“Old and Full of Days” / Job 42:1-6, 10-17 / 28 October 2018
And here it ends, this great rambling, troubled and troubling Book of Job. After all the sound and the fury, and the calamities, the collapsing roofs, and the poison ivy, and the accusations, and the arguing, and the lofty theologizing, and the sea monsters…it ends with quiet acceptance. Job’s catastrophes have transformed him, transported him to a place of simple acceptance. Then he gets a whole new batch of donkeys, and camels, children. Job quits fighting at last, and embraces his own powerlessness in the face of the mystery we have called God. And then he lives many good and happy years, and he dies old and full of days. Who knew that after all that talking, and arguing, and complaining, it would come to something so simple: Just accept the fact that you cannot be in control. Just look your own finitude in the face and make friends with it. (But who can do that, can you? Who can look their own mortality in the eyes?) There is a transformation that only pain can bring. There is a renewal that only comes through sorrow, a resurrection to new life that only comes from dying to old life. It is only the broken and healed heart that is fully whole. It is only the life laid down that can be picked up. But that’s the gamble of it; that’s the fear. For we’ve known many a soul who’s been transformed by his or her woes into something wonderful and whole. But then, we’ve known others whose sorrows have pushed them all the deeper into bitterness and despair. Some, like Job, emerge from their long struggles with new wings, new vision, new purpose. Suffering has transformed them into people who no longer fear death; people who no longer cling to meaningless possessions; people who no longer worship money. Others? Others wallow forever in their sadness or anger, dwelling on everything they’ve lost. What makes the difference? Job’s suffering has transformed him into a man of compassion. He becomes a bronze-age champion for women’s rights, which we’ll discuss in a moment. That’s the key: where there is pain, there is something new, trying to be born. Can you harness your suffering and put it to work in the interests of a better world? Can you tap into it and redirect it into something good for others?
In a day when some would walk into black churches and Jewish synagogues to shoot the innocent, is it not our urgent task to turn our own pain toward some good end instead of an evil one? There are periods of history when the rage and the hate and the fear get so out of hand that, truly, God needs our help—our participation—to reign it all in. Let us “put good energy out there,” as the New Agers say: peace, calmness, love. Anchored in Christ’s joy and hope, let us turn even today’s brokenness toward the good.
One woman was a slave in Kentucky. She escaped north to Ohio, where her son became the first black writer to gain real notice in America. He wrote plays and poems in Standard English and also in the old black vernacular of the antebellum South. The hard part back in those days was finding someone to publish a black man’s writing. But once he got a publisher, his career took off. He made enough money to buy his mother, the former slave, a beautiful house in Dayton, Ohio, with servants of her own. And yet, he was a troubled soul, this writer. He had a marriage so fraught with discord that he moved in with his mother after just four years with his wife. He was an alcoholic. And he came down with tuberculosis and died at the age of thirty-three. His mother’s house, where he died, is now a museum in Dayton. In it, you will see an old, old tablet laying open on a desk by a window in his bedroom. On that tablet, he had written his very last poem. But that poem is forever lost to the world. When Paul Laurence Dunbar died, his mother kept his bedroom like a shrine. She never moved a thing, and the sun from the window faded the ink of that poem, causing it to disappear from the page. By hoarding her personal pain, she deprived the world of something good. Matilda Dunbar never got to the place where her pain transformed her, moved her to generosity.
Another woman born in slavery escaped to Pennsylvania. Her parents loved her, but the slaveholders abused her terribly as a child. Once when she was about eleven, she was dealt a blow to the head so severe that it resulted in seizures and narcolepsy for the rest of her life. These conditions from her head injury only got worse as she grew older. When she decided to escape north, her husband was scared to go with her, or so he said, so she went without him and made a new life in Philadelphia. But she just couldn’t live up here knowing that the ones she loved were still enslaved down there. So she sneaked back down to Maryland to rescue her parents, then some siblings, then some cousins, leading them all to safety of the Keystone State. Two years after her first escape, she went back to her own house to try again to convince her husband to come north with her. But there was another woman sleeping in her spot. The guy had gone and remarried already. (Could this stranger have been the reason he didn’t want to leave in the first place?) So she left him there, and she married a man twenty-two years her junior. Over the years, she led more than 300 slaves to freedom in Canada, helped the Union cause as a nurse in the Civil War, and even led a guerilla-style attack on a Confederate ferryboat. And when she came home to New York State, she joined the suffragettes and died, like Job, “old and full of years,” at the age of 93. This, of course, was Harriet Tubman.
Two women from similar backgrounds had two different ways of managing their pain. One holds her pain close to her heart, where it eats away at her spirit and keeps her stuck, depriving the world of what could have been—namely Paul Laurence Dunbar’s very last and deathbed poem. The other is transformed through suffering and motivated by her own tears to transform the social order, like Job. Personal transformation can come to those who turn their pain outward and make it into a force for good in the world. Once again, as always, I do not say that God wills or causes our suffering, only that God forever endeavors to weave it into something redemptive, something good. So let me ask you this: Where have you been most deeply wounded by the world that is? Can you harness your suffering and put it to work in the interests of a world that ought to be? This, my friend, this is what we need today.
We’ve reached the last few verses of the Book of Job. It’s been a whirlwind tour of this venerable and oldest book in the Christian Bible. And at first glance, the ending is just a little too precious, too easy. Job lost everything, but he gets back more than he lost in the first place. That’s fine when it comes to sheep, and donkeys, and camels. But what about the children? You would surely love ten new children, too, but that wouldn’t erase your grief for the ten children you lost, would it? Well, remember that the Bible was written by ancient people with ancient worldviews. It becomes the Word of God to us as the Spirit speaks its beauties into our hearts. But it still bears the fingerprints of the humans who wrote it. Many ancient peoples believed that when a child is born after the death of an older sibling, the new child is actually the return of the older child’s spirit in a brand new body. In other words, for the writer of Job, the seven new sons and three new daughters may have been the reincarnation of the exact same souls as the first seven sons and the first three daughters. Although you and I may not believe such things, this could be the way Job manages to have a happy ending for its first readers.
But did you notice how after all his suffering, Job is suddenly a bleeding heart? And his issue is women’s rights. When the Hebrew Scriptures list someone’s children, they usually only give you the boys’ name. You never get the girls’ names. But in Job’s story, you only get the girls’ names! Not only that, but he’s passionately concerned about their welfare. Job, after his great sorrows, creates an inheritance for his three daughters equal to his sons. Job has been transformed through his suffering to a new place where he has compassion on the suffering of others, and every intention to do something about it. The personal transformation (that only comes from suffering) is just the kick in the pants that most of us need to start caring about the transformation of our world.
You? Where has this world wounded you? Where are the old familiar scars—the mental scars, the emotional, and the physical? None of us gets out of here without scars. But is there not some way to harness the energy of your pain, and use it to power the turbines of change in our world? You can brood and you can grieve—and you do need to grieve for a season, when pain is still fresh. But there comes a day when you have to make a choice. Do you keep on holding it close to your chest, letting it tear you up? Or do you accept it, let it transform you? Do you let it lead you back out into a world where others suffer too, a world where your experience could help to lead the way out? Do you let it transform you, then take transformation back out into the world?
Ah, and now we bump up against the philosopher’s conundrum: what are we here for? In the words of W.H. Auden, “We are all here on earth to help others; what on earth the others are here for, I don’t know.” Doesn’t every passionate soul believe that his or her answer is the last and the best one to all the world’s great troubles? Anyone who’s really ardent about his or her cause in life believes it’s the answer to the world’s ills. The educator will tell you that education is the answer, and they’ve got a point. The personal trainer will say we’re not getting enough exercise, and I’m pretty sure that’s part of the problem. The historian thinks we would finally get a grip on the present if only we had a grasp of the past, and there’s surely wisdom in that. The entertainer thinks we’re entirely too serious; we need to lighten up. The politician, well they say all kinds of things, but a politician is just a lawyer made good…and who knows what lawyers think? Therapists think we just need to talk about it. Benedictine nuns think we all just need to stop talking. One linguist suggests that we’d all think more clearly and be less crazy, more rational, if we just diagramed sentences.
The many conflicting prescriptions for the woes of the world remind me of the university down south that plays a game called “lifeboat.” The students of this school are the only survivors of a global catastrophe. Their lifeboat, which is bound for a green and uninhabited planet, only has room for one professor. Only one field of knowledge will make it intact to the new world. And so each department must get up to make a case for why the chair of their department should get a place on the lifeboat. Then the students vote on the most compelling argument. It’s not usually a good day for the departments of philosophy or communications. It’s often a good day for the math department. Math gives you navigation, construction, architecture, engineering, video games. Perhaps math will supply the final answer to all the world’s troubles. But for all its blessings, math has also given us the weapons of war, which please God shall perish. Religion says that our troubles come down to the life of the spirit. Our world is broken because our hearts and minds are broken. It’s only when our spirits are made whole that the world will be. But then, of course, the religions of the world disagree on how to fix our broken selves: through keeping the Law, through obedience to the Koran, through faith in Jesus, through following in the way of Jesus.
Every mass shooting since Columbine has been perpetrated with the same kind of gun, an AR-15. How hard would it be to make that kind of gun unavailable? This is not my own personal opinion; this is the official stance of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the National Council of Churches. It’s the witness of the church of Jesus Christ. Do we have the political will to take AR-15s off the market—especially when someone is making so much money off the manufacture and sale of them? But the truth is, even making those nefarious weapons of war unavailable will fix all that is broken in our hearts and in our minds.
What our world needs is transformation! And if you’ve ever experienced any kind of transformation in your life, then you know that it only comes through pain. But the pain that produces transformation can go awry—especially in the lives of nations and big groups of people. Instead of morphing into something powerful and good, it can rot into anger, and bitterness, and hate. The world needs moral leaders to help societies bring good transformation out of pain—people like Gandhi and King. But it also needs individuals who will turn their own pain toward the well-being of the world.
On this Reformation Sunday, you may notice that all the hymns sound about 500 years old. That’s because they are—except for the one that was written yesterday and placed in your bulletin this morning, as a prayer on the occasion of the Tree of Life shootings. Today we commemorate the 501st anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. We celebrate our own identity without belittling those who don’t share it. The Reformation insisted that there is no “one true church.” And it’s kind of hard to get really excited about the claim that we’re all more or less wrong. But 500 years ago you could get killed for entertaining notions like that. All the same, a deep discontent spread across Europe to challenge the divine right of kings, and the hierarchy of being, and the infallibility of the church. It was a spirit of democracy and equality that wouldn’t come into its own for another 250 years. But its first spring breezes were stirring. Into that age of thumbscrews and conformity, one man’s questions about God and grace boiled over into the public sphere, and it changed the course of history. Modernity began with religion, but its spirit of equality spread to give us modern ideals of tolerance, literacy, human dignity, abolition, balance of powers, and representative government. One man’s internal anguish wasn’t what started it all. It was the spark that set off the keg. But if he’d held that inner pain in the wrong way, in a selfish way, in a stifling way, it never could have risen up to transform the world.
This is surely the “good grief” that Charlie Brown used to talk about, the kind of pain that won’t fester forever inside us, but lights a fire beneath us, causes us to care anew about our world, urges us to act. Lots of people have held their pain close and let it destroy them. Far too many have taken their pain out into the world and let it destroy others. But there’s another way! Job’s suffering transformed him into an early proponent of women’s rights. Harriet Tubman’s made her an opponent of slavery. Dorothea Dix, for whom Dixmont Hospital was named, was an abused child who grew up to advocate for the mentally ill. What about you? What have you done with your pain? What are you going to do with it? Will you let it lead you into acts of transformation in the world? Amen.
“Old and Full of Days” / Job 42:1-6, 10-17 / 28 October 2018