Sunday, October 7, 2012

Avoiding the Sins of the Lips

Avoiding the Sins of the Lips
A Meditation for World Communion Sunday

Job 1:1, 2:1-10         

Robert J. Elder, Pastor
27th Sunday of Ordinary Time: October 7, 2012

We all hear Job’s name, and we connect it immediately with the biblical story of his abject suffering. Some questions come to my mind:
• Why read from such a book on World Communion Sunday, of all days?
• How is today’s service representative of “the world” gathered at the Lord’s table, and in particular…
• … how does Job’s story relate to the Lord’s Supper?
I reflected this week on the membership of the seven congregations I have served during my ordained ministry, and realized that I have been privileged to serve churches whose members were born in many different countries. Here are a few that came to my mind: The USA, of course, England, Scotland, Germany, Sierra Leon, Australia, Cayman Islands, Laos, Puerto Rico, Canada, Mexico, Holland, Palestine, and, of course, Texas. In a way, over the years, any time most congregations gather at the table, we literally celebrate “World Communion!”
As to my own 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 questioning, 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. It 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.”[1] In the 42 chapters of this most unusual Old Testament book, Job comes across as anything but patient, especially following chapter 2. Like Tevya in the musical Fiddler on the Roof, Job carries on an active debate with God.
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 that lies in obvious and not-so-obvious ways in human suffering. Tom Long of Princeton Seminary once wrote,
“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.”[2]
It is important to remember that 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 another Old Testament Jewish heroine 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 through the lens of our own experiences.
When the generic Bible 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 come 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.
University of Chicago Divinity School professor Martin Marty once shared a story[3] 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 wife or girlfriend through into the nave and then stood on the stairs outside smoking, occasionally looking in to see how things were coming along at the altar. This happened again and again until quite a crowd was assembled. 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 action. Job was willing to carry the content of his faith, even when he no longer saw the sense of it, no longer 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, and the rest of the Christian world, to the table on this or any Sunday? Fanaticism? Or 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.”[4]
With Christ, suffering no longer expresses our separation from God, but rather marks our solidarity with Christ, with God-become-human. 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.”
Sometimes enduring is beyond our power, true enough. But nothing is beyond the power of the God who raised Jesus from the dead for us. That is the promise we share as we move to the table of our Lord.

[1] “Job: Second Thoughts in the Land of Uz,” by Thomas Long,Theology Today, April, 1988, p. 5.
[2] Ibid., p. 6.
[3] In his little periodical, Context.
[4] Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Pentecost, Year B, Soards et. al., Abingdon, 1993, pp. 78-79.