Friday, October 13, 2006

Sermon for October 8, 2006

Mrs. Job Evaluates God

Job 2:2-10

We like to think that there is a reason for everything, don’t we? When I was a teenager, I was in a car accident. I was stopped at an intersection on a snowy day. Another driver tried to make a right hand turn, but the roads were slippery and he crashed into my driver’s side door. The obvious reason for this accident was a lapse in judgment. He was going too fast to make the turn. Deep down, I knew the accident was my fault. That morning, I did something that I knew I wasn’t supposed to. I convinced myself that the car accident was God’s way of telling me that He didn’t approve of my behavior. It was my wake-up call. As adults, many still think about God this way. I hear people say, “There is no such thing as coincidence” and “Everything happens for a reason.” It’s as if God is some the fate-weaver who twists the threads of time to shake us up. If everything happens for a reason, then clearly God made it happen. The argument goes like this: If an all-powerful God controls all of creation, and if nothing happens by chance, then God must somehow be responsible for disasters as well as blessings. Earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes become “acts of God.” The reasoning says that if we do good, God will bless us. If we do bad, God will punish us. Heart disease, cancer, and multiple sclerosis are as much a part of God’s plan as sunshine, puppies, and clear autumn days.

Let’s call this “cause and effect” thinking. It leaves us with a problem. If God is all-powerful and completely good, how can God allow bad things to happen? God becomes a cosmic abuser who either allows terrorism, and war, and rape, and murder, and disease to happen -- or worse, God turns away and fails to stop evil from destroying us.

For some people, cause and effect thinking explains all of life’s problems. When hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, one writer on BeliefNet wrote, “Katrina was an act of God upon a sin-loving and rebellious nation, a warning to all who foolishly and arrogantly believe there is no God”[1] Other commentators thought 9/11 was God’s judgment on the USA. One preacher wrote, “God’s judgments upon our backsliding abound, but we do not see them! When 19 men with box cutters brought this nation to its knees – we did not see the hand of God in it. It didn’t fit our conception of who He was. But our conception of who He was, had nothing to do with the reality of who He is.”[2] The common theme is that God punishes America for her wickedness. If we repent and turn to God, these events will no longer be necessary.

Let’s think about today’s story from the book of Job in terms of cause and effect thinking. The book of Job is a threat to every preacher, to every theologian, to every person who has ever taught a Sunday school class. The book of Job is a threat to anyone who has ever tried to explain who God is; what God does; or why things happen in the world. Here we have a prosperous, healthy, happy, and deeply faithful man named Job. Everything is going great for Job until God and Satan make a little wager. Satan challenges God, claiming that the only reason Job is faithful is that God has blessed him with a wonderful life. If Job’s life is ruined, he will no longer be faithful to God. God accepts the challenge, Satan goes to work, and bad things happen. Job’s children are killed, his wealth is destroyed, his body is laid to waste by illness. Job struggles to be faithful. Apparently, this angered Mrs. Job. Looking at her suffering husband, all she can say is, “Do you still hold fast to your integrity? Curse God - die!”

History gives Mrs. Job a bad rap. One commentator says, “Job’s wife is not a conscientious, devoted, sensible, compassionate wife . . . If she were such a wife, she would embrace her husband’s suffering as her own . . . The Prologue to the Book of Job, however, makes it quite clear that she is fickle and sacrilegious. In fact, she only adds to her husband’s suffering, distancing herself from him. She has developed a loathing for him . . . he makes an outrageous, blasphemous suggestion: to curse God and incur the penalty of death. In a sense, she joins hands with the Adversary, Satan. By seeking death for her husband, she seeks the easiest way out of a marriage and a commitment; the easiest way out of a test.”[3] For generations, the cry of Mrs. Job has been contrasted with the “patience” of Mr. Job. Her cry in the face of anguish is used as a negative example. Her one line memorable quote condemns her to the role of the “faithless one” through the ages.

Perhaps we do Mrs. Job an injustice. Job and Mrs. Job saw their relationship to God based on a predictable cause-and-effect formula: goodness results in goodness and wickedness deserves wickedness. But when Mrs. Job sees her innocent husband suffer, her world predictable world does not make sense anymore. Everything she believes about God is contradicted. Her husband is a righteous man, yet he is punished. Job is not wicked, yet he is cursed. What is going on here? Doesn’t she have a right to be angry? Mrs. Job lost 500 oxen, 70,000 sheep, 3,000 camels, her servants, 7 sons and 3 daughters. A poem by Linda Appel says it well. It’s called “Job’s Wife Speaks.”

This morning, still, he sits in ashes. He stinks,
and scratches, mourns, but will not say a word
that blames his precious God. He scarcely blinks
at all our loss -- our men put to the sword,
our sons and daughters killed by that mighty wind.
He just repeats, “The Lord gives and the Lord
takes away.” I won’t accept it. Pinned
to earth I mourn but cry with anger toward
unfeeling God and Job, whose patience maddens
me. Get up, do something, find a pot;
I still must cook and feed you, bathe and pat on
salve to soothe your boils. Please help, I’m caught
in grief with you. Why has this happened? Why
to us? No hope. Blaspheme your God; let us die.[4]

In despair, she says “Job, curse God and die.” Or does she? The Hebrew Bible quotes Mrs. Job as saying, the word “bless” instead of “curse.” The literal translation of 2:9 is “Bless God, and die.” English translators decided that she spoke sarcastically, and that “curse God and die” is the better translation. I suggest another interpretation that takes the word “bless” seriously. What if Mrs. Job really says something like, “Job, bless God and you will die”? It would then be as if she’s saying, “Job, if you continue to bless God as you have been doing, it will be too much for you. Your words will contradict your heart. They will be nothing more than the mechanical utterances of a man who has experienced devastating loss. If you continue on your stubborn path of blessing God, you will die. There will be such a tension between your confession of faith and the way life has hit you that the conflict will be fatal.”[5]

The powerful God of cause and effect doesn’t sense to Mrs. Job anymore. Any God who punishes an innocent man is not worthy of worship. The old way of understanding God is no good. So she says, “Job, if you keep blessing this God, you’re going to die.” Job’s friends come to him and offer him more of the same old understanding of God. They say, “No one is sinless, not even the angels. How can you say you are innocent before God? You must have done something wrong. Something to justify God’s anger.” However, at the beginning of the book, Mrs. Job understands something that will take Mr. Job forty more chapters to understand. Their understanding of God is limited, and they are on the brink of understanding something new.

In 1620, when our spiritual ancestors prepared to leave Europe for the New World, their pastor, John Robinson, sent them off with this historic commission: “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” In this powerful sentence, Robinson explained that God’s revelation couldn’t be confined. Our understanding of God is so limited, so fragile. We need to be ready for that crisis of faith – that moment when our old understanding of God doesn’t work anymore, but we have nothing new yet. “God has yet more light and truth to break forth out of his holy Word.” Robinson’s assertion continues to be the hallmark of UCC beliefs. That is why in our tradition we read the Bible, we study ancient creeds and catechisms, and we look to the wisdom and guidance of individuals and faith communities throughout history and across cultures. It is also why we never let ourselves believe that we have read or heard all that God has to say, or all that God may be calling us to be and do.[6]

Have you ever had a moment when what you believe about God has been disrupted? I hope so. Sometimes you have to be prepared to die, to let go, to release, to accept some things in order to come into this new season of possibilities. The same is true about God. It’s easy enough to believe in God. The question we need to ask ourselves is, simply, which God? What is your image of God in whom you claim to believe? What kind of company does your God keep? What does your God ask of you – if anything?

The God of cause and effect is founded on the assumption of power. Is that your God. When you think about god, do you think the last word in sheer might and authority? Or do you think of compassion, mercy, and self-giving love? After 9/11, a day that bruised the spirits of us all, people approached me and asked, “Where is God in all of this?” In cause and effect thinking, we need to find someone to blame. The God of power seemed appropriate. For some, their assumption about God is that He (and it’s always He), must stand for omnipotence and therefore chose to allow suffering to happen. Here’s what we fail to grasp. Gods who prevent evil and set everything right can only do so by overruling someone’s behavior. Those who get mad at God for failing to act godlike and exercise unlimited power are usually the same ones who are most offended when their freedom is taken. They want the world to be what they want to world to be, and the only god they can tolerate is the one whose will perfectly matches their own.[7]

I think that the god of power has failed us. It’s time for us to grow up out of the adolescent belief that God gives good to the good and sends the plague upon the wicked. Bless this god, and you will die. The God I worship is a God of relationship –a God who shares power with us instead of using power to punish us. My God is not the omnipotent one against whom we stand in total helplessness. My God is one who sees suffering, and chooses to enter it. If suffering is the essence of being, then God shares our destiny by suffering in it with us. God does not interfere with the way things are. We are in it together. God’s power is seen in the power to endure.[8] This is the witness of Jesus, our Immanuel – God is with us. God is with us.


[1] http://www.beliefnet.com/story/174/story_17439_2.html

[2] http://www.operationsaveamerica.org/articles/articles/katrina-a-judgment-from-god.htm

[3] http://www.bsw.org/?l=71791&a=Ani04.htm

[4] http://dl1.clackamas.edu/kateg/wr245/linda6.html

[5] http://www.drbilllong.com/MoreJobEssays/JobsWife.html

[6] http://www.stillspeaking.com/spirit/words5.htm

[7] Hall, The Cross in Our Context, 76-77, 86-88.

[8] Dorothee Solle, Thinking About God, 188. W. Paul Jones, Theological Worlds, 220.

Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Sermon for October 1, 2006 -- World Communion Sunday

A World Devoted to God
Genesis 12:1-9

Why can’t the religions of the world get along better? After all, isn’t Abraham the spiritual father of the Jews, the spiritual father of the Christians, and the spiritual father of the Muslims? Why is there so much conflict among Abraham’s spiritual children? What is wrong? Hebrew Scripture declares that Moses is a son of Abraham. The New Testament says that Jesus is a son of Abraham (Matthew 1:1). The Koran states that Mohammed is a son of Abraham. Does that imply that Moses, Jesus and Mohammed are brothers? If so, then why can’t the religions of the world get along better?

Today, I invite us to think about Abraham once more. 200 million Jews, two billion Christians and one billion Muslims trace their origins to Father Abraham. If all the descendents of these religions spiritually related, then why has there been so much conflict and war within the family through the centuries? If Abraham is declared a friend of God in the Jewish Torah and if Abraham is declared a friend of God in the Christian Bible and Abraham is declared a friend of God in the Koran, then why can’t the followers of the three world religions be better friends?

In 2002, a bestseller came out entitled, ABRAHAM: A JOURNEY TO THE HEART OF THREE FAITHS by Bruce Feiler. Feiler asks the question: if Abraham is the father of the Jews, Christians and Muslims, why can’t the Jews, Christians and Muslims get along? Maybe there is something in the life and faith of Abraham that could inspire greater harmony the world’s three monotheistic religions. Guess who inflames the warring spirits within these three religions. Rabbis, pastors, and imams. That’s right. Religious leaders are partly to blame for the religious unrest we see in the world.

We see Jewish families living in the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories of the West Bank. They have lived and grown there for two generations now, since the war of 1965. In the Roadmap to Peace, Jews were to give up several of their West Bank settlements. What was the response to such an idea among the fanatical Jewish rabbis? Give up our Jewish settlements? Our newest Jewish villages? Absolutely not! Instead, let’s assassinate the Prime Minister. Remember 1995? Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was not killed by Palestinians or Lebanese assassins. A right-wing Jewish radical assassinated Rabin at a peace rally. Just before the killing, Rabin ended a speech with the words of a song, Shir Lashalom – the Song of Peace.

Lift your eyes with hope
not through the rifle sights
sing a song for love
and not for wars.
Don't say the day will come,
bring the day,
because it is not a dream.
And within all the city's squares,
cheer for peace.
And sing, sing a song for peace,
don't whisper a prayer,
it's better to sing a song for peace
with a giant shout!

Christian also play their part in our religious wars. Consider the words of Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son. This is the man who prayed at George W. Bush’s inauguration, and who runs and international relief agency. Speaking after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Graham commented, “I don't believe [Islam] is a wonderful, peaceful religion.” He added, “When you read the Koran and you read the verses from the Koran, it instructs the killing of the infidel, for those that are non-Muslim.” When asked to clarify his statement, Graham repeated his charge that Islam, as a whole, was evil. “It wasn't Methodists flying into those buildings, it wasn’t Lutherans,” he said. “It was an attack on this country by people of the Islamic faith.” Graham later gave a non-apology – a statement of regret.

You can always count on Jerry Falwell for a bigoted sound bite. Here’s Falwell on Islam, from a transcript f 60 minutes. He says, “Muhammad was a terrorist. I read enough of the history of his life written by both Muslims and non-Muslims [to know] that he was a violent man, a man of war. In my opinion … Jesus set the example for love, as did Moses. And I think that Muhammad set an opposite example.” Falwell later gave a non-apology, saying that he inteneded no disrespect to any sincere, law-abiding muslim. At the same time, An Iranian cleric called Fallwell a mercenary who must be killed.

Consider the recent remarks by Pope Benedict. In a recent lecture, the Pope quoted a 15th century Byzantine emperor who once said, “Show me just what Mohammed brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread by the sword the faith he preached.” In response, Al Qaeda leaders in Iraq called for a continued effort in their war against followers of the Cross. One Arab op-ed piece stated, “The pope’s latest statement cannot be considered a slip of the tongue or a comic bit from a TV show; the situation here is different, and his remarks are indicative of an important and highly symbolic stance toward [Islam] and the prophet of about a billion and-a-half Muslims.”

Muslim clerics also do their part to inflame the sons and daughters of Abraham. Most of us are appalled that there was no chorus of condemnation by the Muslim clerics after the bombing of the Twin Towers. Most of us are appalled by the Muslim schools in Saudi Arabia, Iran and Iraq that teach bomb making and political fanaticism. Most of us are appalled when such these emphasize that “jihad” is to be a holy war against the West and against Christianity. We know that the terrorists who suicide bomb their own people have been carefully taught.

So, I believe that the author, Bruce Feiler, has a point when he suggests that religious intolerance and fanaticism are often inflamed by rabbis, priests and Muslim clerics. Each proclaims a vision of what the world would look like if it were totally devoted to God. But let’s think for a moment – what would it look like if we turned to Father Abraham as a symbol three world religions, as a symbol of being a father of a family that learns to live and love together in the household called Earth.

As a Christian congregation, what are we to do? “What does it mean to profess Christian faith in a world of many faiths? How can I be fully a Christian and at the same time respect the faith of others? What does it mean to be ‘saved’ and to believe in Jesus as the Way to God?” Many of us struggle with these questions.

God calls us to be breaking down walls of division: nationally, culturally, racially, and religiously. As members of the United Church of Christ, we commit to intentional dialogue with other faith traditions. In 1988 and 1989, The UCC drafted statements on interfaith relations. The resolution calls upon all local congregations to actively engage in dialogue with the Muslim and Jewish communities in order to establish relationships of trust and cooperation and to participate in joint witness against all injustice in our local communities and in the world.

Today I call us to a new kind of martyrdom – a kind of martyrdom that today’s world has not yet seen. The world martyr comes from the Greek marturios – it literally means to be a witness – a person who testifies about the faith. A witness does two things. First, a witness sees God. I witness the fact that God is everywhere and in every situation and so my life has nothing to do with my ego, my individual efforts, and my melodramas. No more demanding that my way is the only way . . .Just silent profound watching and worship of God at work. Only then can I do t he second job of a witness – to let my actions live out the truth I just saw.

Today, I call us to modesty in all things, including our faith – to conversation without conversion. As Christians, we do not know – we only trust. We do not own the truth, but we bear witness to the living Truth. We engage ourselves with those who do not belong to the household of faith, including those of other faiths, with the expectation that the other – another human being – has something to bring to our meeting. The other is not a mere receptacle for my message.

There is much for us to learn from Father Abraham 4000 years after he lived and died. From Abraham, we can learn what it means to believe the promises of God, to have genuine faith and lead a devout godly life. From Abraham, we can learn to realize that God blesses us so that we can be a blessing to God’s world. From Abraham, we can learn to love other people who are part of Abraham’s other religious families here on earth.

I want us to remember that as we take communion on this World Communion SUnday. We share a meal with other Christians. We also Watch for God, reenact our faith, and testify to the possibility of a world of peace, in community with our brothers and sisters from the family of Abraham.

Sources:

Edward Markquart, “Abraham: The Father of Three Religions,”
http://www.radiohazak.com/Shir.html.
Preacher's Anti-Islam Remarks Mobilize White House. ”
Todd Hertz, “Riots, Condemnation, Fatwa, and Apology Follow Falwell's CBS Comments,” in Christianity Today.
“Jerry Falwell's statement of reconciliation.”
“Putting the Pope’s Remark in Context,” NPR’s Morning Edition, Sept. 19, 2006.
“Arab op-ed: Pope’s remarks may lead to war, ”
http://www.ucc.org/ecumenical/89-gs-muslim.pdf., http://www.ucc.org/ecumenical/87-gs-jewish.pdf.
Douglass john Hall, The Cross in our Context (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 193-194.


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