Sunday, June 24, 2012

Under the sign of the question mark and the cross (J. Barry Vaughn, June 24, 2012)

“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asked the Adversary. (Job 1.8) And that was the fateful question, the catalyst, the push that set in motion a train events that would leave Job near despair.

Job had seven sons and three daughters, and his livestock numbered in the hundreds. He was not only prosperous, he was good, or to use the more appropriate and specific Biblical word, he was righteous. In defending himself before God, Job declared, “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper... I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me...” (Job 29.12-14) and we have no reason to believe that Job was not telling the truth.

But disaster overcame this man of righteousness and prosperity. The livestock were killed by marauders and natural disaster, and his children were all killed when a tornado struck the house in which they were having a party. Finally, Job himself was afflicted with a chronic, painful, debilitating illness. However, Job still had his wife and his friends, though he may have wished more than once that they, too, had been in the house with his children. “Curse God and die,” his wife urged. And his friends were no better: “Who that was innocent ever perished?...happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” (Job 4.7 and 5.17) In short, these friends insisted that Job was in the wrong and God was in the right.

When Job could take it no longer, he burst out, “God has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me... God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces... though there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure.” (Job 16.9, 12). What kind of God is this, Job asked, who allows “the wicked [to] live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power... How often is it that the lamp of the wicked is put out?” (Job 21.7, 17)

The story of Job, of course, is the human story. His misfortunes were more dramatic than the misfortunes most of us will encounter, but they were different from ours only in degree, not in kind. Life is tragic, and to fail to appreciate the tragedy of human life is to fail to be fully human. But what makes Job most like us are his questions.

Job’s questions went on and on and on until he was worn out and his friends were worn out and God was just about worn out. To be human and to be thoughtful at all is to question much. Job’s questions are our questions: Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer?

Other questions, less momentous but no less persistent, linger at the corner of our awareness: Does the one I love also love me? What can I do with my life that will give me happiness and fulfillment? Will I have enough resources to live on in old age? And above all we wonder: Why must I suffer and die? Why must those I love suffer and die?

At times these questions spin about us like a whirlwind. Job’s questions were like that, too, until finally, one day, Someone spoke to Job from the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?... Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” Job’s questions got answered with more questions.

In asking Job these questions, God seemed to be saying that there is no answer to Job’s questions, or at least, there is no answer that Job can understand. The point of the Book of Job appears to be that there are some questions to which there are no answers, or no answers that the human mind can wrap itself around.
That’s frus trating, especially to me. I like to believe that any question can be answered, any problem solved, if we apply reason to it and study it and do research. So, is Job merely a rebuke to human reason, to the quest to make sense of life and answer unanswerable questions? Or does Job offer us some comfort in those sleepless nights when our mind just won’t stop asking questions?

I want to suggest that the answer of Job is more, much more, than the mere assertion that life’s big questions are unanswerable. Job got more than just a rebuke; he got God. And so do we. In the midst of the questions, in the midst of the whirlwind and turmoil, there is God. Just as surely as God came to Job, God comes to us. Furthermore, this God who came to Job and comes to us is a God who hears our questions and speaks to us. God doesn’t always answer our questions, for perhaps we do not even know enough to ask the right questions, much less to understand the answer. But this God who speaks in the midst of the whirlwind is a God who chooses to be in relationship to us.

I don’t know if “Uncle” Bob Richard asked the kinds of questions that Job asked, but I suspect he did. I suspect that at one time or another all of us want to grab God by the lapels (if God has lapels) and say, “Are you listening? Are you paying attention?” But I also believe that Bob knew what it meant to be in a relationship with God even if God doesn’t answer our questions.

Uncle Bob was not with us long. He began attending St. Alban’s about the time that I became your priest. He had retired after a long career as a lawyer in Montgomery. He came back home because both he and his sister Joy Ebaugh had grown up in Birmingham.

One thing that drew Bob to St. Alban’s was music. As a boy Bob sang in the boys’ choir at the Cathedral Church of the Advent, under the direction of Herb Grieb, a towering figure in the Birmingham music community, directing the music not only for the Advent but also for Temple Emanuel.

Janet and the choir felt a special affection for him because he always came early and listened to us warm up. He must have liked us to come and listen to us squeak and squawk and hit wrong notes and go BZZZZZZZ with our lips to get warmed up. And we must have liked him to pull out our copies of Handel’s “Hallelujah” chorus in the middle of the summer and hit all those high notes!

A few years ago when my favorite uncle, Cecil Roper, died, I gave a homily at his funeral and said that I believed that Uncle Cecil would try to teach the heavenly choir to sing the psalm settings that the earliest Protestant churches had sung because he loved them so much. However, I wasn’t sure that the heavenly choir would like them as much as Uncle Cecil liked them! However, I am sure that the heavenly choir will feel just as much affection for Uncle Bob as St. Alban’s choir feels if he will sit on the front pew and listen to them warm up.

Job and Uncle Bob weren’t the only ones who had questions for God. The disciples did, too. “Master, do you not care if we perish?”

Jesus and the disciples boarded a fifteen foot fishing boat to cross from west to east across the Sea of Galilee. It should have been a short, uneventful journey, but instead they encountered a fierce storm.

The comparison to human life is irresistible. Job, too, had every reason to think that his journey across life’s sea would be uneventful, that he would grow old and die in prosperity, with the comfort of his wife and family around him. What more can any of us wish for? But storms arise.

Like Job, the disciples questioned, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” It is a question that we are bound to ask time and time again on life’s journey.

Human life is lived under the sign of the question mark, and if that were the only sign over human life, we might well despair. For atheists and agnostics life has only two punctuation marks: the question mark and the period.

However, the Christian faith asserts that there is another sign over human life and another punctuation mark in life’s story: the Cross. For we have not only to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind and replied to Job’s unanswerable questions with more unanswerable questions. We have also to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind on the sea of Galilee: “Peace! Be still!” In the tempest of questions that fly about us, God comes to speak peace. And when we ask the question that the disciples asked, “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” there is an answer: He is the Crucifed and Risen Lord who is with us in the storm and the calm, on sea and on land, when we have all the answers and when we have nothing but questions.