Date: Oct. 3, 2021 World Communion Sunday
Scripture Lesson: Job 1:1-3, 2:1-13
Sermon: The Integrity of Job
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
So, what do Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Equatorial Guinea, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Puerto Rico, Spain, Uruguay, and Venezuela all have in common?
Yes, they are all Spanish-speaking countries, which we are honoring this National Hispanic Heritage month in the US. But there is something else that these countries have in common. The people in all of these countries have known suffering and not just as a result of the process of colonization and exploitation.
Indeed, people in every country, in every region, in every community, in the world suffer. The experience of suffering, in some form, is universal.
Everyone suffers. Regardless of language, ethnicity, circumstances, income, age, sexual identity, lifestyle, or education, everyone experiences suffering. Whether you are Pentecostal, or evangelical, or Catholic, or Orthodox, or Mainline Protestant, or fundamentalist, you know suffering. Whether you are Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, Zoroastrian, atheist, agnostic, Jewish, Wiccan, animist, or Unitarian/Universalist, suffering is part of your life experience. Democrats, Republicans, Greens, Independents, all experience suffering. People from countries that are communist, socialist, monarchist, dictatorships, and representative democracies, all experience suffering. Omnivores, carnivores, vegetarians, vegans, and pescatarians, all experience suffering. Teachers, doctors, tech ceos, mechanics, servers, clerks, managers, truck drivers, engineers, social workers, politicians, and farmers, all experience suffering.
Everyone suffers. Each of us in the human family suffers. We experience the disorientation, the numbness, the anger, the helplessness, the obsession, the distraction, the pain, the outrage, the desolation, the sorrow, the misery, the disappointment, and the grief, of suffering.
This World Communion Sunday, while we are joined in faith with Christians around the world, we realize that we are in very different circumstances. Some will observe communion in open air services with drums playing. Some will eat the bread and cup in a gorgeous, ancient cathedral drenched in the colored light of stained glass. The liturgy will be in different languages. The customs and prayers will be different. But all who observe this World Communion Sunday will come to the table having experienced suffering of some kind. We all suffer. And as Christians, we follow a Savior who personally experienced some of the worst suffering imaginable — and not only physical. Jesus also suffered injustice, being wrongly accused and punished, being misunderstood, being betrayed and deserted by his friends. Our faith is centered in a suffering servant. There is comfort in that solidarity. A knowing that God, however we may perceive God, knows suffering. Whatever the religion, religion is about understanding, making sense of, navigating, accounting for, and lessening or healing the experience of suffering.
I recently read that the failed Holy Land Experience theme park in Orlando has been sold for $32 million. Apparently, the theme park was originally founded by Marvin Rosenthal, who was raised Jewish and became a traditional Baptist minister, to educate Christians about the Jewish roots of their faith. The property was then sold to Trinity Broadcasting Network. A spokesperson for AdventHealth, connected to the Seventh Day Adventist Church, said the property would be redeveloped to bring health-care services to the community. So, this property will continue to be an expression of faith, only now it will deal directly with suffering and with offering healing to the community, a key component of Christian witness and of religious expression. The site will doubtless do more good as a healthcare facility than it did as a theme park! [The Christian Century, 8.9.21, p. 8]
We all suffer. We all know pain and sorrow. And religion is intended to help us through it. While the book of Job shows us a kind of schoolyard contest between God and the accuser, Satan, as the source of devastation in the life of Job, we know that suffering comes from many sources in this life.
We suffer at the hands of society, and policies and prejudices that create victims. We suffer at the hands of authorities who abuse their power. We suffer in our families and schools, and from peers and social media. Sometimes we suffer at the hands of the medical profession. We suffer because of the treatment by others.
We suffer due to circumstances well beyond our control – like natural disasters, storms, fire, lightening strikes, floods, tidal waves, and countless other occurrences that lead to harm that are morally neutral and did not involve human choice. And there are accidents, pure and simple, things that no one intended or could have predicted or knew to prevent, that lead to suffering and even death.
And we certainly bring suffering upon ourselves – with decisions and actions and choices that lead us to experience pain, regret, guilt, and shame. We make health choices that contribute to physical suffering. We bear the responsibility of being part of a society that inflicts suffering. And now this includes our complicity in global climate change and the suffering that is causing. Our attitudes and expectations can bring suffering upon us. So, while Job is presented as a completely innocent victim, we know that we often contribute to the suffering we experience in our own lives and we can be associated with inflicting suffering; it does not only come from outside sources.
And the path of life inevitably brings suffering because it ends in death. We die. Those we love die. And that process is difficult because life is so precious. Really the only way to go through life without suffering is to live without love of any kind in your life, and that may just be a living death. So suffering is inevitable part of life. It comes with being alive. As Job puts it, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there; God gave, and God has taken away; blessed by the name of God.” [1:21]
In his classic book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner cites this story:
“There is an old Chinese tale about the woman whose only son had died. In her grief, she went to the holy man and said, ‘What prayers, what magical incantations do you have to bring my son back to life?’ Instead of sending her away or reasoning with her, he said to her, ‘Fetch me a mustard seed from a home that has never known sorrow. We will use it to drive the sorrow out of your life.’ The woman set off at once in search of that magical mustard seed. She came first to a splendid mansion, knocked at the door and said, ‘I am looking for a home that has never known sorrow. Is this such a place? It is very important to me.’ They told her ‘You’ve certainly come to the wrong place,’ and began to describe all the tragic things that had recently befallen them. The woman said to herself, ‘Who is better able to help these poor unfortunate people than I, who have had misfortune of my own?’ She stayed to comfort them, then went on in her search for a home that had never known sorrow. But wherever she turned, hovels and in palaces, she found one tale after another of sadness and misfortune. Ultimately, she became so involved in ministering to other people’s grief that she forgot about her quest for the magical mustard seed, never realizing that it had in fact driven the sorrow out of her life.”
Yes, we all suffer. And we all seek to find relief or redemption from the experience of suffering.
And that shared experience can bring us together. It can help us to be aware of our common bond with others of our species, in solidarity, in community. Talk with people who have faced some kind of disaster together – like a hurricane or a flood. There is a bond there – we have been through this together. We see this with people who have been in the armed services together and faced danger and hardship.
When we hear of the sufferings of others, it touches our hearts, we understand, we feel sympathy and perhaps empathy. In this pandemic, we have seen beautiful bonds formed among people who have lost a loved one to covid. We have seen solidarity among workers who have faced challenges during covid, especially in the healthcare field. We have seen solidarity in dealing with the restrictions and deprivations necessary to get rid of covid. We have seen people help each other and reach out to their neighbors.
And covid has helped us to see another response to suffering – anger, hostility, selfishness, competition, rudeness, and lack of sympathy. We have seen horrible displays of inconsiderate, dangerous, self-centered behavior – from the refusal to wear a mask, to physically attacking airline personnel, to hoarding of basic goods, to the deceitful undermining of the main tool we have to use against the virus – the vaccine.
Our current situation shows us that we can choose whether suffering brings out compassion and understanding or whether it brings out hostility and selfishness.
We also find that just like suffering can bring us together in common recognition of our humanity and our pain, it can also bring us closer to God, or Spirit, or Divine Love, or however we talk about those inner resources of light and strength and resilience and perseverance. Suffering, pain, challenge, and distress, can open the door for us to rely on our spiritual resources with greater need and trust. We can become more deeply rooted in the promises of our faith.
Suffering and facing vicissitudes can lead us to experience deep love in new ways – love for ourselves, for others, and for God, however we understand God.
This is what we see in the case of Job. He was faithful at the beginning of the story. And he defends his integrity throughout the whole story. But he does not remain unchanged. The story includes an encounter between Job and God. Job is finally getting his much desired ‘day in court’ with God, where he can ask why he has been handed such an awful lot when he has stayed true to God all along. And what Job discovers is that, well, he just didn’t know what there was to know about God. He was faithful and devoted, but he didn’t realize how much more there was to God. More of the mystery of God is revealed to him in his encounter with God. He doesn’t get an explanation for his condition, his situation, but he experiences God more fully and he is in awe. At the end of the book, Job confesses to God:
“I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
. . .
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not
. . .
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.” [42:1-6]
Job’s experience expands his understanding and conception of God. Job is transformed. His faith is deepened. The connection between faithfulness and good fortune is severed, as it should be. But Job’s connection to God and his devotion grow stronger.
Job does not choose to follow the counsel of his wife, “Curse God, and die.” [2:9] though many do abandon their commitment to God when they experience severe pain and suffering. Instead of letting their experience of God, the Divine, the Holy, be transformed and deepened, they blame God and sever the relationship, evict God from their thoughts and their consciousness.
We all suffer. No matter how good we are. How rich we are. How apathetic we are. How abusive we are. No matter how we treat others. Or others treat us. We’ll still experience suffering in this life. Job invites us to be open to that experience. To let it bring us together with others and strengthen our common bond as human beings regardless of our background or circumstances. And Job invites us to find a deeper experience of God, of good, of love, of light, through our experience of suffering. And to be transformed by that experience.
We see the blessing of suffering in this beautiful story about a mission trip to Nicaragua:
“We thought we went to Nicaragua to build houses and get to know about the country and people. We discovered God had a lot more in store for us. We built the better part of three houses and had fun exploring the countryside: swimming on white sand beaches, horseback riding, and boating on the lake. We made friends at the work sites, sharing simple feasts of freshly caught fish. In the end we learned a lesson of humility concerning how God can use each of us in powerful and unexpected ways.
“The presence of our mission team gave the local pastor an opportunity to hold a revival. We provided preaching and special music — a little intimidating for members of our group. Four days into our stay, I was approached by a middle-aged man. With the help of the interpreter his story unfolded. The night before, a member of our group had preached about the power of Christ demonstrated by the raising of Lazarus. This man came to believe through the revival and observing us taking time as a group each morning to pray that our group was truly filled with God’s Spirit. He wanted us to pray over Carlos, his son, who had epilepsy.
“No one in the group had participated in a service like this before, but we took it very seriously. We sang. We prayed. We read scripture from James that tells us to anoint with oil those who need healing. We asked Carlos to come forward and be anointed with the only oil we had access to: the cooking oil from the community kitchen. Then to my surprise one of the members of our own group stepped forward and asked to be anointed as well. As the team leader I was aware that this person had epilepsy too, but few of the other members were aware of this.
“We anointed two people whose lives were worlds apart but at the same time united by a bond few would desire. They both knelt, while the other members of the team and the boy’s family laid hands on them, as we prayed fervently for God’s healing to touch them. The bond the two shared provided them with the knowledge that they were not alone with their malady, which was a form of healing by itself, even if nothing else occurred.
“Prayer: (Psalm 133) God, heal us and make us healers. Anoint us with the oil of kindred spirit across all of differences.” Amen.
[Janice L. Burns-Watson, USA, Nicaragua, pp. 58-59 in Gifts in Open Hands, More Worship Resources for the Global Community, Maren Tirabassi and Kathy Wonson Eddy.]
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.