Sunday, August 21, 2016

Sermon for August 21

(I covered the church service at a different congregation this week, so the readings were from the traditional Revised Common Lectionary)

The readings
Isaiah 58:9-14

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am. If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

Psalm 103
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits—
who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases,
who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever.
He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities.
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us.
As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.
As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field;
for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him, and his righteousness to children’s children,
to those who keep his covenant and remember to do his commandments.
The Lord has established his throne in the heavens, and his kingdom rules over all.
Bless the Lord, O you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, obedient to his spoken word.
Bless the Lord, all his hosts, his ministers that do his will.
Bless the Lord, all his works, in all places of his dominion. Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Hebrews 12:18-29
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.”Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”)But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

Luke 13:10-17
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.”But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

 The message

Sermon for August 21, 2016 Trinity Middle Village Pentecost + 14

I am glad to be here with all of you this morning.  I am thankful for this time to lift up our prayers together, to sing God's praise, to hear and share God's word and gather around the communion table together.  We did some church swapping this morning to ensure a congregation whose pastor recently left would have coverage today.  There is a deacon who has been part of our community for decades currently leading worship in my church and here I am.  This is the 3rd time I have led a Sunday morning worship service someplace other than St Jacobus in almost 10 years. This is also the first time in almost a year that I am using the traditional Sunday readings list. About a year ago my church changed our readings to a list called the Narrative Lectionary, which has only one reading each Sunday and follows the story or narrative of the Bible.  As I looked at the readings for today, I quickly realized I could share one of the most joyful and important moments in my ministry and it would be new to you.  (they have heard it at St Jacobus 3 or 4 times)
Our Gospel reading this morning tells of Jesus meeting with a woman who had a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight.  I met this woman once, well a young girl in the same situation.  It was after my first year in Seminary. I was working on my CPE, which is an intensive, hospital based pastoral care training program for ministry students. I was at a large hospital in the city.  There were about 15 students from all different faith traditions in my group and each of us was assigned certain areas as well as on call emergency hours.   One morning about half way through the program,  I happened to be in the pastoral care  office and since I was there, one of the supervisors asked me to respond to a request from a patient for a chaplains visit. The call was from the children's ICU unit, which is often a mentally and spiritually challenging place to walk through.  I had no idea what to expect.  As I entered the room I meet a girl who was 16 or 17 years old and her mother.  The girl was a frequent guest at the hospital due to infections and the need for IV antibiotics. She suffered from some several muscular and mental disabilities that left her unable to speak or move much. She could only communicate some with facial expressions and sounds, which her mother was proficient in interpreting. The girl also had a spinal curvature which left her significantly bent backwards.  I never saw anyone with this sort of condition before and did my best to hide my shock.   

Now I truly and honestly wish I could say, like Jesus,  I cried out "Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” and when I laid my hands on her, she immediately she stood up straight and began praising God.  That did not happen.  Our first meeting was polite and nice but uneventful. I got to the know them, their difficult story and their deep trust in God. We prayed together for healing and strength. At the end the mother said "she really likes you" and I promised to stop again.   My next visit a day or two later was eventful. During our conversation, the mother told me something that shocked me more than my initial meeting.  As we talked about different things, our discussion led to talk about church.   She mentioned that their church viewed them pretty much viewed as an annoyance and their pastor refused to baptize the girl since she could not sufficiently show she made the decision for Jesus. 
My first thoughts were, "you need to find another church" but it was not really my place to push that.  Our conversation moved around a bit more, then we had a time of prayer.  As I left and got near the door,  the mother called out "would you baptize her".  I said of course and explained why.  My explanation was probably way too theological and I think she got a bit lost but basically, I told them Baptism is the time when God chooses us and God chooses everyone decision or not.

I left to prepare for the baptism (which like healing on the Sabbath in our gospel reading was pretty clearly prohibited).  Part of the seminary rules for CPE was that you were not authorized or supposed to perform baptisms, especially if it was not an emergency and you could easily get an ordained person to do it.  The hospital I was working at had slightly different rules, summarized as "you do whatever you have to do for the spiritual care of the people entrusted to you".  (On a side note, we are not a church of blind, law and rule following bureaucrats, as I talked about this event at a pastoral candidacy interview later on, no one became indignant, it was celebrated). 

Baptisms are pretty easy to prepare for, all you need is some water and something to carry it in.  As I got ready, I was telling everyone what happened (this was exciting news in a pastoral care department, this was, after all, what we were there for).  One of the other students said "I know that family" and asked to come along and see or help with the service.  I said okay and off we went. As we returned for the baptism, we gathered together a group of nurses, doctors, even other patients and people who knew the girl.  Someone managed to grab some balloons and flowers.   After the Baptism, we all could tell that this girl knew something special had just happened.  The mother had a great sense of joy and relief (and plans to find a new church).

We did nothing to help the girl's physical or mental ailments. She would remain in the hospital a few more days and be released and likely return in another month or two. She was however, set free from other ailments.  The girl no longer felt like a second class citizen in God's kingdom,  she knew that she was as loved and cared for as any healthy or well person, that God knew and loved her too.  The mother knew her daughter was included in God's kingdom, that this girl she loved so deeply and cared for so much was also loved deeply and cared for so much by God. Jesus died and rose for her salvation too and now she saw the water to prove it. 

These are the joys that Jesus invites us into. There is the joy of seeing what we can offer others. If we cannot allow someone to stand up straight and walk,  maybe we can offer the gift of comfort and acceptance, peace, a second chance, prayer, economic help or welcome. There is the joy of knowing we are part of God's kingdom, each with a unique story and ability to share God's love.  There is the joy of knowing our faith does not center on rules and traditions, it centers on Jesus who revealed God's word, showed God's  love and brought us to God's grace by his death and resurrection.  Finally, I do not want to imply that keeping the Sabbath is meaningless, Jesus did not want to imply that keeping the sabbath is meaningless.  This day and time of rest is a gift we deeply need.  It is a time to stop and remember these things are true and meant for us to enjoy, celebrate and share.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Sermon for August 14

Hey Everyone

Just an intro note about the sermon.  We have started a 4 week series on the Lord's Prayer (each week the reading will be Luke  11 Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come.   Give us each day our daily bread  And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us  And do not bring us to the time of trial.) 

This Sunday, we did something a little different.  We had a skit / dialogue between a person praying the Lord's prayer (the Pray-er) and God.  This was not my idea or work.  It is based on a project from a group called Body-builders.  I made considerable changes to some of the lines (to reflect Martin Luther's understanding of the Lord's prayer in the Small Catechism).  I felt that the original version was too focused on works and what we do instead of pointing to the Lord's prayer as the place where we proclaim and encounter God's grace.  (so i changed it).   

Pray-er: “Our Father which art in heaven
God: Yes. this is God  
Pray-er: Don’t interrupt me. I’m praying.
God: But you called me.
Pray-er: Called you? I didn’t call you. I’m praying. “Our Father which art in heaven . .
God: There, you did it again.
Pray-er: Did what?
God: Called me. You said, “Our Father which art in heaven.” Here I am. What’s on your mind?
Pray-er: But I didn’t mean anything by it. I was, you know, just saying my prayers for the day. I always say the Lord’s Prayer. It makes me feel good, you know, kind of like finishing a task.
God: All right. Go on!
Pray-er: “Hallowed be thy name
God: Hold it! What do you mean by that?
Pray-er: By what?
God: By “Hallowed be thy name?”
Pray-er: It means … it means … honestly, I don’t really  know what it means! How should I know? It’s just part of the prayer Jesus taught us, its right isn't it.  By the way, what does it mean? what am I asking for
God: Well, Hallowed means honored, holy, wonderful.  You are asking for help to glorify my name and live out my word in the world.
Pray-er: Hey, that makes sense. I never thought what “hallowed” meant before. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.”
God: Okay, stop again, Do you really mean what you just said
Pray-er: Sure, why not?
God: You just said you want my kingdom to come to you and the world, that you want my will to be part of your life and community. I have to ask what are you doing to make it happen?
Pray-er: Doing about all that? Nothing, I guess. I just think it would be kind of neat if you got control of everything down here like you have up there.
God: Lets start small, Have I got control of you? Are you living out the grace you have received, has baptism, communion and faith changed the way you live and see the world?  Has my will overcome your own plans and desires?
Pray-er: Well, I go to church.
God: That isn’t what I asked you. What about all the times you have broken my commandments, all the things you have done and left undone, when you haven't cared for  your neighbor as yourself,  and then there’s the way you spend your money—all on yourself, a lot of that stuff is not my will.  .
Pray-er: Stop picking on me! I’m just as good as all those other people at church!
We all mess up sometimes.
God: Excuse me! I thought you were praying for my will to be done. My will is to strengthen  you and keep you steadfast in my grace, in my word and in faith until the end of your life.
Prar-er: wait a minute, aren't my sins forgiven because Christ died and rose again, this sounds like its all about what I do.
God: You finally asked a good question, your not so dumb after all.  Your sins are forgiven by grace, but my will is for you to not waste or ignore that gift, you have to live it, witness to it and share it. 
Pray-er: Look, Lord! I need to finish up here. This is taking a lot longer than it usually does. “Give us this day, our daily bread.”
God: Don't you have enough bread already?  You don't look hungry to me. You just asked for help to recognize what your daily bread is and to receive it with Thanksgiving. 
Pray-er: Hey, wait a minute! What is this, attack me day? Here I was, doing my religious duty, and all of a sudden you break in and remind me of all your laws and my problems keeping them. 
God:  The law is a dangerous thing, it exposes sins and drives you to my grace. when you pray. ou could wind up changed, you know. That’s what I’m trying to get across to you. You called me, and here I am. Stop depending on yourself and just trust me. Your almost done now just keep on praying. I’m interested in the next part of your prayer.
Pray-er: I dont really want to.
God: Why not?
Pray-er: I know you are going to go after me for saying and not doing this one.
God: Your right I will, you matters well get it out of the way, 
Pray-er: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
God: What about Joe?
Pray-er: I knew it! See, I knew you would bring that guy up! Why, Lord, he’s told lies about me, and cheated me out of some money, and is the biggest phoney around. He never paid back that debt he owes me. I’ve sworn to get even with him and then never associate with him again!
God: You ask me to forgive you but wont forgive others?.
Pray-er: Well yeah
God: at least you’re honest..  I have seen all the suffering sin causes, the separation from me, the anxiety, fear and violence and the obstacles it puts in our relationship. I want all that out of our world.    
Pray-er: I have a great relationship with you, It's Joe I'm mad at, I need to get even, that will make me feel better. 
God: But you have to remember I came down to you, Jesus died and rose for the forgiveness of your sins, you didn't do anything to earn that, you are set free from the power of sin and death because I love you, why are you letting sin control your life. About 2000 years ago my friend Paul asked a great question "why would those who are dead to sin continue to live in it"
Pray-er I never thought of it that way,
God: then you never thought of it the right way, Its not a trade, I do not forgive you if you forgive others. Jesus took care of you already. You forgive others to celebrate my grace, to remind yourself and all the people around you of what I have done, to be truly free from the power of sin.  Got it?
Pray-er: I think so, it seems so obvious when you explain it that way.
God: Okay, why don't you finish up, I got God stuff to go and do.
Pray-er: Oh, all right. “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
God: I'm trying my best to do that, I do not want you to be led into false beliefs, suffering, despair or sin.
Pray-er: well that was an easy one
God: not really. Those things are always around though, always attacking you and trying to led you away from me and the story of my love revealed through Christ and scripture. You actually can really help me with this one.
Pray-er: What do you mean by that?
God:. I want you to be surrounded by my word and Spirit, be of part of a church, community and place where my love is proclaimed in words and celebrated with actions, where the sacraments are shared and people gather in my name. 
Pray-er: okay, can you recommend a place
God: well there's St Jacobus, a small Lutheran church in Woodside Queens, they do okay most of the time.  They worship on Sunday's at 10:00 am.
Pray-er, is that it?
God: well now that you mentioned it, even though you always prayed and went to church, you sounded pretty confused when we started talking.  Remember, there are so many people in the world who need guidance, care and to hear my word rightly shared. You can go and tell people what we just talked about.  Go ahead and finish your prayer!
Pray-er: “For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, for ever. Amen.”
God: Yes, Yes, you got it. It is going to come about just like this. You can go in peace, certain you are heard, forgiven, loved and cared for, don't you forget it!

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Sermon for August 7

The reading 

Job 42:7-17

 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite: "My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done." So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job's prayer.
And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.  Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.
The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys.  He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch.  In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job's daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers  After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children's children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

The message

This is now our last Sunday with the book of Job. After 6 weeks of hearing, preaching and worshipping God shaped by this challenging book, we have come to the last words in Job.  The conclusion offers us some comfort but in many ways, it creates more questions than it answers. If your like me, you want to ask “why did God do this to Job”, but all 12 chapters of God’s speeches in the book tell us that is a question which we have no right to ask and of which we cannot understand the answer.  We would all love for the book of Job to end with a sure answer to the question “why do bad things happen to good people”.  All we are told is that bad things are not a punishment for sin.
We are not given answers, we are given reassurance, confirmation that certain things are true or false. We are left with God’s reassurance that bad things do not happen as punishment for sin or as signs of God’s displeasure with us.  We are left with reassurance that a good God is ultimately in control of all things seen and unseen, understood and mysterious, known and unknown.  We are left with reassurance that God is present in suffering and God hears our prayers.  At the end of Job, humanity is placed in a relationship with God which centers on God’s ways and power.

Today I hope to review many of the things we have discussed over the past 6 weeks and share some thoughts about what they mean for us as we live as the people of God here and now. I have spent more hours reading, facing, discussing and learning about Job over this time than ever before.  I found myself more anxious and confused about what to say or how to shape each Sunday service during this time that I have in a number of years. Even the practice of selecting hymns and prayers proved complicated.  Over the 6 weeks, I included songs generally reserved for times of waiting like Advent and Lent and times of promises fulfilled like Christmas, when Christ is born, Easter when Christ is Risen and Pentecost when the Holy Spirit comes to us.  I also choose songs with themes like the end times, prayer and justice. Somehow this story from unknown centuries ago needed all of those things to help explain it.

Job is the story of a faithful, devout and fair person who endures total loss, the tradgic death of his family and the sudden disappearance of his wealth, status, property, quality of life and health. As readers, we know these things happened because God and Satan, the adversary or persecutor, discuss the question “Will people remain faithful if they are not rewarded”.  This questions has been posed by many throughout history and across faith traditions.  Rabi: a Muslim woman and sufi mystic from the early 8th century wrote: O God! If I worship You for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell and if I worship You in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship You for Your Own sake, grudge me not Your everlasting Beauty. Many others before and after her have thought about, prayed over, wrote and spoke on that same question.  Job seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when Satan asks this question and Job becomes the experiment or case study. Job is subjected to the unimaginable, the collapse of his entire world and the failing of his power to do anything about it.  Job and those around him, the 4 of his friends who remain with him, to help and offer comfort, have no idea what just happened or what is going on.

More than half of the book of Job centers on these conversations between Job and his friends.  During this time, they do not help and do not offer comfort. None of them offer prayer, seek God’s voice or value much more than being right. They each use their time and words with Job to tell him, he has sinned and was being punished for his failings. They go through the conventional wisdom of the time, finding 20 different ways of telling Job the world is fair, God is fair, giving out rewards and punishments as we deserve,

Job must have sinned and that is why these things happened. Job has to spend all his time countering every one of their arguments, insisting their wisdom is wrong and he is innocent.  Job’s friends get more aggressive, annoyed and frustrated with each interaction.  Today, this invites us to think seriously about how we comfort others, how we share God’s word and make choices.  Are we concerned about being right or are we concerned with being loving, caring, understanding and faithful to God’s word.        

During this time as Job fights with his friends, he also demands answers from God. For a long time, God is silent.  Perhaps, this is part of the experiment.  After all, if God just appeared at the moment of Job’s loss or the first time Job started to cry out, what would that show.  I get the sense that God is suffering at this time too, watching faithful Job endure these things and knowing they could be stopped, reversed and restored with a simple word.  This makes us wonder how God feels when we, aware or not, do awful things to those close to us and far away.

At some point, enough is enough, God decides Job has remained faithful despite undeserved suffering.  Now God has this awkward moment of showing up, saying “hey it’s God, the one who put you through all this, how’s it’s going?”  God appears in a whirlwind and questions Job, revealing the limits of human knowledge and arrogance of trying to know the mind of God. Job repents, recognizing his inability understand the actions of God. After this God declares Job was correct, he was innocent and his suffering was not caused by sin.  After this, there is a time when  Job prays for himself and then a time for Job to intercede for his friends (despite their insistence that sin is punished by a fair God, theirs will be forgiven by a loving God).  After this, there is the restoration of Job’s wealth, family, land and status which he has another 140 years to enjoy.  Whatever this was, the Job experiment is now over, and as far as I know, never done again.   

Job remains so interesting and challenging to us today because we can still meet and talk with Job. At the church service this past Tuesday at the assisted living home, there was a group of volunteers from West Virginia.  As they joined us for worship and waited to start their work, they were getting news and reports from their home area, a town completely wiped out in floods. They had stories of some neighbors who lost everything and they asked for prayer.  As they prepared to leave NY, they were not sure what waited for them back home but they knew praying would help and that they would help when they could get there.

There are lots of Jobs in refugee camps across Syria, Palestine and other areas. Places literally established for those who have lost everything.  There are Jobs crying out in the churches of places like Nigeria, where Christians are being excluded, tortured and killed because of their faith. There are Jobs in our cities and communities, people facing horrible illnesses in the prime of their lives, people killed for doing their jobs or because of their race and people sleeping on the streets around this building. Many times, they ask God why and struggle with faith in a loving creator who allows these things. This can be an uncomfortable question but it gets truly uncomfortable when they ask us why we do not do anything about it.  After all, the God who does not hold our sins against us is also the God who demands we love our neighbor as ourselves.  Our work as Christians, as people of God, is not to answer that question of why God allows suffering. We can listen and try but it is our work to help those in suffering, to assist with their needs, and show them God is present in their suffering.

I am going to conclude our time with the book of Job with the same introduction as the last 5 weeks.  Everything we know about God does not come from the book of Job.  The history of God’s communication with the world is ultimately a story of love, care, forgiveness and grace, one fully told through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. When we hear God’s actions in Job that are uncomfortable or appear to be extremely unfair or cruel, we have to look again, understand the context, purpose and history of the story or even put those things aside and remember our God is the one who loves us, forgives us, invites us to live better lives and promises us eternal life.
Next week, we start a 4 week series on the Lord’s prayer. As we gather for worship, we will look at the words Jesus taught to remind us of God’s grace, presence and comfort

Sunday, July 31, 2016

what someone else said on Sunday July 31st

 Hey Everyone

We had a special guest speaker today who gave our sermon. My friend Anton has taught classes on the Book of Job as part of courses on World History at different colleges in New York. As a historian, scholar and person of faith, he shared some reflections on the book of Job, its place in history and humanity's  difficulty in understanding and facing this sacred text. 

The readings

Job 38:25-27
"Who has cut a channel for the torrents of rain, and a way for the thunderbolt,  to bring rain on a land where no one lives, on the desert, which is empty of human life, to satisfy the waste and desolate land, and to make the ground put forth grass?

"Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook, or press down its tongue with a cord?  Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook?  Will it make many supplications to you? Will it speak soft words to you?  Will it make a covenant with you to be taken as your servant forever?  Will you play with it as with a bird, or will you put it on leash for your girls?  Will traders bargain over it? Will they divide it up among the merchants? Can you fill its skin with harpoons, or its head with fishing spears?  Lay hands on it; think of the battle; you will not do it again!
Then Job answered the Lord: "I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.  "Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?' Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.  "Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.'  I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;  therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes."

The message

Thank you very much for inviting me to speak. I am not a theologian. All I can offer are a few personal reflections on the Book of Job.

My first encounter with the Book of Job came about, oddly enough, thanks to Soviet television. The gradual opening of the Soviet world to previously forbidden information in the late 1980s meant that biblical stories began to pop up almost randomly on the pages of magazines and on TV shows. Like any other previously forbidden information it was eagerly consumed, no matter the source, and so my whole family gathered weekly to watch Japanese biblical anime cartoons on Soviet public TV. In every episode a robot would take two children back to the Biblical past where the kids would witness all the major events, including Job’s suffering. My mother’s verdict upon viewing that episode was swift and firm – that was not the God that she believed in.

My mom is not alone. In my World History classes at City College, I decided to teach the Book of Job instead of the more common Epic of Gilgamesh. Why not have the students analyze a story from the Bible that almost everyone has heard of but few have carefully read? Why not? Because it's so hard and depressing. Like New York City itself, City College is incredibly diverse - I've had students who were Buddhist, Hindu, Muslim, Agnostic, Jewish, as well as members of multiple Christian denominations. Almost all students took the discussion of the Book of Job in stride and just about everyone felt disheartened by its bleakness.

I tried to teach my students how to analyze the text as social scientists, to try to see what it can tell us about the society that created it. It is in many ways a society very different from our own – after all, Job’s children are killed off and not returned but replaced by others. They are merely an economic resource like his cattle and slaves. Despite the differences the story of seemingly meaningless suffering strikes a universal chord.

Unlike the rest of the Bible that makes modern readers uncomfortable by the inclusion of miracles, I would suggest that the Book of Job makes us uncomfortable because it is so realistic. It is the closest to our darkest experiences of the world - we and others suffer without knowing why. The disclaimer that your Pastor has used to introduce his sermons in the last few weeks, eloquently reminds us that “everything we know about God does not come from the book of Job” and that “the history of God’s communication with the world is a story of love, care, forgiveness and grace.” Indeed, so many of the rest of the stories of the Bible, the stories of God’s presence in the world, seem to work to undo the damage that the Book of Job does to our hearts.

Yet the passages we’ve read today also point us to an important truth – the God of the Book of Job whom my mom has such difficulty accepting tells us, in incredibly beautiful poetry that we cannot fully know the mind of God. God challenges Job's and his friends' insistence that his actions must be understandable – God reminds Job of every way in which Job cannot even fathom God's power and realm of responsibility.

This insight too, appears to be human wisdom shared by many religious traditions. I selected the Book of Job to use in my classes since another text required by the school, the Hindu Bhagavad Gita tells of a similar story of human interaction with the Divine. An equally blameless Prince Arjuna asks Krishna, his chariot driver, for advice in a difficult moment of his life. When Krishna reveals himself to be a god, Arjuna unwisely asks him to show himself in his true form. Though God protects Job from his overwhelming presence by a whirlwind, Krishna actually shows himself to Arjuna who says

“At the sight of this, your Shape stupendous,
 Full of mouths and eyes, feet, thighs and bellies,
Terrible with fangs, O master,
All the worlds are fear-struck, even just as I am.
When I see you, Vishnu, omnipresent,
Shouldering the sky, in hues of rainbow,
With your mouths agape and flame-eyes staring—
All my peace is gone; my heart is troubled.” 

Confronted by the unfathomable divine presence, both Job and Arjuna fall down and ask to be spared. 

Job admits to God that he indeed cannot understand or know God. Yet Elie Wiesel suggested that Job’s quick agreement to wrongdoing indicates that Job actually rebels  - he stops God but reserves the right to think for himself now that he knows what to expect from God.

Poet Alicia Ostriker went further when she wrote that Job’s complaints are a challenge to God to be just, that his is a voice of the “loyal opposition.”  Ostriker explains that once God delivers the message of his power to Job he then admits that he, God, was wrong by bringing restitution. For Ostriker, the moral of the story is that humans should challenge injustice, even when it means challenging God. This does fit with the many instances in the Old Testament where prophets bargain, argue, and even wrestle with God.

But there is a kind of mercy even in the plainest reading of the Book of Job - God does hear him and comes to speak to him directly - a privilege that perhaps no modern human being can claim. And yet in the New Testament – Jesus, God in his human presence on earth, tells us over and over again that we are not alone in our suffering after all. On the eve of his ascension, Jesus makes sure to tell the apostles that he shall send a divine presence, a comforter, the Holy Spirit to be with us.

We are reminded that God knows that we crave his presence with us, his response to our entreaties - and God's message of the New Testament is much clearer about this than the Book of Job. The good news then is that God is with us even when might not know it and even when we can't believe it.