Tuesday, October 6, 2009

4 October 2009 Sermon on Job 2:1-10


Sermon – 4 October 2009

Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia

"Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?"

Like many of you, I’m sure, I spent some time this week watching the astounding PBS Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks. The grandeur and the beauty of the land and sky, of the valleys and mountains, and of the birds and the beasts are amazing. In addition, the story of how the vision of people like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt and the work of people to preserve these glorious spaces is a compelling story. When we step out into nature, and especially into these grand spaces we are most often filled with awe – we are struck – awestruck – by the beauty and majesty of these views of God’s creation. We may, in fact, experience a kind of smallness in the face of the bigness of spectacles such as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite Falls, and the rest. This sense of awe and the feeling of being quite small in the face of all of it have deep spiritual and theological roots. The awe that we might feel is quite near the same word as “fear” in the Bible. “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord” can accurately be translated “The beginning of wisdom is awe of the Lord.”

And so, we are offered the gift of seeing slices and parts of God’s creation which reflect aspects of the divine. God has created the world, and we are reminded that in Genesis He blessed the creation and proclaimed it “very good.” And very good it is! To encounter nature in all her beauty and grandeur can make even the atheist’s heart move to thoughts of God. Do you remember a time when you were out in the natural world and you experienced the gift of God’s presence? I remember a time while hiking in the Wind River Range of Wyoming when I happened upon a herd of mountain goats who were going about their day, eating a lunch of grass and leave, and for a moment, or perhaps two, I was with them – I was not the intruding species, they were not the scared wild animals. There was a moment of connection, a moment of grace, a moment of awe for all that God has made, and for my (small) place within the grandeur. Have you had moments in nature when you experienced the gift of God’s presence?

It can be easy to recognize God’s presence in these beautiful places, and in the grandeur of nature. No one probably knew this better than St. Francis, whose feast day is celebrated today. St. Francis will ever be associated with nature probably because of the story that in his roaming around the hills nearby Assisi, Italy he was often seen surrounded by birds and beasts of all kinds. The story goes that he knew the birds so well, and they knew him, that he would preach to the birds, and they would listen! In addition, we have several hymns and prayers of St. Francis and many of them emphasize the gifts and beauty of nature.

But, Francis was not always living in a sense of natural ecstasy, his life was not without struggle and pain and suffering. When he founded his order of monks who would live as wandering, mendicant monastics, he required strict discipline and a radical adherence to “Lady Poverty” and “Lady Chastity.” These were monks who lived in the world, but were not of the world. Francis, himself, experienced not only spiritual and psychological suffering but also physical suffering and even through this suffering, he turned to God. He is credited with the following poem, which I wrote about in this month’s “Emmanuel Way” newsletter:

In All Things

It was easy to love God

in all that was beautiful.

The lessons of deeper knowledge, though,

instructed me

to embrace God

in all things.

~St. Francis of Assisi

Francis lived his own answer to the question that Job’s wife put to Job in today’s reading from the Old Testament. Job has been afflicted with sores and pain, and in the world view of the time, if you received such suffering you must be guilty of something. Most people believed that if you were good, you were rewarded materially and physically with good things, and if you were bad, you were punished materially and also suffered in body and mind. Since Job’s wife saw that Job was upright, yet he still seemed to be punished, she urges him to, “curse God, and die,” for she cannot conceive of any other way.

Job asks her the question that describes the rough stretches that also happen along the spiritual path. Job asks her, “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” And so it is with us. For all the experiences of the beauty of nature, we have also experienced the hard and rough pathways of this life. The hope is that God is with us, and God does care for us, even and especially in the moments when the world seems to crumble, when we have to quite literally put one foot in front of the other. God is with us, and God will comfort us, though it can be hard, and we may feel like Job…we may feel like Job’s wife. It is surely true what Francis claimed, that it is easier to experience God in the beautiful, though we pray that even in all things God is present, and God can bring hope even to those moments of hopelessness.

Job's question is rhetorical. The answer behind the question is that, “we should receive the good and the bad.” Of course, there is little else that one can do, after all God is God. While this may strike some as fatalistic, Job's question is instructive. I take it to be a foreshadowing of his own struggle with suffering and faith, and an attempt to maintain faith in the midst of personal trial.

While we often hear the term, “the patience of Job,” in reality, if you read the long middle section of the book of Job, we see a faithful person struggling deeply with his faith. We see someone who argues with his friends about the meaning of his suffering, and even challenges God to answer the question of why God allows suffering. Job is not unique in raising the question of a just God and the existence of suffering (Psalm 73). But Job goes at the problem in a unique way, wrestling with the question first with his friends, and then wrestling with the question with God. In this sense, Job is a model for us, Job is a kind of spiritual director for us as we encounter the real world, as we encounter the good and the bad, and we struggle with how to receive it all. Job fears the Lord. Fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and this term, “fearing God” is a traditional Hebrew term for respectful and unsentimental piety. Job has a dynamic relationship with God, and is not passive, and his story reminds us that God can take our doubt, and that God can take our questions.

In the midst of “receiving the bad,” it can be unhelpful to offer the quick response, and it can be terribly difficult to rely upon a shallow understanding of our Faith. We each wrestle with our own struggles and sufferings, and, we can follow Job’s lead and wrestle with overly simplified understandings, and we can even wrestle with God. God can take it. Blessedly, we also receive the good, and we recognize the good in the grandeur of God’s creation – we note the birds singing, the rivers flowing, and the trees slowly turning from Green to an explosion of vibrant color.

In All Things

It was easy to love God

in all that was beautiful.

The lessons of deeper knowledge, though,

instructed me

to embrace God

in all things.

~St. Francis of Assisi

I pray it may be so for us as well.

~The Rev. Peter M. Carey


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