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With Friends Like These...


Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
February 25, 2018

Last week we reflected on the first two chapters of the Book of Job. We saw him lose everything he owned as well as his sons and daughters and finally his health. His wife turned against him as she too was suffering so much loss. She cried out in her own anguish, "Why don't you curse God and die?" But at least he had his friends...

Now we hear Job cry out in the midst of his pain. He does not curse God; he curses his own life! He wishes he had never been born. He admits that all he has ever feared has now happened to him and he wants to know why.

His friends think they have the answer.
Maybe they would have been more patient with him if he had continued to suffer in silence, but when he speaks his heart they feel compelled to answer him with all their judgments and assumptions about why this must be happening to him.

When someone is suffering as deeply and totally as Job, it is never time to answer the question of why, even if they ask! And no one can truly answer this question for someone else! The meaning of life's terrors and traumas can never be answered by an outsider looking in. We must walk a mile or a lifetime in the other person's shoes (or as   Atticus tells Scout, from 'To Kill a Mockingbird,' inside their skin) if we want to truly understand them.
         "If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you'll get along a lot better with all          kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider        things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk     around in it." ~ Atticus Finch in 'To Kill a Mockingbird' (1962)

In the first two chapters of Job, he loses nearly everything but at least he had his friends. Now he has lost them as well. There is an anguish to his loneliness that is hard to imagine. Most of us feel deep connections with some people in our lives.
For some of us this community of faith has proved capable of wrapping us in safety during the hardest of times. But there is a truth to this loneliness that may be hard to admit. At the core of each of us is a solitary Spirit that only God can know. Just as Jesus had to walk to his death on Calvary without the support of his beloved disciples, so we will all ultimately face the solitude of our own passing. But Job declares from the very core of his being a truth that sustains him: "I know that my redeemer lives!" His faith is powerful and deep!

Job's emotional outburst at the beginning of today's reading goes on for a full chapter. (We only heard a brief part of it.) We live in a culture that encourages us to keep a stiff upper lip in the face of calamity. Nobody wants to hear us wail. There is very little room for lament in our world. But the Bible has an entire book dedicated to Lamentations. Job's anguish is a true lament. More than simply grieving, he cries out to God. He demands answers.

We see such anguish in the faces and words of people on television whose children have been lost to gun violence or in the midst of war zones and we turn the channel and look away. It is too painful, uncomfortable
Job's anguished honesty reveals a faith that may not be familiar to us. But if you can't imagine turning to God with all your rage and pain, if your God isn't big enough for you to pound on God's chest and scream your pain, then your God may be too small, too tepid, to believe in when life is hard, when you need God most.
You need a bigger God!

We need a God who walks with us through the darkest times in our lives, a God who does not judge and condemn us when we cry out like the Psalmist, and Jesus on the cross, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" We need a God who is not merely a teacher or a puppet master, but a rock of compassion and caring presence. This is the God Job believes in even as he faces the injustice of his experience.

Job's friends have an intellectual understanding of who God is, but they don't know God. They haven't experienced God. They claim God is a god of justice and compassion. They believe that if bad things happen they must be a punishment from a just God. Theirs is a fear-based religion, the kind that sadly, continues to dominate too much of our world's faiths, whether Muslim, Jew, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist.

I saw a video on Facebook this week in which a fundamentalist Christian teacher assured us that there were two terrible lies in the world: First, that human beings are "good," and second, that a loving God will not punish us for all eternity if we don't believe in Jesus! He was so sure! He would make a great friend of Job's!

Jesus challenged us not to judge others, for by the measure that we judge, so shall we be judged. He also said, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled." Job has hungered his whole life for righteousness. Now he is alone and everything he had taken for granted has been taken from him, but not his abiding faith that God will vindicate him: "I know that my redeemer lives!"

Many of us don't know what we believe, or if we believe anything, about God.
We may not resonate with Job's assurance that his redeemer lives. We may feel an anguish and loneliness when times are hard because we do not know that the Spirit of a loving God truly is present in and with us. There is a humility in this lack of confidence that I believe God honors and understands. We don't need the confidence of Job's friends as to who God is. We need Job's willingness, however, to be absolutely honest in our suffering. It is when we can declare our weakness and need, and dare to ask for help, that miracles of healing and transformation become possible. Like Job's friends, however, many of us have not dared to throw our whole selves into the loving protective arms of God. We keep busy with too much work or too much entertainment, too many distractions in our lives, in hopes that we won't need to think about the reality that our loved ones will suffer and die, and we will suffer and die.

Job's story makes us uncomfortable, but we serve a teacher who walked through Job's suffering and asked us to take up our own cross and follow him. This is an uncomfortable truth. Walking with Job through the darkness is necessary if we are to experience the transformative power of God's redeeming grace. This is the Lenten journey we are invited to take together. May we face our deepest need for courage and compassion towards ourselves and others. May we walk with others who suffer without trying to explain their pain away or fix it. May we discover, with Job, our capacity for faith. We are not alone. God's love will carry us through.
May we know this is true. Amen!