gods and Grace

A sermon on Job chapters 1 and 2

There's a question in this story that is probably the most important question there is, and it points us to the most important truth there is.  It's a spiritual question, mainly, a soul question, but it's also a psychological question, and a relational question, an economic question, even a vocational question.
Now the thing is: to be able to hear this question and be blessed by it, we've got to get very still and very quiet.  Which is a hard thing to do under the best of circumstances, but when it comes to the Book of Job, it's especially hard, because the Book of Job is a very loud book. 

Loud literally:  a house crashing in a windstorm, friends raising their voices in grief, God speaking in a voice that can be heard above a whirlwind. 

And loud figuratively.  The Book of Job is epic.  It's operatic.  It squares off with this giant theological problem -- why does the creation suffer, and what does it say about God that the creation suffers - and once it gets through the prologue in chapters one and two, which are written in prose, in chapter three it becomes a throw-down poetry slam between Job, his friends, and God, and it's some of the most amazing and ferocious poetry, not just in all the Bible, but in all of literature. 

Job isn't some guy playing acoustic guitar to twenty people in a coffee house, singing Cat Stevens' "I'm Being Followed by a Moonshadow."  Job is Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band playing "Born to Run" in front of 20,000 people screaming along.  Job is loud.

And Job is unsettling.  I could probably name about twenty things in the Book of Job that are likely to rile any number of you, but three will suffice to illustrate the point. 

1.  Satan.  The word Satan means literally "the adversary."  In Job and the rest of the Old Testament Satan is not the personification of evil he becomes a few hundred years later, in the New Testament.  He's just another member of the heavenly court.  But never mind all that.  We are a modern people, a rational people, dare I say liberal people.  And the notion of a Satan, however benign he may be in this text, is problematic for us.

2.  Job's patience.  In chapter three and beyond, Job is outspoken and fiery, but here in chapters one and two he is party-line pious.  He loses his wealth, all ten of his children die in a windstorm, he becomes sick with sores, and all he's got left to scrape himself with is a piece of broken pot.  And what he says is:  "The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.  Blessed be the name of the Lord."  Some of us might be a trifle bothered by a person as unquestioning and submissive as Job is here.

3.  The way Job speaks to his wife.  Job's wife sees his suffering -- and she's suffering, too, you know -- and she tells him he should curse God, and die.  And Job, who has been so patient with God, Job tells her, "You speak as one of the foolish women would speak," making some of us bristle up and wonder "What kind of misogynistic instruction manual is this?" and proving to all of us, not that we really needed proof about this, that we can be incredibly charitable to the whole wide world, God included, and still lash out at members of our own family,

So here we are, in the presence of this loud, unsettling, great, emotional, holy heavyweight of a book.  And there's this important question in it that we've to be very quiet and very still to hear and reckon with.  How do we do that? 

Somebody once told me a beautiful story about the great educator Maria Montessori.  She was in a room full of young children, all energetic and excited and fidgety, and she was holding a sleeping baby.  And she sat down in the middle of the children, and she told them:  "See if you can be as still and quiet as this baby."

So:  see if you can be as still and quiet as a sleeping baby.  Let your body settle, let your mind be quiet, let your heart be soft, and listen in as God says to Satan:  "Have you noticed my servant Job?  He's something, isn't he?"  And Satan says:  "Yes, he is something, but is he something for nothing?  Or is he something for something, for the 7000 sheep and 3000 camels, and the ten beautiful children, and the wellness of body and soul he enjoys?"  And then they both pause, and you can almost hear God thinking:  "Hmm.  I wonder.  What would Job do if his world fell apart?  What would he do if he lost the things he cares about most deeply?  Will it prove to be the case that he loves Me and trusts Me, or that he merely loves and trusts his very fortunate circumstances?"

And right here, while we're quiet enough to hear God thinking, here where this holy and hellish possibility hangs in the air before the heavenly council, right here is the question the story has for us:  What do we really trust?  What really matters to us?  What or who do we count on to ground us, to make our lives meaningful and secure and good?  And by extension, what or who do we serve? At the deepest levels of our being, what do we live for and depend on?

Now the religious word for this, for whoever or whatever it is that we really trust, the religious word for it is:  god.  g-o-d, with a small g.  It can be the golden calf the Hebrews built when Moses was away, in Exodus 32.  It can be a set of religious rules, like the ones the Pharisees lived by.  It can be the three pennies that Jack Nicklaus carried in his pocket every time he played golf - not just any three pennies, the same three pennies.  G-O-D.  Don't leave home without it.

The reason this is an important question - what are our gods? what do we really trust? what are we really serving?  - the reason it's important is that our lives are never any bigger than our gods are.  We live in our gods, we live by their power.  And the kinds of lives we live - individually and collectively - are directly related to the kinds of gods we have.  Small gods make for small living, shallow gods for shallow living.  A real God, an eternal God, for real and eternal living.

So it's very important to examine ourselves and see what it is we trust and serve.

One way to do this is to contemplate the question printed in the bulletin this morning:  what five things do you care about most deeply?  What do you love?  There'll be people on our lists, for sure.  Some pets.  Probably some things, and exactly what those things are will depend on which level of Maslow's hierarchy of needs we're thinking about when we ponder the question:  our home, our car, our computer, our garden; our health, our faith; autonomy; financial stability.  There are causes we care about deeply.  Perhaps one of those is in our top five.  I saw that Stephen Dear, of North Carolina People of Faith Against the Death Penalty, is going to be here this afternoon:  maybe we care deeply about changing public opinion about the death penalty.  Or maybe it's a particular responsibility or role that we cherish:  spouse, partner, parent, leader. 
All of these are good things, of course, and whether they're gods in our lives depends on how lightly, or how tightly, we carry them, but if we want to know what our gods are, it's a pretty good place to look. 

Another way to see what our gods are is to ask the opposite question:  not "what do we love?" but "what do we hate?"  What is it that we just can't stand, that is so distasteful to us, we can't even bear to hear its name spoken?  What is it, or who is it, that pushes our buttons?  Who do we cross the street to avoid?  Clarence Barton - who was chaplain at Central State Psychiatric Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, for forty-something years - Clarence used to say that if there's something that gets to us like that, then it's become a god in our lives.  It's a god because we've invested it with a power that is greater than what it actually possesses, and it needs to be dethroned.  One of the best ways to dethrone this sort of god, according to Clarence, is:  when you're riding around in your car, by yourself, just yell its name - whatever it is -- over and over and over, until you realize it can't actually hurt you.  (So if you pull up beside me at a stoplight and you hear me yelling "The New York Yankees," now you'll know what's happening.)

Still another place to look for our gods is in our wishbooks.  Our hopes, our longings.  What is it that we find ourselves daydreaming about?  Someone to love.  A child.  A new job.  A little more money.  A lot more money.  Being well again.  Being pain-free again.  Being respected, or admired, or famous.  Being liked.  Being included.  Feeling competent, or smart, or accomplished.   Being desired.  Being touched, or held.  Getting redemption, or revenge. To tell so-and-so off, and this time - unlike last time, when you were paralyzed and couldn't think of what to say - this time you really tell him, you are eloquent and powerful and there's nothing he can say, there's nothing he can do but realize you're right and he's wrong.  We can find a few gods in our daydreams.

But the best place of all to look for our small-g gods is in the place where we hold our deepest beliefs.  By "deepest beliefs," I'm not thinking about things like "truth, justice, and the American way," or "I believe the children are our future," or anything else that can be put in a slogan or a creed.  I'm thinking about the conclusions we've come to, deep in our bones, about what the world is like and what we've got to do to be OK in it.  Sometimes we're conscious of what our deep, core beliefs are, and sometimes we're not.  But either way, conscious or unconscious, it's these deep, ingrained-in-us beliefs that guide us through life, telling us who we are and what we should do.

Now in Job's case, I think, his deepest belief was that good living would protect him from evil.  And maybe that's one of yours, too.  But there are other possibilities, such as:

The world is chaotic and dangerous, I've got to be careful.

The world is chaotic and dangerous, I've got to be in charge.

There's something wrong with me, something flawed about me.  So to be acceptable to others - other people, and God - I've got to be sure to always do the right thing, I've got to be perfect.

Or, to be acceptable to others,  I've got to make sure I'm meeting their needs, being useful, and helpful.

Or, to be acceptable and loved, I've got to be accomplished, successful, and important.

Or:  It's all up to me.  If I don't do it, it won't get done.

If I fail, it'll embarrass me, and I can't handle embarrassment.

I've been shortchanged; the world owes me; I'm entitled to do whatever I want.

Or one of the most common and most painful core beliefs of all: 
I'm ugly.

Not all core beliefs are negative, of course.  Some are positive:  I'm beautiful.  I've got what it takes.  I can handle this.  I can do hard things.  Others - other people, and God - really do love me and care about me. 

But whatever they are, it is these core beliefs, even more than the things we love, that become our gods.  And when something happens that shakes them, and they're no longer helping us make sense out of what we're going through, and it becomes clear to us at some level that we were living in a false god, that's when we get desperate.  We feel lost or crazy or scared or angry, because a human being can't live without some sort of god. 

If you read the book of Job, and I hope you will, you won't hear Job talking about how much he misses his children, or his money.  You'll hear him talk a little bit about how nobody likes him any more.  "Young children despise me," "my best friends abhor me," and - here's one of my favorite lines in the whole book -- "my breath is repulsive to my wife" (19: 17). 

But mostly, what you'll hear from Job are the sounds of a man trying to resuscitate a dying small-g god, a man desperately trying to protect a belief system that's now full of holes.  Job's belief is "good living will protect me from suffering," and even though he's now suffering, and even though he knows he's not done wrong, he's not ready to throw in the towel on his belief system.  The problem is not with his core belief, Job insists; the problem must be with God.  God must have made a mistake here, there must have been some sort of oversight.  And if I can just talk to God and ask God a few questions, I think I can straighten all this out and everything will be well again. 

Our faith in false gods is nigh unto unflappable.  We want to hold on to them and live in them long after their insufficiency has been exposed.

In the movie The Shawshank Redemption, there's an old prisoner named Brooks.  He's been in Shawshank prison for fifty years.  And he comes to the end of his sentence, it's time for him to leave, and he's scared to go.  He's so scared he tries to get in more trouble, so they'll keep him locked up.  And the Morgan Freeman character, a prisoner named Red, says that what's wrong with Brooks is, he's become institutionalized.  Red says:  "These walls are funny.  First you hate 'em.  Then you depend on them.  That's institutionalized."

Our core beliefs are like that.  We depend on them, we feel safe in them, things make sense in them.  But they're prisons. 

And so the next time we sing A Mighty Fortress is our God, consider this:  It's not just our capital-G God that's a mighty fortress.  Our small-g gods are fortresses, too.  They're prisons, yet we don't want to leave.  To quote Red:  "That's institutionalized."

So here is Job, suffering but institutionalized, clinging to a small-g god that he can keep his mind around.  And here we are with him, living in prisons of our own, some of which we're aware of, some of which we're not, but resolved to stay as long as we can.   

And then God shows up.  And the God who shows up now is not the laid-back estate owner God we met in chapters one and two -- "Did you get a good look at the place?  That's quite a garden, itn't it?  And, oh, have you noticed my servant Job?"  The God who shows up now is an in-your-face, fortress-busting, send-the-small-g-gods-running-for-cover kind of God.  And all these questions Job's been asking:  God answers none of them.  Not a single one.  You can read chapters 38-42 for all the majestic details, but the point is:  the questions Job is asking are shaped by and limited by his core belief, they're prison-questions, and when God's there the prison is no longer a prison anyway.  So God doesn't even bother.  God just be's God.  And the effect on Job is:  Job is quieted, and stilled, and humbled. 

When God is present, and when something changes in us, there's a religious word for that, too:  Grace.  And Grace means:  God, the One True God, the capital-G God, God Who transcends everything we love and hate and hope and believe, but from Whom nothing we love, hate, hope, or believe can ultimately separate us:  grace means that this God is looking for us, No, this God has found us.  And whatever prison we're in when our hearts by Grace are stilled and quieted, it is a prison no more, and, though our desire to remain in that prison may be insatiably strong, we are free.

There's another woman holding a sleeping baby.  Her name is also Maria.  And if we are still and quiet and let our hearts return to the question, in what do we really trust, after a while we realize that we recognize her baby, we know him, and we remember something he said once after he'd become an adult:  that when we try to save our lives, and hold on to the bars of our prisons and keep our dying small-g gods on ventilators, that's when we lose them; but when we're losing our lives, when our lives are falling apart, from the outside in or the inside out, that's when our lives are being given to us.

Russell Siler Jones
October 8, 2006

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