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  • Father George

Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost

Job 1:1; 2:1-10; Psalm 26; Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12; Mark 10:2-16

There was a movie, I can’t remember which, where a young boy has become an actor and is a bit of a prima donna. He is doing a commercial and is doing take after take where he has to eat cereal that he finds awful. Finally, after one take too many, he cries out, “Who am I, Job?!” Having the patience of Job, going through the trials of Job, etc. has become something of a cliché in the English language, almost a parody of its actual meaning: a symbol of extreme and seemingly unmerited suffering. And we are always circling back ‘round to suffering because Scripture, like life, is rife with it; we cannot get away from the reality of suffering. Suffering and its lack of meaning has brought many a believer to his or her knees and, kneeling there – in our suffering – we tend to find God wanting.

God does have a response to suffering, but it is not always the response we want or feel we need. God answers our suffering with a powerful love in the person of Jesus Christ, a love that healed, taught, and blessed in a way not seen before or since. But the real nature of God’s love for us, in the midst of suffering, is that God entered our plane our world and lives and, in the form of Christ, became the great pioneer, the one who blazed the trail of redemptive healing in such a way that threatens to love us back to life, even in spite of ourselves.

We will be in Job for the next four weeks, but today may be our only chance to explore the nature of suffering and where God fits into it all.

When we meet Job in chapter 2, he has already lost a lot. As God and Satan (the Accuser) meet to discuss the righteousness of God’s favorite Job, the man Job has already lost all 10 of his children in a terrible disaster: a house fell on and killed his three daughters and his seven sons, all wiped out in one fell swoop. Then, bandits and state actors from other areas swoop down on Job’s lands and take the real measure of the wealth of a man in the 5th or 6th century Near East: his animals and land. So, Job has lost all of his children and his possessions.

So, God and Satan seem to make a wager that, if Satan afflicts Job’s actual body, Job will curse God, which he has not yet done. God says I will take the bet and off Satan goes to afflict Job with sores all over his body. Satan’s only limit is that he cannot kill Job, even though death would probably be a relief. God seems to allow Job to suffer and stand by while he does suffer.

And Job is not patient. He blames God for afflicting him and he feels totally abandoned by God. So, the patience of Job doesn’t really apply but, he has a right; he has lost everything. And though God shows up in the end the only real answer seems to be that God is God and we have no right questioning God. But questions come, whether we want them to or not, and we wonder why a tsunami sweeps away lives, while buildings fall down on people; why people get cancer, many people dementia, etc. Then, there are the self (or human) – inflicted injuries that break our hearts, our relationships, our will. And God … is He idle?

One of the most compelling sermons I ever heard (actually read, not heard) was given by the late Rev. Dr. William Sloane Coffin in 1983. A week after his beloved son Alex was killed (when his car went off the road and into the water near Boston), The Rev. Coffin climbed into the pulpit at Riverside Church in NYC, where he was pastor, and preached about it. He was in deep, fresh grief, but felt strengthened by God’s response, even when we struggle to feel it, answer to suffering: Love. He reminded us that God and scripture gives us “minimum protection but maximum support.” God does not go around trying to find people to hurt, lives to ruin, or violence to foment. God loves us far too much to hurt us, so no suffering, I firmly believe, is “the will of God.” The will of God is that we know His love as we may, a love too deep for words and too mysterious to get our heads firmly around. God’s love is not promised release from every affliction but a promise of presence and love.

And The Rev. Dr. Coffin said that one of the most touching letters he received in the days immediately following his son’s death quoted Ernest Hemingway from Farewell to Arms. “The world breaks everyone, then some become strong at the broken places." And then he said, “My own broken heart is mending, and largely thanks to so many of you, my dear parishioners; for if in the last week I have relearned one lesson, it is that love not only begets love, it transmits strength.” We break, my brothers and sisters, in this world and we suffer and endure much grief but, in our broken places, if we are open to it, if we will allow, God’s love in Christ pours into our brokenness and heals us, spiritually and, if we are very fortunate (which we sometimes are not), physically, as well.

The true guiding light of God’s great love permeates and finds grace in even the darkest illness, grief, and suffering. But even more, the love of God in Christ, who took the child into His sacred arms, seeks to takes us all into His arms and love our spirits into wholeness. When we find the strength to be vulnerable, like a child, and to look for Christ, the great pioneer, as Hebrews calls Him, in all people and all of life, then the healing hope of God begins to mend our “broken places.” We cannot pretend to know the mind or means of God but we are called to understand that God so loved the world that He came into the world, blazing a trail of love as big as the Cross, as final as the Resurrection, as holy as the arms that took those little ones and held them.

So yes, we endure much beyond our control in this world, earthquakes and tsunamis, flooding and fire; cancer and COPD; MS and Lou Gehrig’s disease; diabetes, heart disease and stroke … And because we are subject to the slings and arrows of the natural world and the body, we must be doubly careful to not inflict more damage upon one another. Life is hard enough without us treating each other with cruelty, disregard, violence or, perhaps worse, apathy. As William Sloane Coffin writes, “love begets love.” Our ability to receive the love of Jesus, to know the healing love of God in Christ, makes sharing that love possible. Imagine that we saw the healing balm that alleviates suffering to be the ear that listens, the arms that hold, the light that shines in the darkness of another: that is love, too. Jesus’ healing love is so powerful, so present that – if we can experience it - it has to be shared. What will be our way of sharing a powerful love that heals what we are able to heal and leaves the rest, in prayer, to God?

{Yes, Jesus cried out on the Cross, as He felt alone and abandoned, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?!” But the story doesn’t end there. The darkness of our suffering nights is the stark reality, sometimes, of being people living in the world. But, even on the Cross, Jesus still said, “My God …” Let us hold onto the reality of God’s overpowering love, because it is not simply a feeling, it is an awareness] that comes from experiencing God’s love, seeking God’s love, and believing in the healing possibilities of that love.}

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