Tuesday, October 20, 2015

The Spiritual Life as a Quest (A sermon from Job 23:1-9, 16-17)

Job believed God was responsible for the good and the bad that happened to people on earth. So after the first series of catastrophes where he loses family and fortune he says, “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.”

When Job is afflicted with painful soars all over his body and when his wife questions his loyalty to a God who would do this to him, he says, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?”

When Job’s friends first hear of his troubles the text says “they met together to go and console and comfort him. . . They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

If only his friends had continued that course. If only they would have absorbed some of Job’s frustration and anxiety without trying to correct him or set him straight. But when Job opens his mouth they open theirs.

Chapter 3 begins: “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth. Job said: ‘Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘A man-child is conceived! Let that day be darkness.” The day of his birth is not all Job curses. He curses God. He accuses God of being unjust. He questions God’s integrity. The phrase about the “patience of Job” couldn’t be further from the mark. It’s more like the defiance of Job.

Each of Job’s friends speak in three rounds and Job replies to them in turn. But basically their message is the same. They defend their view of God. They defend a theology of reward and retribution. They are unable to simply be with Job in his suffering and confusion. They are sure Job has sinned and that his suffering is God’s just treatment for his wrongdoing. Their theology usurps any compassion they might have or express for their friend. They are certain they are right. One way to read the book of Job is a protest against all theological certitudes.

A wall-eyed pike is put into an aquarium. He is fed for a number of days with little minnows. Then, in the middle of the experiment, a glass partition is placed down the middle of the aquarium so that the pike is now confined to one side.

Then the researchers drop minnows on the other side. So when the poor fish goes for the minnows he hits himself against the glass. He circles and hits it again. He tries a third time, but he is now hitting the glass a little less hard. After a few more times, he’s just sort of nosing up against the glass. He has a feeling he is not going to get those minnows. Pretty soon, he just swims around in circles and ignores the minnows on the other side.

At this point, those doing the experiment take out the glass. The minnows swim right up against the gills of the pike and the pike doesn’t even try to eat them. The experiment ends with the poor old pike starving himself to death.

The experiment could be a parable about the way we order our lives based on certitudes, assumptions, and beliefs that we accept as a given. Even when these certitudes are hurtful and harmful to others and ourselves, even when our assumptions diminish our lives and the lives of others, we don’t question them and still cling to them even though they are killing us.

Why do we do that? Why do some religious people, maybe many religious people favor doctrine and certitudes over compassion and grace? Could the root cause possibly be our own fear or insecurity? Could it stem from the ego, from our need to be right and to fit everything into its neat compartment? Could it be pride which stems from our need to be God’s favored people (the religious term here is blessed)? Ironically, our faith can actually become a way for us to avoid any real transformation. Our religious worship and practices can become a way to simply confirm our prejudices and make us feel better or more special than others.

As I said last week most of us look to our religious doctrines and our sacred scriptures to confirm the answers we already have, that we are already convinced of. Rarely do we read our sacred texts and allow them to evoke questions that take us beyond our certitudes and already held beliefs. Rarely do we read our sacred texts and allow them to confront and challenge our beliefs?

* * * * * * * * *
Life isn’t fair. If we find ourselves better off than others it is NOT because we are more worthy or more favored by God. If we find ourselves worse off than others it’s not because of some wrongdoing – though it is true that sometimes we bring disaster on ourselves. But God doesn’t single us out. As Jesus said God the sunshine and the rain fall on the just and unjust.

The book of Job challenges all conventional and popular religion that says wealth and success and health is the result of the blessing of God and that misfortune is the result of the punishment of God. In reality, it’s the luck of the draw. Now it is true that some of us squander our opportunities, but the fact that we have these opportunities in the first place – opportunities for an education, access to health care, to be able to pursue some career and engage in productive work, to enjoy life – these opportunities are ours by luck of the draw.

I told someone the other day I wish everyone on this earth could have the opportunities I have been given to enjoy life, to make the most of life. And I am extremely grateful for these opportunities. But these opportunities did not come to me because God favored me over others, and they could be gone in an instant. God wants all people to be able to experience the opportunities I have known in my life. I have been lucky. Most of these opportunities relate to things over which I have had no control – the context of my early childhood – I was brought up in a loving family, my time and place in history, my physiology and genetics, the many influences that have helped form me, and on and on. I have had no control over many of these profoundly shaping influences. On the other hand, because of genetics or poverty or lack of a caring, nurturing environment, there are others who have very limited opportunities in life. Life isn’t fair.

Job is experiencing that firsthand. Who do you think has more faith? Job’s friends who offer the same old conventional answers or the defiant Job who refuses to give in or give up, but keeps crying out and questioning and seeking some sort of resolution with God? Job is not patient, but Job sure is persistent. Job’s friends are just pitiful.

If his friends would have just listened to him and empathized with him, rather than repeating their conventional answers maybe they would have grown in their faith, maybe they would have become more. But they are stuck in their certitudes and self-righteousness. And the pitiful thing is that they think they are being true and loyal to God.

On the cover of the Courier Journal on Wednesday of last week was a picture of Al Mohler, president of SBTS, and with the picture was a quote where Mohler says that even if science eventually proves that homosexuality is caused by biology that discovery  would not force the church to abandon its position on the sinfulness of homosexuality, that reality, contends Mohler would not nullify what he says is the clear teaching of scripture or validate same-sex attraction. In other words, says Mohler, I believe what I believe what I believe, and nothing is going to change my mind. Mohler believes what he believes without question. Al Mohler reminds me of the friends of Job.

Jonathan Merritt of the Religious News Service had a very good piece in the latest edition of Baptists Today. He points out the trend among conservative Christian leaders to oppose the normalization of same-sex relationships. Merrit points out that in Mohler’s most recent book Mohler bemoans the normalization of same-sex relationships some 39 times. Merrit quotes other such as senior vice president of the Family Research Council who argued that evangelicals who want to normalize same-sex attraction is in his words an “offense to God and the Gospel.” Popular pastor and author John Piper called this trend “the new calamity” in America.

After citing these examples, Merritt points out that a cousin to the word normalizing is the word tolerant. So what these Christians are arguing is that anything that would increase tolerance of same-sex relationships should be resisted. Merritt points out that this automatically leads to marginalizing and ostracizing, banishing and shunning. He points out that the one who resists the normalization of LGBT couples wants them pushed out to the margins, outside circles of respectability.

He concludes his piece with these words:
          “I’ve tried to imagine Jesus approving of such tactics. Jesus is a man who offers his disciples a glimmering gold standard for relating to others: ‘Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them.’
          “The most rigid religious leaders in Jesus’ day, like those in ours, complained that offering outsiders a seat at the table somehow legitimized them. But Jesus didn’t seem to care. He kept welcoming them to the table anyway.
          “Those the religious leaders rejected, Jesus received. Those whom the religious leaders pushed to the margins, Jesus welcomed to the center. Jesus was focused on building bridges while the religious leaders were focused on building barriers.
          “Some things never change. It is time for the faithful to set aside the scare words, take a long view, look our neighbors in the eye and walk the way of Jesus.”

Let me ask you: What’s more important to you – being like Jesus in the way you love others or in being right? Would you want to be like Job’s friends who feel they must defend their view of God even though it means afflicting more suffering on their friend? Or would you rather be like Job and have the courage to confront and challenge the God you think is being unfair? Of course when we contend with God we are really contending with our beliefs and assumptions about God aren’t we? Because that’s all we have. We live by faith.

Sam Keen says that when he changed from identifying himself as believer to a searcher he came to adopt “the quest” as a metaphor of his willingness to live with and wrestle with the perennial questions that he says underlie the mythic answers that religion offers. I like that image.

Let me ask you: What would it mean if you adopted the image of a quest as your image of the spiritual life? Are you someone looking to explore new places or are you entrenched where you are and will not move?

I will close with these questions: What difference might it make in your life if you decided to think of the spiritual life as a journey where new places are visited and new discoveries made, rather than as a fortress that you feel you have to defend and protect? Would that make a difference in the way you think about God? Would that help you to become a more accepting, welcoming, loving, and compassionate person? Would it make you less critical and judgmental? Would it give your life more joy and meaning?


Our good God, I pray that our consideration of the unchangeableness of Job’s friends in contrast to Job’s willingness to take the conversation to new places even if he is somewhat defiant and bold will challenge us to be willing to take the conversation about you and your will and way in the world to new places that might actually invigorate us and energize us and empower us to be the sort of people who reflect the love and compassion of Jesus and are willing stand up to injustice even though it might be costly. Give us the courage and will to move out of our safe houses and explore new lands. 

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