The Rev. Canon Jan Naylor Cope
Transcribed from the audio.
In the name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
In 1981, an American Rabbi published a book that became an immediate bestseller. The books literally flew off the shelves. One might imagine that for a book to be so popular it had to have a compelling story. But it wasn’t a how-to book. It wasn’t a feel good about your faith book. Ironically, it was on the subject of suffering. The name of the book was When Bad Things Happen to Good People by Rabbi Harold Kushner. Why was it so popular? I would posit the view that it’s because each one of us struggle with the issues of suffering, and particularly innocent suffering. Who among us has not had a chapter in our lives where we felt a bit like Job? Rabbi Kushner wrote the book as a very personal experience and exploration, as a man of faith, a man of the cloth, whose son, at the age of three, was diagnosed with a degenerative disease that resulted in his death at the age of 14. So he set about trying to wrestle in this book with the issue of suffering. He used Job as part of that framework.
This morning I would like to explore with you, for a few minutes, some important points from the book of Job because we all have that experience from time to time of suffering—if not our own, someone we love, a friend, a neighbor, our society. We don’t have to look very far to see innocent suffering in our world, whether it’s the senseless slaughter of students in Oregon, the ravaging floods in the southeastern part of our country, the fires on the West Coast, the fleeing of the migrants and the refugees from war-torn countries seeking refuge and asylum in central Europe. It seems that suffering is a part of our lives.
The book of Job is written in the wisdom tradition and the understanding in that tradition was, simply put, that the righteous prosper and the wicked perish. In other words, good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. Listen to the way the book of Job begins. It’s almost like a folktale, a little bit like once upon a time there was a man named Job from the land of Uz. Now, that’s done, I think, purposefully so that we identify Job as a universal image of innocent suffering. Biblical scholars will tell you that the notion of the righteous sufferer goes back thousands of years—3000 years before Christ. And so I think the way in which the book is written invites us into that story.
When in our lives have we been Job? What most people know about the book of Job actually happens in the first two chapters. We hear from God that Job is upright and righteous and blameless, a good man. And, yet, these catastrophic things befall him. His livelihood is destroyed. His 10 children die. He is covered from the crown of his head to the soles of his feet with oozing, gaping sores. Something is terribly, terribly wrong because he should be prospering because he’s a good man. Now what most people know about the book of Job is that, if I were to ask you what cliché or moniker is most associated with Job? I suspect most of us would say, in identifying someone, well he has the patience of Job. Right? Well, that stopped in the second chapter.
In the remaining 40 chapters of the book of Job he’s anything but patient. He cries out in anguish and anger, demanding that God answer his questions. Show your face, God. Explain this to me. Because, you see, he knew he was a good man. So why are these things happening to him? Don’t all of us at those times in our lives want to cry out “Why? Why me? Why that?” What I think the book of Job opens up for us is to get past the notion that when bad things happen to us, we have this model of someone who says nothing and is patient and sits there and essentially takes it. It can be so damaging. So many people have come to me at difficult times in their lives and they feel guilty because they can’t hold themselves up to that model. So, if I accomplish nothing else this morning, Job wasn’t patient. Okay? And when those things happen in our lives, it’s normal, it’s natural, to cry out in our pain and in our anguish.
Point 2, an incredibly important pastoral lesson from the book of Job. When Job’s three friends hear what’s happened to him they go to be with him. They can see him from a distance, but they don’t recognize him. His grieving and his pain are so great that they weep. They tear their clothes. They throw ashes in the air and ashes on their heads, ritually grieving with Job in his pain and in his circumstance. And then they go to be with him. They sit with him, silently, for seven days, just sitting with him, being present with him in his pain. That, my brothers and sisters, is a way that we give flesh to God by being present with those we love in the challenging times in our lives. That was their most pastoral response. Unfortunately, they go on to open their mouths and then it goes downhill. They start arguing with Job that he must’ve done something wrong, he must have sinned because they come out of the wisdom tradition.
God invites us into those painful places. So where do we see God? Where do we experience God in the hard times, in the challenging times in our lives, in those who reach out to us and who will be present to us in that pain? People are so afraid sometimes to be with someone because they don’t know what to say. Well, there are no satisfactory words for those situations. Your mere presence, holding someone’s hand, telling them that you love them, and they are not alone. It’s God’s presence and support in those painful and trying times. The people who are reaching out to the victims in Oregon, the people in Hungary who, as refugees and migrants are flowing through, are handing out clothing and food and drink. That is the embodiment of God in Christ, present and available to us in the difficult and painful times.
In this book, Rabbi Kushner says that he does not believe in a God who causes problems and brings them about. That his God is one who gives us the strength to cope with the problems that we face. William Sloane Coffin put it this way that, “God provides minimum protection, maximum support.” Pope Francis writes about suffering, “In the moment of hardship, we ask why some things happen. In those moments of suffering, questioning prayers that do not ask for explanations but beg our Lord to accompany us are the most useful.”
Jesus promised that he would never leave us or forsake us; that he would be with us yesterday, today, and forever; that in those challenging times in our lives we are never alone. And the great good news in that is that it’s not my promise, it’s God’s promise. And that is eternal. Amen.
Pope Francis quote: “In the moment of hardship, we ask why some things happen. In those moments of suffering, questioning prayers that do not ask for explanations but beg our Lord to accompany us are the most useful.”