... And He Lived Happily Ever After The Rev. Amy Spagna
October 25, 2015 – Pentecost 22B Job 42:1-6. 10-17
One of the TV shows you’ll find on my DVR is the HBO series Last Week Tonight. If you’re not familiar with the show, it’s similar to its cousins The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in how it looks at the week’s news through the lens of satire. One of Last Week Tonight’s features is a lengthy essay segment which explores a variety of cultural topics, ranging from food waste to discrimination against minority groups. Several weeks ago, the host of the show, an Englishman by the name of John Oliver, used this time to explore the so-called prosperity Gospel, including how some televangelists manage to raise exorbitant amounts of money by preaching it. This questionable piece of theology holds that what we give to the Church will eventually come back to us, in the form of wealth that’s been greatly multiplied. The promise usually goes something like this: if you give $50 as your “seed faith,” you’ll harvest far more back in return. It’s a little bit like the parable of the mustard seed, except it lacks the part about how that planted seed has to be properly cared for if it’s to grow into something green and fragrant.
To learn more about how this “prosperity Gospel” supposedly works, Oliver decided to invest in one of the television ministries preaching it. He sent the church a letter, along with a donation of $20. Over the course of the next seven months, Oliver received over thirty form letters from the church’s senior pastor in return. The second of these letters contained a dollar bill, and instructed him to send it back with his, “best prove God tithes or your best offering” of an additional $37. (Yes, that’s a quote directly from the actual letter.) Oliver’s comment was, “It’s like being pen pals with someone who’s in bad with a loan shark.” He then went on to describe how all of the letters instructed him to return the contents, along with another donation. No matter what was in the envelope – and there was some truly bizarre stuff, including a dollar bill which Oliver was instructed to put into a Bible overnight, and then return in exchange for yet another a dollar bill which had been specially blessed – the instructions, and the pitch, were the same: “Keep sending us your money, and you’ll get even more in return!”1
That pitch, and the empty promises underlying it, sound more than a little bit like the explanations Job’s friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar tried to give him after he lost everything. They spend far too much time trying to convince him that not only is he to blame for his suffering, but also that he alone has the power to fix it. It isn’t hard to imagine them taking the step of telling Job he has to go see the priests at the Temple to properly atone for whatever he’s done – or at least, to let them do it on his behalf. “You know it’s your fault, Job – but we can help! Just send us to the temple with the one last shekel you have there in your pocket, and we’ll give it to the priest for you. THAT will make God happy. Then you can put this whole mess behind you and just get on with your life.”
1 Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, “Televangelists,” Episode 49. [Original airdate: August 16, 2015]. YouTube video, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7y1xJAVZxXg [accessed October 19, 2015].
Of course, that’s not how it works. At least in part because of the transformation Job has undergone, it is VERY dangerous to look at this “happily ever after” strictly from the point of view of the material wealth God restores to him. To do so is a gross oversimplification, not to mention reduces his struggles to the level of the absurd. As Job himself says over and over again, he’s not as interested in getting back his stuff as much as he is in getting an answer to what God is up to. At least, the happily ever after begs the question of what the whole point of this exercise in suffering is. It’s not a matter of needing to remind people of the fact that suffering is part of the human condition, or to raise questions about the causes and the nature of that suffering. Instead, it’s about how we perceive God’s power and presence within the bounds of our relationship with God. Until we, like Job, can recognize the extreme imbalance there, we too will be left on our ash heaps with nothing more than a potsherd for comfort.
Job’s encounter with God has left him with virtually nothing, except for the faith which generates his complaints. As we heard last week, God is very quick to disarm Job’s whining: “Gird up your loins like a man, and I will answer you. Where were you when I created the heavens and the earth?” (Job 38:3-4, NRSV) Job can only answer this charge one way, and that is by admitting he hasn’t seen God for who God really is. It’s at this point when we see the change that this encounter has brought about in Job. When faced with his status as mere dust and ashes, he can do nothing, except to pause and recognize just how little he really understands about God. The very terms of the relationship have been changed. We can hear it in how Job’s tone softens. Instead of demanding an answer, he simply states the parameters of this relationship: “I will question you, and you will declare to me” (Job 42:4, NRSV).
It is worth noting that Job’s repentance in no way equals an acceptance of God’s judgment, or an admission that he has sinned.2 The Hebrew word translated as “repent” can also mean “recant” or “despise.” I’m also told the Hebrew does not make entirely clear what Job has recanted, or what he despises. The best guess is that it’s his former attitude of taking God’s presence, and the blessings which go along with it, for granted. What he learns, despite the lack of an answer to his question of, “why me?” is there is far more to God and God’s presence than anything he could possibly have imagined.
It’s precisely because of this change that God restores Job’s fortunes. It’s easy to interpret this act as God’s somehow returning the favor for all of Job’s suffering – or, as the letters John Oliver received from the televangelist put it, Job has harvested all the “seeds” he has planted through his faith. What the editors of the lectionary have left out is that this restoration begins with Job’s so-called friends, in their role as community leaders. Listen to what God tells them:
“After the LORD had spoken these words to Job, the LORD said to Eliphaz the Temanite, ‘I am incensed at you and your two friends, for you have not spoken the
2 Dale P. Andrews, “Homiletical Perspective: Job 42:1-6, 10-17.” Feasting on the Word. Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17 – Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009), 197.
truth about Me as did My servant Job. Now take seven bulls and seven rams and go to My servant Job and sacrifice a burnt offering for yourselves. And let Job, my servant, pray for you; for to him I will show favor and not treat you vilely, since you have not spoken the truth about Me as did my servant Job.” (Job 42:8-9, JPS)
As leaders, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar are called to make this sacrifice on behalf of the whole community. It is the action as prescribed in Leviticus as an appropriate remedy for their having sinned without knowing it. For his part, Job’s prayers are meant to remind him that he, “... must show the empathy that [his friends] had not shown, and leaving his cocoon of self-interest and self-pity.”3 He has to show that his transformation is a permanent one. His prayers on behalf of the community are what we might recognize as an act of radical forgiveness. At the least, they are the actions of a man who has come to see and know that God’s presence in the world is far bigger than the well-intentioned and often trite sentiments offered up by his friends.
The encounter with God is the REAL “happily ever after,” not the restoration of Job’s property, the gift of ten more children, and a lifespan of 140 years. It still comes at a price. It isn’t a matter of pouring colored oil onto a piece of paper and slipping it into the mail, along with a check for $19.95, or even what it costs God in terms of grace to do this. Instead, it’s about what it costs Job to invest heavily again in his family as he knows what it’s like to lose it all.4 He can bear all the what-ifs and worst-case scenarios of this risk because of his faithfulness. He has learned that there is not some kind of proportional relationship between the suffering he has faced and any kind of reward he can expect to receive, either in this life or the life to come.
If there’s anything we can learn from Job, it’s that God is present in the suffering which is part of the human condition. All that is required of us is to turn and look for God there, instead of trusting in the empty promise of a quick fix or an overly simple explanation which attempts to place blame somewhere. Those are the wrong questions to be asking – or, if you will, the wrong place to put our money. What we should be asking instead is how to be present to, and with, people who are experiencing some kind of hardship. That’s really what we’re doing when we pledge our time, our talent, and our treasure to this community. It’s a pledge to show up, as God shows up, and not to try to convince our friends that their suffering is something which can be fixed without our help. That pledge does not cost us any more than its face value, nor does it have to be put into the mail with additional donations to prove our sincerity. Instead, following Jesus’ lead, we
take it, give thanks for it, and trust that God will make it into something wondrous.
3 Mayer Gruber, “Job Commentary.” The Jewish Study Bible, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler, Editors (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 1561-2.
4 Ellen F. Davis, Getting Involved with God: Rediscovering the Old Testament (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley, 2001), 142.
October 11, 2015 Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Psalm 22:1-15, Mark 10:17-31
If you’ve been listening closely to the readings chosen for today, it seems as if they have given us all the ingredients for a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day, no matter which way you cut it. First we have Job, who is once again trying to explain to his friends that the horrible predicament he’s in is not his fault. He can’t even find God to ask the burning question of, “Why me?” and it frightens him. Following that is the Psalmist’s plaintive cry that she or he is in big trouble and there is no one to help. And THEN, to top it all off, we have the story of a rich young man who can’t deal with Jesus’ instructions to go and sell all his possessions and donate the proceeds to the poor. It is not what he expected in return for his piety. The shock of hearing that he hasn’t been doing things right all along all leaves him unable to do anything other than leave in tears. For better or for worse, he is the only one who has any ability to fix it.
Just like many of us at times, this young man can’t quite come to grips with the idea of giving up his many possessions. It isn’t the stuff itself so much as it is his attitude towards it. Just as it was with Job, it is all too easy to think that his material wealth is a tangible sign of God’s blessing, regardless of what he’s done with it. Also like most of us, this young man is faithful, at least when it comes to his obedience to the Law. Keeping all the commandments is an essential piece to maintaining his relationship with God. It’s just the right way to live – and, it definitely has its rewards, as evidenced by his status as one of society’s elites.
These two things, material wealth and slavish obedience to the Law, are the only things which seem to matter to this young man, and to so many of the other people who approach Jesus. It could not have been easy for them to hear that a great deal of what they took for granted wasn’t quite right. However, Jesus NEVER tells his questioners not to follow the rules. He simply wants them to remember that those rules are rooted in the need for connection with one’s fellow human beings. It’s in this area that the rich young man has gone off the rails a bit. Jesus’ instruction to him to sell everything he owns is intended to force him to pay attention to those outside his immediate sphere of influence. He can only get access to that region beyond if he isn’t burdened by the many possessions he has. The implications of Jesus’ words are clear: sharing in the hardships and need of one’s fellow human beings is a requirement for life in the Kingdom.1 Or, as St. Paul would later remind the Christian community to whom he addressed his Letter to Galatians, the Law doesn’t matter nearly as much as their faith in Christ. At the end of a long rant about slavish obedience to the Law, he writes, “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Galatians 5:13-14, NRSV)
Love of neighbor is precisely where the rich young man has come up short. His wealth is NOT the problem in and of itself. Jesus never says it is. However, what Jesus DOES point out is the huge burden brought on by the young man’s apparent failure to use that wealth to benefit his neighbors who don’t have as much as he does. Changing his behavior requires giving something up, something he clearly values greatly. It means prioritizing people and relationships over both his stuff and his social status. No, it’s not an easy thing to do – not for the rich young man, and not for us now.
However you define it, privilege still has a tendency to blind us to the needs of the people around us. I experienced quite a bit of this during my time in Pennsylvania. While our church was nestled among the lovely Victorian homes in the historic district of downtown Bethlehem, and had been for well over a century, the people who came through our doors on most days were decidedly not the sorts who might live in one of those houses. You see, the church hosts a feeding program five days a week. It was started in the early 1980s by a group of parishioners who simply could not ignore the cold and hungry people they often saw hanging out on the street corner just two blocks away. In the intervening years, it has grown from a team of three serving soup on the tailgate of a station wagon to a restaurant-like operation which serves an average of 150 lunches per day.
As you can probably imagine, many of the neighbors who live in the historic homes are not too happy to have “those people” lined up on the sidewalk outside the church every day – and, they don’t hesitate to let the staff know about it. The loudest complainer I encountered was the owner of a bed and breakfast at the end of our block. One day, when I was the only clergy person in the building to supervise lunch, he angrily marched himself right down the street and started yelling at some of the guests who were waiting in line. I went outside to check out the commotion, and immediately became the target for this man’s anger. “I think one of them,” he spat, “relieved himself in my yard. If I point him out to you, you’re going to call the cops for me. You have to control these people, because they’re homeless and they’re ruining our neighborhood.” He was not at all interested in my explanation to the effect that all we could do is put the word out to our guests as to what had happened and that calling the police was actually the innkeeper’s responsibility. Nor was he interested in actually TALKING with the guys milling around and smoking on the sidewalk in front of the church. If he had, he would have found they were mostly harmless, though mostly down on their luck for one reason or another. Sadly, the innkeeper’s desire to protect his property only served to short-circuit any possibility of being in relationship with the church or the people it serves. And so he stomped off down the block, with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Just as it is with the rich young man, the innkeeper’s privileged position in the neighborhood is not really the issue. What is, is how that privilege is used. The question we should be asking where it’s concerned is this: is it something we hoard only for ourselves, or do we share it with another person who doesn’t have as much?
This need to share points to how our faith requires us to take action. That is, all of those rules we learn in Sunday School are more than just something we are to spout back at our teachers on demand. This is exactly the point Jesus is trying to make: if, for whatever reason, we aren’t able to act on the two greatest commandments to love God and love our neighbors, it makes it that much harder for the Kingdom of God to take root and grow. It seems like a lot to ask at times, especially when it requires us to be deliberate about maintaining relationships with people we might not otherwise even consider talking to.
However, Jesus is asking no more of the rich young man, and all of us, than was being asked of himself in that moment.2 That request is simply to pour out a little of who we are on someone else’s behalf. It will probably not, for most of us, mean the sacrifice of our lives on a cross. What it might involve are things along the lines of sharing our resources with those who don’t have them; or actively promoting and encouraging the leadership of people who don’t traditionally occupy those positions; or perhaps, as many people in our diocese are doing now, trying to understand more fully how their ancestors may have been involved in or benefited from in the slave trade. All of these intimately involve connection with others, which is what the rich young man, the innkeeper in Bethlehem, and I would suspect all of us, to some degree, are missing. Making and maintaining these connections is just the beginning. As Jesus tells Peter, the rewards will be great: a hundredfold now, and in the age to come, eternal life.
Job and Suffering
The Reverend Sunil Chandy
Christ Church Westerly
Job 2:1-9, 16-17
In 2012 I took part in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, led by Bishop George Councell. And one night we had cocktails at the American Colony Hotel in Jerusalem- we are Episcopalians after all.
Bishop Councell recounted the story of Hotel that was established by HG Spafford, a prominent Chicago lawyer who lost much of his fortune in the Great Chicago fire of 1871. Two years after the fire, in 1873, Spafford decided his family should take a holiday to visit the great evangelist Dwight Moody in England. But a business issue caused a delay for him- so he sent his family ahead: his wife and their four young daughters. On November 22, 1873 their ship was struck by another sailing vessel and 226 people lost their lives, including all four of Spafford's daughters. Mrs. Spafford survived the tragedy. Upon arriving in England, she sent a telegram to Mr. Spafford that began "Saved alone.] Spafford then sailed to England; going over the location of his daughters' deaths and after a period of mourning went back into his cabin and wrote the Hymn "It Is Well with My Soul"
The hymn includes these lines:
When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
This verse and the hymn is testimony of faith. I was reminded of this hymn after reading the first lesson from the Book of Job.
The story of Job is a fascinating and powerful story. The book of Job is one of my favorite books in the Bible! I heard my father preach one of his last sermons on Job and ever since this book has been a source of inspiration and challenge to me.
Many Biblical historians believe that the book is an allegory. For it describes the relationship of humanity, to God, in a world filled with great suffering.
The story revolves around the faithful servant of God- Job. In the prologue of the book about 2 chapters we learn about righteous Job. He is a prosperous man with a large and beautiful family, loved by all. Including God. According to the biblical account, God marvels at the righteousness of Job but Satan, a member of God’s court and asserts that Job only trusted God because things were going well for him. Satan argued that if his prosperity and family were taken away, Job would curse God.
And In response, God permits Job's goods to be lost and all his children to die in a great windstorm. His suffering devastates Job, he would not give up his allegiance to God. God again marvels at Job’s righteousness to Satan but Satan as seen in today’s lesson replies “Skin for Skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives.” Hurt him min body and he will curse you! With that Satan was allowed to inflict Job with painful lesions, boils that caused his skin to fall off like ash. It is at this point that His wife tells, Job, curse God and die. …But he does not but rather he wants God to explain himself! Four of his friends Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, Elihu come from different parts of the world and they sit with him for 7 days in his grief. That would have been good but after the 7 days they open their mouths and ruin every thing! They urge him to acknowledge that he had sinned and deserved what happened to him. They even argue if he didn’t sin, his children did and he was being inflicted by a just God because of them. But Job protested in his innocence and argues back that he did not sin and he always offered sacrifices for his children just in case...
For forty chapters Job does not curse God, but he does want God to explain himself. In the end, God did come to righteous Job! But God did not come with comforting words; God did not explain himself to Job. God instead told Job to “Gird your loins man! And in an angry toned reminded Job of the mighty actions of God in the universe. He asks Job a series of questions about the universe, the sky, the stars, the beasts of the land and the creatures of the sea. He asked if Job knew how they were created and held in balance. Job was throughout these questions simply silent. At the end of the book God’s reply Job, with humility and trust, accepting that there will be no explanation to his suffering.
Job repents for questioning God's ways. Job again asserts his trust, even the face of the great calamities that had befallen him.
The struggle of Job brings us face-to-face with the question that people who face tragedy often struggle with: Why did this happen to me? What did I do to deserve this? And if you are a person of faith you might be tempted to ask what did I do? How did I sin, in order for this to happen to me? Or further if I am a good person a faithful person why did God do this to me? But the book of Job tells us that might be the wrong question. For it is the question Job asks. And it is the question for which he never receives an answer it is a question for which he repents! For life my friends is filled with suffering. It simply is. It does not matter if you are good or bad, a faithful Christian or not—if you live—you will suffer!
What we might understand out of this book of wisdom is that God sees our suffering. It is in the midst of this suffering that God is present.
For us when we encounter suffering, cancer, a loss of a loved one, the loss of a job, frustrations and upheavals. Even acts of violence, such as the killing of nine people in an Oregon Community College two days ago- an act of violence that was prefaced by the question from the shooter to his victims- “Are you a Christian?”
We may ask- why God? But a better question may be “Where can I find God in this? And what can I learn from this tragedy? This challenge?
Job learned at God does care because God comes to Job and Job is satisfied. For Spafford, who lost everything, God came and was the rock he held onto through the storms of life and the rock that brought him peace.
For us God may be the one whom we place our trust in and who helps us through our time of chaos. The one who directs us to create a better and hopeful world!