Sermon on Job 23:1-9, 16-17 for Pentecost +20, Year B, October 11, 2015

Job 23:1-9, 16-17
Then Job answered:
   “Today also my complaint is bitter;
       his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
    O that I knew where I might find him,
       that I might come even to his dwelling!
    I would lay my case before him,
       and fill my mouth with arguments.
    I would learn what he would answer me,
       and understand what he would say to me.
    Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
       No; but he would give heed to me.
    There an upright person could reason with him,
       and I should be acquitted for ever by my judge.

   “If I go forward, he is not there;Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.28.18 PM
       or backward, I cannot perceive him;
    on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
       I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.

    “God has made my heart faint;
        the Almighty has terrified me;
     If only I could vanish in darkness,
        and thick darkness would cover my face!

I cannot imagine being the parent of the student who was shot and killed at Northern Arizona University this week, or the parent of any of the other students who died recently in the senseless meaningless school shootings in America.   What would it feel like to hear the news about it?  I think I would be in denial at first.  Usually when we hear of something too tragic to believe the first word out of our mouths is “No!”

But then when we know it is real, we feel anger.  It is hard to know where to put the anger – so it often goes all over the place.  There is always plenty of anger to go around in a tragedy.   Somehow, we think, a blame target is what we need.

God is often in the bulls eye of that target.  Where was God when the gun came out?  Why? is the question.   If God knew it was going to happen, or at least, could see it happening, why did he not stop it?  Why not make the gun jam?  Why not make the shooter miss?  Why not do something?

In fact, it does not take a tragedy to get us to that place, does it?  Any evil we live through, anything that makes us suffer pain can bring up the problem: why didn’t God prevent it?  Where was God?  Is there a God?  Because, if there is, he would have done something.  Anyone with the power to do something, anyone good, that is, with the power to do something, would do it.

You do not turn your back from a child walking towards the curb.  What kind of person would just stand idly by?  Even hearing of tragedies on the other side of the world can bring these questions upon us with bullying force.

Every one of us adults has encountered that moment; that experience of the absence of God.   This is part of the human condition, to both experience the divine, the transcendent, to glimpse the sacred, and to feel abandoned; to doubt whether there is a God at all.

Homo Naledids_gurtov6

Recently scientists discovered a new species in the human lineage.  They named the species  Homo Naledi.  Bones of 15 individuals were found inside a cave in South Africa so narrow that it took a team of young women scientists to do the excavations.  Consider for a moment the thought that already, two and a half million years ago, the ancient ancestors of humans were already burying their dead.  They had some concept of life beyond this one.

We all have this internal conundrum that we live with: that somehow this is not all there is; that there is another world beyond our senses; and yet we are mortal.  We die.  Our lives are finite, in fact, fragile.

So humans have long been on a quest to understand the divine; to know what God ,or the gods, are like.  Every culture has religion of some sort: there are shamans,  for some, priests for others.  There are funeral rites, prayer practices, postures, sacred places, sacred times, and all kinds of sacred words.  We tell stories, narratives about the ways humans interact with the Divine.  There are mythologies, legends, epics and scriptures that we treasure and pass down through the generations.

The Legend of JobScreen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.43.47 PM

One of our ancient legends is recorded in the biblical book of Job.  And this story was told precisely to work out the problem we have been discussing: what does it mean to live in a world that includes a God, but one that allows great evil and suffering?

Job, the author tells us, is a righteous man.  But in the heavenly court, an accusing spirit called the satan tells God that if he were not so blessed with such a good life, he would curse God rather than worship him.  So, in this story, God makes a wager with the satan.  “Go ahead; touch him and we shall see.”  So he does.

Job’s children die.  His fortune is destroyed, his health breaks, even his wife counsels despair, saying to Job

curse God and die.” (2:9)

In the course of this long poem, 4 men come to Job.  Each in turn argues to him that the way God works is by giving people what they deserve.  Good people are blessed, bad people suffer.  Job is suffering, therefore Job must have done something utterly unrighteous.  We call this the doctrine of divine retribution.  Blessings or curses; you get what is coming.   The Hebrew Bible proclaims this boldly.  The four so called “friends” of Job do have the bible on their side.   If you are suffering, you must deserve it.

Now, Job is a grown man.  A husband, father, and businessman.  It is quite possible that he is hiding unrighteousness.  He would not be the first person who looked noble on the outside to be hiding his immorality.  The author has told the reader that the men are wrong; Job is righteous; but in the story, they have no certainty that he is.  So they argue.

Job does not know why he is suffering.  He does not know about God’s wager with the satan – and in fact he is never told.  So, like all people, he never gets an answer to the question, “why?”.

It seems odd to me that Job, as he argues his case, does not bring up his own children who died, or the deaths of other children.  How do you make a case for retribution when little children suffer or die?  Are not the two words “pediatric oncology” alone enough to disprove the doctrine of retribution?

Demanding a Day in Court: Theodicy

But Job wants  his day in court.  He would be the plaintiff and God would be on trial.  Job says,

Today also my complaint is bitter;
       his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
    O that I knew where I might find him,
       that I might come even to his dwelling!
    I would lay my case before him,
       and fill my mouth with arguments”

He demands justice.  It is not fair that he, being righteous, is suffering. God needs to defend himself, to justify himself in the face of this evil.  This is what theologians call theodicy; the justification of God.

But where do you go to have your day in court against God?  What if God will not show up?    This is Job’s problem; where is God?

“If I go forward, he is not there;
       or backward, I cannot perceive him;
    on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
       I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.”

Deus AbsconditusScreen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.49.06 PM

Who among us has not asked exactly those questions?  And who has not been utterly frustrated by the same lack of answers?   This a common experience.  Since the 16th century, following the writings of St. John of the Cross, we have called it the “Dark night of the soul.”  Even Mother Teresa, her diaries revealed, spent years feeling abandoned by God, in the face of evil and suffering.

Where is God when evil happens?  Sometimes an answer begins in the question.  What do we mean when we say “God”?

From Plato and Aristotle we get a god some have come to call the “omni-god.”  The God of omnipotence and omniscience, all powerful, all knowing.  Recently Richard Kearney has called this the “alpha-god”.  This is the God Job believed he was appealing to.  But Kearney goes on to quote Elie Weisel who said that that god died in the hangman’s noose at Auschwitz, and adds, 

“After Dachau, Sobibor, and Treblinka, the notion that everything happens according to some Divine Plan was finally exposed as a cruel sham. The idea that God orchestrates good and evil alike was no longer tolerable.”

So where does that leave us?

Ana-theism: God after GodScreen Shot 2015-10-09 at 8.51.40 PM

Kearny’s book is called “Anatheism”  Ana means again.  The subtitle explains: “returning to God after God.”  In it, he argues that there may be a possibility, to make a wager, just as God made with the satan.  Only this wager would be a bet that there might be a way to return to God, after letting go of the Omni-God of Aristotle.  But if there were such a way back to God, it would not come with proofs or certainty.  It would never rise above the level of a wager.

And if one were to wager that there may be a God, after the God who died in Auschwitz has been proven false, that God would have to make sense in our experience.   That God could never be known in any comprehensive sense.  There are simply too many unsolved puzzles, unaccounted for tragedies.

But why would anyone make that wager?  Why return to God after god?   The answer is found in our experience.  We humans bury our dead.  We humans have a sense that there is such a thing as “the good,” and that there is evil.  We have a craving for justice, even though none of us has lived in an entirely just world.  We have a capacity for caring for the weak and the injured that makes no sense in a strictly Darwinian world.  We experience beauty, even wonder.  And we will risk our lives, even die for something as intangible as love.

These are the glimmers and glimpses that give us what TS Elliot called “hints and guesses.”  And so, having left behind the first naiveté of youthful literalism, and having gone through the dark night of the soul, the loss of the alpha-god, we are willing to make the wager.  We make the gamble that there is a God to return to, on the basis of a second naiveté, in the language of Paul Recour.   In the second naiveté we come to understand that the language of faith is the language of symbol.  Its tools are myth and metaphor.

So we do speak of God as Jesus taught us, as our “Father in heaven.”  And we understand that this metaphor encodes something essential; it is a wager that we are upheld, somehow, in essential goodness.  That, as St. Julian of Norwich could say,

“All will be well; all manner of things will be well.” 

Encountering the Other in the otherScreen Shot 2015-10-09 at 9.02.29 PM

We acknowledge that the God of whom we speak after this return is “other” and so, is encountered in “the other.”  When we practice hospitality by welcoming strangers, somehow God is present.  In the least of these, we encounter Jesus.  The miracle of goodness and grace happens when humans break bread together as equals, and share bread with the hungry.  When two or three gather, the Spirit of Christ is present.

This is at the core and the center of our faith.  Jesus himself, on the cross, was not rescued by the alpha-god.  And that was the God he was able to let go of, after asking,

“my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  

Was Jesus tempted in every way as we are?  That was his most profound temptation.  But returning to God, he was able to say,

“Into your hands I commit my spirit.”  

“All will be well.”

We do not pretend to certainty or to understanding.  We are content to live with mystery.

This is where Job ends.  God never answers Job’s questions.  But in the legend, God, instead, asks Job many questions like:

Have you entered the storehouses of the snow,
        or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?…
“What is the way to the place where the light is distributed,
         or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?”  (Job 38)

And Job replies,

“I have uttered what I did not understand,
        things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

Wonder and mystery is all that can be expressed.  This is the second half of the first line of the Lord’s prayer.  After addressing God with the metaphor of Father who is in heaven, Jesus acknowledges the mystery, saying “hallowed be (holy is; sacred is; divine is) your name.”

Then, in a simple second naiveté he is able to put his needs for daily bread into God’s hands.   And it was this simple trust that allowed him to face his death with equanimity; with shalom; with peace, and even with forgiveness.

This gives us the basis for our hope, that even in tragedy, even in the face of evil, and especially in the face of our own mortality, we can finally rely on the depth dimension of life that we cannot explain.  We pray:

“Into your hands, O God, we commend our spirits.”



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