THE 20th SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST (YEAR B)
Sermon preached by The Rev. Dr. Allen F. Robinson
at Grace Church Brooklyn Heights, NY on Sunday, October 7, 2018.
The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil. He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.”
One of the oldest and greatest mysteries in the world plaguing the human condition is the existence of universal suffering. Since the beginning of time, there hasn’t been a single race, gender, ethnic group, society of people or specie of animal able to make the claim that they have been impervious to suffering. Suffering, in whatever form and degree it chooses to appear, is to be had by every single living being.
The specter of suffering is so powerful and runs rampant, deep and unchecked in the world, that even the God of Scripture decides not to intervene even when certain key Biblical figures come face to face with their moment of affliction. One scene we know all too well is at the cross. Jesus and Mary are subjected to unimaginable suffering at every inconceivable level: physical, emotional, spiritual and mental coupled with isolation, loneliness, loss, fear, betrayal, rejection and abandonment while all along the heavens seem eerily silent. That even Jesus, out of desperation on the cross, uses what little remaining breath and energy he has to ask the question, “My God, my God, where are you and why have you forgotten about me?”
Yet, we are reminded that, “The enfleshment and suffering of Jesus is saying that God is not apart from the trials of humanity. God is not aloof. God is not a mere spectator. God is participating with us.”1 (and that) “God is not merely tolerating human suffering. Or healing suffering. God is participating with us in it. That is what gives believers both meaning and hope.”2
This sense of suffering, powerlessness, abandonment and desperation bring us to today’s Old Testament lesson. In the land of Uz, we are told lives an upright, just and faithful man named Job, living peaceably and without concern or worry but whose life, in an instant, takes a radical and unprecedented turn for the worst. Job’s own suffering is so great that his wife, out of a sense of justice and fair play, mixed with a wave of emotions at what she sees happening to Job, says to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.”
This is the closest biblical account we have to modern day assisted suicide. That by encouraging Job to curse God, even with the intent of exacting justice on his behalf, is to try and force the hand of God to act in anger, fully aware of what the consequences would be. However, Job wisely resists the challenge to curse God and instead chooses to embark on a spiritual journey seeking to reframe his life and relationship with God. In short, he persists in his integrity.
I wonder what are Job’s concerns now that his life and security has been reduced to that of an ordinary human being forced to eek out and live a basic, simple, uncomplicated, ordinary lifestyle. Perhaps, in his affliction, Job’s own eyes are truly opened, recognizing that, in the end, regardless of personal power, wealth and livelihood that he and his family are no different than the poorest neighbor living at the end of the block. For many of us, like Job, a social status change of this magnitude would be difficult to grasp.
Franciscan Richard Rohr asserts that “the vast majority of us don’t come from a situation of poverty, oppression, enslavement, or marginalization, which is the privileged perspective for a beginner’s mind”3 and that “there’s a certain way the Gospel is heard when one’s stomach is empty. And a very different way it is heard when a people is satisfied.”4
The Christian ethicist Reinhold Niebuhr, in The Nature and Destiny of Man writes, “the more a person establishes herself/himself in power and glory, the greater is the fear of tumbling from her/his eminence, or losing her/his treasure, or being discovered in her/his pretensions. Poverty is a peril to the wealthy but not to the poor. Obscurity is feared, not by those who are habituated to its twilight but by those who have become accustomed to public acclaim.”5
Niebuhr goes on to assert that, “The person accustomed to luxury and ease actually meets a greater danger to life and mere existence in the hardships of poverty than those who have been hardened by its rigors…”6 concluding that “the fact that human ambitions know no limits must therefore be attributed not merely to the infinite capacities of the human imagination but to an uneasy recognition of humanity’s finiteness, weakness and dependence, which become the more apparent the more we seek to obscure them, and which generates ultimate perils, the more immediate insecurities are eliminated. Thus, man/woman seek to make himself/herself God because he/she is betrayed by both his/her greatness and his/her weaknesses; and there is no level of greatness or power in which the lash of fear is not at least one strand in the whip of ambition.”7
Perhaps, at the root of Satan’s challenge to God concerning Job and God’s challenge to us is that we are to find a spiritual path and engage a journey not dependent on material or worldly goods to define who we are as individuals but rather seek to be defined by the goodness of God’s own mercy. Rohr contends that we should see the story of Job as, “a journey into an ever-deepening encounter with God”8 and that by viewing Job’s experience in such a way “this will keep it from becoming an abstract debate observed from a distance.”9 “We can’t observe the question of suffering from a distance,”10 Rohr asserts, “but must go inside and find the rejected and fearful parts within each of us and try to live there if life has not yet put us there. That should allow us a deeper communion with the oppressed of the world, who are by far the majority of the human race.”11
Only when we are able to see all of life’s experiences, the good, the bad and the ugly, through the lens of a God who blesses us daily simply out of love, are we able to persist in our integrity in the face of trouble. Rohr affirms that, “If we wish to encounter more deeply into the mystery of redemptive suffering,…entering more deeply into the heart of God, we have to ask God to allow us to feel, not just to know. To feel what it means to be empty, abandoned, uncared for.”12 So, we may consult all of the fortune cookies, palm readers, tarot cards and crystal balls at our disposal, but in the end, we are all clueless about the path that life will take us on and powerless to change its course. Nevertheless, the Good News of the Gospel is that our faith in God prepares us to receive whatever life may throw our way!
1 Richard Rohr, Job and the Mystery of Suffering, (New York, Crossroad, 1996), 25
2 Rohr, Job, 25.
3 Rohr, Job, 14-15. 4 Rohr, Job, 15.
4 Rohr, Job, 15.
5 Reinhold Niebuhr, The Nature and Destiny of Man: Vol. 1, (Louisville, WJKP, 1996), 193-194.
6 Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny, 194.
7 Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny, 194.
8 Rohr, Job, 13.
9 Rohr, Job, 13.
10 Rohr, Job, 13.
11 Rohr, Job, 15.
12 Rohr, Job, 15.