Embracing the tragic sense of life (A sermon from Job 23:1-9, 16-17, and Hebrews 4:12-16)
Until we face some something that challenges our beliefs and assumptions, we tend to accept and believe what we have been taught, what was handed down to us in the process of being socialized into society by family, friends, peers, teachers, and the people we admire and are drawn to in our culture. Job believed what most everyone else believed in his culture, namely, that God was responsible for the good and 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?” He is still locked in to this view of God.
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. It’s not long before Job changes his tune. The narrator says, “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. At this point in in the story we make a shift from the patience of Job to the defiance of Job.
When Job changes his tune, his friends feel compelled to speak. 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 their feelings of compassion for their friend. They cannot idly set back and just absorb Job’s defiance. They feel compelled to defend their beliefs about God, which trumps any compassion they might have felt for their friend. They are certain they are right. Sound familiar? One way to read the book of Job is a protest against all theological certitudes. Job is a wisdom book that challenges the conventional wisdom of the day.
In a particular experiment 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. Now he is conditioned to know that 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.
That could well be a parable about the way we persist in clinging to our beliefs and assumptions even when they are killing us and others. Consider how often we continue to cling to our assumptions and beliefs even when they diminish our lives, even when they are hurtful and harmful to ourselves and others.
Why do we do that? Why do we dig in and defend our views and values when they are unhealthy, when they are life diminishing? I have no definitive answers to give, but I have some thoughts. Some of it, I think, has to do with our need to fit in and our fear of exclusion, our fear of being rejected or ridiculed or marginalized.
Not too long ago our Sunday School class looked at that wonderful story in John 9 which I have preached about several times over the course of my ministry, where Jesus heals a man born blind. The Pharisees are upset because Jesus healed him on the Sabbath. So, the Pharisees first of all question the man Jesus healed, then they question his neighbor, and next they question his parents, But his parents refuse to answer their questions. They say to the Jewish leaders, “Ask him, he is of age. He can speak for himself.” Then the narrator says, “His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue.” To be put out of the synagogue meant marginalization, it meant exclusion or excommunication from the community. They feared that. And we fear it too, right? We want to be liked. We want to fit in with our group – whether the group is our family, our friends, our church, our social network, or whoever. It’s not easy to swim against the current. That’s one reason we become entrenched in beliefs and values that are not helpful, and sometimes harmful
I think another reason we tend to dig in and defend our views and values even when they are not doing us or anyone else any good is because of our ego. We want to be right. We want to be in control. When our ego is in charge our faith, our Christianity becomes just another tool we use to justify the status quo. We use our faith to make us feel good about our biases and prejudices. Think of all the Christians today who actually use their religious faith to justify racism, sexism, exceptionalism, and materialism. They use their faith to justify their prejudices against certain kinds of people. The Apostle Paul, before his encounter with Christ, is a good example of someone who did just that. Paul hated Christians, before he became one, before he had an encounter with the Christ. He inflicted suffering on them, and used his faith to justify his hate. Many American Christians are doing the very same thing today toward the undocumented in our country, and our LGBTQ sisters and brothers.
Now, the one thing that can break the hold of hate-filled, controlling beliefs and values, other than a direct encounter with Christ, is personal and communal suffering. And maybe that’s why suffering is necessary, because only suffering can loosen the stranglehold of our ego. Job’s suffering led to his defiance with regard to his previously held views of God. His defiance is part of his growth. Without the suffering he would have continued just as he was. Many times it’s the same for us. Unless there is something that interrupts life as usual we continue just as we are. We don’t change.
I used to think not so very long ago, possibly the last time I preached on this subject, that some suffering has no redemptive value. I was thinking about the horrific suffering inflicted by war, of the genocides of history, of the terrible evil that human beings can do to one another. And perhaps it is true in individual cases. We tend to think individually, and if we think only of individuals and their suffering then it may well be true that some suffering has no redemptive value. But if we can back up and take a wide view and a long view beyond our individual lives and our personal stories we could perhaps see that as a species we are not where we were a millennium ago. As a nation e might not survive. The great experiment in American democracy is very tentative and may not last. But if we look beyond our nation and beyond our personal stories, and take the long and wide view, we will see that as a species, as human beings, we have made some progress. Suffering is what moves us forward as a species and teaches us how to replace hate with love. And it is also true individually, though much suffering is unfair and unjust.
Richard Rohr states it this way: “Allowing God to be our Lord is not something we can do as easily as believing this, doing that, attending this, or avoiding that. It is always a process of a lifetime, a movement toward union that will always fill like a loss of self-importance and autonomy. The private ego will resist and rationalize in every way that it can. My experience is that, apart from suffering, failure, humiliation, and pain, none of us will naturally let go of our self-sufficiency. We will think that our story is just about us. It isn’t.” He nails it. Our significance and true meaning comes from who we are in God and who we are as part of a larger whole – what Jesus called the kingdom of God, and what Paul called the body of Christ. It does not come from our single, individual successes or failures, sufferings and joys. Suffering teaches us that we are part of something much larger than ourselves, and our purpose and real significance comes in working with and in connection to the whole for the common good, for the liberty and justice of all, which, today, in our country our political leaders and a great many Americans have completely lost sight of.
In our text last week from the book of Hebrews Jesus is presented as our brother who as the pioneer of our salvation was made whole, made complete through suffering. Suffering is the process through which we too, like our Lord, are brought to maturity and wholeness.
People in great power who think they are “something” will suffer and be reduced to ashes like the rest of us, because no one escapes death. And many of those who were affected by their decisions and their use or abuse of power will be glad they are gone. Suffering has a way of shattering our illusions that we are more special than others. It has a way of bursting our righteous bubbles and presumptions that we are the ones who are saved or chosen because we have believed the right things, or been splashed with holy water, or call God by the right name, or accepted Jesus into our hearts. Suffering puts us in our place, so that God can work some humility and honesty and compassion in our lives.
When we get to the end of Job, God doesn’t answer a single question Job asks. God shows up, and that seems to be enough. We all will suffer in life. But when we look around in our world, when we lift up our heads long enough and high enough to see beyond our own concerns and personal interests, it is quite obvious that there are huge differences in the intensity and degree of human suffering on our planet. Life is unfair. One might blame God for that injustice, but just maybe it was the only way God could bring about life in the world. So much of our lives is simply about the luck of the draw. Certainly we bring some suffering on ourselves, but much in life is beyond our control. This is what Job struggled with. Life itself is unpredictable and God cannot do anything about it.
But here’s the truth of it. God is part of all of it. God is part of all the suffering and the blessing of human life. This is the fundamental reality and lesson we learn from Jesus’s sufferings. Jesus is our symbol of the suffering, crucified God. God shares in the suffering of the creation. The writer of Hebrews says that Jesus was tested or tried by suffering as we are, yet without sin. I don’t think that means that Jesus was faultless or perfect, for if he was, he would not be human. In fact, the author of Hebrews has already said (if you remember from the passage we read last week) that Jesus was made perfect, that is, he was made whole or complete through his sufferings. What the writer means when he says that Jesus was without sin is that Jesus did nothing to deserve his suffering. He was unjustly executed as an insurrectionist. Much of our suffering is unjust suffering. Job didn’t deserve what happened to him. Jesus didn’t either. So Jesus, who in our Christian symbolism becomes the cosmic Christ, the Divine Spirit who is for all and in all, shares completely the human condition.
What all of this means is that God is not watching us from a distance. God is intimately a part of all our experiences. God is part of the travail of creation. God is the vulnerable God who walks with the creation along its evolutionary path. When Paul says that creation groans in labor pains as creation moves closer to the day of liberation and redemption, it is God who is groaning too. It is the Divine Spirit, the cosmic Christ incarnated in the world who groans with creation and with all of us as he bears with us the weakness and sin and suffering of our humanity and the creation. Even though we may curse our suffering, even though we pray like Jesus that the cup pass from us, can we, also, like Jesus resolve to walk through it? So that, like Jesus, we might be made whole and complete through our suffering.
O God, help us to keep our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, our high priest who walks with us through the pain and suffering of life. And now, as we share in this sacred meal, may we remember how Jesus suffered, and may we know in our hearts that the living Christ even now shares our suffering and pain.