Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 3, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Job 1:1; 2:1-10+Psalm 26+(Hebrews 1:1-4, 1:5-12)+Mark 10:2-16

One of the things they teach you in preaching class in divinity school is that you shouldn’t draw attention to the process or how you go about putting a sermon together. Usually, I think it’s pretty sound advice. I mean, who cares, really?

But today, I just need to say that it’s a pretty tough morning to be a preacher. I either get to talk about how Jesus really hates divorce – having been married before to someone else and married to someone who has also been married before. Or I get to try to explain how God and Satan placed a wager on a good man, Job, to see if he would curse God even if Satan caused all of his family to die and his wealth to disappear and drove him to sit on an ash heap scraping the oozing sores that covered his body. Oh yeah, this is a great day to be a preacher.

Well, actually, it is, because these are the holy scriptures that are that source of our understanding of our faith. We call them the Word of God, and there are parts that are really difficult. But we ignore them at our peril. What are we to do with these? How do we wrestle a blessing from them?

The arc of the Hebrew scriptures, our Old Testament, hinges on the exile of the people in Babylon in the 6th century BCE. The suffering and longing for home prompted the actual writing down of many of the stories that are the history of the Jewish people. Slavery in Egypt, wandering in the desert, the succession of judges and kings, invasion, exile, return, occupation – it is a pattern of upheaval and suffering at the hands of oppressors. Why us, God? Why us if we are the chosen people?

There was a belief that a succession of wicked kings who had done “what was evil in the sight of the Lord” had brought the disastrous exile upon them. The kings created gods of their own choosing, and the belief was that the one, true God had inflicted disaster on the people by allowing Nebuchadnezzar to sack Jerusalem and exile her inhabitants.

This idea that suffering or sick people must have done something wrong and were being punished by God is a common theme in our scriptures. It is certainly present in the book of Job as friend after friend tries to persuade Job to admit some guilt, some failing that has brought disaster on him and his family. But Job refuses to admit wrong on his part, continually affirming his uprightness and faith in God. But Job doesn’t know what we know – that God and Satan had a bet going which resulted in his afflictions.

All of this falls under a big theological rubric known as theodicy, the question of why bad things happen to good people; of how a good and loving God can permit the pain and suffering we see in this world. The disastrous decades-long exile in Babylon could not have been the result of some random event, could it? There had to be some cause, and that must have been the disobedience of the people who followed disobedient kings. It may never have occurred to these writers that Israel and Judah had the misfortune of being situated right in the middle of the road to empire, whether it was Assyria or Babylon or Egypt, just as today it’s Syria, Iraq, and Egypt. They believed that God, not geography, must be the cause.

Similarly, Job’s friends cannot fathom that such terrible things could befall a righteous man, he must have done something to bring on God’s punishment. Even that portion that we read this morning about the conversation between Satan and God is a way of wrestling with theodicy. How could God allow this to happen?

It’s a question many of us might be asking today, as well. Why do the people of Haiti have to endure disaster after disaster? How can God allow children to starve in the Tigray region of Ethiopia? Why do people who have done everything “right” still get sick and die from COVID?

What did any of these people do to deserve this? Yes, we can point to the pain and brokenness in our world that leads to war; years of oppression of people and degradation of the environment; human sinfulness. But time after time, it isn’t the responsible actors who bear the brunt of the damage. Children? Grandparents? The poorest of the poor?

In his teaching on divorce, Jesus is actually teaching on this very thing, recognizing that women were the ones who suffered in a divorce, losing safety, security, and their very identity. He blessed the children because the children in 1st century Palestine had no real status. Most importantly, Jesus, who has been trying to get the disciples to understand that they have to stick together, that the road ahead of them to Jerusalem will be dangerous, this Jesus is about keeping people in relationship with God and with one another. Jesus’s teaching on divorce is not just to protect vulnerable women but to proclaim God’s deepest desire for us live in loving relationship with each other. So, the coup de grâce to their old way of thinking and behaving is his taking a child into the midst of all of them and saying that if you’re looking for God, it is in these little ones, the ones of no account who have no one else to turn to but God. That’s your model.

We will never be able to fully answer the theodicy question of why God allows such bad things to happen, as if it really has anything to do with God giving permission. The one thing that we can be sure of is that whether we bring tragedy onto ourselves by our neglect, hatred, violence, and misuse of God’s good gifts to us, or if bad things happen for some unknown reason, God promises to be with us in them. The world did its worst to the Son of God who died on the cross, so no pain and no loss is beyond God’s reach. The writer Frederick Buechner sums it up this way:

Christianity…ultimately offers no theoretical solution at all. It merely points to the cross and says that, practically speaking, there is no evil so dark and so obscene – not even this – but that God can turn it to good.[1]

So, what are we to do? We are to be with those who suffer. To feed the hungry and house the poor, to give drink to the thirsty and companionship to the prisoner. We can pray for an end to war and gun violence, but we also must act, in whatever way we are able, to make them end, advocating for robust diplomacy instead of armed conflict, for humanitarian causes across the globe, for programs that alleviate poverty and the ills that go with it.

And we would do well to pray the words attributed to the saint whose commemoration is tomorrow, Francis of Assisi.

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. Where there is
hatred, let us sow love; where there is injury, pardon; where
there is discord, union; where there is doubt, faith; where
there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where
there is sadness, joy. Grant that we may not so much seek to
be consoled as to console; to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; it is
in pardoning that we are pardoned; and it is in dying that we
are born to eternal life. Amen.[2]

[1] Buechner, Frederick. Wishful Thinking: a Theological ABC (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1973) 24.

[2] p. 833

ASEPSermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, October 3, 2021 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas