Sheepscott Community Church October 4, 2009
Job 1: 1; 2: 1-10
Hebrews 1: 1-4; 2: 5-12
Mark 10: 2-16
That’s Not Fair!
I think all of us are familiar with the figure of Job, the character from the Hebrew bible who embodies the idea of unmerited suffering. As the story goes, in a deal struck between Satan, the accuser, and God, Satan is allowed to push Job to the limit in order to test the limits of Job’s love for God when under the lash of suffering. Sure, when things are going well, Job will praise God and rejoice in his blessings, but what happens when he loses everything? Will he still praise God? Will he accept suffering as readily as he accepted blessing? There’s the situation, but that is not the conundrum. The conundrum is how a supposedly loving God can allow, even make a deal on the suffering of the innocent? How can we trust such a God? The deeper question that reaches out from the story of Job is, if God is a God of love, why does God allow evil in the world, and again, why do the innocent suffer?
Who can read the story of Job and not cry out repeatedly, “Hey, that’s not fair!” He didn’t deserve that. How much more might we cry out in the face of the suffering Christ, “That’s not fair!” He did no evil; he only did good. Why should he suffer? Note well that there is no recorded place in the New Testament where Jesus complains that he didn’t sign on for this or that. He prepared for years for his public life and took each step into that life only after prayer, and I’ve pointed out again and again, he was always retiring to this mountain or that hillside or this desert place to commune with the One he called Father, Abba. His ascent or descent to Jerusalem for the last days of his life was a result of his prayerful choices. He acquiesced in the face of suffering, not necessarily having known from the very beginning that this is the way it would go.
Besides not complaining about what became inevitable for him, he in fact taught his disciples a lesson through a passage in Luke 13, where he talks about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus said, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no!” Likewise, “Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them––do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no!” We only have to look around our own area, in our own neighborhoods, our own families, to come up with our own stories about what seems patently unfair. Why do the just suffer? Why is there suffering at all if God is indeed a loving God?
Sorry, everyone. There is no ready or easy answer. There is only radical trust in the will and wisdom of God and the consolation of his Spirit in the suffering. How can I possibly get to that point in my spiritual life that undergirds my daily life and activities to be able to trust at that level? And why should I? It’s not right what happens to people. What’s the matter with God, anyway? Where’s the famous compassion that God is supposedly known for? I wonder sometimes if I have more compassion that God does. How can someone, some airy Being out there in the universe, know what it’s like to try to feed a family when money is tight, or not there, without descending into discouragement that can sink lower to depression? How can Someone like that relate to how tired I get when I work and work and don’t seem to get ahead? How can such a One know what it’s like to be as angry as I feel sometimes––and I think I’m justified––as a result of other people’s bad choices that I have to live with? How and why should I trust such a One?
Well, there is an answer to all of this: Jesus. You knew that was coming, didn’t you? That airy Being whom Jesus called Father is called Father because he begot Jesus. I’m not interested today in the how of the begetting but in the fact of it. Here we have a man of flesh and blood, who, as the writer of Hebrews describes him in this morning’s reading, is “the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” An exact representation of his being. I believe that refers to the spiritual being, not to the bodily form.
The spiritual being of Jesus was completely surrendered in trust to the Father. In the choices he made toward Jerusalem in his life, he showed us the way. How we could prepare for any outcome, whether or not it’s one we prefer. As I say almost every week, Jesus did not want to die, but finally, if that’s what it took to fulfill the call of his life, he was willing to do it. He said his yes in Gethsemane, the night before he died, when he realized it had to happen that way. As painful as the rest of it was, physically, emotionally, spiritually, he was surrendered to it, and as the scripture says in Isaiah, “He was oppressed and afflicted,/ yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,/ and as a sheep before her shearers is silent,/so he did not open his mouth.”
Hey, that’s not fair. In our book of justice, it is not fair, but we did not write the book of divine justice or divine mercy, and we would do well to keep our mouths shut before the shearer as well.
Some of us will say, the heck with that. I want no part of a God who, even if Job is only a story, it’s a teaching story. I want no part of a God who makes a deal with Satan to test me or anyone else. What could possibly be adorable about that Being?
Well, let’s think about this for a bit. In the Book of Isaiah, the prophet, speaking for God, raises the question to the people Israel, Will the pot complain to the potter? As it is written, “You turn things upside down,/ as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!/ Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, ‘He did not make me.’/ Can the pot say of the potter, ‘He knows nothing.’?” We can object and reject all we want, but finally we are simply the clay in the potter’s hand, like it or not.
That’s not fair! we object again. Fair or not fair, that’s the way it is, and we have been shown a way to deal with apparently unwarranted suffering through the examples of Jesus and the figure of Job. Accepting our circumstances––not to say we don’t try to better them––but accepting things we cannot change with a sweet spirit, the spirit of Jesus, what is irremediably wrong or even evil in our thinking can be transmuted into good in ways we simply cannot imagine unless we are enlightened by the Holy Spirit of God.
The suffering that we all endure in its different forms becomes more bearable when it’s shared with others. On September 20 I talked with you about why we come to church, and I want to go on in that vein for a bit. The suffering that we all endure in its different forms becomes more bearable when we share it in community. How do we share it? Simply by talking about it, with even one person. The cause of the suffering doesn’t necessarily go away, but when we talk about it to another human being, how relieved we feel, how heard, and that is a kind of palliative care.
I spoke with a member of this congregation after that service on the 20th, and she told me why she came to church. Her friends of many years were no longer available to her, and she felt very much alone. Because of the way she was feeling, she knew that she needed to do something about that or she would be in trouble, and so she began to attend church with us. Lucky us! It was just the balm she needed. She feels hope again and feels less alone and we are the far better for her company.
We all have reasons why we come to church, and next Sunday, we will have a mini sharing from anyone who is willing to stand up and say why they come to church, this church. I think this is valuable because it increases our sense of community. We gat to know each other in deeper ways that can be mutually inspiring. One person I know who will speak for a few minutes next week is Ted Smith. He has his Irish setter pup out on field trials this weekend, but he wanted to address this question: Why do I come to church? Please consider whether you too would be willing to speak. If so, let me know after the service on the way out, or give me a call or an email during the week. We’re building a house together, you and I. And we ourselves are the boards, the nails, the siding, the windows and so forth. And God has the plans. We just have to show up. As Ted has said to me, “Showing up is 95% of it.”
If showing up is 95%, sharing is perhaps the other 5%. We have the preeminent opportunity for sharing this morning, as it is Communion Sunday. Sharing a meal before God, as we will do today, makes everything, including inevitable suffering that enters everyone’s life, makes everything including suffering more bearable.
One caution: Go in fear of judgment on another, especially as you prepare for communion today. Let us abandon ourselves to God, as Jesus did, not trusting to our own understanding, but offering our limited understanding to God. This is a gesture of humble renunciation, which contains within it an admission that finally we don’t know all we think we know, and there are some things we can’t change to line up with our idea of how things should be. Submitting our idea of how things should be to Divine Wisdom, who is by definition how things are and inherently should be, is the way to know the vision of the good, the divine community, realized even here on earth.
In our grasping after power, whether or not we see it that way, we would make the world with its communities––especially our own communities––over into our image. What folly. What presumption against the vision God holds. Let us abandon our vision in favor of God’s vision of us in our lives, in our communities––especially this community of Sheepscott Community Church––and approach the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper with humility, gratitude and a willingness to learn something new, to see with new eyes, with the veil lifted. Amen.