Telling Our Story
85th Anniversary of The Riverside Church
November 8, 2015
What a story we have to tell today.
- We’ve seen it in pictures of the past, beautifully displayed all over our building.
- It’s woven through the conversations we’ve shared about the church in the world.
- We recognize it in the stories of those who have told us about their journeys of faith intersecting our own here in membership classes and in the waters of baptism.
- Our hearts warm with gratitude at the sight and sound of pastors who have shepherded and cared for us.
- We’re surrounded by the memories of dear ones who have shared this sacred space with us, helping to narrate our story.
- We can even feel our story in the touch of a hand, the shared passing of peace, or the hug of the friend who has been sitting in the pew two over on the right for as long as we can remember.
- And our children…our children. Their innocent faces and clear, pure voices can just about sing us to heaven, can’t they?
What a story we have to tell today.
It seems to me that in the telling of this incredible story, we must pause to express our deepest gratitude, gratitude for the witness of this place that rolls through the history of this nation and the world with a constant call for justice and peace. And gratitude for the awareness that God is here, in the pain and challenge of beloved community, with us as we’ve struggled through the years to be God’s people together in loving and hopeful ways. And gratitude for the possibility we see and feel all around us, hope for the future of the institutional church, hope for the possibility of this beloved community, hope for the broken and hurting world in which we live.
What a story we have to tell today.
And in the telling of such a story, past and present, we cannot—we must not—ignore the urgency to work with all the commitment we can summon, to continue living out this grand experiment, a beautiful, sacred space where anyone can come to ask the hard questions of life and faith, and be met with a witness of radical welcome, faithful discipleship, and brave prophetic witness.
It is our holy honor to be the people of God in this place. And so, we respond to this incredible story with deep gratitude and generosity, and the commitment to keep telling the story until the beloved community God envisions for the whole world comes to be. May it be so. Amen.
One Riverside: Believe
Happy birthday, Riverside Church! We’re at the start this morning
of a whole day of celebration commemorating 85 years of mission and ministry in this place. What a gift we have been given, inheritors of such an incredible legacy of faith and witness…
…and what a challenge we have before us, living into the promise of what God is calling us to do and be in this place.
Today is also week two in a three week stewardship emphasis, where we’re looking at the assigned texts for the week and thinking in specific terms about our call to live into a strong, unified, collaborative community of faith:
One Riverside, in which we create a radically welcoming place of belonging; where we learn more deeply everyday what it means to believe the gospel message; and where we embrace the opportunity to become God’s best dreams for our own lives, and part of creating the world God envisions for us all.
Today we’re exploring the opportunity we have to invest in a community of faith that institutionally reflects the radical gospel message and works at an excellent level to form disciples who have the courage to live lives of radical defiance to the ways of this world…not the kind of religion we see so often, the kind that hurts and excludes, but the kind of religion that the book of James describes as religion that looks after orphans and widows in their distress and teaches us to keep ourselves from being polluted by the world.
A daunting task, if you ask me.
Yet, if a pastor were called upon to preach a sermon during stewardship season on, say, a notable church anniversary, a sermon that would call the people to radical investment, you’d think that that preacher would be jumping up and down for joy upon discovering that the gospel lectionary text assigned for the day is a classic stewardship text, one that has been used since it was written down, I expect, to call people of faith to selfless giving. It’s a little passage in the gospel of Mark, two short paragraphs that seem unrelated but which we’re assigned to read together this morning.
We know, of course, that it’s always a mistake to look at scripture passages out of context, so to understand this one we have to remember that right before this passage starts Jesus is preaching in the temple, calling the religious machinery to task for imposing crippling rules masquerading as true religion, rules that exclude and oppress people. Jesus’ famous call to the most important rule of all: loving God and loving neighbor, in fact, comes immediately before this passage.
In the first paragraph of today’s text, we encounter Jesus winding up the sermon I just mentioned by calling out the scribes and temple leaders who walked around for the purpose of being seen, who came to the temple and, indeed, practiced religion for status and popularity.
Then, having finished a sermon that I’m sure Jesus knew would get him into trouble, it seems he went out into the temple courtyard to take a break.
I feel you, Jesus…preaching is exhausting!
And while he was sitting there with his disciples, the text says that he started watching the multitude put their offerings into the treasury.
Apparently back then they didn’t do the offertory like we do it now. No discreet passing of the plates while a soft organ piece plays. No finely-tuned and choreographed usher board managing logistics. Out in front of the temple, right out in front of God and everybody, there was a big metal container. The container was shaped like the horn on a tuba—a big metal funnel-like object. Think of those plastic discs they have in the shopping mall—put out there by non-profits trying to solicit donations. You put your money in and it takes a long time, going around and around until it finally goes down. It was the same principle, except there was a loud sound component to this type of giving. You could not help but overhear what was going on.
How convenient it was, then, for those who had a lot to give! No paper money in those days, only coins, so you can imagine that if I had a lot to give, I could dramatically approach the treasury container, weighed down with all those coins I am carrying, and then throw all those coins in, with a whole bunch of force—clang, clang, clang. Naturally, everyone around would turn with admiration at the generous display of sacrifice . . . . The temple treasury was a convenient place to make giving a social event, and believe me, everyone knew what was going on.
Well, this was the backdrop to Jesus’ and the disciples’ conversation that day, which made it even more easy to overlook a widow, the lowest of the low, the rock bottom of the social strata, slip in among the crowd and drop her two coins into the temple treasury. They were very thin, archeologists tell us, made of copper, together not even worth one cent. And they certainly didn’t set the treasury clanging. They probably just slid quietly down the side. There was no reason for that woman to make a big show of giving her two coins; nobody would be impressed anyway.
Nobody, that is, except Jesus. He pulled his disciples to the side and said, “You see that widow?”
Can you imagine their response?
“Widow? What widow? I was still thinking about the scribes. I was still trying to listen intently to see who was giving the biggest offering, you know…like you do at temple…!”
Jesus said, “Believe me when I tell you that this widow has given more than anyone else here this morning, in fact, more than all the contributors to the treasury put together.”
And, there we have it—the perfect set up for a stewardship sermon. Except…except this passage doesn’t really work all that well for a stewardship sermon, if you think about it. On the one hand, you could read this story and argue that it doesn’t really matter how much you give because Jesus complimented the widow, who gave so little. Or, you could argue that giving part of what you own isn’t enough—we should all give everything we have. You could manipulate the passage, stretch it a bit here and there, use creative license to make it work, for sure. But truthfully, there’s no direct financial application for us here, and the disciples were as confused as we are.
I imagine them looking at each other, brows furrowed, wondering, “Did I miss something? How come I can never figure out what he is talking about?”
Jesus was perpetually turning things on their heads, and this little passage is no exception. We can see why today if we read just a little further.
Right after Jesus notices the widow, he gets up to leave the temple. When one of his disciples comments on the impressive architecture of the building, Jesus talks bluntly about the destruction—the destruction—of the temple.
Turns out, Jesus isn’t really talking about money after all. He’s talking about religion, organized religion, the institutions and communities we build to reflect God’s work in the world. And he’s inviting us to pay close attention to what makes for good religion.
Because even back then there was a lot of bad religion out there, and Jesus, frankly, wanted none of it. No posturing or showing off. No valuing prestige or prominence. No providing a platform to exalt the already influential and wealthy, all the while crippling the poor and marginalized with rules enforced by guilt and shame.
No more of that.
Good religion cares for orphans and widows and helps us keep from being polluted by the world…good religion forms disciples who, in the rigor and wonder of community, grow into people who love God with their whole lives and who love their neighbors as themselves. That kind of community is rare to find and difficult to nurture because the world pulls us away, over and over again, luring us with the temptation those prominent temple-goers faced as they hurried to hear the clanging satisfaction of their coins in the public offering canister.
The work of building community where people are invited to believe in the life-changing message of the gospel, that radical love that Jesus was always talking about, that kind of community is worth our lavish investment. And perhaps that kind of community…this kind of community…is one of the best things in which we could ever invest our lives, our talents, our financial resources…because as we work together to form disciples in the way of Jesus, one by one, we are changing lives…and we are changing the world.
Imagine that you have recently found yourself at the helm of a radical religious experiment, a beautiful cathedral in the middle of Manhattan built, with every little detail, to display the “beauty of proportion and perspective, of symbolism and color,” inviting everyone who encountered the space to “bring before God the best offerings of the human spirit…”?
On the very first Sunday of worship in that new space 85 years ago, the New York Telegram reported, “A crowd so great that when the last pew was filled a huge queue still half encircled the building…only 2,500 obtained seats in the nave and galleries. Another 800 were given seats in the basement, where amplifiers projected the sermon.” The audience included many prominent people in Manhattan society, but also “persons from every walk of life, every nationality, race, faith, denomination and creed.” Many foreigners, neighbors across the park at International House, plus workmen who had built the church—masons, plumbers, stone cutters, electricians, wood carvers…” filled the sanctuary.
As the incredible crescendo of a new hymn, written especially for the occasion, soared through the arches of the nave, worshippers could look around and see eight red lights, just above the chandeliers, and the stained glass windows through which light flooded the sanctuary—beauty and color “that could hardly be matched in a city renowned for its beautiful churches.”
Were you the pastor that day, called upon to speak to the care and stewardship of such a community, what would you say?
It seems that Harry Emerson Fosdick, founding pastor of this church, took a page from Jesus’ playbook that day and decided he would talk about…good religion.
Fosdick explained his dream to be part of creating a community, and institution in which people might encounter Christ in such a way that their lives and this world were transformed by true discipleship, the work of the gospel, true religion.
Churches—people who call themselves followers of Christ—can distort religion, as Jesus noted the scribes and Pharisees doing at the temple that day. Jesus would insist, as Fosdick pointed out, that we create and nurture communities that form disciples in the way of Jesus.
What builds a community of true religion, like Jesus taught? What builds a church like that? Hear Dr. Fosdick’s words:
“To see that this world is not the child of chance and the sport of atoms, that God is over all and in all and, ahead of us, hope like a sun forever rising and never going down—that does it.
To find within ourselves spiritual resources, like wells with deep springs…—that does it.
To walk in a divine companionship so that across the years a man grows inwardly like the Christ he lives with and achieves dependable and useful character—that does it.
To find life’s meaning not so much in the things that serve us as in the spiritual causes we serve, so that by identifying ourselves with something greater than ourselves we live expanded lives and leave behind us a fairer world—that does it….
What if we could build here a church which would say, so that men would have to listen: nothing matters in Christianity, however long the traditions or accumulated the sanctities,–not creedal codes or denominational partisanships or ritual regularities,–nothing except those things that create abundant life…without them no life can be beautiful and no civilization secure.”
As we spend today celebrating a legacy of forming disciples in this place, of helping people encounter Christ and come to believe in such a way that their lives are transformed, may we hear again the words of Jesus calling us to invest with all that we have and all that we are in the creating a place where true religion is lived out everyday.
Be disciples. Make disciples. This community is doing that—true religion, and worth the investment of your time, your money, your talent…your whole life.
Friends, what if we could build a church that showed the world that the trappings of religion are worth nothing, unless we are a community at work forming disciples in the way of Jesus?
I believe with God’s help, we can do it. Happy, happy birthday, Riverside Church.
 “What Matters in Religion,” a sermon by Harry Emerson Fosdick delivered at the first worship service held in the nave of The Riverside Church, October 1930.
I had a spirited conversation with some friends the other day about church revitalization. The topic came up because, in my circles, some version of this question is on everyone’s mind these days: “How can we revitalize the institutional church?”
My friends and I realized pretty early in our conversation that we weren’t really talking about programmatic or operational shifts when we thought about how to address decline in the institutional church as we know it. Instead, we were talking about something much bigger: a shifting reality.
It can’t be easy to lead a cultural shift, but with that challenge in mind, here are three critical and easy-to-implement leadership strategies we discussed, that every pastor and congregational leader should take on.
First, as congregational leaders—those who give voice to the ethos of a community—we should make it our priority to perpetually reframe the narrative from scarcity to abundance. In the Bible we read stories of faith every Sunday in worship, so we of all people should know that the stories we tell about our shared life are powerful; words and narrative shape internal understanding and influence our ability to imagine a future we cannot see. When congregations speak in narratives of decline and death, desperation and fear, we are crippling our ability to think in new ways and take action toward the next expression of our lives together. This kind of reframing could be as simple as using different language (instead of: “Well, this alternative worship service is our last hope to attract young adults,” we could say something like: “We’re making space for a worship experience that will function as a ministry incubator; we’re so excited to see who will join us!”) or as substantive as rewriting our budgets to dismantle the bifurcation of program costs and administrative costs as we begin to understand our buildings and staff as important and integral tools to effective ministry.
A second essential strategy is perpetually highlighting health. This seems so obvious, but sometimes rote patterns cause us to overlook this important leadership tool. In the struggle of trying to maintain what we’re scared to lose, we may not be thinking strategically about inviting new and enthusiastic members to provide leadership, or welcoming our children to worship to remind us of the future, or highlighting neighborhood partnerships on the church website. As we work to shift a culture of decline toward a culture of abundance, these small and regular expressions of possibility and hope can allay our collective fears enough to help us take bold and unanticipated risks, to value our community so much that we’re able to think outside the box and embrace with hope a future we cannot see.
Innovation as standard practice is a third leadership strategy that will help us effectively shift our church cultures from desperation to hope. Whenever a decision is made—from purchasing cleaning supplies to revamping worship—church leaders should always take a careful look at potential innovation. There might be a way to solve little problems or accomplish small tasks that we may not have considered before—and those new ways may even work more effectively than the way we’ve always done things. For example, facing the challenge of rising costs for janitorial supplies, a church I know of recently teamed up with other local institutions to order supplies in bulk. This innovative way to address the problem even resulted in even unintended benefits: decreased costs for supplies; the ability to purchase eco-friendly products in line with a shared priority of creation care; and relationships with other leaders and communities that resulted in collaboration in mission and programming. When innovation becomes the standard, when congregation leaders and members regularly challenge and even expect each other to solve problems with creative solutions, we gradually lessen our anxiety about change.
Answering the question of how we revitalize a church in decline is a considerable challenge, because we all know that there is no formulaic or prescriptive answer to that question. Instead, we have to pay attention to the task of shifting the culture of our communities.
Ultimately, it is not we who will determine the future of the institutional church; this work is God’s work. We can be assured that God has been at work in the world long before we arrived and God will continue to work in the world long after we’re gone.
In the meantime, we’re invited to celebrate the considerable gifts we have in the communities in which we serve, to understand these expressions of God’s work in the world as bastions of potential—not scarcity and fear, but abundance and hope.
When we move from a framework of scarcity to a culture in which we habitually celebrate the abundance we have, we begin to realize the question we’ve been asking about church revitalization may in fact be the fundamentally wrong question. We speak with the assurance of God’s abundance when we ask instead: “To what is God calling us now?”
This column appeared first over at Baptist News Global.
One Riverside: Belong
All Saints Day
Two Sundays ago the New York Times printed a long story, above the fold on the front page of the paper. The article was titled, “The Lonely Death of George Bell,” and it told the story of a man named George Bell, who died alone and unseen, his body going undiscovered for days after his actual death.
There are over 50,000 people who die in New York every year—many of them die with family and friends surrounding them, a community to celebrate their lives. The article says, “A much tinier number die alone in unwatched struggles. No one collects their bodies. No one mourns the conclusion of a life. They are just a name added to the death tables. In the year 2014, George Bell, age 72, was among those names.”
The article caught my attention, and apparently I wasn’t the only one who was struck by the article. The Times ran several follow up stories recounting the response they received from thousands of readers, many reporting that dying alone was their biggest fear.
And dying alone is truly a scary proposition. But I think living alone is probably much more terrifying. Everybody needs a place to belong, people who care about them, a community in which to build a life.
I considered all of this when I began to think about today, a special Sunday in the life of the church. We’re celebrating All Saints’ Day, and here at The Riverside Church it’s the first week of our three-week stewardship emphasis built around the theme of One Riverside: Belong, Believe, Become. It’s particularly appropriate today, I think, that we take a few minutes to think about belonging—about why we invest our lives and resources in this place right here, right now, and how our voices join a long litany of saints who have gone before us, modeling the truth that beloved community is essential to being fully human in this world.
Here at The Riverside Church we come from many different church traditions, so to help us mark All Saints Day I thought we’d quickly review what it has meant in the life of the church, to be a saint.
In the first 300 years after Jesus lived on earth, a saint was someone who lost his or her life for the cause of Christ, a martyr.
Around 300 it finally became popular to be a Christian and no one was getting killed for the cause of Christ anymore. To be a saint during this time in history was pretty synonymous with being famous. If you died a famous person and had enough money, a chapel would be built in your honor and people could come to your chapel, light a candle and pray to you—hoping of course that your success on earth would translate into a particularly close relationship with God, you know, up there. For 1300 years that’s what it meant to be a saint.
Next, the Catholic Church put an official process of canonization—the process of naming a saint—into place. This process must begin at least 5 years after a person’s death and involves a complicated investigation of a person’s life, approval by a panel of theologians and church leaders, and evidence that the person performed a miracle before and after his or her death.
When Martin Luther started causing trouble for the church and the Reformation began, the idea of praying to saints fell out of vogue among his group of radicals. And so, the concept of sainthood changed again. This time a saint became someone in your life whom you loved who had died. Family members, like mothers, sisters, brothers, grandmothers, etc., who died and went to heaven before us were now known as saints—sort of like scouts who got to the end of the trip first and were saving us a spot.
These days we speak of saints as those who came before us, whom we loved and who loved us, whose memories are reflections of God’s love, reminding us that we must be saints to each other, right here and now. If you read the George Bell story in the New York Times two weeks ago and had the same reaction as thousands of others in the city, you know too how precious the feeling of belonging is, how the care and nurture of our beloved community is so critical, and how being saints to each other is an essential part of our work in this world.
Jesus knew that, too. Today’s Gospel is from the 11th chapter of the book of John, one of the most famous and powerful pericopes in the New Testament.
The story starts out with Jesus, having taken a road trip away from the region of Judea. Judea is the geographical area where a lot of Jesus’ ministry took place—where Jerusalem is and the little town of Bethany, where today’s Gospel story takes place. Bethany is where Mary and Martha and Lazarus lived, folks who John’s gospel reports were dear friends of Jesus—the dearest. Bethany was a place where Jesus belonged.
Mary and Martha had sent word to Jesus that Lazarus was sick; Lazarus died and was buried before Jesus came back to Bethany. Our text today begins with Lazarus’ sisters almost scolding Jesus—if you’d only come earlier, our brother would not have died. Speaking with the voice of their grief, they all stood staring death in the face and feeling the loss of someone they loved.
Then, you know how the story goes; Jesus is led to the tomb, grieving, and then raises Lazarus. And most times we read this story and focus on that miracle—Jesus calling Lazarus out of the tomb, back from the dead.
But what struck me this week, thinking about belonging, One Riverside, and the so many who have gone before us whom we’ve lost and are remembering today on All Saints day, is that little scene in the middle of the passage, when Jesus finally arrives in Bethany and we see the first time in scripture where such a scene is recorded: Jesus breaks down. In verse 35, the shortest and maybe one of the most powerful verses in the Bible we read: “Jesus wept.”
Jesus, surrounded by the community of people who were his dear friends, having lost someone precious to him, wept.
And the people watching—his enemies, even—recognized in that moment something deeply and profoundly human: the awareness that we all need a place to belong, that this beloved community is very often the way we can see God, that the risk of loss is so deeply worth the gift of relationship, that we are given to each other for love. For love.
“See how he loved him!,” the Jews exclaimed. We see; we recognize; we want a place to belong like that, too.
Two weeks ago after I read “The Lonely Life of George Bell,” I couldn’t get the story out of my mind. What a tragedy, to live a life in which, when you die, there’s no one weeping with the visceral pain of your absence, no crowd standing by to say: “See how he loved him!”
I was particularly struck in that article by the comments of Inspector Juan Plaza, who works in Queens unraveling the mysteries of lives like George Bell’s. Inspector Plaza was kind enough to talk with me on the telephone this week, to answer some questions that kept nagging at me.
I wanted to know: how often do you see this in your job—this instance of dying all alone with no one to miss you? Inspector Plaza immediately answered, “A lot!” He explained he’d been working on the unit for about twenty years, and he would say cases like George Bell’s are “an everyday thing.”
I then asked Inspector Plaza how going to work and seeing this everyday affects him—how does encountering that kind of isolation and loneliness leading to a death no one notices, impact your life? He said, “When I started working in this office my whole life changed. I saw so many things that made me think: I don’t want to be one of those people. I want to live my life caring about the people I love. I need somebody to care about me, too. I used to care about money and getting things in life. I was selfish. But this job made me a different person. I just don’t want to be somebody who dies alone.”
And finally, I asked Inspector Plaza about the response to this article. The New York Times has had thousands write and comment on “The Lonely Life of George Bell.” The Inspector said the response has been amazing—so many people have called his office, wanting to talk about his work. Why?, I asked him. Why do you think this story has resonated so deeply with people? Here’s what he said:
“New York is a place with a lot of people from all over the world, but we live busy lives and we rush so much and we sometimes forget each other. We’re moving so fast that we don’t talk to the people we love. I think this story is a wake up call for people. They read the story and remembered that we all want to live lives that leave a legacy of love and friendship.”
In a city where it is so easy to become rushed and alone, there are few places we can connect with each other. Our communities of faith can be such places. Perhaps that’s why you’re here, because at some point The Riverside Church was a place where you encountered friendly face or a shoulder to cry on or a helping hand. We all long for connection. But we know that the kind of community for which we are created doesn’t just happen. It takes investment. It takes giving of our resources, of our whole selves, in fact. We do this because the reason The Riverside Church was able to be that place of connection for us is that those who came before us gave in this way. They modeled a legacy of stewardship of this community, of which we are inheritors.
Today is All Saints Day, a day we remember those we’ve lost and give thanks for their lives. May we remember that today is also a day to consider how we, the living, are even now working—everyday—to become saints, “God’s holy ones.” Our lives, our sainthood, is a reflection of the holiness of God, and we live it out in loving relationship with each other that builds beloved community where everyone can find a place to belong, like this beloved community, The Riverside Church.
That’s what it means to be a saint—a living, breathing group of people whose lives reflect the goodness and grace and the holiness of God, summed up best perhaps by the saint from the Queens County Public Administrator’s office who I met this week, Inspector Juan Plaza: “Sometimes we cross the street without even looking to see how we can help and interact with each other. Be aware; live a life in which you reach out and draw each other in; we have to value everyday and we have to show love for our neighbors. Everybody needs a place to belong.”
This week as I sat listening to a friend share devastating medical news, I found myself unable to come up with any helpful or even appropriate response. Thoughts flashed through my mind as if on loop on a big movie screen: this is not fair; why is this happening?; this person is good and kind — not a person who deserves this.
One after another, they came, pulling me into a cyclone of increasing outrage. Why do bad things happen to good people?
All of the sudden I realized that I am currently preaching on assigned lectionary texts from the Book of Job. I have been getting up in front of hundreds of people every Sunday to parse the text, draw on every ounce of theological depth I can possibly remember from seminary, then tie it all together with a bow so that everybody who asks questions like I was asking earlier this week would feel a little better on their way home from church. Those questions were my questions, but when I planned this sermon series, I didn’t know I would be asking them.
There are many things wrong with this, including but not limited to an apparent disconnect between theory and practice in my own experience, and whatever pastoral fantasy I’d been nurturing that there is some way to tie a bow around the question of human suffering at all.
Preaching on the book of Job is a new sort of preaching for me at this ministry assignment. I work in a context where a strident gospel is generally the word of the week, Jesus’ perpetual call for us to do the work of ushering in God’s kingdom here on earth. The Job texts caught my attention for a bit of variety — what if I worked with these texts for a few weeks and preached more theology and personal faith? I wonder how messages of a more personal nature would sit with my people?
The response I’ve received from my congregation has been a bit startling. Hearing the suffering and injustice of the human experience voiced in worship seems to have opened a floodgate of connection. I’ve received the most beautiful emails and been approached for deep and thoughtful conversations, each detailing struggles to keep believing in the face of suffering, tales of well-meaning friends who have damaged faith, and that sinking, lonely feeling that God, if God exists at all, has totally and utterly abandoned us.
Turns out I’m not the only one asking these questions. And, strangely, this comforts me.
This week at the intersection of my own experience and the life of the community, I realized again what I have learned over and over along this adventure of being human and trying to live with faith: we do it all so much better together.
We need each other to witness stories of doubt and fear and pain, to listen when we need to voice the suspicion that God is unaware of our pain, or uncaring, or even non-existent. We need each other to remember we are not alone in our questions.
And some of us even need each other to listen and say, “Hey, haven’t you been preaching on that topic lately?”
This column appeared first over at Baptist News Global.
Losing My Religion: Who Will Save Your Soul?
You know what they say: “Be careful what you wish for!”
Truer words were perhaps never spoken when it comes to today’s Hebrew text from the book of Job.
Today is week three of a four week series called, “Losing My Religion,” where we’ve been making our way through the book of Job, some of the oldest text in our bibles, some of the most beautiful poetry in the Hebrew language. Through an allegory, a story, the book addresses that central human question, a question we all ask: why do good people suffer?
Recall that in week one we encountered a man named Job, a righteous man who was suffering deeply—he’d lost everything he owned and cared about: his property, his animals, his family, his health—stunning—and he couldn’t understand why. He’d done everything right, followed the rules as he’d been taught, but still—his life had been destroyed. To add insult to injury, all he could hear when he shouted protests at the sky was the sound of silence.
Then, last week we met Job again, sitting on a pile of ashes, scraping at the sores on his suffering body, sick and tired of the platitudes of his friends, who tried to help but for the most part showed their true colors: their own fear and inability to answer those questions for themselves.
When we left Job last week he was eager to present his case to God and to prove his innocence and to get God’s final and fair judgment. He wanted to know: who will save my soul?
Today…today God finally speaks, out of the whirlwind.
Be careful what you wish for.
Today we heard 21 verses, part of over 2 chapters of divine speech—two chapters of God talking about who God is. Beautiful, terrifying poetry.
Throughout the biblical tradition God appears often in situations of dramatic natural events, called theophanies. It seems that when God needs an illustration to go along with his message, God often employs the vast power of the natural world. Created by God, untamed by us, creation is one way we can begin to see what God wanted to communicate to Job, to us. That is: I am God…and you are not.
When I was twelve my family rented a beach house on the north side of the island of O’ahu, where I grew up. The idea was that family would all fly out to the islands for the Thanksgiving holiday and we’d lay around on the beach, play board games, eat turkey, and generally get a break from real life.
And that plan worked well, until we moved into the house, bringing all the things we’d need to cook Thanksgiving dinner away from home, and got the news that slowly approaching the islands was a storm system quickly gaining power. Tropical storm Iwa became Hurricane Iwa late on Tuesday, and Wednesday the storm hit the islands with wind gusts exceeding 100 mph and waves over 30 feet high.
It is under these conditions that one wishes one had not rented a house on the beach and dragged along all the food you’d need to cook Thanksgiving dinner.
The night before Thanksgiving we sat, huddled together in the darkness (no one thought to bring candles!) watching the waves—too close to the house—crash with a terrifying power, and 50 foot tall palm trees flattened to the ground. In the end, Hurricane Iwa caused severe damage to the Hawaiian islands and ultimately caused us to experiment with cooking Thanksgiving turkey…on the grill.
Perhaps those of you who lived through Sandy or another powerful storm can imagine, like I can, the raw power of wind and water swirling around you, trees flattened to the ground, the visceral awareness of how very small and weak we truly are. And this is how God showed up for Job, with a natural illustration as backdrop for his answer to Job’s questions.
Job desperately wanted to put God on the witness stand; he wanted God to answer for all the terrible and unjust things that had happened to him. But you’ll note that God does not step up to answer Job’s questions; God does not offer him a refund; God does not explain Job’s suffering.
I suspect Job had hoped God would answer by saying something like, Oh dear, we billed the wrong person. Or, our department of suffering made a mistake. Or, we’re so sorry, sir, and we’d be glad to compensate you for your sorrow. Instead, God turns the tables on Job and starts to ask HIM the questions.
We know that translation means everything to those of us not reading Job in its original language. I always thought these first comments of God’s must be some fancy literary way to say something like, “Who’s there?” or “Who is that bothering me?” Really, what the Hebrew means is: “Who do you think you are? Richard Rohr says it’s something like: “Aw, just shut up, , Job!”
God says, “Get ready. You wanted to talk? Let’s talk.”
Be careful what you wish for.
So God says . . . well, God says . . . well, God doesn’t really answer the question. God says instead, hang on, because this is what I have to say about you and your questions: Who are you? Sit still and listen to what I have to say, you foolish child. I am in charge here and I can see the whole picture. You cannot. The larger reality is so much bigger than you think. Crashing waves and brutal winds . . . what is your suffering compared to my power?
Where were you, Job, when I laid the foundation of the earth? And where were you, Job, when I gave birth to the sea? Do you ask the sun to come up in the mornings? Have you walked along the bottom of the ocean lately? Do you have any idea what lies at the end of the earth?
Job’s answer, the only one he could stammer out? No. No, I haven’t, and no, I didn’t, and no, I don’t.
And with that, all of our images of God as a friendly next door neighbor fly straight out the window. Turns out the God who answered Job was not a teddy bear kind of God, the kind of God we can put in a box and control to our liking. God shows up, but the God Job meets is an all-powerful presence, the one who spun the universe into being, who hung the stars and animates the world. What are we? What is our suffering that God would even notice?
This might stun us, as it did Job. We were so wrapped up in our own pain that we never stopped to think about the big picture. And, having been reminded of God’s power, our immediate response might be to write God off as a power-hungry, out-of-touch tyrant who has no idea what we are going through.
But let’s recall that we don’t want a God who is like us. And neither did Job. Job didn’t want a God who was like his foolish friends or his complaining wife. We want a God who is like God. When we cry for an answer and hear a booming voice out of a whirlwind, however, we might start to wonder: can we handle a Godly God? Can we handle a divine presence that doesn’t fit our expectations, that doesn’t cater to our whims, that doesn’t become whatever it is that we expected God to become?
A friend of mine once described this text to me by saying: we all have a structure of reasonable thought with which we interpret this confusing human life we live. For example, if we see a bird fly by, we can look at the bird and something in our brains computes: bird, flying. Birds fly. That makes sense. But what would happen if we looked out the window and saw a cat fly by? We’d turn to hang that piece of information on our rational framework of reasonable thought and what would happen? The machine would start rattling and smoking. Cats do not fly. Therefore, a flying cat does not belong in the rational framework with which I interpret events of my life.
This encounter Job had with God, this glimpse of divinity, it must have been like Job looking out his window and watching a cat fly by. He’d grown up all his life with a certain understanding of how it is that human beings encounter God. Recall he, like many of us, had firmly ingrained in his understanding of God and equation of retributive justice: if you do what you are supposed to do, then you’ll live a happy and successful life. If you’re bad, bad things will happen to you. He’d thought, in other words, that life with God was fair as he understood it.
Job got a communication with the divine all right, it just wasn’t exactly what he had anticipated.
But…isn’t that ALWAYS how God comes to us? In the rush of a whirlwind, in the tenderness of a tiny baby in a manger, in the most ludicrous, unexpected, unanticipated, scary and unfathomable ways? If that’s not the case, then it’s likely we have constructed a nice box in which we’ve placed the God we understand, and in doing that have missed the divine altogether.
When Job saw the whirlwind and heard the words of God, Job finally saw that his rational construct could not contain God. Instead, this God was the God who had reached across the human divide to us “I AM THAT I AM”, which, translated more accurately reads, “I AM WHATEVER I WILL BE”. No doubt.
Job’s reaction? We see it in chapter 40: “I am unworthy. I dared to speak to you, but now you are asking me questions for which I have no answers. I will say no more. I put my hand over my mouth.”
Job had asked for an answer, but maybe not this answer . . . . See, Job had begun to believe in his own power. And why not? He was a man who had had everything . . . everything a person could possibly want or need out of life: position, power, money, family, possessions, good reputation, faith . . . he had it all. But what he didn’t have, and what God’s divine appearance gave him, was perspective. Perspective. The idea of who he was in relationship to who God is.
Job got a glimpse of the divine and a healthy dose of perspective. He also got an invitation to trust God—an invitation that’s extended to us, too. Augustine wrote, “God loves each one of us as if there was only one of us to love.” And that is perhaps the good news of this portion of Job’s story: that God, powerful and other, so different from us and so much bigger, so justified to be impatient with our whining, still desires relationship with us.
God spoke to Job. And that speaking was yet another example of the many ways in which the Bible records God’s overtures to humanity, God’s openness to know us and to become intimate with us and to live in loving relationship with us.
We take this story of God’s appearance to Job as an invitation to intimacy: not for God to become more like us, more like what we’d like a favorite friend to be, but for US to become more like God. We live in a world of true paradox: a creation ordered by the divine, more vast and unfathomable than we can imagine…and the reality that there is suffering and pain in this world that doesn’t always have a reason.
Rather than explaining it away, let’s take this powerful, confusing, OTHER God straight out of the text. Let’s not see how we can explain away all the hard things God says. Instead, let’s welcome the voice of God in our own lives and think about how it is WE become more acceptable to GOD, rather than making God into something more acceptable to us.
When tragedy strikes,when we’re in pain, when all is lost and we can only cry out in agony, when we are desperate to know who will save our souls…God shows up, as God did for Job, with a healthy dose of perspective and an invitation to the mystery of relationship with the divine.
And if, after considering the power of God and God’s scary invitation to relationship, we still want to know who will save our souls, we’d best like Job, hang on for dear life, fall to our knees and cover our mouths. Because despite the vast mystery of who God is, God will eventually show up, not to conform to our demands but to invite us to remember who we are: insignificant in the big picture of the universe and deeply, fiercely loved by the divine.
Thanks be to God.
Losing My Religion: True Colors
“Instead of saying ‘God wouldn’t give you more than you could handle,’ you could say, ‘Let me come over and do some laundry.’”
So begins an article entitled, “Stupid Phrases for People in Crisis.” In addition to the ever popular “more than you can handle” phrase, the author lists statements we often say when we encounter friends in crisis, consolations that fall flat in the face of human pain. Things like, “It gets better,” or “When God shuts a door, he opens a window,” “Did you pray about it?,” and my personal favorite: “When I think about your situation, I’m reminded how blessed I am.”
We mean to help, but often our efforts fall flat, and worse: sometimes when we see friends in crisis, we add to the pain.
This morning the lectionary takes us back again to the book of Job, a little book of Hebrew poetry in our Old Testament. We’re in a four week series called Losing My Religion, following the mythical figure of Job, who lost everything and grappled with the question of suffering. Last week we talked about the invitation to cultivate a “disinterested faith,” to reject the cosmic equation that tells us if we’re good, good things should happen to us. If we do bad things, we’ll pay the price. We have to reject that, as did Job, because when he looked around at the human experience—as when we look at the human experience—that’s just not the way things work, is it? Good people suffer unjustly, and a lot of bad people live the good life.
When we encounter our friend Job today, he is in worse shape than he was last week. Attacked on all sides by even more trouble, Job’s three friends come to visit him, to console him as he sits on all he has left in the world—a pile of ashes—as he scrapes at the boils that cover his body from head to toe.
His three life-long friends, like brothers, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, come by to sit with Job and listen to his lament. You might guess what happened: they showed their true colors by offering advice like: “You say you haven’t done anything bad, but really…would something like this actually happen to someone who hadn’t done anything bad? You might want to think a little harder.” Their presence adds to Job’s suffering and he laments in chapter 6:
“When desperate people give up on God Almighty,
their friends, at least, should stick with them.
But my brothers are fickle as a gulch in the desert—
one day they’re gushing with water
From melting ice and snow
cascading out of the mountains,
But by midsummer they’re dry,
gullies baked dry in the sun.
Travelers who spot them and go out of their way for a drink
end up in a waterless gulch and die of thirst.”
We come into the story this morning during a loud lament—Job is sick and tired of listening to his friends and he feels sure that, if only he could express himself to God, God would address his situation.
But God is nowhere to be found! Silent as an abandoned house, painfully, wretchingly silent. “Oh how I wish I could find him! If I could, I would tell him how wrong all of this is. I would beg him to see my perspective, and to fix my pain!”
It’s not that Job is confused about what he thinks of his situation—here in chapter 23 he lays his case out plainly. The problem is, he just can’t get ahold of God, can’t find God to present his case, cannot LOCATE the divine. Riotous pain and horrible loss, and . . . silence. As his friends show their true colors with their not-so-helpful advice; Job is beginning to think he’s seeing God for who God really is, too: absent, silent, nowhere to be found. Does God even exist?
Our everyman Job is living questions that all of us have lived at one time or another along this journey of human life. There have been moments for us all when we have longed to find God, to ask our questions…but all we see when we look is an empty abyss. But Thomas Merton wrote: “If you find God with ease, perhaps it is not God you have found.” So, I got to wondering. What if what Job experienced as God’s silence—what we experience of God’s silence—is not really absence, as it feels to us, but actually a way of communicating presence and power, allowing us to sort through our pain and learn again the faithfulness of God?
After all, a God who comes when we call would get old really fast. If we were able to just snap our fingers and make God materialize, like a genie in a bottle, what kind of God would we have? We would have a God who was powerless, subject to our whims, a God with no meaningful ability to change anything.
I recall one Christmas when I was about 5 years old. I wished and wished for a special doll that you could actually feed. It came with all the baby utensils and little packets of food to feed the baby. I must have had great hopes for that toy, since I am the eldest of five and observed my mother actually feeding real babies, my sisters and brothers. I imagine I thought it would finally be so great to have my very own baby to feed.
Well, Christmas morning arrived and, sure enough, under the tree was the doll I wished for, brightly packaged with all the baby food she could possibly need. Well, was I happy. I fed that baby. I fed it and fed it and fed it . . . all day long. In fact, I fed the baby so much that I used up the entire supply of food in one day.
And do you know that baby just sat there and ate every bit of food I stuffed in its plastic mouth? Didn’t protest at all, didn’t act full, didn’t cry or get antsy, just ate and ate and ate. Well, when all the food was gone, that was it for me. I really cannot remember ever playing with that doll again. She had lost her power to engage me.
I think that would be the way we would perceive God if God came at our every beck and call. If we could control God, tell God what to do, snap our fingers and make God appear . . . well, that would be no relationship at all.
Perhaps the silence of God is not really the ABSENCE of God. Perhaps what Job needed, and what we need from time to time, is an opportunity to express, to voice our sorrow and pain and hopelessness to God, not so that God will know how we feel (God already knows) but so that WE can begin to understand our role in relationship to God, so that we can realize, finally, that we are not in control and that God is not some divine bell boy who comes everytime we ring.
God’s silence is, in fact, a kind of presence. Silence is a strange way that offers us the opportunity to remind each other what we believe, that allows us to listen to ourselves, to hear our own arguments, to tire of our control and to, ultimately, surrender everything we think we need, to God.
So how do we go about living with hope, living with expectation of God’s answer, even when we can’t seem to hear anything?
Well, that is where you come in. Each and every one of you. Job didn’t have a community of people who helped him remember that God was there, even when he was not receiving an answer to his questions. All the people around him added to his pain; none of them held a banner of hope for Job. In the darkest, most quiet moments of his suffering, Job did not have any loving voices to surround him and to remind him of God’s everlasting love.
When God is silent, when my heart is aching because I cannot hear a word of comfort or direction from God, I need you. I need all of you to remind me that God’s silence does not mean God is absent. I need your voices to remind me and to hold me accountable when I begin to buy into the falsehood that God should be available for me whenever I snap my fingers, whenever I feel that God should show up and give me an answer.
The church represents over 2000 years of people who, embracing their questions, have offered them back to God, over and over again, until the cacophony of voices blends together to form a sure and beautiful confession. We call each other to remember, over and over, that God is here, that God is loving, and that there is never a time when God has abandoned us.
One of the greatest modern thinkers on the absence of God is nobel prize winning writer, Elie Weisel. His life is a story of listening for God, finding nothing but silence, and slowly making his way back to faith, surrounded by people who, even in the face of horror and suffering, affirmed that God was alive, God was listening, God was there.
When Elie Wiesel was 14, Nazi soldiers took him and his family, crammed them onto a railroad car, separated men from women. Boys went with fathers, girls with mothers. Families were divided, never to see each other again. Freedom disappeared. Night came. Even the days were covered with darkness. God appeared to be absent; Weisel’s family was killed, and slowly, Elie Wiesel’s faith died.
By age 15, Elie Wiesel began to pray Psalm 22. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me?”
Elie Wiesel’s book Night tells of his journey of faith through the dark night of the soul. In one memory, Weisel recalls celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in the concentration camp where he was held. The leader would cry out, “Bless the Eternal, Blessed be the name of the Eternal!” Weisel would think, “Why? Oh why should I bless Him?” Wiesel could only think of all the misery and death and pain that surrounded him and wonder where God was. But still, he heard the voices rising, “All the earth and the Universe are God’s! All creation bears witness to the Greatness of God!” Even as his faith was slowly dying, Weisel heard the voices of those who refused to believe God was absent or impotent. At age 15, he heard these proclamations of faith, and they followed him all the way through utter despair and disbelief back, finally, to faith. The faith of those around him carried him through.
At age 16, Elie Wiesel was liberated; eventually, he came to this country to live. In 1986, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his speech accepting that honor, he affirmed strong faith in God. Listen to the words of faith coming from the heart of someone who had suffered profoundly, doubted the existence, never mind the goodness, of God, and yet emerged with hope. He began his acceptance speech as follows:
Words of gratitude. First to our common Creator. This is what the Jewish tradition commands us to do. At special occasions, one is duty-bound to recite the following prayer: “Blessed be Thou for having sustained us until this day.”
I remember: it happened yesterday, or eternities ago. A young Jewish boy discovered the Kingdom of Night. I remember his bewilderment, I remember his anguish. It all happened so fast. The ghetto. The deportation. The sealed cattle car. The fiery altar upon which the history of our people and the future of mankind were meant to be sacrificed.
It is in his name that I speak to you and that I express to you my deepest gratitude as one who has emerged from the Kingdom of Night. We know that every moment is a moment of grace, every hour an offering; not to share them would mean to betray them.
For Elie Weisel, sharing the suffering reminded him that God is never truly absent. God’s silence is not God’s absence.
God is with us, as God was with Job and and with Elie Wiesel, even when we cannot hear the answer of God. And, when God seems absent, we can look all around us and see lives of experience and faith, a community of living, breathing ambassadors of God’s grace. All around us are people who will touch a hand, wipe a tear, remind us we are not alone, our community, who will show true colors of perseverence and presence and be true friends who will abandon trite phrases, pick up the overflowing laundry basket, and wait with us until we remember that God will never leave us.
For this we say: thanks be to God.
Announced in worship on Sunday, October 4, 2015 following a mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon:
Thursday’s shooting in Oregon was the 45th school shooting in America in 2015. I’ve read several times this quote: “In retrospect, Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.”
I hope that’s not true. But it will be if people of faith keep saying we’re saddened by gun violence and we hope something changes, but we don’t take steps to make it so. We have to act with thoughtful, measured and persistent action to change the way corporations, lobbyists, government promote this kind of violence. And we have to act to change our culture.
WE have to act—The Riverside Church. With that conviction in mind, today I’d like to announce the formation of a Riverside Task Force on Gun Violence. Working with the Mission and Social Justice Commission, Rev. Livingston and I will convene within the next two weeks a group with specific assignments to return to us recommendations for swift and meaningful action.
Please pray for this task force, and in the next few weeks look for their recommendations—ways in which we all will be asked to get involved to make a change.
Losing My Religion: The Sound of Silence
I had just graduated from seminary, newly minted diploma in hand, off the save the world. Then, unexpectedly someone very dear to me died.
The grief and pain of that loss overwhelmed me; I didn’t know how to handle the anger and denial and questions that seemed to be with me all of the time. I certainly didn’t know how I’d ever be able to do the job I’d trained to do. I retreated for awhile, and when I finally managed to drag myself back to church one Sunday, I sat there in the congregation while the pastor, standing up front, yelled, “God is good!,” and all the people around me yelled back, “All the time!”. Over and over they yelled: God is good! All the time!
At first I sat there numb, then tears began to sting my eyes. Finally, I had to get up and leave. Standing out in the hallway trying to pull myself together, a fellow congregation member who knew what had happened passed by and patted my on the arm. “I was so sorry to hear,” she said. “When I heard what happened to you, I thought: there but for the grace of God go I!”. And she walked away.
“Why not you?,” I thought. “And, why me?”.
I could still hear the people inside the sanctuary yelling about how God was good, and there I was, leaning against a wall to hold me up, thinking that I had just graduated from seminary and I didn’t know if God even existed…and if he did I was pretty sure he was not good. I just wanted answers. Why? Why?
In my years working in the pastorate I’ve learned that what felt then like my own private pain, anguished questioning unique to my circumstance, is actually a universal human experience; we all experience pain that causes us to want to raise our fists to the sky and demand an explanation.
And when we do, and all we hear back is yawning silence, one of the first calls we often make is…to the preacher. But as I described my own painful and grief-stricken times, it was the preachers who were the most offensive in their attempts to address the question of suffering. Over 30 years ago, Rabbi Harold Kushner wrote a book called When Bad Things Happen to Good People; it’s still a best seller, because we religious professionals keep trying to answer questions like these, and all of us humans keep asking, and no one really has a good answer. So I’m treading lightly today as I begin four weeks of a series called Losing My Religion. The text inviting us to explore these painful questions of the presence and power of God in the middle of our suffering is a little book in the Hebrew text, a fable of sorts, that tells the story of a man who confronted the pain of human life and demanded to know what God had to say for himself in the face of profound suffering.
Today we’ll do a sort of collective wondering about who we are in relationship to God, and how on earth we can go on believing when we very often don’t get answers to the hardest questions of all.
We’ve got about 20 minutes.
Over the next four weeks we’ll be reading the story of a man named Job, some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible. The book of Job isn’t meant to be a historical recounting of a cultural time frame or even the biography of one guy who lived a dramatic life.
No, what inspired the writing of this book was the fact that one person was troubled by the prevalence of suffering all around him. He had learned from an early age a formulaic approach to understanding God and the pain of human life: if you’re good, good things will happen. If bad things happen to you, they do because of something bad you did.
But having lived this human life long enough, the writer of Job was starting to think that the lesson he learned growing up, the lesson that suffering and abundance are factors in some huge cosmic math problem, just was not cutting it. That did not explain what he saw all around him—righteous people suffering; wicked people prospering—the cosmic equation turned on its head.
By the time we read our passage from chapter 2 this morning, Job has already been through enough soap opera for one life. In chapter one he’s lost his camels, his sheep, quite a bit of property, his servants, and, worst of all, his children. Even one of those would have been enough to make Job soberly take a look at his life, but all of them together is almost too much for even a made-for-TV movie. One thing after another, pain after pain, disbelief after disbelief, loss after loss . . . they all happened to Job. We can read this and say, “Poor Job” and really mean it. He had had a tough run of bad luck or divine punishment, depending, of course, on how you answer the question of the day.
What we read this morning is scene two, and it takes place up in heaven. God opened heaven for an audience with whoever it is that hangs out in heaven waiting for an audience with God. Satan snuck in this time.
It’s interesting to note here that in the whole breadth of literature throughout the Bible, the Hebrew in the book of Job is some of the most nuanced and beautifully crafted; that is, the author took special pains to choose exactly the words he wanted to communicate his message.
I interject that note about language to tell you there’s a reason that the author chose to use the article in the Hebrew before the word for Satan in the first verse of chapter 2—he’s trying to make a theological point. Because of that, we should read the verse: One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, THE Satan came also. THE Satan, like THE Mayor or THE mailman or THE pastor (?). Rather than portraying evil as one person, the writer of Job uses the article to paint the representation of evil as a multi-faceted bureaucratic organization sending its elected representative to weigh in at a heavenly audience.
Note that’s different than the way the text references God: solid and omnipresent, everything, everywhere, every time.
The writer is saying: the question of why we suffer is a question for God, not for evil, because God is the one holding the audience and God is the one who’s in charge. It would be too obvious to blame all our pain on the bad guy of the universe. Our suffering is not a power play to see who is winning the cosmic boxing match. That has already been determined; God is in charge.
So the writer wants our question to move on, to move a little deeper, to begin to touch that sensitive part we’d rather not ask about: why, God, in all your power and might and omnipotence, why, why do children go hungry and wars rage on gunmen kill innocent people and diseases ravage humanity and businesses fail and children go astray and our government executes people in the name of justice and why, why do we suffer?
Remember, if we start with the premise the writer of Job has learned all his life, we would have to say that if you suffer, there must be something you did to deserve it. Even some texts of the Bible seem to suggest that the righteous shall prosper and the wicked shall be punished. Makes sense, you know . . . everything we learned about responsibility and consequences for our behavior. If something bad has happened, there must be some REASON it has happened to us. No reason, you say, your being flatly unable to find a good parking place? Well, this explanation would persist, there MUST be a reason . . . look a little deeper. Did you neglect to give your full 10% tithe? Hmmmmm? Was that you who walked away from the register even though you knew you’d been given too much change? Am I mistaken, or did I hear you raise your voice with the kids in the park last week . . . ?
We have a natural tendency to think in terms of “what goes around comes around”. Job’s writer says no. No! This explanation of evil for evil, good for good just won’t cut it. Job was a righteous man, even God felt compelled to brag on Job—“Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him in the earth . . . even after you took away his property and children and servants, he still shuns evil and follows me.”
So, in a literary effort to dispute this way of thinking again, the writer of Job rains down terror and suffering, even more, on Job. This time around he loses everything and is covered with painful sores from the tip of his toes to the crown of his head. He sits in a pile of ashes and scrapes at his sores, and perhaps worst of all, his wife gets mad at him!
Here’s the clincher, the piece in which, perhaps we can find a way to begin talking about God’s part in our suffering. God, here, lets the Satan get away with all this. God lets Satan get away with all this. And that right there is enough to give anyone’s faith a good, hard shaking.
But it is also the place we start, the place we begin to assemble a new way to look at our relationship with God. No, God does not step in and put an invisible super-shield around Job. What God DOES do is place full confidence in the faith of God’s servant Job. God says, “I believe in you, Job. Human life is full of pain, but you are an active participant in a divine relationship, and I believe that that relationship is what ultimately defines your life, not any of the details, not even the most profound suffering.”
Liberation theologian Gustavo Gutierrez calls this a “disinterested faith.” In fact, he says that the only way for us to make sense of our suffering and our relationship with God is to develop and cultivate a disinterested faith. Do we have it?
We’ll start with a question: can we believe in God without looking for rewards or fearing punishments? Even more pointedly, can we, in the middle of unjust suffering, continue to assert our faith in God without expecting something in return? The Satan, and all of us who have a barter-system idea of faith, well, we must deny that a disinterested faith is even a possibility. Not a chance!
But the author of Job, despite the pain and agony of unjust suffering, believes it to be possible and, even more, believes that God believes it to be possible of us—that even in the middle of deep pain, we can have authentic faith when we release the faulty notion that we live under some sort of cosmic equation, holy barter system, or whatever it is you want to call it.
This, friends, is the good news that comes from the suffering in the Book of Job: God believes in us. God gives us the benefit of the doubt. God knows that, even in our pain, we humans are able to embrace the mystery of God’s love. God believes that we’re not in this for the money, or the prestige or the position. God believes that we have a disinterested faith and that, even in the pain of human life, we believe, we believe in God’s goodness.
God believes in us.
We are people who live in relationship with the God of the universe. God, knowing our deepest fears and inadequacies; Christ, coming to earth and sharing the pain of humanity; and us, sharing in the pain of the whole world, as Christ would have us do, to remember those in our world who live with the harshest expressions of human pain.
Today as we eat this bread and drink this cup we remember that, along with our Savior, we bear both the pain of a suffering humanity and the call to help heal that pain. And in the middle of it all, we remember that God believes in us.
A prayer from April, 1946, prayed by Harry Emerson Fosdick in this very nave: “Renew our courage that life’s dangers and disappointments may not intimidate our souls. Amid the tumult of these stormy days, restore our confidence that this earth, like a ship, has a pilot, a compass, a course, and a haven. And if upon our lives such sorrow falls that happiness departs, grant us still a strong serenity, a secure peace, and a quiet trust.”
My whole city is abuzz with energy around the arrival of a special guest this week. Whether devout Catholic desperate for a once in a lifetime glimpse of the Holy Father or annoyed commuter already well aware this week will be horrifying in terms of getting to and from — well, anywhere, we’re all breathing in a kind of anticipation of the visit of Pope Francis.
I am neither a devout Catholic nor an annoyed commuter, but even I am feeling a building excitement about the Pope’s visit. I suspected I’d give in to the craze when I spent the better part of an hour last week figuring out how to download Pope emojis to my iPhone. As that much devotion to a technical issue is so uncharacteristic for me, I started to wonder: what is it about Pope Francis that makes us all so excited?
From the very beginning of his tenure as Pope, Francis has been catching us off guard. Everything we’d come to expect about the his office and the larger institution of the Catholic Church started being called into question when we watched him repeatedly eschew pomp and circumstance, choose modesty over excess, and reach out to unlikely and marginalized groups of people. We’d thought that’s what Jesus meant, we just hadn’t seen it lived out at the helm of the Catholic Church — or at the helms of all the rest of our churches, come to think of it.
He was doing something radical, only he was doing what we were supposed to be doing all along.
And then there were all the incidents of humanness that we began to observe in Pope Francis. There was the time he welcomed young children while he celebrated mass. When he chose to live in a normal apartment like we do, we cheered. And when we saw a picture of him as a young priest wearing a Black Sabbath t-shirt with his collar, some of us were in awe. By allowing the whole world to see him in the gritty reality of being human, Pope Francis modeled a vulnerability that began to make Christian faith seem real. He was living what we are longing for: a faith that meets us in our humanness.
We kept seeing him do all of these radical things, only he was doing what we were supposed to be doing all along.
And when he spoke about poverty and excess, about crucial issues of care for creation, he started saying things that matter to the world. He wasn’t just debating doctrine or making up more obscure rules; he was talking instead about real issues of inequity that are causing pain, devastation, destruction all over the world. He was saying that people of faith can’t stay silent about these issues anymore. And what he was doing when he was saying these things was helping us to consider — perhaps for the first time in a very long time — that the institutional expression of the faith we claim might say and do substantive things that actually make the world a more peaceful and justice-filled place — something even the most devout among us had come to doubt from time to time, if we’re honest.
When we watched Pope Francis claim radical stances like these, the light went on and we could see: he was doing what we were supposed to be doing all along.
In short, we American Christians have been called by Pope Francis to stop our frantic striving to make our churches more popular, to bolster our attendance, to balance our budgets, to change Christianity to attract people. Instead, Pope Francis reminds us that the message of Jesus is critically compelling. All we have to do is live it.