Monday, October 19, 2015

St. Luke, Physician and Evangelist

On October 18th our regular "Third Sunday of the Month" service of Choral Evensong observed the Feast of St. Luke.  Our Guest Preacher was the Rev. Daniel Hall, M.D.  Dan is Episcopal Priest in Residence at the First Lutheran Church of Pittsburgh, Grant Street, Downtown, and has a practice of General Surgery at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and the Hospital of the Veterans' Administration.

Evensong, St. Andrew's, Highland Park
Feast of St. Luke
The Rev. Daniel E. Hall, MD

Ecclesiasticus 38:1-4,6-10,12-14

Honor physicians for their services,
for the Lord created them;
for their gift of healing comes from the Most High,
and they are rewarded by the king.
The skill of physicians makes them distinguished,
and in the presence of the great they are admired.
The Lord created medicines out of the earth,
and the sensible will not despise them.
And he gave skill to human beings
that he might be glorified in his marvelous works.
By them the physician heals and takes away pain;
the pharmacist makes a mixture from them.
God's works will never be finished;
and from him health spreads over all the earth.
My child, when you are ill, do not delay,
but pray to the Lord, and he will heal you.
Give up your faults and direct your hands rightly,
and cleanse your heart from all sin.
Then give the physician his place, for the Lord created him;
do not let him leave you, for you need him.
There may come a time when recovery lies in the hands of physicians,
for they too pray to the Lord
that he grant them success in diagnosis
and in healing, for the sake of preserving life.

2 Timothy 4:5-13

As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.

Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.

Don’t you just love evensong? Great music. Great scripture.  Perhaps great preaching?….but at least a chance to bust out the cassock, surplice, tippet and academic hoods.  And I’m delighted that at least up here in the choir, it’s not just the clergy wearing their hoods, but a whole range of colors representing your various degrees.  If you really wanted to double down, everybody out their in the nave could show up with their black robe and hood and we could all live into a lovely dream that this corner of Highland Park was just a step away from Edwardian Oxbridge—our own little taste Downton Abbey with Lord Grantchester sitting right over there. This is the stuff that makes the Anglican ship in which we are sailing so beautiful and compelling. It is good to be with you this evening.  Thank you for the invitation.

You may have noticed that my own hood here is green rather than red.  That is because it is the hood I received on graduation from medical school.  As some of you know, I am surgeon as well as a priest.  And that was Bruce Robison’s clever twist in inviting me to preach today with these texts appointed for the feast of St. Luke, sometimes remembered as “The Physician.”

You see, the tradition holds that in addition to being the author of the eponymous Gospel and the Book of Acts, Luke was first trained as a Greek Physician.  The evidence is pretty thin, but in his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul names a Luke who he also identifies as a doctor.  And scholars have noted that the composition of Luke and Acts betrays a man of education—the vocabulary and syntax is substantially more sophisticated than the rest of the New Testament.  And since Luke’s writing employs a preponderance of medical and nautical metaphors, scholars have thought that he might have been either a physician or a sailor before meeting Jesus, but there is controversy about which one is more likely. When my New Testament professor explained this for the first time, I spoke with him after class with my tongue in cheek saying, “I don’t understand the controversy. It seems pretty obvious that Luke was a Doctor sailing his yacht around the Med!”

Joking aside, the tradition of St. Luke the Physician and the texts appointed for this occasion give us an opportunity to reflect on the practice of medicine, and its proper place in our common life as Christians.  And to the extent that I’m a physician myself, perhaps I can bring a fresh perspective. So what do we learn?

At first glance, things seem to be particularly good for physicians according to Ecclesiasticus. (As if we needed any more air pumped into our overly-filled heads!):

Honor physicians for their services,
for the Lord hath created them;
for their gift of healing cometh from the Most High…
The skill of physicians makes them distinguished,
and in the presence of the great they art admired.

So far so good.  Ecclesiasticus sounds like a proud Jewish grandmother.

And then Ecclesiasticus outlines a very sensible position on the proper place and use of medicine.  It acknowledges that God is the source of healing, and that our first impulse should always be to confess our faults and pray to God for healing.  And having done so, to turn ourselves over to the care of a physician, because God created medicine, and gave the physician skill, and even though miracles can and do happen, sensible people will not despise the skilled care and effective medicines that God has seen fit to bless us with through the practice of medicine.

The position of Ecclesiasticus seems to mirror the common sense of the old joke about the man stranded on a desert island who prays to God to save him, and in his fervent faith, turns away first a fishing boat, and then a cruise ship and finally a helicopter because he is confident that God’s miracle if salvation will be supernatural.  And when he finally perishes, he asks God why he didn’t answer his prayer, and God says “I did.  I sent you a fishing boat, a cruise ship and a helicopter.  What more were you looking for?”

So on one level, this passage from Ecclesiasticus is important counterpoint for those among us with Pentecostal or Charismatic tendencies—those who would rather pray that God spare them of cancer than submit to the indignity of a colonoscopy or mammogram. This kind of wisdom certainly applies to our contemporary setting. We shouldn’t ignore Jewish grandmothers. I’ve had my colonoscopy…and I hope you’ve had yours!

But I’m not sure that is the end of the story.  Although there are some who resist modern medicine in favor of miraculous cures, I think it is much more common in this day and age to find those who turn to medicine itself for the miracle.  We follow the advice of our physicians. We stop smoking. We eat better.  We exercise. We take the pills they prescribe. We supplement our food with multivitamins. We eat local.  We eat organic. We expose our children to Bach while they are still in the womb. We follow with interest the nightly news that reports the next advance in cell biology, immunology or genetics that promise to unlock the key to aging, cancer and mental illness. And the commercials between those reports sell the promise of salvation through pharmacology. No symptom is too small to manage. No experience is too trivial to ignore. If only we knew enough, we could efficiently and effectively relieve human suffering, and preserve our autonomous control over our unruly bodies. Medicine promises not only to treat disease, but to enhance our lives, making us better than well.  And although only a few technological futurists like Ray Kurzweil explicitly claim that technology will transcend all human limitation (including death), I think than many of us are captivated by the alluring proposition that medical technology might one day show us how to get out of life alive.

And in this context, the sick become morally culpable for their illness.  If only they hadn’t smoked.  If only they didn’t eat refined carbohydrates to the point of Type II diabetes. If only they ate lower on food chain or adopted the Asian diet or exercised more, or exercised better.  If only they had submitted to that mammogram, or PSA test or that whole body PET-CT scan. If only they had made any number of the countless choices that we hope will mitigate the existential threat comes to us all in illness and death. If only….

I think that this is the more common posture toward medicine and its promises. But in doing so, we forget the more fundamental counsel of Ecclesiasticus when it says:
My child, when thou art ill, do not delay,
but first pray unto the Lord, and he will make thee whole.
Give up thy faults and direct thy hands rightly,
and cleanse thy heart from all sin.
Then (and only then) give place to the physician…

Giving place to physicians and our medicine without first giving place to God makes of medicine an idol. We put our trust in the technology itself rather than in the God who supplies the genius that generates the technology. We begin to think that we can eliminate suffering from human experience rather than remembering that God himself chose to enter that suffering rather waving his hand and making it go away.  We begin to fall for the age-old temptation to believe that by hook or by crook, we can save ourselves through the choices we make and the deeds we accomplish.

The point I’m trying to make is that we have distorted the wisdom of Ecclesiasticus. We have taken the advice of our Jewish grandmother too literally. We give too much honor to physicians and the medicine they provide.  Our hopes for what hospitals, doctors and pharmacies can offer are unrealistic. As much as I want you to trust me as your surgeon—as much as I want our hospital to be worthy of your faith—we do not have the power to save you. 

That power belongs to Jesus, and him alone.  And it is precisely this point that Luke is trying to make in this passage when Jesus walks into his home synagogue, proclaims the year of the Lord’s favor, sits down and says: Today, this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing. The promise of the Gospel sets us free from the ultimately futile attempts of working out our own salvation through wise and prudent choices.

You know this.  Yet despite that knowledge, it is altogether too easy to slip back into thinking that the Gospel is about doing the right thing or being the right kind of person.  We tend to think that Christianity is about values and ethics; about doing right and living well.  And so it is, and therefore, we expect our sermons to have clear application for what it is we are to do in life. Tell the truth. Practice random acts of kindness. Raise your kids in nurturing environments. Honor physicians.  Take their medicine. Stop smoking. Go to the farmers market. Do these things and God will bless you.

But the point made by the Luke and the point often left out of our sermons is that the Gospel is not primarily prescriptive, but descriptive.  The Gospel is about reality first and action second.  Only after de-scribing the reality of the way things are does the Gospel go on to pre-scribe specific action.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek” he doesn’t mean that we’re all supposed to be meek.  Instead, it’s about getting the record straight by stating that, contrary to all appearances, the meek are, in fact, blessed.  When Jesus says, “The person who seeks to save his life will lose it; but the one who is willing to lose his life for my sake will find it” he doesn’t intend it as an ethical exhortation.  It isn’t an ought statement so much as it is a description of what is real—the way things really are.

When Jesus says “strive for the kingdom of God”, he compares it to a small mustard seed that grew into a large tree. He compared it to the sprinkle of yeast that leavened the entire batch of bread. The kingdom of God is that tiny, almost immeasurable thing that when added to the rest, transforms the grist of everyday living into something different and more wonderful.  The kingdom of God is the gift of conversion, the pulling away of the veil, the illumination of the way things really are.  The kingdom of God is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. 

Let me try to be less abstract and more concrete.  Who we are and what we do depends entirely on why we do it.  Exhortations to holy or healthy living may make sense to the world.  Exhortations for “values” and “hope” make sense in the political rhetoric of Republicans and Democrats alike.  But these exhortations to right action are meaningless if they are not integrally and explicitly connected to Christ Jesus.  We can’t be holy unless we know holy, and we can’t know holy until we know Jesus.  And when we know Jesus, we know that we can do nothing good apart from him.  So that any good work, if it is truly good, is not ours, but the work of Christ who lives within us. 

Apart from the love of God in Christ Jesus, all our work and toil is but vanity and chasing after wind. I can stay up all night operating on perforated diverticulitis.  You can spend five days a week volunteering in a soup kitchen.    And you can volunteer time on a church committee.  And you can teach the glories of the English Choral Tradition. And you can revel in that most tasteful of liturgical vesture, the cassock, surplice, hood and tippet. And you can give money away to the poor.  But if we do these things for their own sake—if we do them to punch our ticket—then they are but vanity and chasing after wind.

So what are we to do?  We are called to be a holy and sanctified people, set apart, living in the world, but not of the world.  We are called to be witnesses to the truth of the way things really are, exposing idolatry in whatever form it may arise.  We are called to be witnesses to the truth that God, himself, became flesh, dwelled among us, died and was raised again so that we might become heirs to his kingdom.  And yes, we are called to do not just good works, but great and magnificent works.  And the technologies of medicine do accomplish some of the most great and magnificent works.

But even the most magnificent works are powerless to save. Yet salvation has already been accomplished because in Jesus, the words of the prophets have been fulfilled, and he has proclaimed the year of the Lord’s favor. What we need are eyes to see and ears to hear this leavening truth about the kingdom of God. Those eyes and ears are not ours by right, but gifts from God—given to us in baptism and nurtured through disciplines of prayer, worship and service. With those eyes and ears, we can see through the hollow threat of bodily illness and recognize that whether we live or die, we belong ever and always to the Lord. With those eyes and ears, we can approach our own death in the confidence that death will not have the last word.  With those eyes and ears we can even now hear and see that great getting up day when all will be raised—not as disembodied spirits, but as flesh and blood in our own bodies—and with those eyes and ears we will see our Lord face to face and hear him call us to take our place with him at the Supper of the Lamb. It is this hope that frees us from fear.  It is this promise that enables us to seek God above all things. May God grant to us these eyes and these ears so that with our mouths, we might proclaim with St. Luke the Physician, the unimaginable goodness of the Great Physician, the lover of souls, the salvation of the world, the holy and undivided Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.  Amen.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Twenty-first after Pentecost: I'm not O.K., You're not O.K.

October 18, 2015  Job 38: 1-7, 34-41; Hebrews 5: 1-10; Mark 10: 35-41 (Proper 24B)

Good morning. A rich set of readings from Scripture this morning with some deeper thematic threads that seem to weave together.   God’s magnificent address to Job, out of the whirlwind.  The great hymn about the eternal priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Letter to the Hebrews.  The conversation in Mark 10 between Jesus and his disciples about which of them is going to get into the most important stained glass windows as they turn toward Jerusalem and as the outline of the Cross begins to be seen on the distant horizon.  If I were going to reduce the topic of the day to one word it would be, I guess, “humility.” 

A word that is central again and again to descriptions of Jesus and of the desired character and behavior of the follows and friends of Jesus.  The word “humility” always for me recalls that pivotal moment in John’s gospel when John the Baptist, who is at the very height of his popularity and influence, surrounded by vast crowds of dedicated followers and admirers, sees that the expected one, Jesus, is now on the scene.  “I must decrease,” John says, “so that he may increase.”   Stepping back to make room for what God is doing.  To say, “It’s not about me.”  Whether it’s Job before God in the midst of his calamities and suffering.  Whether it’s the disciples of Jesus hearing yet again that the path to the spiritual exaltation of the kingdom is one that goes in a downward direction rather than an upward one.  Whether it’s the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews in this great insight into the mystery of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.  In the wide world the path to success is all about singing “look at me—see how great I am!”  But Jesus says to his friends, “not so for you.”  And since we live in the world and are also friends of Jesus, the tension stretches across the boundaries of our lives day by day.  Humility.

In that context  I’d like to begin and then to end this morning with two stories that are for me both associated with my mother-in-law:  Fran Johnson, Susy’s mom.  A woman of great Christian character, intelligence, and spiritual insight and substance.  A bright sense of humor.  Real “wisdom” in exactly the way that word is used in the Bible.  Grace and also I would say truly, humility.  It’s been a number of years now since her death, but so very frequently I’ll hear in my memory an echo of a word she said—or sometimes just a smile, or a penetrating look.

In any case, there was this time, many years ago, when I was as I recall making some off-hand comment, somewhat critical of something that was happening in my Field Education parish, St. Anselm’s in Lafayette, California.  I have actually no memory at all of what the issue was.  Something the idiotic rector had done that I could have done a million times better, I’m sure.  But in any case what I do remember was Fran kind of brightly saying, “You know what they say!  If you ever find a perfect church, don’t go there.  You’ll only spoil it.”  I’ve heard other people give different versions of that saying over the years, but that was the first time I’d heard it, and I’m sure it will always be in my thoughts with her voice and intonation.

I would say, to begin, that I’m pretty sure—pretty sure (she was my mother-in-law, after all!)—that Fran wasn’t thinking about me personally when she said this.  The point wasn’t that “I” would spoil things.  At least I hope not!  But it was to be a quick short-cut reminder that perfection is an illusion.  That things may “look” perfect, from a certain distance, but that whenever you get close enough to be able to see them with greater clarity, the illusion of perfection is quickly dispelled.  Especially when people are involved.  And churches turn out most of the time anyway to have people in them.  The thing about people is that they are, that we are all of us, inevitably problematic.  A friend of ours in Auburn, California, used to have a little plaque on the desk in her study that said, “Be kind: Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”  Always a good reminder.   We may sometimes tend to think that we are God’s gift to humanity.  But God has offered only the one gift, and we aren’t him.  Hard as that sometimes is to believe. 

Of course, a lot of people become pretty skilled in pulling themselves together at least on the outside.  Putting up a “good front.”  But no matter how cool, calm, collected they may appear, just scratch the surface.  We looked at Job last Sunday morning as he sat on the ash heap picking at his sores and mourning the loss of the people and the life that he had loved.  Fifteen minutes before that moment and he was at the top of the world!  To be reminded that that’s all of us.  It doesn’t always happen in one sudden cataclysm, as it did for Job.  But sooner or later everything that happened to Job happens to every one of us.  As the echo of the Funeral Sentences in the Burial Office: We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out.  So with churches, Fran was saying.  If you see one that looks like everything is all smooth sailing, don’t look too closely.  If you do, storm clouds and rough seas will reveal themselves before you know it.  So with any of our lives, of course.  Our families, our work, our relationships. 

So what I think Fran was telling me—or at least what I’ve drawn from the memory of her little joke over the past 30+ years—is that it’s with this real broken and messed-up world, with these real broken and messed-up people,  that Jesus chooses to live.  That it is this real broken and messed-up church that he has come to redeem and bless and save.  And if it’s good enough for him, it can be good enough for us too.  “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”  A bunch of messed-up people.  Which is to say, a bunch of people . . . .

So Mark 10, and even after all they’ve been through the disciples are still struggling with this.  Just a few steps earlier in the journey Jesus took young children up in his arms to say, “Truly I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”  Kids with strawberry jelly smeared over their t-shirts.  With dirty diapers.  What sometimes is called the “great reversal,” especially emphasized in St. Mark’s gospel: “the last shall be first, and the first last.”  So much of what the world values most, and a set of priorities that gets turned upside-down.  Just a few steps earlier in the journey Jesus had told the rich young man who wanted to know about his relationship to God, “you lack one thing.”  And the way to obtain that one thing that he lacks turns out to be not to get something more, but to let things go.  “Sell what you have, give it all away, and then come follow me.” 

That the renewal of our relationship with God, our restoration –flowing not from our strength, but from our weakness.   Which is not the way it usually works in the world we live in!  That word from God to Job out of the whirlwind, like the song from the Prophet Isaiah.  My ways are not your ways, saith the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts.  As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.”  What St. Paul talks about when he talks about what he calls the “thorn” in his flesh, this debilitating condition—praying that God would heal him, so that he could grow in his ministry in strength and power.  God says, Paul, “my strength is made perfect in your weakness.”    Second Corinthians 12.  One of the most important passages in all of St. Paul—who then goes on to say to the Corinthians, “you go ahead and boast about your strength, your success, your accomplishments.  I will boast of my weakness.  Because it is in that weakness, that brokenness, that I am nearest to Jesus and his death on the Cross.  And because being near him, being near Jesus, is the only kind of success that I’m really interested in.

So the second story that I associate with my mother-in-law.  Harald and Fran had come down from their home in Scituate, Massachusetts, to visit us when I was Curate of St. Andrew’s in State College—so this must have been maybe 1986 or 1987, I’m guessing.  In any event, it was in the press of things at the end, after the postlude, as the rector—my old friend and mentor the late Jim Trost—and I were shaking hands with folks at the back of the center aisle.  Harald and Fran came down, probably with Susy and maybe with the kids, I don’t really remember.  I introduced them to him, and Fran said very nicely, “it’s wonderful to meet you.  You have a beautiful church.”  And Jim smiled, looked up and around for a moment, laughed, and said “Yes, they are.”  Yes they are.  Fran told that story numerous times over the years.  It really impressed her and delighted her, I think.   Jim had been rector of that parish for almost 25 years at that point, and he knew most all of the stories, the hard battles.  The stylish young couple whose first child had died shortly after birth, and whose marriage at that point was hanging by a thread.  The composed, well-dressed older woman in the back pew who was three weeks back from her second stay at rehab.  The businessman in the power suit whose oldest son had just flunked out of college and come home suffering from deep depression.  He knew all the stories, Jim did.  “You have a beautiful church.”  “Yes, they are.” 

What we would say to each other. As we’re on our way to communion this morning.  We can send the message telepathically.  Just think it in a concentrated way.  Or maybe we can even say it in a quiet voice over a cup of coffee.  An encouraging hand on a shoulder.  Welcome to the church.   If you’re broken somewhere.  Sometimes it’s on the surface and shows up right away.  Sometimes we seem to travel in deep disguise.  It’s exactly the opposite of “I’m o.k., You’re O.K.,” the title of the best-selling book back in the 1960’s.  It’s, “I’m not o.k.  You’re not O.K.”  And the hard process that we all need to be about together of getting to be o.k. with that.  The work of the Church.

In any event, in absolutely the most important ways it’s not about stained glass windows and the majestic architecture of high-lifted ceilings and vaulted arches, impressive programs, popular activities.  We do know that for sure.  His eyes aren’t on the architecture.   A good thing for us to remind ourselves of.   “A beautiful church you have here, Jesus.”  “Yes, they are.”  That’s what he says this morning, looking at us.  “Yes, they are!”  Because that’s what Jesus is all about, as we hear the story in the tenth chapter of Mark—to take the beauty of his broken church, which is this broken church, you and me, and to sweep it up into his embrace as he was raised up in pain and sorrow and brokenness on the cross.  A church so beautiful that he would die for it.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Nineteenth after Pentecost: The Wisdom of Job

Job 23 (Proper 23B) 

In this part of our lectionary cycle of Scripture to be read in Sunday services our Old Testament readings for a while have been from that part of the Old Testament sometimes called books of “Wisdom.”  We’ve had readings from Proverbs and Esther—and last week we began what will be several weeks in the Book of Job, then to be followed by Ruth.   Although these all fall under the umbrella of “Wisdom” books, they are obviously quite different.  Esther and Ruth tell the stories of people who were part of the historical memory and imagination and identity of the Jewish people.  Proverbs is an anthology of maxims and other sayings reflecting the values of character and patterns of conduct that emerge in a life that reflects the faith of God’s people.  Which approaches the definition of Biblical “Wisdom.”  Not simply intelligence or learning, though those are sometimes aspects of Wisdom. Not simply common sense or the kind of mature perspective that comes through age and experience.  Though again, these can be a part of the bigger picture.  Biblical Wisdom is about the complete transformation of life, mind, body, spirit, that is accomplished through faith. 

In what is sometimes called the Wisdom Book of the New Testament, the Epistle of James, James in the first chapter talks about the power of the “implanted word.”  Using a natural image.   God’s Word and Presence is “planted” in the heart and soul of the person through faith, and then growing within, absorbing and transforming what was there before, until the whole person is now an expression of that Word, the Divine Presence and character.  Thoughts and actions, as we pray, that we would show forth “not only with our lips but in our lives.” 

And so this morning, Job.  There is a little bit of a story, as we heard introduced in the Old Testament reading last Sunday.  Dan had a few words to say about it in his sermon.  In form the book is a kind of extended parable, or perhaps what we might call a “thought experiment.”  The setting is somewhat similar to the Books of Esther or Daniel, as we are told that Job lives in the “Land of Uz.”  Not the “Land of Oz,” of course, but historically this is an obscure reference.  The author of the book might be saying, “long ago and far away.”  Some early interpreters located Uz in the region beyond the Euphrates, roughly in the sphere of ancient Babylon, modern day Iraq.  Others thought that Uz was more to the south—perhaps modern day Jordan or even Saudi Arabia.  A distant place, anyway.  Like Joseph in Egypt at the end of Genesis, like Esther in Persia and Daniel in Babylon, Job is in foreign territory, without King and Temple.  A man who like all exiles will need to learn to look within for a clarity about his true identity, for the strength to remain faithful.

 The set-up we remember from Chapter 1, last Sunday, that Job is a successful and religiously observant Jewish rancher, exceptionally prosperous and with a large family.  There is this dialogue in heaven between God and Satan, initiated by Satan, about whether Job’s faith is really all that deep, or whether it depends on sunny skies and fair winds.  Satan’s implication is that the loyalty of God’s people isn’t deep and genuine, but that it is superficial.  That under stress it will disappear.  Satan issues a challenge, really a bet, and God agrees to let Job’s faith be tested.  Satan then unleashes a series of devastating events to upset the tranquility of Job’s life.  They fall one after another.  His flocks and fields are ruined, his children carried off in death, his physical health is challenged and destroyed.  Job is left sitting on an ash heap scratching his sores in abject misery.  His life is in ruins. 

And this is the opening, the setting, for the largest part of the book, which is a series of exchanges between Job in his abject state and three friends, who turn up on the scene and seek to comfort him by offering their opinions about why this has happened and what he should do about it. (Not a very helpful pastoral strategy, I’ve found, but it makes for interesting reading here.)  And in the midst of it all we hear Job’s continuing dialogue in prayer with God.  All just fascinating.

It is, we might say, a sophisticated literary version of Rabbi Kushner’s 1978 best seller, which perhaps many of us have read, “Why Bad Things Happen to Good People.”  We follow Job through these exchanges with his “friends” and with God in an existential journey about suffering and loss, about where meaning and value and purpose come from—which is a journey perhaps we have all taken on our own a time or two. 

Job’s friends make several fairly sophisticated arguments, but basically it boils down to the offering of two perspectives.  One is the perspective of what we might call Karma, that there is in the universe a pattern of moral symmetry.  What goes around comes around.  Sooner or later, people get what they deserve.  And so, Job, if things aren’t going well, examine your life.  See where you have sinned.  Confess your sin, amend your life, and then things will certainly get better. Good things happen to good people; bad things happen to bad people.  If you think you’re a good person, and bad things are happening—well, you just don’t know yourself as well as you think you do.

The other perspective is that the universe is simply morally incoherent.  Good things, bad things—they all just happen for no reason, God is either an illusion, a figment of the imagination—or  some kind of horrible monster,  a sadist.  It’s all just random, and there’s nothing you can do about it.   Curse God and die, they tell him.  Life is meaningless.

Not to give away the whole story, of course, as we have these readings for a few more weeks, but let’s say that Job ultimately rejects both of these perspectives—sees them as oversimplifications, and dangerous oversimplifications,  of deeper truths about the relationship between God and his creation and about the nature of humanity.

Chapter 23 this morning gives us one glimpse of Job’s process.  He begins in verses 1-7 by resisting the idea that he is somehow being punished for some crime or failure.  He pictures a courthouse scene where he could make an effective defense of his innocence.  “I would lay out my case before him and fill my mouth with arguments.”   You are simply wrong in saying that all this has happened because I deserve it.

But then in the second half of the chapter, verses 8-17, he faces the hard reality that no such opportunity exists.  There is no courtroom.   Job has his defense worked out in detail, proving his innocence beyond question, but the judge is absent.  There is no one to listen. The argument disappears into the air. 

Yet Job refuses to confuse God’s absence with God’s non-existence or his powerlessness or his malevolence.  “He is unchangeable and who can turn him?  What he desire, that he does.  For he will complete what he appoints for me; and many such things are in his mind.”   For Job this is terrifying, that he is unable to defend himself, that God’s power and purpose are beyond our comprehension.  But even so, even terrified, he does not give up his trust, his faith in God.  Even in the darkness and the silence that comes when his prayer seems to disappear into the wind.

We’re going to move along with Job over the next few weeks in our readings, as Job’s drama is drawn out in greater and greater detail.  The book seems very modern to us, I think.  Like listening to a round table conversation including Jean Paul Sartre and Soren Kierkegaard and Karl Marx and Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchins.  Philosophers, humanists, moralists, scientific materialists.  Each of them doing their best to talk Job out of his faith, to push him off course.  As perhaps many of us feel challenged as well as the arguments of the friends are repeated again and again. 

We all have these debates rolling around inside.  Recalling how the diaries of Mother Teresa of Calcutta have revealed her own dark night of the soul, her own doubts and fears.  Very tender to read these.  How she struggled daily to see the face of Jesus reflected in the lives of the poorest of the poor as they lay dying in the streets.  Knowing that face was there, and would reveal itself to her.  Yet in sleepless nights, wondering, as she was so often left with a feeling of emptiness and absence.  How Pope John XXIII spoke about praying his way through a time of darkness and a sense of the disappearance of God that lasted not years but decades.  Again, a daily struggle.  Hard for a person of faith in any era not to hold the Book of Job up and find that he or she is looking into a mirror and seeing a reflection of our own turbulence.

And hard not to be inspired, reading our way through this very difficult book—and it is a book of scripture that I would encourage every Christian to read slowly and carefully, and not just once, but to re-read, perhaps at different times and seasons of our lives, in youth and middle age and old age.  In times when the going seems good, and when the storm winds blow and nobody seems to be listening when we try to say our prayers.  Again, not an easy book, but one that doesn’t pull any punches, doesn’t pretend that the questions aren’t out there, and in here, in our hearts and minds.  Read the Archibald MacLeish poem “J.B.”  A contemporary poetic meditation on the story.  There’s a very interesting though somewhat obscure modern Coen Brothers’ film, “Joe,” starring Will Smith, that takes an angle on the story.  In Genesis there is the story of Jacob wrestling with God through the night by the River Jabbok, and perhaps that is an image to hold in our minds.  Job says, “the Almighty has terrified me.”  The Almighty has terrified me--and perhaps to say that if we can’t say that too, if we don’t know what that is like, maybe we haven’t been paying attention.  The transformation of faith, the implanted Word shaping a life of Wisdom.

Thinking about Job’s spiritual odyssey reminds me of a saying by the 20th century theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, who talked about a kind of popular, superficial view of Christianity, an easy Christianity—and so in the end a false Christianity, which fails to take the full story into account.  “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”  It is ultimately and in the deepest way the purpose of every word and book of the Bible to lead us to Christ and his Cross as the unique gateway to a life in God here and in the world to come.  And so also for Job: darkness and suffering, painful loss, existential silence, confronting the realities of sin, death, and judgment.  And yet as we hear this story unfold over the next couple of weeks we would remember that it is in Job, of all places, Job, Chapter 19, that we draw that affirmation that lives in our long Anglican prayer book tradition in the Burial Office and so triumphantly in Georg Frederick Handel’s Messiah the theme song of Easter, which is the end of the old story and the beginning of the new: “for I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth; and though this body be destroyed, yet shall I see God: whom I shall see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not as a stranger.”

We wouldn’t wish Job’s sufferings on anyone.  But we know with honesty that we can’t imagine any of our lives that have not shared at least in some of them.  What we would pray for is Job’s Wisdom.  That the love of God and the Word of God would be so firmly planted in our hearts and our lives, that we would be securely anchored in him, and show in our lives his faithfulness.

Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God.