This week’s sermon.
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.