The Very Rev. Tom Callard, October 28, 2018
We’ve haven’t talked much about Job, but for the past several weeks we have been reading from the Book Job in our first lesson. And I wonder, do you remember Job’s story? that Job was a righteous man who walked upright in the ways of the Lord. And one day God and Satan were talking, hanging out, doing what they do, and God was saying- just look how great and righteous my servant Job is.
You never want God to boast about you, especially to Satan. Because Satan responds: well let’s see how upright and righteous your servant is. I bet that if you gave him adversity and that if you took everything away from him, that all righteousness and faith would disappear. And you’ll see who Job really is. And God said, all right, I’ll take that bet.
So Satan went to Job and Satan, little by little, took away all that Job had. First Satan took away his oxen and his donkeys. Then Satan took away his sheep and his servants. Then Satan took away Job’s family and children. And then Satan took away Job’s health. And in the end, all Job had was what anyone has in the Bible, when all else is gone, which is sackcloth and ashes. Job was left with sackcloth and ashes.
Have you had those days when you are left with nothing but sackcloth and ashes? Or at least that’s how you feel. Because the day has almost destroyed you. Or at least left you feeling like you want to be destroyed. Have you had days where you’re looking around, and you’re questioning the fundamental goodness of the universe and of human kind. And you’re wondering if maybe God is angry with you. Have you ever had those days?
We had a day like that yesterday with yet another mass shooting in a house of worship at the Tree of Life Congregation Synagogue in Pittsburg. A tragic loss of life and act of violence, after a week of fear and terror. And it’s another day of trying to understand human beings. And maybe of trying to understand God.
Maybe to us at times like this God seems so distant. Or perhaps when things are really bad we might say to ourselves, in our heart of hearts, we say, maybe there is no God. And so we say, all right, God if you’re there, show yourself to me, and let me know why you have done this thing to me and why this has been allowed to happen? Why has this happened to this group in their synagogue? Why did this happen to your servant job? Why to so many people who suffer?
The whole Book of Job is Job and his friends doing that, trying to make sense of God and understand why God has done these thing to Job. And it is particularly confusing to them because Job is the most righteous person they know and he has always been faithful and walked in the ways of the Lord. And what happens to Job makes no sense if you assume, as they did, that nothing bad can happen to you if you are righteous and walk in the ways of the Lord.
There is a strong theological belief, which is also part of our general cultural belief, that bad things come because you have done something bad, that God punishes us for doing bad things. And that good things come because we have done things that are good. It’s God giving us some reward.
In the Gospels when Jesus and his disciples encounter a man who is blind, his disciples ask who has sinned, this man or his ancestors. Because someone must have sinned. That’s why he’s blind.
Several years ago Televangelist Pat Robertson said on TV that Hurricane Katrina came to the United States because our country sinned. We have people from the 1980’s on who say that HIV and AIDS are God’s punishment for the gay community because of their sin. People who say that a woman who is attacked or harassed somehow did something wrong. She dressed provocatively. She was asking for it. Her victimization comes from her sin.
This is a sloppy and damaging and incorrect theology to believe that the bad things that happen to peole come directly from sin. Yes, our sins have consequences. The things we do come back to us and we pay the price for our bad decisions all the time. But I just don’t believe that the God of love gives punishment for failing to walk in His ways of love. And conversely we have this incorrect theological understanding of ward. This is the belief that says that if we do the right thing in the eyes of God, that blessing will come to us and nothing bad will ever happen in our lives. Which is why Job’s predicament is such a mystery.
I remember some years ago I went to buy a new grill at the Home Depot. And the fellow who helped e said, you know for just $30 we can go to your house and we will set your grill up for you. And I thought – that would be great. But then I said, No, I am pretty sure I can set up the grill for myself. Because, I figured, it’s got instructions, right? You just follow the instructions.
So when I got home, I opened the box of the grill and there were about a thousand little parts, each requiring its own little allen wrench, and there were some big parts. It looked like I needed to do some welding. It was a big, confusing mess. But with the help of my children, in the course of a couple hours, we were able to set up the grill. I followed all the instructions, and used almost all the parts. There were some left overs. And I rejoiced that I was able to do it myself by just following the instructions.
And so I carry with me from that experience, into my life, this sense of how life is, that when you’re doing something and you just followed the instructions, that you can set up a grill.
So in the scheme of thing, like Job, we try and be faithful followers of life’s instructions and hold to the Bible, and hold to those things we learn from our Episcopal tradition, like the baptismal covenant, and we hold to the teachings we received from our parents and our Sunday School teachers from the world around us which about the difference between right and wrong and good and bad.
And we feel, don’t we, on some level, that if we only just follow all these instructions we will come out at the end with a grill, with the life that we want to build, with the happiness we want to achieve, with the peace and success of camels and sheep and oxen and servants, or whatever. That achieving this is possible because we, like Job, just follow what we know of God.
Except it doesn’t work that way. Because suddenly something happens one day, as it always does, and you’re in sackcloth and ashes. And so much can happen. Have you noticed that? That so much can go wrong in life. And our happiness and sense of peace and contentment and stability in life are so fragile. And that’s even about the small things. That because of what one person says to us, our day is ruined. Because of one driver who cuts us off in the morning, our day is filled with anger. Because of one small possibility of one small thing that might be wrong with our health, we are consumed with fear.
Our being, our equilibrium is so fragile. And when big things come along, we are simply destroyed. Our theology is destroyed. We say: God you were supposed to keep me and protect me. God you were supposed to reward me for the good things I did. After all, I gave you those prayers. I was in church on Sunday, and I gave you dutifully my pledge. What does that buy me?
And we enter into chaos when bad things happen. Theological chaos. Job was in theological chaos because what happened to him didn’t make sense according to his understanding of God. That you do the right thing and God will not let you be hurt. And Satan will not get you. And so he says God where are you, I’ve looked everywhere. Just let me know why this has come to pass. Explain it to me for I have been destroyed.
The message I get from today is that sometimes you are destroyed. Sometimes you are broken down, like Job. And you walk for a while in sackcloth and ashes, but maybe what comes from that is your realization that you just didn’t fully understand God. Today Job says: God, I was wrong about you. I uttered things I didn’t know, things beyond my comprehension. I thought I knew you. I thought I could understand you.
But I had you in this box. I had you in this nice, neat box that made sense to me, but it turns out that you are way bigger than my box, and more complicated than I imagined and something I can never fully know. And a new theology out of that struggle is born.
For me this happened on September 5, 2015 when our house burned down. It was through no fault of our own, after following God and walking in the ways of the Lord, suddenly one night there was a fire. And we rushed outside. We moved the cars out of the driveway. We called the firefighters, and we watched as our house burned and half of our possessions washed down this little waterfall, out, down the stairs, and onto the front lawn. It’s a moment you never forget.
And I remember thinking that night, that I had always wondered if I had to go back into my house to rescue one thing from a fire, what would that thing be? That was the question I had pondered with friends talking about what was really important. I figured, maybe my records. Financial documents? The photo albums? Maybe the TV? Maybe that grill. But now I know, in a way I never could have known before, that the only thing I cared about saving was my kids, and my wife. Nothing else even entered my mind.
After the fire, I was never mad at God and I never struggled to see God in what happened. And I have never struggled to see God since then, for I had the chance to see God there in the treasure that had been rescued from our house: my wife and my kids. And every day, I still see God.
My theology since the fire has been very simple. And I wonder if Job developed this same theology? And I pray that the people of the Tree of Life Synagogue will also one day, after their time of grief, find a similar theology, because I think it makes sense – that no matter what we do in life, and no matter what happens to us, the good and bad, highs and lows, triumphs and tragedies, no matter what, that God is always there. Except much of the time, or perhaps even most of the time, we just don’t see God.
We don’t see or feel or know the presence of God and the incredible love, and goodness, and depth of compassion that God has for us. Except at certain times. And many of those times come after tragedy, with us wearing sackcloth and ashes. And they come because we see, in the end, what we really value. And what we value is God. A piece of God, there in our lives.
There’s no belief you can be taught, or words your priest or teacher can say, or any books you can read that will give you an answer to life’s pain and the loss we often feel. Except to know that God is still there, but not perhaps as we thought.
For God is not about a set of rules to follow, but about a group of people to love, and a whole lot of things we can let go of which we just don’t need, and God is about a big world out there which we are called to make better through our love. By being upright and walking in the way of the Lord. And being open to being changed.