I once asked a Sister of Mercy if she felt the Catholic Church would ever change its stance about ordaining women to the priesthood. She said she didn't think it was a matter of ordaining women to the priesthood. It was a matter of changing the definition of Priest.
The traditional way to approach God is through prayer. But Job does not want to pray. But maybe those who argue that Job is not praying need to change their definition of the word pray.
Flipping the direction of the question is a strategy employed when someone wants to trick us. Usually that involves withholding necessary information. But when employed correctly, flipping the question is a helpful strategy for us to use when we want to solve a problem.
Job has a problem. His problem is how to stay in touch with God, even though his belief that God is just does not line up with his experience of suffering without sinning.
Here is what his friends believe, and is often the only religious perspective:
· If you are suffering you must have sinned.
· If you sin you will suffer.
· If you have not sinned and do suffer, then the suffering is something to be endured as part of a divine education, or a warning, or a judgment, or maybe an invitation to dig deeper and discover how you have sinned.
· You cannot disparage God. That is a sin.
The Book of Job offers us options for different ways to look at standard religious language and expectations. If Job doesn't want to pray using the language that his friends would prefer, how can he stay close to God? He changes the definition of praying. And in so doing the skies open with possibilities. With a wider selection of words with which to pray, approaches to prayer, Job goes looking for hope. He asks God to give him some space. “How about this, God? I will not hide myself from your face if you back off a bit and if you don't terrify me.” Comparing humans to nature, Job describes the kind of hope a tree has as opposed to the kind of hope lakes or rivers have. A tree at least has hope. Even from a stump, a shoot will sprout. I heard a show about how much water we use to maintain vegetation, and the researcher pointed out that that brown grass on your lawn isn't dead. It's just dormant. But a lake or a river, says Job; that's what human life is like. Humans die and are just gone. Just like the waters dry up eventually and then they're gone.
I feel like Job's frustration at having to work this out is driving him crazy. He makes up an option for God to try – why don't I go down to Sheol, but only temporarily. You appoint a time, God, and I will wait until my release should come. And then Job and God would be back to their old selves. God would even long for his own handiwork to be done through Job as before. God will call and Job will answer. Job and God won't have anything between them because Job's transgression (whatever it is, Job still does not know) will be sealed in a bag. God wouldn't put a target on Job's back or number his steps. Job has figured it all out.
It's probably rhetorical, but there's Eliphaz still uncomfortable with Job. He thinks that the way Job is speaking to God and what Job is suggesting takes away the fear of God, and does not promote reflection before God. He thinks that when Job cries out that this whole thing is unfair, and when Job cries out for a witness to his suffering and the injustice of it, he is making himself the center of attention and only God can be the center of attention. Who do you think you are Job? There are people older and wiser than yourself, you do not know more than us. Don't demand more than God's consolations. You can't ask for more than your share of God or ask for God to speak gently because you are someone special. You are like us. Eliphaz speaks a warning too, saying “the company of the godless is barren. They conceive mischief and bring forth evil and their heart prepares deceit.” I wonder if Eliphaz means well and thinks that he is warning his friend Job to walk back his expectations of too much from God so that Job isn't disappointed, or worse, suffers even more because of his “windy” speech.
Job turns the tables though and says that it's not his words to God that are windy, and made of nothing, all bluster. It's his friends' words, and he is capable of the same thing. “I could join words together against you, and shake my head at you.”
Throwing up his hands I would guess, he tries again, can't you see what God has done and how difficult my life is, and how hard God is coming at me? He is desperate for someone to witness his hope. Job doesn't want the life of the lake and rivers and waters, who dry up and are no more, even though that's what he threatened in last week's reading. He wants the life of the tree, who will, yes, get cut down even to a stump, but still, has the hope of being a green growing thing again. Job isn't even asking for a final promise of good, he just wants to be able to hope for it.
After hearing from yet another friend, Bildad, Job is furious. His friends have cast reproach 10 times; so much that they should be ashamed! It is his friends who have made themselves bigger than they really are and try to humiliate him. He pleads with them, “Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!”
The depth of desperation Job experiences is only matched by the depth of his trust in God. If he didn't trust God, he wouldn't be having this struggle in the first place. He wouldn't be directing any of these words toward God. He could just walk away. Job is still able to say, “For I know that my redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
Way to go Job! Job teaches us not to give up, to stay in the conversation, speak the truth, in and with all honesty and integrity, and God will respond. Initially, Job cursed the day of his own birth with great vehemence. Then he cursed his friends. What we haven't read is that Job's wife continually wants Job to curse God. His friends don't want him to talk “that way.” Because they're uncomfortable.
Job can see the big picture, even if it's just a hint at the back of his mind. His redeemer, God, will be on his side. Job will see God. When Job uses the word redeemer he means the one who will deliver him. When we say the word Redeemer as Christians, we are talking about deliverance too, but our redeemer as God in Christ is not of course, a concept that had come about. But it's the same God. The one in whom Job puts his trust and to whom he wants so badly to be so close, will make himself seen and will be on Job's side.
Being on Job's side is not necessarily an indication that God will come around to Job's point of view. Being on Job's side just means that they will be on the same side. Maybe because the long view is that Job will move closer to God's point of view. The book of Job allows for the possibility of both parties shifting their stance.
This is not the view of his friends. His friends insist that Job is the one who must change.
Today we have a unique opportunity to go deep. Despite the horror that happened in Tulsa, Juneteenth is Freedom Day. Today is Freedom Sunday. This year, these days, right exactly now, Juneteenth of 2020 is an enormously important time in American history. We can flip the direction of so many questions and possibly see answers that we never thought possible.
The first thing we need to do is to listen. We need to prayerfully put ourselves in positions beyond our comfort zone, each as we feel called. Not as someone else feels called. We need to put ourselves in the position to hear. While we may be late to the party we are still invited and we need to seize the moment. Tonight at 5pm Sojourner Truth Presbyterian Church and black members of the San Francisco Presbytery will celebrate Freedom Sunday with a Virtual We Can't Breathe Vigil. I encourage you to .
Last night (Saturday night) the Presbyterian Church (USA) elected two new co-moderators of our national church, two people of color, a man and a woman, and they are from Alabama and Minnesota. Ruling elder Elona Street-Stewart is the first indigenous person to be elected to this office. Elona is Delaware Nanticoke tribal member. This will be our representation for the next two years that will be very important to us.
Rev. Tawnya Denise Anderson, Moderator of the 222nd General Assembly, wrote a long note on her facebook page in early June. She reminds us, as we look to put ourselves in new shoes, to consider this. She writes:
“…[But] before you lace up your shoes for another demonstration or direct action, consider the deeper work you are called to do in this moment. If the predominantly-white church wants to do this work with any integrity and efficacy, it must choose reparation over performance.
We need to read. Last week I included a list of options at the end of the print version of the sermon on the website. That page is currently on the outside front door of the church, for anyone to take a copy.
The theme of this year's PC(USA) General Assembly is From Lament to Hope. That is what Job is trying to do . We need to do what the Stated Clerk of the PCUSA charged us to do, in his opening address to the GA on Friday. He said we need to “get off of our blessed assurances and do the work.”
We are problem solvers. We are collaborative. We are Christians. We are loving people. We can rise now.
I heard someone on the radio talking about being stuck in an airport just as flights were being cancelled. For one reason or another, 74 days later he was still in the airport. He said that he had one mantra going through his head the whole time. Evaluate, adapt, repeat.
That's what we will do. Whether we like it or not, we are already in a new place. Arthur Ashe once said, “Start where you are, use what you have, do what you can.”
We believe in God in Jesus Christ. We have the holy spirit. The energy of that anger, the energy of that frustration, the energy of that lost feeling, and even the energy of that sadness – are all possibilities for the holy spirit to kindle the fire of God's love in us.
Let us pray.
To Hope or Not to Hope
Reverend Debra McGuire
June 21, 2020