Sermon for Pentecost 23 at Grace Cathedral
The book of Job that we have been hearing over the last few weeks feels tragically relevant today. Job, a righteous man, is visited with undeserved suffering losing his wealth, his family and his health. He cries out to God, in anger and distress. He cries out as we do when we hear of another mass shooting – this time at a Jewish synagogue as a violent anti-semite brings untold suffering down on innocent heads.
Job has three so-called friends in his affliction who are ironically called comforters. Their form of comfort is to tell Job that his suffering is basically his own fault – that he must have done something sinful and bad that has brought down God’s punishment on him. They, like us very often, want their world to make sense. They don’t want to believe in a universe where suffering is random, where our prosperity and flourishing is not entirely under our own control. They are trying to persuade themselves as much as Job that the good are rewarded and the evil are punished.
But Job is having none of this. He knows he hasn’t done anything wrong – nothing to merit the sudden tragedy that has overwhelmed him. He refuses their simplistic view of the world and instead rails against God. He cries for God, he all but swears at God, he demands God’s attention and explanation. And what does he receive? Silence. Absence. No response, no engagement, no explanation that could make sense of all this grief.
The silence of God in the face of Job’s pain has worried faithful Christians across the centuries. But it speaks to me of something that is very real in my own spiritual journey. There are many times when I pray into silence – when my cries seem to be swallowed up into an eternal silence that gives nothing back. When my certainty of the continuing presence of God is an act of will rather than a felt reality. If the Bible is to speak truly then this experience needs to find a place in its pages.
But God’s silence in the book is not absolute – as we heard last week and today it’s broken at the very end. Then God speaks to Job in both affirmation and admonishment. God affirms Job’s righteousness, he agrees with Job that this tragedy was not caused by Job’s sin, and he tells Job’s friends off for their callous lack of empathy and compassion. And in affirming Job’s continuing righteousness it is clear that Job’s questioning and lamenting were also not sinful. Job’s sin didn’t cause his suffering, and Job’s ranting and railing at God wasn’t sinful either.
There are two big hairy theological points being made here. The first is that prosperity and suffering are not linked to virtue and sin. The person who won the billion dollar lottery this week did not win because they’re good; the congregation of Tree of Life Synagogue who faced loss and grief this week did not do so because they’re bad.
I’m not sure how Christians could ever believe otherwise. It’s clear in our most foundational, truest, formative story: the story of Jesus. You can be completely without sin and still end up nailed to a tree. Our faith and virtue are not given us as armour to protect against suffering, they are given as weapons to fight against suffering. Or a less martial example – they are the same construction tools that Jesus’ wielded in his life – love, compassion, forgiveness – that bend the arc of existence towards righteousness.
We, like Job, long for an answer as to why this is so. Why do bad things happen to good people? The answer that Job gets is to be reminded of how little he comprehends about God and the world. God lets him know quite clearly that she is beyond Job’s grasp and understanding. That there is beauty and grandeur, meaning and pattern, wildness and creativity that is visible to God’s eyes but not to our limited human vision. We get above ourselves if we think we have God figured out. We get above ourselves when we think the whole universe revolves around us and forget its glorious breadth and scope. This is no answer, but it takes a lifetime’s prayer to find a better one.
The second big hairy theological point is that God will not judge us for howling out the pain this causes in her face. Job rants at God, blames God, shouts at God – and God still calls him righteous. It is Job’s comforters who are dismissed by God for their smug self-satisfaction, not Job for his rage and defiance. Do not be afraid of bringing your whole self into your relationship with God. Do not be afraid of shouting at God from the depth of your hurt. God’s love is not such a feeble thing that our anger can bruise it, let alone ever break it.
And I don’t only know this from reading Job. Just as I see the silence of God reflected from time to time in my own spiritual life, so I know from my own experience that our anger does not dent God’s love. I have sworn at God for the pains of my own heart and for the pains I have ministered to in others. This has never broken anything in my spiritual life but done the opposite – opened me up so that God’s healing Spirit can come in. In this year of truth be true and honest with God in your prayer life, not polite and inauthentic!
There is only so far that words can take us in exploring the mystery of the world’s suffering. Our truest and best response to the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue is not to explain its theological implications but to work to ensure such shootings never happen again. To take up our virtue and faith as peace-wielding weapons, as holy tools, against violence and hate. To counter anti-semitism and all forms of racism whether we see it in others or in our selves. To take practical steps to addressing gun culture. To live out of love, compassion, kindness and forgiveness.
God’s final answer to Job was not an explanation but a presence. God came to him. In our Christian faith God doesn’t offer explanation but presence. God came to us in Jesus, God comes to us in her life-giving Spirit. Together we find God’s presence in prayer and music, in bread and wine. Together we can be God’s presence in the world – loving, nurturing, courageous, open. Playing our part in our shared Jewish and Christian calling of tikun olam – healing this hurting world.