A Meditation for World Communion Sunday
copyright © 2009 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
27th Sunday of Ordinary Time: October 4, 2009
Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Why read from such a book on World Communion Sunday? How is today’s service representative of “the world” gathered at the Lord’s table, and in particular, how does Job relate to the Lord’s Supper? Over the years I have looked through the membership of congregations I have served and realized that there have been members in those churches born in many different countries. Here are a few that came to my mind: England, Scotland, Germany, Sierra Leon, Australia, Laos, Puerto Rico, Korea, Cambodia, Canada, Mexico, Holland, Palestine, and, of course, the Republic of Texas. In the USA, we do, truly, come from everywhere. So, in a way, any time a congregation such as ours gathers at the table, we celebrate “World Communion!”
As to the question whether a reading from Job applies to today’s service: in recalling the suffering of Job, we should be sure to remember the suffering of Christ as well. If Job’s suffering was filled with questions, Jesus’ suffering was filled with redemption, with the identification of God with the plight of suffering humanity.
The name “Job” calls to mind a few graphic images for most of us. The phrase, “the patience of Job,” is often used as a description of an especially long-suffering person. This is a cliché at best, a complete misrepresentation at worst. We could believe it to be an accurate characterization of Job only if we had never bothered to read the story, or had “grown weary after reading only the first two chapters.” In the 42 chapters of this most unusual Old Testament book, Job comes across as anything but patient, especially following chapter 2.
Most people with even a passing understanding of Job know that it isn’t a book about patience, but that it has come to be synonymous with the human quest for purpose latent in human suffering. Tom Long of Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Atlanta says,
“The story looks as though it may deliver something to feed our aching hunger to know why. When we summon the book to provide an answer, though, many readers are deeply dissatisfied, even aggrieved, with the result. The God who finally turns up near the end of the story appears to supply not an answer, but a swagger.”
It is important to remember that, like the biblical book of Esther, Job is a story-teller’s story, meant to illustrate or teach. It will do no good to search through ancient maps looking for the land of Uz, any more than it would be helpful to look through Persian records for a Jewish queen named Esther. These chronicles are not offered by the biblical writers as history per se, they are theology and philosophy turned into stories we can understand from our own experiences.
When the dictionary speaks of Job as one who encounters disaster with fortitude and faith, it is only partly accurate. Clearly there is fortitude, as demonstrated in Job’s determined answer to his wife that he would not curse God and die. In view of the suffering he endures in the story, that is quite a lot. But notice that by the end of chapter 2 it says only that “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.” Chapter 3 begins less auspiciously than chapter 2 ended: “After this Job opened his mouth and cursed the day of his birth.”
If Job was determined not to curse God with his lips, he apparently felt the terrifying need to curse something. How like most of humanity that when he could not curse something in the world around him, he turned his curses on himself. It is a classic case of blaming the victim. Before his so-called friends could appear on the scene and offer him the thin comfort of telling him his suffering must have arisen from some sinfulness in his life, he had already taken to heaping scorn on his own existence.
Why is this? I think it is because any suffering, and especially the suffering of innocents, brings to mind questions of the meaning of our existence. Job “persisted in his integrity,” but immediately he began to ask the “why” questions. If we believe that we were placed here for a purpose, suffering is the sort of experience that calls that sense of purpose into question in a dramatic way.
Martin Marty is a world-renowned emeritus professor from the University of Chicago Divinity School, and author of a little periodical called Context. He once shared a story there from a Jesuit priest who told him that, on a visit to Mexico, he happened to observe young people coming to a cathedral on a Sunday morning. As each man approached the church doors he handed his señora through into the nave and then stood on the stairs smoking, occasionally looking in to see how things were coming along at the altar. This happened again and again until quite a crowd of men was assembled outside. Intrigued, the priest went down into the plaza.
“Good morning, gentlemen.”
“Good morning, Father.”
“I see you escort the ladies to mass and then wait outside.”
“That’s right,” they said.
“You don’t go into the cathedral yourselves?”
“No, not generally.”
“Well, that’s puzzling. Aren’t you Catholics?”
The men looked at him in consternation.
“Of course we’re Catholics,” they said. “But we’re not fanatics.”
They were happy to carry the label of their faith but not its content or its life. Job was willing to carry the content of his faith, even when he no longer saw the sense of it, no longer even wished to wear the label. He was willing to cling by a thread of faith, even when he was no longer sure where the other end of the thread was attached.
What drives us to the Lord’s table on this or any Sunday? Fanaticism? Perhaps it is nothing more than our desire to avoid the sins of the lips. Perhaps it is only that in the midst of life’s trials and vicissitudes, when we cannot see any trace of the plan or purpose of God, when we have nothing to offer others from our own spent resources, when our needs are so great and our means for meeting them seem so small, that on a day like that we want to have a way to declare that no matter what happens to shake our confidence, we have a means by which we can declare that we still believe. Nothing more than that, just a way of hanging on, of refusing to curse God and die, to say that no matter what lies ahead around curves we cannot see, we believe God’s unseen purpose lies there as well. And perhaps holding on to just that one thing will be enough to see us through. The observance of the Lord’s Supper is not an end in itself, but is a way of reminding believers just how intimately Christ is with us in all the moments of life. Christ is “the divine Son who has fully participated in our human existence and experienced the fullness of human suffering and brokenness.”
With Christ, suffering no longer expresses our separation from God, but rather marks our solidarity with Christ, with God-become-man. In Christ our suffering is his own.
Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote: “There is nothing of which every man is so afraid as getting to know how enormously much he is capable of – do you want to know? You are capable of living in poverty; you are capable of enduring almost all possible mistreatment. But you do not wish to get to know this; no, you would become enraged at the person who would tell you this, and you regard as a friend only the one who will help you to confirm yourself in the idea [that you are] not capable of enduring, it is beyond [your] power.”
It is beyond our power, true enough. But nothing is beyond the power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead for us, and lives in us through him.
 Ibid., p. 6.
 Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Pentecost, Year B, Soards et. al., Abingdon, 1993, pp. 78-79.