Sermon: Sunday, March 26: Fourth Sunday in Lent

Texts: 1 Sam. 16:1-13  +  Psalm 23  +  Ephesians 5:8-14  +  John 9:1-41

In the third chapter of Luke, which we read at the beginning of Advent every third year, John the Baptist quotes the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: (break) ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” And every time this text comes up, I remember learning that scripture, in its original Greek and Hebrew forms, doesn’t come with commas and quotation marks. We impose them on the text, and where we choose to place those periods and commas can make a world of difference. Instead of implying that the voice will come from the wilderness (as John the Baptist did), we might have read, “The voice of one crying: (break) ‘Out in the wilderness, prepare the way of the Lord…’” (Luke 3:4), implying that the Lord will appear in the wilderness.

What we find in the text so often reveals what we went looking for. Our expectations shape our perceptions. The gospel text illustrates this point perfectly:

As [Jesus] walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:1-2)

 The way they have framed the question already presumes the answer, that blindness is a result of sin. Furthermore, the question starts us down the path of looking for sin. It suggests some kind of invisible, underlying moral physics to the universe, a cosmos of divine cause and effect, tempting us to think that we can make the world conform to our expectations of it.

beggarSo then, what do we find in Jesus’ reply when we go looking through the filter of our expectations? “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” (v. 3) In this rendering, which is how I’ve always read it, how it has usually been read to me, no one is blamed for the issue of blindness (that’s a relief) — but an equally troubling problem is proposed, “he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him.” This proposes that God imposed blindness on a person, a condition which led to poverty and condemnation, so that later God could prove God’s power by healing him. A God who hurts us so that God can heal us, so that we can be properly awed by God.

Here is another way to place the periods and commas: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned. He was born blind. (break) So that God’s works might be revealed in him, we must work the works of [the One] who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work.” In this framing no one is blamed for the issue of blindness (still good news), it’s simply a fact of life: he was born blind. Then a shift, a call for the disciples to join Jesus in revealing God’s indelible handiwork in each and every human life, casting no one out of the circle of God’s love and care.

During the season of Lent we’ve been preaching on some of the core doctrines of Christian faith as a way of remembering that this season has traditionally been used to prepare people for baptism by instructing them in the core tenets of our faith — and that we are all still learning what it means to be baptized. In the field of theology the term for our attempt to justify the goodness of God in the midst of so much pain and suffering is theodicy. This story seems to present us with a case study.

Beneath the question, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” is an assumption that blindness is an evil that must be accounted for. What is implied is that God imposes blindness as a punishment for sin. This says something quite terrifying about God, yet — even more terrifying — is how inclined we are to believe it.

Why does that kind of logic come so easily to us? Why are we so ready to accept the horror of a God who would torture us with the poverty and exclusion that come from something as arbitrary as a condition of birth over which a person has no control?

Because this is how we treat one another. We are conditioned from birth to accept our place in the hierarchy of humanity on the basis of things over which we have no control. We see it at the earliest of ages when children, full of curiosity, look too long or ask impolite questions about the texture of a person’s hair, the size of their body, or the color of their skin; when they notice that some people walk quickly and smoothly, while others have a slow, syncopated gait and use a cane or braces; when they see that some bodies seem male or female, but are confused by others that confound easy categorization; when they point at surprising pairings of people holding hands. When children exhibit their natural curiosity at the amazing diversity of God’s good creation they get shushed, and from that silence they learn that there is something wrong with difference. That there is one best way to be in this world, but a million ways to be wrong in it. From that silence grows a fear, “what if I am one of the things that is wrong in this world?” From that fear emerges a question, “why was I made like this?” On the basis of that question, one answer seems most obvious, “God did this to me.”

But what is obvious is not always right, especially when our questions are built on the foundations of our mistreatment of one another. Once Jesus gives sight to the man born blind the story becomes an extended debate in which the religious authorities attempt over and over again to reinforce their view of the world on a set of facts that refuse to support it. Despite the evidence of their own eyes, they cannot see what has taken place, because they have already placed the periods and commas in such a way that clearly show where God’s grace begins and ends.

For me, the most poignant moment in this story comes at the end, after the man who now has sight has been cast out of the community once again. Jesus goes out to find him, just as Jesus went out to meet the Samaritan woman at the well, just as God consistently moves toward each of us. Jesus asks, “Do you believe in the Human One?” and the man replies, “And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.” For this man, born blind and given sight, not even the experience of being at the center of a controversy or being repeatedly oppressed and excluded from community can dim his devotion to Jesus, the one who finally treated him like a human being. Whoever the “Human One” is, if Jesus asks for belief, this man is ready to give it without doubt or hesitation. That is the quality of trust that is implied by the word “believe.”

What is the real miracle here? That a man born blind was given sight, or that a human being raised to think that he was one of the things wrong with this world came to believe — to trust without question — that he was, in fact, beloved by God?

How have you been taught that you are “one of the things wrong with this world?”

When did you discover that you are not?


Sermon: Sunday, October 7, 2012: The Book of Job, Pt. 1


Texts:  Job 1:1, 2:1-10 and Psalm 26  •   Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12  •   Mark 10:2-16

It sounds strange, but I’ve been looking forward to preaching for a couple of weeks now, knowing that this morning I’m beginning a three-week series on the book of Job.  Most of us are vaguely aware that the book of Job deals with the issue of faith and the experience of personal suffering. We may have heard phrases like “the patience of Job” that incline us to believe that his story is one of pious acceptance of whatever befalls him, which seems to be his response in the passage read this morning.  When you actually dig into the book of Job, however, what you find is so much more complex, both on the level of narrative and of structure.  It is a complex piece of literature that tackles big topics, ranging from the experience of suffering to humanity’s ambivalent relationship to God to the expectation of justice in a world filled with both chaos and order.  It is a book filled with the raw messiness of human life, in which characters engage in prolonged theological debate.  In other words, it’s a preacher’s dream.

But I’d been looking forward to this first week in the three-week series for another reason.  Here, early in the book, we get the set up to all that follows.  We learn that Job, who is described as “blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil” has contracted some kind of disease.  Immediately his experience, and the questions it raises, become familiar to us.  Why do bad things happen to good people?  Why does God allow those who lead such exemplary lives to suffer such horrible fates?  It is a question that lives in all of our hearts and minds at some point, and for some of you it is a question you are wrestling with on a daily basis.

Job’s suffering goes deeper than just his experience of illness though.  In the passage preceding the one we read, Job — a wealthy man, whose household numbered ten children, an array of servants, and vast herds of sheep and camels, oxen and donkeys — has lost everything, all in a day.  First his donkeys and oxen were stolen and his servants killed by bandits.  Then his herds of  sheep were devastated by natural disaster and burned in a fire.  Then his camels were taken in a military raid.  Finally his children are killed when the house in which they were gathered collapses and they are crushed inside.

The scene is both horrible and comic.  It’s too much to believe.  Nobody looses this much all at once.  Surely this is some kind of joke.

Humor is, of course, one of the ways we deal with tragedy.  You know the popular proverb, “if I didn’t laugh, I’d cry.”  Earlier this week I got a mass email from my favorite comedian, Louis CK, who was promoting a half-hour recording of a live stand-up set from his friend, Tig Notaro.  I filed it away in my inbox as something I’d get to on my day off.  Then, while I was exercising on the elliptical machine at the gym, I got a text from Ben Kulp saying I needed to tune in to this week’s episode of This American Life.  He said it dealt with the experience of cancer in a totally fresh way, knowing that I was particularly attuned to the issue of cancer right now.  So I went online and discovered that the segment featured none other than Tig Notaro and her increasingly famous live set, the one Louis CK was promoting.  I took it as a sign that I needed to listen without delay to what she had to say.

On July 30 this past summer, Tig was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts.  Four days later she was scheduled to perform at Largo, a Hollywood nightclub.  Scrapping her prepared set, Tig took to the stage, opening her set with, “I have cancer, how are you? Hi, how are you?  Is everybody having a good time? I have cancer, how are you? Ah, it’s a good time. Diagnosed with cancer, feels good.  Just diagnosed with cancer.”  The crowd’s laughter becomes nervous and periodically you hear someone near the stage moaning in sympathy.  But it gets worse. In the four months prior to her cancer diagnosis, Tig had fought off pneumonia and then a deadly bacterial infection called C. diff that put her in the hospital and nearly killed her.  Shortly after being discharged from the hospital her mother died suddenly in a freak accident.  Then she and her girlfriend broke up.  Then she was diagnosed with cancer in both breasts.  All in four months.  Her suffering was so incredible you could hear it in her voice, yet there she was, onstage, transforming it into laughter.

At one point, Tig herself quotes the book of Job, saying

“What’s odd though is, having this diagnosis… it’s such a weird time because I have so many amazing things going on in my life. Like it’s at this point where, my life’s always gone pretty okay, and just always on the up, and just movin’ along just fine.  And then, and then just everything just turned.  You know ‘the good Lord giveth and the good Lord taketh away’… but sometimes the good Lord taketh and just keep takin’-it-eth.”

That’s what Job says after learning that all he has has been taken away from him, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall return there; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” (Job 1:21)

But then it gets worse, and Job himself gets ill.  He is covered from head to foot in what the Bible describes as “loathsome sores” — which also sounds like it comes from a comedy routine, because what other kind of sores are there?  But Job just heads outside and sits down in the ashes, presumably the ones he’d just finished using to mourn the loss of his children and possessions, and very practically handles the matter at hand by scraping the sores off with a broken piece of pottery.

Job’s wife isn’t given much to say in the book of Job, just this one line, but it sets up the dramatic tension inherent in the whole story.  In the depths of his suffering, Job’s wife says to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity?  Curse God, and die.”  Her words are confusing and complex.  Is she simply angry at all they have lost, and ready to blame God for the pain of life?  Or, is she looking for a way out, hoping that — by cursing God — Job will evoke divine retribution that will finally put them all out of their misery?  We can hear her question, “do you still persist in your integrity” as a kind of mockery of integrity itself.  Which course has more integrity — to honestly claim one’s anger at a God who would allow all this to happen, or to keep faith with the God from whom and to whom all things flow as gifts to be held, not treasures to be kept.  Either answer is plausible, and the book of Job doesn’t answer the questions for us.

In all of this, unknown to Job, God and one of the members of God’s heavenly court — here called satan, which means “accuser,” and should probably be understood more as a job title than a proper name — are engaged in a theological debate.  The accuser’s basic charge against humanity is that we love the God who blesses us, but that our love of God is a shallow and fear-filled love; shallow because it disappears when suffering arrives, as we hear in Job’s wife’s cry for Job to curse God and die, and fear-filled because we love God out of fear of what might happen if we do not.  Like the wealthy father in the story of the prodigal son, God is in the position of knowing that children’s love is sometimes conditioned on the promise of an inheritance.  The accuser puts it to God like this,

“Have you not put a fence around [Job] and his house and all that he has, on every side?  You have blessed the work of his hands, and his possessions have increased in the land. But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.”  The Lord said to [the accuser], “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!” (Job 1:10-12)

God and the accuser are carrying out a divine experiment to see just how much Job can take, to find out where the limits of Job’s love and faithfulness lie.  It is the biblical acting out of the too-often used expression we’ve all come to dread when it is we ourselves who are suffering, “the Lord never gives you more than you can handle.”

Again, Tig Notaro takes on the book of Job, saying

“But you know what’s nice about all of this, is that you can always rest assured that God never gives you more than you can handle.  Never.  Never.  When you’ve had it, God goes, ‘alright, that’s it.’  I just keep picturing God going, ‘You know what?  I think she can take a little more.’ And then the angels are standing back going, ‘God, what are you doing?!  You are out of your mind!’  And God was like, ‘No, no, no… I really think she can handle this.’

‘But why God, why?!’

‘I don’t know, you just, you know.  Just trust me on this. She can handle this.’”

She concludes, “God is insane, if there at all.”

Tig Notaro’s half hour set at the Largo has become a nationwide sensation, practically overnight.  You can download it for $5 on Louis CK’s website.  She’s been featured on Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life.  You can hear in the mixture of laughter and groans that her audience is connecting with her because she’s saying out loud the things we all feel inside.  “God is insane, if there at all.”  And while she may or may not know it, she is doing good public theology.  She is asking why there is so much horrible, unexplained suffering in life.  She is wondering if there is any relationship between our human notions of justice and our human experience of arbitrariness.  She is grappling with the fact that two seemingly opposite things can be true at once — that life can be full and good and horribly painful and empty, sometimes at the same time.  She is pointing our attention at the thing we know to be true, and nevertheless resent — that there are no easy answers, only questions that lead us further and further down the hole.

Together, in the remaining two weeks of this series, we’ll follow Job down that hole.  We’ll stand alongside Job as he asks what justice there is in our experiences of suffering, and we’ll hear God’s address to Job as well.  As we do, I encourage you to listen carefully to the prepared answers that come to your mind as we grapple with the experience of suffering.  What have you been taught to think, to do, to believe in response to your own life’s suffering?  How have those actions and beliefs comforted you, shielded you, carried you or failed you as you negotiate life’s complex mixture of joy and pain?  This is part of the gift of the book of Job, the chance to listen together to the ways each of us works it through, coming to whatever peace we can find with all that we experience in our course on earth.

In closing, I just want to share with you a poem that my professor of Old Testament, Carol Newsom, shared in her commentary on these verses from the book of Job.  These are the final lines from Mary Oliver’s poem, “In Blackwater Woods


To live in this world


you must be able

to do three things:

to love what is mortal;

to hold it


against your bones knowing

your own life depends on it;

and, when the time comes to let it go,

to let it go.