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Recent Sermons

The Righteousness of Youth

 

Rev. Kristi Denham
Congregational Church of Belmont
March 11, 2018

Job has listened to his three friends. He has denied their beliefs that he must have done something wrong to be so punished by God. The God of his understanding used to be like theirs. When he was comfortable it was easy to blame the victim for their sufferings. His was the world view of the fundamentalist, the absolutist -- God is just, therefore when bad things happen, God's justice must be happening too. But we, like Job, know that this is too easy an understanding of God's justice.
It may be easier to give up on God than to wrestle with the seeming contradiction and paradox, that make up the horrors of our world.

In this passage Job looks back on his life and remembers when everything was going well for him. Haven't we all at some time or another, but especially as we grow older, taken time to ponder the blessings of our past? When life felt blessed with abundance, many friends, family and children gathering around us, meaningful work and respect for it, opportunities to help others and the means to do so? I remember the first time someone called me 'Ma'am;' and when I noticed I was ignored as old in public places. The reality of aging in a youth focused culture is a challenge, for all of us.

Job is beginning to be direct and honest in challenging God: "I cry to You    and You do not answer..." He claims his integrity before God -- a courageous act. He is afraid of God, but not so afraid that he will not face God and demand answers. He is growing up in his courage and perhaps in his faith. And then he declares he is finished. He signs his name to his words. He is done!

And just when we are ready to be done with all this as well, there is one more speaker, one more so-called friend, who seems to come out of nowhere. Elihu, son of Barachel the Buzite, of the family of Ram, is the first and only Israelite name in the story. Elihu means "He is my God." Barachel means "God has blessed." Buz may have been one of the sons of Abraham's brother Nahor. The family of Ram connects him to David's ancestors. He may be a later addition to the story. He is not mentioned before this section, nor again afterward. Some think his words are just more of the same. Some think he declares a unique wisdom. Clearly, he is younger, more impetuous and very frustrated with Job and his friends. He declares with assurance that "God does not regard any who are wise in their own conceit."
He is pointing at Job and his three friends, but as always, we might notice three fingers pointing back at him.

Still, I love his outrage and courage in speaking up to his elders. We live in a culture that celebrates youth, but do we listen to them? Do we value them? Today, as we speak, young people around this nation are organizing a March for Our Lives to demand responsible gun laws to keep our children safe. They are tired of having to do "active shooter drills" in their schools. They are angry that adults with power have so far refused to act. On March 24, at noon, at Beresford Park, our local youth will hold a rally and then march to Cal Train and on to San Francisco for the Bay Area March for Our Lives. Our own Alyce Thornhill is one of the organizers. It is time. It is past time. Time's Up!

But back to Job. What has his suffering done to him, besides bringing him to the very bottom of his life, to despair, to grief, to a longing for the past? The God of his understanding before now was big, yes, but impersonal, a grand manipulator of righteousness and judgment. God was easy to believe in as Good because Job had it so Good. Now he is numbered among the outcasts, those born to poverty and disease, to poor education, to early death. In his time (as in our own), 80% of the worlds people lived below the poverty line; and poverty means dying young, without access to health care or          enough food to eat.

Job knows he did nothing to deserve this. Too often we believe the poor must deserve their circumstances. It resolves the "cognitive dissonance" of facing that bad things are happening to others that we don't want to think about.

Our small group of volunteers that goes to Juvenile Hall each month got to see a bit more of what these boys are dealing with this week. We visit a unit of boys ages 10 to 15 who are there for a month to a year before being released or moving on to more intense lock ups. Some go to Camp Glenwood near La Honda for six months to a year. Some go on the California Youth Authority prison which is a notoriously harsh place. Hillcrest Juvenile Hall is a beautiful facility on the outside. There is a recreation field and track. Each ward has an open area and a small court for outdoor play, but the guards are the same as in the old unit that was demolished a few years back. Boys share cells with locked doors and one small window, two to a cell. Some are allowed out to join us in the main room for Bible Study. Some are kept locked down while we are there.

This week one of the boys was resisting the guard's authority in some way we didn't notice; but suddenly all the boys who had just gathered to study with us were ordered back to their cells. We watched as they handcuffed the one boy and marched him out of the ward, and waited 20 minutes for the guards to finally return and allow the other boys to return to our group. Bible Study was cut so short that we decided to just talk and pray with the boys. I spent time with one child, maybe 11 or 12, but very young, who had only been there two weeks and expects to be there at least another three. He said he just keeps to himself, he is scared.
There have been a lot of fights.

The population is always almost entirely kids of color. Their families are poor.
Their questions about the Bible are mostly very literal. We tell them to try to make better choices in their futures. How can we say otherwise? But their frontal lobes are not fully developed. They have fewer of the comforts and protections we take for granted. These boys struggle without really knowing that they might deserve better than they are receiving in this broken justice system. It breaks my heart.

And I think Job's heart is being broken open by his personal experience of suffering. He can no longer take for granted that he knows God's love because of the abundance of God's blessings upon him. His understanding of who God is must get bigger than it has been. His God needs to grow into mystery beyond manipulator. That God in the sky is a very literal/materialistic understanding. He needs a God who is more intimate than that, one who will walk through suffering with him, be at his side and in his heart to give him strength and comfort in his darkest hour.

In Bible Study this week as we pondered Job's suffering and our own, we had as many responses as Job's friends (though none of us agreed with them). Some of us felt God's absence in our suffering, as Job seems to. Some of us have always wondered whether a personal God can even exist. And some of us could declare with Job, as he did last week: "I know that my Redeemer lives!"

My favorite Christian writer, Richard Rohr, put it this way in our Quiet Meditation today:
         "Many of the happiest and most peaceful people I know love “a crucified God” who walks with crucified people, and thus reveals and “redeems” their plight as his own. For them, Jesus is not observing human suffering    from a distance; he is somehow in human suffering with us and for us. He includes our suffering in the co-redemption of the world... Could it be true  that we “make up in our own bodies all that still has to be undergone for the          sake of the Whole Body” (Col 1:24)? Are we somehow partners with the Divine? At our best, we surely are."
As Christians, we are walking these days of Lent in preparation for the transformation we call resurrection at Easter. We are learning to walk with Jesus through life's challenges. We are facing our humanity, our easy assumptions, our temptations. Job is learning to be totally honest with himself and with God. He is acknowledging all that he has lost and all that he knows from the depth of his being. The Gospel According to Thomas, written during the first Century by some of the earliest followers of Jesus, declares this promise:
         "If you bring forth what is inside you,
         what you bring forth will save you."
In his depth of honesty and in his suffering, Job is finding out who he really is and claiming his truth. This is the real work of being human. If life is a classroom, Job is in graduate school, and so are we. May we grow into all that God has created us to be. Amen.