Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sermon for Year B Proper 24


At the time,
my mother was still very,very active
and I was still doing consulting work for museums 
and other non-profits.
This was before ordination, before seminary,
before my mother’s dementia began
and quite a few years before her death.

It was an ordinary day.
My mother was going next door to where my sister lived
to babysit for my niece, my sister’s daughter.

As my mother went up the porch steps--
who knows what really happened--
but my mother fell,
crashing down onto the hard cement of the porch.

She knew something very bad had happened.
Indeed, she had broken her pelvis in several places.

After a trip to the hospital and x-rays and other tests,
my mother returned home,
in bed,
to heal.
There is not much that can be done for a broken pelvis 
other than time immobilized,
pain management,
and some rehabilitation with physical therapy--
but mainly it takes time.
Six to ten weeks usually.

Both my brother and sister at the time were very busy attorneys.
They had little flexibility in their schedules.
I was a consultant for museums.

The assumption was--well, you don’t have a “real” job
so can you come 
and be with Mother and help out
while she is recovering.

Well, consulting is a very real job,
but it does--sometimes-- have some flexibility.

I was in the middle of an enormous exhibit research 
and development project
but the truth was I could do that work
in Raleigh as easily as I could do it in Valle Crucis--
so I loaded up my car 
with boxes of files and boxes of books
and headed east.

I stopped along the way and bought a laptop computer.
My first.
When I got to my mother’s house,
I set up a wooden TV tray as my desk in her bedroom
where she was confined at the time
and it was just fine.

My mother was grateful for my presence.
And I was happy to be there for her,
for she had been there for me many, many times.

She slept a lot.
That was good for my getting work done.
But repeatedly, when she was awake,
she would say,
“You know, I just don’t understand.
I have tried all my life to live a good life.
To be kind and loving.
I just don’t understand what I did 
to make God punish me like this.”

Now I wasn’t ordained yet
but I was more than willing to jump into the theological fray 
of this question.

“Mother, you didn’t do anything.
God is not punishing you.
Sometimes things just happen.
God does not cause our suffering.”

My mother would nod and say,
“Oh, I know. You’re right. You’re right.”

But usually it would only be a matter of hours,
before she would begin wrestling once more 
with this age old question:
Why do bad things happen to good people?
Why does God allow good people, 
                        innocent people to suffer?

This question has been around for a long time.
This very question is the heart of the book of Job. 
Our readings for the past few weeks--and for a few weeks to come--
are taking us through Job’s struggle.

The book of Job is a long poetic reflection 
about the problem of human suffering.
We don’t know if Job was a real person
or just a symbolic human 
representing everyman and everywoman.

If God is good,
then why is there evil in the world?

Job is a faithful good person.
He has a loving wife and ten wonderful children.
He is successful. He is prosperous.
But most importantly,
he is faithful.

And then his world falls to pieces.
He loses everything.
Literally everything--his family, his livelihood, his health.

And his friends--as some friends are apt to do--show up 
and want to “fix” things, 
explain things to Job.

Something is wrong here, Job.
You must have done SOMETHING bad.
God is punishing you for something.
Righteous people, good people 
don’t have bad things happen to them.
So say Job’s friends.

But they are wrong.
Though their reasoning makes sense--
and we still hear that type of theology today.

Indeed, until the book of Job, this is the theology 
we hear in the Old Testament.
Do something bad--and God will punish.
Do something good--and God will reward you.

It’s just not that simple.

Sometimes life and loss and despair and death just happen.
Life sometimes just does not make rational sense.

Job tries to handle it.
But finally--he just explodes at God.
And God explodes right back.
That’s what we hear in the reading from Job today.

And there is good Creation season images in this scripture.
“Where were you, Job, when I, God, laid the foundations of the earth?
Where were you when the morning stars sang,
when the seas were formed...
God is telling Job,
“Look, my friend, you’re not God.
You didn’t create the world
and at times 
                 you are not going to be able 
                 to understand the world.”

The question is regardless of what happens to us,
can we still hold on to faith?
Or do we have faith because we want to be rewarded?

We live in a world which preaches that we deserve to be rewarded 
for our hard work.
This just does not always happen.

I know quite a few people who work work work
and they still live barely above the poverty level.

And I know students who study study study
and they still can’t get above a C- in Spanish class.

I know quite a few people who would love to have a job
but they haven’t been able to find one--
and yes, they have looked--and are still looking.

We have heard in the news recently about a 14 year old Pakistani girl, Mulala, was shot in the head,
simply because she wanted an education.
What happened to her is wrong, is evil

But the question is not why is there evil 
or why do good people have to suffer?

The question is
can we still continue to do good in the world
even in the face of evil?

Can we still continue to love
when we are surrounded by hate?

The question is how will we respond to evil, to suffering, 
to our own misfortune?
What will we do?
Will we cast ourselves in the role of the pitiful victim?
O Woe is me!
We will go about
complaining and blaming and scapegoating?
Those paths lead no where.

We need to continuously cultivate a reservoir of faith, of hope--
for when the drought hits--
and sooner or later, it strikes all of us.
Usually when we least expect it.

It doesn’t take long to go from lucky to unlucky.


No one is protected.
No one.

God gives us free will.
We are not puppets.
God gives us free will--this is what we believe as Episcopalians.
We are given choices.

We choose how we live.
We choose how we react when good things happen to us
and when bad things happen to us.

We all live a version of Job’s story.
Perhaps not quite as harsh or horrific.
Or perhaps for some, even more so.

Job makes a choice 
to continue to love God and to love life
no matter what.

Job knows that God is with him--
throughout all the bad things that have happened to him.
God is present.
Just as God is present with us when good things are happening.

Job teaches us something else as well.
And this is important.
Job teaches us that it is okay to yell at God.
It’s okay to lose all patience and just say,
“What are you thinking!!!???
Why is this happening?

I think God understands when we shout and rage 
against injustice and suffering and evil and disappointment.
I think God always prefers our real and honest emotions
instead of false piety or easy cliches.

God hears. Sometimes God even responds and speaks to us
as he did to Job.

But most of all,
God never abandons us. God never walks away.
When there is nothing left, God is still right beside us.

And here is the hard truth:
we cannot avoid suffering or failure or heartbreak.
What we are called to do by God
is to go THROUGH it--
not to dance around it or avoid it or run from it
or try to deny it is really happening--
we are called to go THROUGH it.
And yes, sometimes it does indeed 
feel like we are walking THROUGH
the valley of the shadow of death.

But, if we go THROUGH it --as Job did, as Jonah did,
as John the Baptist did, as Jesus did--
if we go THROUGH it WITH God,
we WILL come out the other side--
we don’t get to pick what the other side looks like--
but we WILL come out on the other side.

Frederick Buechner, in his wonderful book WISHFUL THINKING
writes about Job and says:

Maybe the reason God doesn’t explain to Job
why terrible things happen
is that he knows what Job needs isn’t an explanation.
Suppose that God did explain.
Suppose that God were to say to Job 
that the reason the cattle were stolen,
the crops ruined, and the children killed
was thus and so, spelling everything out
right down to and including the case of boils.
Job would have his explanation.
And then what?

Understanding...why his children had to die, 
Job would still have to face their empty chairs
at breakfast every morning.
Carrying in his pocket
straight from the horse’s mouth 
a complete theological justification for his boils,
he would still have to scratch and burn.

God doesn’t reveal his grand design.
He reveals himself.
He doesn’t show why things are as they are.
He shows his face....

Even covered with sores and ashes, [Job] looks oddly
like a man who has asked for a crust 
and been given the whole loaf.

Sometimes we look for answers and explanations
when we really need to just pay attention
and look for the face of God.



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