This last Sunday, I was given the honor of preaching for Fourth Presbyterian’s Jazz Service. Here’ a copy of the sermon I gave.
Hint: this is my attempt to become more comfortable with putting this stuff out there and being unapologetic about it. If you’re gonna walk a dog, do it with pride.
Today’s Old Testament Scripture comes to us from the book of Job. There has been a lot of talk about Job in the past few weeks. And at this point in his story, he is looking for God his judge to hear him out.
Today my complaint is again bittier; my strength is weighed down because of my groaning.
Oh, that I could know how to find him – come to his dwelling place;
I would lay out my case before him, fill my mouth with arguments, know the words with which he would answer, understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me through brute force?
No, he would surely listen to me.
There those who do the right thing can argue with him; I could escape from my judge forever.
Look, I go east; he’s not there. West, and don’t discover him; north in his activity, and I don’t grasp him; he turns South, and I don’t see.
God has weakened my mind; the Almighty has frightened me. Still I’m not annihilated by darkness; he has hidden deep darkness from me.
Job 23:1-9, 16-17 (CEB)
For most people, the book of Job immediately sends our brains to suffering and recalls our own times of suffering. The character of Job is the ultimate example of suffering for people of faith and for non-believers. He is the man whom Holocaust survivor and author, Elie Wiesel, regarded as the most important example of the suffering of the Jews during the Second World War.
He is the man that so many of us pity and at the same time most of us can relate to on some level because his story is highly individualized among those found in the Bible, rivaled, arguably, only by the story of Daniel.
The entirety of the book is about one person, his relationship to God, and the great struggle that he endures. Job is the innocent person that faces great loss and even greater pain. More than likely, at some point, each of us has felt like maybe we were Job.
Job is described at the beginning of his story by the writer as, “a man that was honest, a person of absolute integrity; he feared God and avoided evil. He had seven sons and three daughters, and owned seven thousand sheep, three thousand camels, five hundred pairs of oxen, five hundred female donkeys, and a vast number of servants, so that he was greater than all the people of the east.”
Job regularly offered burnt offerings to God to make sure that whatever his children did would not come back to haunt him, but that they would be absolved of their sins in case they took God’s name in vain or did something unfavorable in the eyes of God. But by the end of verse 22, all of Job’s possessions and children have been lost at the hand of the adversary or Satan as he is commonly known.
“In all this, Job didn’t sin or blame God.” (Job 1:22, CEB)
All of this happens because God is faithful in Job’s faithfulness.
And yet, as faithful as Job is, I find that incredibly frustrating. While I can only hope that God is faithful in me as God’s child, I truly pray that what happened in the story of Job doesn’t happen to me or to anyone I love. Ever.
We are at the point in his story when Job’s friends have already come to visit him and tell him that obviously he has done something wrong, there is some lamenting and some mulling over of his problems, some crying out for God to hear his case, there is some lingering hope, another lament, and now we are back to searching for God the judge.
As the story progresses, God becomes for Job the great Judge, and Job wants his day in court, and he longs for his case to be heard so that he will understand why all of this is happening to him, and theoretically, and if Job is lucky, justice will be dolled out unto him and he will have understanding and he will have justice.
If an injustice were to be done to us or should we be wrongly accused, we have a judicial system in place that we would cry out for our day in court because the intent is that justice will be served to those who have had an injustice committed against them. As humans we cry out for our stories to he heard so that action can be taken to right the wrong.
Since I met my wife 4 years ago, I have seen a lot of people who long for their day in court for the injustices that have been done to them. They want the facts of their cases to be heard by those who are supposed to doll out justice in our human-created system, so that they will be vindicated and their lives will be restored and that the punishment that has been unfairly inflicted upon them will be lifted. The wrong that has been done to them will soon be made right.
To give you context, my wife is an attorney. She represents those who have been wrongfully convicted, or atleast, that’s the goal. She seeks to bring justice for those who have been punished for things that they didn’t do. I won’t get into the semantics of it all because everyone has different opinions on peoples’ innocence or guilt, and I fully admit my own bias as her wife. But all of that aside, when I read this short piece of Scripture, I hear the voices of people who are crying out for a fair judge and a fair trial. I hear the voices of those who are oppressed by tyranny and by those who are innocent and made to suffer at the hands of another. When I hear the story of Job I hear the stories of those in our time and place who are crying out for someone who is just and has the power to right the wrong, to hear their story.
Suffering is quite the problem for so many in our world. So many suffer. But then I wonder: do we even have to suffer? Is it possible to have the Utopia that people dream about? We see so many movies now about the future dystopia that is possible, but is the utopia of a suffering free world possible?
Saint Augustine of Hippo believed that people caused suffering because God gave humans free will. But then where does that leave God to alleviate the suffering? Are Job’s cries in vain? God is an active player in Job’s story, so why would we assume that God will not act?
In the Buddhist tradition, dukkha, the term used for suffering, is a very important concept. Dukkha is identified in the first of the Four Noble Truths. But it doesn’t just mean suffering, it covers everything that comes with it: anxiety, stress, discontent, being unsatisfied. All of these are forms of suffering.
The concept is that our lives revolve around suffering and we are constantly unsatisfied. Our job is to overcome this un-satisfaction in our lives and find a way to overcome it. It is not thought of as a pessimistic or optimistic view of life, but a realistic one in which suffering is simply part of our lives, and it’s our job to come to terms with it. Once we have come to terms with it we can begin to understand it, and then we can start the process of overcoming it.
The Buddhist tradition teaches that the things that cause us stress are temporary things. And when we cling to those things that are temporary, like money, possessions, or other things that we cannot take with us in death, we allow ourselves to suffer. It’s like we’re doing it to ourselves. That is what Job’s friends claimed: he must have done something to warrant such suffering from God. But it’s more than that.
Job’s suffering goes beyond material things. Sure, his camels are gone and his donkeys are wiped out, but so are his children and the people of his household. So are the people whom he loved so dearly. Is it wrong to love those around you? Are they part of the temporal; part of the world of suffering that Buddhism would have us overcome? How does Job get past the injustice of his children being taken from him? How does he lament their passing and still overcome suffering? It’s a question many ask that have experienced the death of a loved one. How do we move on from the pain and suffering that we experience?
How do the families of those men and women who have been wrongly convicted go on when their loved ones are taken from them and they are left at the hands of a system that is meant to usher in justice? How do these men and women go on when they have been left to a life of suffering for a crime they did nothing to commit? How do we get it right so that justice is given in the right places at the right time and for the people that cry out for it? How do we, as believers in God, overcome this problem of suffering in our lives when we believe in a God who is good and present and just?
In 1998, seventeen year-old Jarrett Adams went to the University of Wisconsin at Whitewater to visit a friend. While there, he was accused of raping a young woman. With a public defense lawyer who was probably underpaid and overworked, he was not given an adequate defense and not all evidence was presented in his trial. He was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in prison. Adams maintained his innocence from the very beginning. In 2007, his conviction was overturned in a federal court based on evidence that was available but never used in trial. Justice was given to Adams for the wrong done against him and for his suffering for crimes he didn’t commit. But not everyone gets justice. There are still so many who suffer all over the world.
We like to think that because we set up our justice system that it is infallible. We like to think that because God created the world and called it good, that the world is infallible. Sadly, this is not the case.
The world we live in is one in which there is much fault and thus, much suffering.
So where is God the good judge in all of this?
Theologian and ethicist Miguel De la Torre argues that God is active in the world, but not as the one who causes suffering or the one who watches from afar or as the judge to hear out our cases, but as the God who is with us in our suffering as the God that loves us and offers us comfort in our suffering.
The spoiler alert is that Job turns out okay. He is given many more animals back by God, he is given more children, more beautiful than the last. He lives to see four generations of his family and he dies and old, happy, and content man. But this is not how it always turns out. Because our world is full of suffering and not all who suffer will get a rich reward such as Job’s. There are many in our world that suffer for their entire lives, and never is justice given to them.
This is where we come in.
In our gospel reading from Mark, a man asks Jesus what he needs to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus says, “you know the commandments.” The man answers, “I’ve kept all of these things since I was a child.” Then Jesus looks at him and says, “that’s not enough. You are lacking something. Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.” But the man was dismayed at this statement and walked away saddened, because he had many possessions. The gospel requires more than us being good people in the abstract, it is an active good. To follow Jesus is to live a life of service to others. To follow Jesus is to live a life where others come first. To follow Jesus is to help lessen the suffering of others.
Jarrett Adams, the young man who was wrongfully imprisoned and convicted of a crime that he did not commit was not given the full measure of justice. We do not live in a perfect society.
At the age of 21, Jarrett’s life restarted. He went from being a seventeen-year old teenager, to a 21 year-old man. Google was not around when we went into prison; while other young people his age were graduating high school and going off to college or starting in the workforce, Jarrett missed out on those formative experiences. During his time in prison he got his GED, and he became his own self-advocate. He sought out those who could help him by trying to learn the legal system. Once out of prison there was still much he had to do. He struggled to put himself through college and then into law school. After his law school graduation he received the honor of clerking for a judge on the 7th circuit court of appeals. He fundraised on his own so that he could pay his bills and have money to live off of while he clerked. Jarrett did not get his life handed back to him like Job did. He built it back up from the ground and with the help of others: like his lawyers and those who donated to his fundraising, and through those who gave him a chance when his resume didn’t look like the resume’s of other young men his age. God didn’t automatically give him back his wealth and possessions like Job; Jarrett did it through his own hard work and with the help and support of so many others.
I can remember my mother telling me as a child that nowhere in the Bible does it tell us that life is fair. And she was right. There is nothing in this story or throughout Scriptures that tells us that our lives will be fair and just.
There is nothing in Scripture that says that our lives will be free of suffering. Our world does not operate with those who are good as being free form suffering, and those who do bad things as the ones who are punished. Our world is not a just place. What Jesus is telling us to do in this passage in Mark is to turn our focus away from ourselves and away from our material possessions and turn towards others. It is not that money and other things in our lives are evil, but prioritizing them over others is where we fail to take Christ’s message to love our neighbor seriously.
Job’s story is a painful one to recount. He was a righteous man who lived a good life. He had many possessions and many people he loved. But tragedy befell him, and Job sought answers to his injustice. Job’s friends did him a disservice when they told him that it was something that he did, because as we know, he did nothing wrong. So it is with us. God is right here with us in our suffering. Just as God is with us, so should we be with one another. This requires us to heed the call of Christ, to rearrange our priorities, to turn away from the material things of this world. It requires us to love one another as God loves us.