What Do You Say to the Person who has Lost Everything?

This week’s sermon.

The text is Job 38:1-7, 34-41.

Last week, we asked the question: “What do you get for the person who has everything?” And the answer we came up with, following the gospel story of Jesus and the rich man, is “Nothing.”

This week, we’re going to flip that question around 180 degrees and ask, “What do you say to the person who has lost everything?”

That’s the question that hits us as we read the story of Job, as we have been doing in our readings from the Hebrew Scriptures these past few weeks. The book of Job contains the most well-known story of suffering in all of human history. This story has been read the world over by people in different countries, languages, and religious traditions.

The story follows this guy Job, a decent person who stands by helplessly as everything he loves is suddenly taken away from him. In the end, he is left sitting by himself on a garbage heap, wondering what the heck just happened. Eventually, his friends come along and try to comfort him with sage advice and religious platitudes like, “Don’t worry, God has a plan” and “Everything happens for a reason.” But these bumper-sticker slogans do nothing to comfort Job in the midst of his pain. In fact, Job’s friends end up making the situation worse as they proceed to blame the victim for his own suffering. Following the line of conventional wisdom that one finds in the book of Proverbs, they theorize that God must be punishing Job for some secret sin, and if Job would simply search his heart and confess whatever he had done wrong, the affliction would leave him and all would be well again.

But Job isn’t buying what these so-called “defenders of the faith” are selling. Their sloganeering has less to do with comforting the suffering person and more to do with comforting themselves. They think that if they can identify some specific reason why all this suffering was visited upon Job, then they can prevent something similar from happening to them. So they recite these pointless platitudes that seem reasonable to them, but do nothing to alleviate Job’s pain.

Sadly, I’ve noticed this same tendency in a lot of religious people over the years. When unthinkable tragedy strikes, people of faith are often the first to offer some kind of explanation or solution, no matter how badly conceived, whether it was asked for or not. They say things like, “God has a plan… Everything happens for a reason… God took your baby because he needed another angel in heaven… There’s a lesson in this for you, if you would just learn it… You just need to have more faith… God never gives you more than you can handle…” Just like Job’s friends, I think those who say these things are more interested in comforting themselves than comforting the one who is suffering. People who are going through incredible pain don’t need bumper stickers or Bible verses, they need friends who will stay with them through the pain, listen to their struggles, and not try to “fix” them.

Like Job, most people who suffer know instinctively how unhelpful these pat answers are. They might listen politely, but on the inside they usually walk away feeling more alone and hopeless than ever. Job, however, was not so polite in his response to his friends. He was brutal in his honesty. He defended his own integrity, shook his fist at the sky, and straight-up accused God of being unfair.

At the beginning of his story, Job’s remarks still sound conventionally religious: “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.” (1:21) A little while later, Job’s anger begins to show as he curses the day he was born (3:1). He is harsh toward his friends and their unhelpful advice, calling them “miserable comforters” and wondering why they keep talking at all.

Eventually, Job lets loose his anger toward God directly. He says that God has wronged him (19:6), denied him justice (27:1), and demands a response from God (31:35). There is nothing in Job’s tirade that sounds like traditional piety or stoic resilience in the face of suffering. He says that God owes him an answer; he dares God to come down from heaven and face him like a man, and that’s exactly what happens.

Today’s reading from the book of Job outlines the beginning of God’s response to Job’s demand. Job finally gets the face-to-face encounter he’s been shouting for, but it doesn’t exactly turn out like Job had expected.

To begin with, God doesn’t offer Job any answers, only questions: sixty of them, to be exact. The first question sets the stage for the rest: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And it only gets more intense from there: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? …On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? …Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?” This is just a small sample of the questions God asks Job in response to Job’s demand for an answer.

Job finally gets his face-to-face encounter with God, but none of the answers he was looking for. The voice from the whirlwind overwhelms Job with a barrage of questions about the mystery and the grandeur of the universe. Job is left standing in awe. His only response, at the end of the interrogation, is a stunned silence. In chapters 40 and 42, he calls himself “small” and says, “I lay my hand on my mouth… I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

Job’s experience of God’s presence is hardly sweet, comforting, or peaceful, but it was exactly what he needed. The attempt of Job’s friends to present a tame, orderly, and comprehensible God left Job feeling empty and dissatisfied, but the blunt force of awestruck mystery was enough to shake him out of his pain-induced stupor. Job never got his answer, but he got what he needed: a direct experience of God’s presence. Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you”. Somehow, that was enough for Job, even when there were no answers or solutions to be found.

So, this leads us back to our initial question.

Last week, we asked, “What do you get for the person who has everything?” And the answer we came up with was, “Nothing.”

This week, we are asking, “What do you say to the person who has lost everything?” And the answer is the same: “Nothing.”

This is an important lesson for us to learn in today’s Church, where too many Christians are prone to lean back on empty platitudes instead of trying to be really present with those who suffer. It’s not our job to offer easy answers to tough questions or come up with quick fixes to big problems. Our job is to be with each other when we suffer, to listen, to empathize, to ask questions. Somehow, this means more to people than all the answers and solutions in the world. Our friends in pain may never remember what we say, but they will remember that we were there with them when times were tough. This is the Church at its best.

What’s even cooler is that, in the midst of our care for each other, we begin to sense another, mysterious presence in our midst. Our love for each other points the way to a bigger love, the Biggest Love, that holds the universe together in arms that will not let us go.

I think about this mystery each Sunday as we celebrate the Eucharist. As a pastor, people often come to me with problems we don’t know how to solve and painful questions I don’t know how to answer. It gets overwhelming sometimes. I am keenly aware that many of you may be going through something horrible this morning, and there is nothing I can say from this pulpit that will make you feel any better. Clergy are neither psychologists, nor social workers, nor business managers, nor politicians. I don’t actually know how to fix the problems in your life, the church, or the world, but what I can do is invite you down to the front of this church each Sunday, hand you a piece of bread, and say, “The Body of Christ, given for you.”

What I can offer you is Christ, sacramentally present with us in bread and wine. As we share the Body of Christ, we become the Body of Christ (you are what you eat). We become part of each other through Christ, and Christ’s presence becomes apparent among us through each other. This presence, more than anything else, is the most healing thing we can offer to each other in moments of pain.

Let us be present with each other then, no matter what we are going through, in order that we may be attentive also to the healing, sacramental presence of Christ in our midst.


Christ our Mother

The text for this sermon is Mark 7:24-37.

[Editorial note: I didn’t realize until after I wrote this sermon that it’s Labor Day weekend.]

I saw a video this past week of two guys who believed their wives were exaggerating when it came to the pain of childbirth. The two of them were talking real tough as they walked into a hospital together. But while they were there, a doctor hooked them up to electrodes that caused contractions in their abdominal muscles of a comparable severity to labor contractions for just one hour. The result was hilarious (and the best part is that their wives got to see the whole thing). Let’s just say that, after all was said and done, those guys weren’t talking so tough anymore.

Obviously, I can’t speak from firsthand experience, but I trust the mothers around me when they tell me that childbirth is one of the most painful things a human being can experience in life. And I also believe those same mothers when they tell me that the pain is worthwhile.

What makes the pain of labor worthwhile is that it is pain with a purpose. It is meaningful pain. A mother willingly undergoes this suffering for the sake of the child, who she loves, and to whom she is giving the gift of life. I have seen this joy that redeems the suffering in my own mother, my wife, and in almost all the mothers I know. They tell me it’s worth it and I believe them.

I was thinking about motherhood and labor pains this week as I read this Sunday’s Gospel. In these verses, there is a tremendous amount of maternal imagery that Mark uses. The first is obvious, as we follow the story of a mother, the Syrophoenician woman who would stop at nothing to relieve her daughter’s suffering. Her motherly love gave her the faith to defy the cultural, religious, and gender stereotypes of her time and stand up to Jesus, demanding healing for her child.

The second maternal reference is less obvious. It takes place a few verses later as Jesus takes a hearing-impaired man with a speech impediment aside to administer healing in private. After placing fingers in the man’s ears, spitting, and touching his tongue, St Mark tells us that Jesus looked up to heaven, “sighed and said to [to the man], “Ephphatha,” that is, “Be opened.””

The key word here is sighed. In the original Greek, the word is estenaxen. In other parts of Scripture, this word is translated as “to groan” or “to grieve.” One word study I consulted defined estenaxen as “to groan because of pressure of being exerted forward (like the forward pressure of childbirth).” Estenaxen is the Greek word that is used to describe the kinds of sound that an expecting mother makes in the delivery room. Now… I don’t know about you but, based on this working definition, I think it would be fair to say that our English translation (the NRSV) might be a little too conservative when it translates estenaxen in this passage as “sighed.” I would like you to imagine Jesus crying out with the same intensity as a woman in childbirth. This is an expression of deep, gut-wrenching pain that is undertaken for the sake of love and giving life.

Most immediately, the birth happening in this passage is that of the man who cannot hear or speak. Jesus says to him (and we can imagine him screaming it) in Aramaic: “Ephaphtha!” “Be opened!” Christ’s healing power is opening the doors of communication in this person’s life: allowing him to understand others and be understood by others for the first time in his life. This is no small miracle, especially for us as we read it today in this polarized society where the channels of interpersonal communication are being cut off by the barriers of race, class, politics, and religion. The ability to communicate is central to our identity as human beings, made in God’s image. Jesus gave this man that gift: the gift of humanity that can be seen and recognized by all. When I read the headlines from Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and Houston, when I see videos of reporters being gunned down on live TV and photos of dead immigrant children washing up on the beach, I pray that Jesus will once again give birth to that kind of miracle in us today. Lord, open our ears to hear and our tongues to speak clearly because we have obviously stopped communicating with each other.

Speaking more broadly, I believe that Jesus endures the pain of childbirth for all of us in his passion and death on the cross. In this saving work, Jesus is our mother who gives birth to us, in a spiritual sense. This image of Jesus as a pregnant mother might seem strange or disturbing to us, whose theology has been shaped by centuries of sexism in the institutional church, but I assure you that it is thoroughly biblical and orthodox.

You don’t even have to take my word for it; look it up for yourself in Matthew 23:37: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” Jesus did not shy away from referring to himself as a mother.

Writing about a thousand years ago, an English theologian and monk named St Anselm of Canterbury said:

Jesus, as a mother you gather your people to you; *
you are gentle with us as a mother with her children.
Often you weep over our sins and our pride, *
tenderly you draw us from hatred and judgment.
You comfort us in sorrow and bind up our wounds, *
in sickness you nurse us and with pure milk you feed us.
Jesus, by your dying, we are born to new life; *
by your anguish and labor we come forth in joy.

A few centuries after Anselm, another English monastic, a mystical visionary named Julian of Norwich, wrote:

Christ came in our poor flesh *
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death; *
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.

Jesus is our mother, who suffers the pains of childbirth for us and for what he intends to be born in us. In the pain of our lives, we too are in the process of birth. St Paul writes to the Romans:

“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God… We know that the whole creation has been groaning (there’s that same Greek word again) in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan (there it is again) inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

All of us, along with Jesus himself and the whole universe, are screaming with the pain of childbirth. The pain in our lives is not meaningless. I cannot and do not claim to know why particular instances of pain and suffering occur, why they take the form they do, or why they are so intense for some and so mild for others. Let me say it again: I know nothing of these things.

But what I do not know, I believe. I believe that our pain can be meaningful, that our pain, if we let it, can make us stronger, braver, more empathetic, and more compassionate toward our fellow suffering human beings (i.e. more like Christ himself). I believe that we will discover the meaning of our pain, not by looking back and asking “Why me?” but by looking forward and asking “Now what?”

I believe the meaning of our pain will become clearer as we hold onto each other’s hands, breathing together like pregnant women in labor in the same maternity ward at the same time, working with Jesus, our mother and our midwife, who is giving birth to himself in us.

“Therefore,” it says in the New Testament book of Hebrews, “since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

Consider him who endured such hostility against himself from sinners, so that you may not grow weary or lose heart… lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”