someone is:
Each of these answers assumes that “the proper response then is to turn to God in humility, trust, and prayer.” If as mentioned at the beginning, we think of The Patience of Job, we would agree with this assumption. If we think of Job the Rebel, then maybe we see that Job might have challenged that assumption.
Chapters 1 and 2 of the book of Job are probably the most familiar parts of Job's story. Job is great, Satan thinks he can be bought, God says no, and Satan has a go at Job and Job suffers. A lot. In the 42nd chapter, the part we might also be familiar with, everything gets tied up with a bow. But in the remaining 40 chapters, there is so much more. The intervening chapters offer us through Job, alternatives to some typical thinking. Job offers options.
First Job loses his animals and servants, then his family, and were we to read into chapter 2, his own body becomes afflicted. His suffering is complete. And what does he do?
20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 He said, "Naked I came from my mother's womb, and naked shall I return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord." 22 In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.
What is our response to suffering? Our own suffering or that of a loved one or a stranger?
At first glance, it seems like we were hit with a pandemic first. We all became afraid. While we can't gather in person, at least there is some semblance of fighting the same demon. And then George Flynn was brutally murdered. Oh, wait, before that was Ahmaud Arbery, and before that Brionna Taylor, and before that Stephon Clark, Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Tamir Rice, Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin. And so many more. The iconic red border around TIME magazine this week will have words in it for the first time. The words are the names of 35 black people killed that fueled the BlackLivesMatter movement.
(The names on the cover are these: Trayvon Martin, Yvette Smith, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, Tanisha Anderson, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Jerame Reid, Natasha McKenna, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, William Chapman, Sandra Bland, Darrius Stewart, Samuel DuBose, Janet Wilson, Calin Roquemore, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, Joseph Mann, Terence Crutcher, Chad Robertson, Jordan Edwards, Aaron Bailey, Stephon Clark, Danny Ray Thomas, Antwon Rose, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Michael Dean, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd.)
No, it turns out the pandemic didn't hit first. The racism that killed these people has been systemic ever since we brought slaves over from Africa. America as a whole, has never really been able to change its mind. Has never been able to repent, to turn to another direction, thinking that somehow slavery was ok, and the continual second class citizen status for black Americans is just the way it is. Now we are afraid but not of the same demon.
We have different demons. It occurred to me, and I mentioned this in my Friday morning facebook live post, that the way our brains have been forced to switch from so many automatic thoughts about, oh, what have I touched, am I wearing gloves the right way, is six feet enough distance, should I wear my mask NOW too?, did I stand too close to someone in the grocery store?, why is that person coughing?, all of these tiny little things we must now consider just to move about our day in the smallest way has in some ways a very minor version of what black Americans have had to do their whole lives and it is ingrained in their way of moving in the world. Am I wearing a hoodie, am I walking too fast, am I walking too slow, is it ok to dance in the street, should I go inside the bank, now that more people are wearing masks I'm going to look like a thug, is it okay to walk with four or five friends or should I just walk with one friend so I don't look like I'm in a gang, I'd better not carry that tv home from the store or I'll be suspected of stealing it, better not wear the colors of my African home state or someone will call the police, I better not get too excited at a sporting event or someone will get frightened of me.
It's exhausting and maddening. I have several white friends who have adopted black children from other countries and have struggled from the beginning about how to talk about how to be a black boy in America. Starting at the beginning when teachers wondered why a white family was picking up a black boy after school.
Some of us share this pain because it is very close to home. Some of us don't have any real experience of what systemic even means because if we are white everything has always been in our favor, and if not in our favor, at least not set against us. Some of us feel a global dread and angst about the deep pain in the world. We are feeling woefully inadequate as we search for something to do that would be good enough or helpful enough to match the level of pain that's out there. What can I do?
The first thing to do is to understand. Learn, learn, learn. Ask questions. Don't make assumptions. BlackLivesMatter is a movement with certain beliefs at its core. Not everything about being black is covered by that hashtag. There are books to read. There are podcasts. There are people we know and trust who we can have conversations with. Each of us has certain experiences that lead us to our opinions. We have values and core beliefs that lead us.
I often use the phrase, we don't know what we don't know. This is certainly one of these times. We just don't know what it is that we don't know. When something is unimaginable that doesn't mean that it's not true. It just means that from our perspective the pieces to that puzzle don't even exist in our brains.
Don't make assumptions. I have been stunned at times when I find myself in a situation that I can't understand and feel confused about, primarily because it didn't cross my mind to examine my own assumptions, my own intentions. Not only is my ego bruised, but I end up heartbroken because the other person really thought I had hurt them. Flawed as I am, I think I am probably a pretty good person. Repentance means to turn. We all need to just have another look, find a different way to see, assume the opposite just to see what opens up.
Meanwhile, white people have pain too. Immigrants are dying in detention. Families are losing loved ones to COVID-19 without being able to see them or touch them. Depression is rampant. Some say the next pandemic will be a mental health pandemic. Trying to cope with the everyday life of chronic illnesses, dealings with bureaucracy, accidents, etc.
As depressing as all this sounds, and it is truly depressing, the book of Job has a message even for that. In the end, Job is just one man. We may feel sorrow for one person at a time, but the psychic pain of the hurts of the world mounting up is deeper and heavier. I want to validate the collective sorrow and loss and fear so many of us feel, for someone specific or for a more general cause.
This is where all of this red comes in: The Holy Spirit blows into us and around us and will bring us an answer. What can we do when we suffer? How can we show our support? What action can I take that will keep my own health, and still give of myself? We can pray, open to the spirit's flowing and an answer will be made clear. No single person will receive the one perfect answer to all of our troubles. But enough of us will get partial answers to make a difference.
I asked someone a question once about just that sort of discernment, and the answer was, “It's much easier to steer a moving ship.”
Pray, consider, think, study, and take a step. And repeat until you can take another step. Never more than we are able, but probably more than our current comfort zone. Together we can do this. Whatever the struggle, the community will not let you go through it alone.
Thanks be to God.
Reverend Debra McGuire
June 7, 2020
Then suffering is:
a form of educational discipline
something to be endured with the confidence that God will eventually restore