October 14, 2018

Proper 23

Job 23:1-9; Psalm 22:1-15; Hebrews 4: 12-16; Mark 10: 17-31

The Rev. James M.L. Grace


In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  AMEN.

St. Andrew’s begins its annual stewardship campaign today, a campaign to raise awareness of the financial needs of this growing congregation.  But this will not be a stewardship sermon.   I would rather use my time in this pulpit today to speak on something else entirely - and that is this rather peculiar reading we have from the book of Job this morning.

A quick recap of Job’s story: Job was a faithful man, obedient to God, but has now entered a season of tremendous difficulty and suffering. He has lost all of his material possessions, he has lost his children, he has lost his health.  

As a result of losing all these things, Job’s faith in God is naturally tested.  We hear Job say things like “my complaint is bitter . . . God has made my heart faint; the almighty has terrified me; if only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness cover my face!”

I remember some time ago I listening to a woman who once, like Job, wished that she could vanish into darkness, and have thick darkness cover her face.

To make a long story very short, this woman’s life had gradually entered into a deep and lasting depression that resulted in chemical dependency and a bottoming out experience for her where she found herself in a hotel room in another city and state, by herself.  Like Job, so consumed by the darkness clouding in her own mind, that this woman pulled out her phone and typed the phrase “how do I successfully hang myself in a hotel closet?” into her internet browser.

Her question returned a list of sites that answered her inquiry. Thank God she did not act on her impulse, and today she is alive and through help, has learned to call God her friend.

The existential pain touched upon by a book like Job recalls the same pain that dwells within each of us. We all have it, and all of us are pretty good hiding it behind a smile. We’ve all  had the experience where we might be so emotionally torn up inside - we’re upset, life isn’t working out the way we had hoped, we’re in pain, we’re hurting . Somebody enters our space and says “How are you doing?” And we mask all that inner turmoil with a smile and say “oh I’m fine.” Clergy, like me, we are really good at doing this!

I think grief is such a hard emotion for us because we just don’t know what to do with it. We can’t easily fix it.  Sometimes there are no obvious solutions. 

This past week I was in Washington, DC, for work, and as I was thinking a lot about this passage from Job, I was thinking about Job’s grief, and I wanted to go to a place where I could sit with that and feel it on an emotional level.  Not think about grief from an intellectual perspective, but to feel it.  So I visited the United States Holocaust Museum, because I felt that museum in such a tangible way addresses the grief and lament expressed in today’s reading from Job. I went and soaked the exhibits in. As a father of a child with special needs I felt myself viscerally connected to grief as I learned about Operation T4, which legalized the euthanization of children with disabilities because they were considered too much of a drain financially upon the state.  I was struck at how powerless I was - there is nothing I could do to change what had happened.  I could not save those children’s lives.  I wanted, like Job, to disappear into a cloud of darkness.  As I made my way toward the museum’s exit, I met a volunteer at the museum, a woman, named Ruth.  Ruth is 88 years old.  As I teenager, she spent several years at Auschwitz and survived. She told her story to a group of people gathered around her.  Ruth smiled at young girl standing close by.

Watching this, I was then reminded of a prayer I pray daily, and a line within it which asks God for wisdom in order to learn to “accept hardship as a pathway to peace.” That experiences of hardship, of grief, and of pain, are the very pathway that leads to peace might not sound like good news to you. I know, I get it. But it’s true.  Somehow God works through our hardship, and God has a way of transforming that pain into peace.

Job’s story does not end in sorrow and loss, but in God’s embrace. God is faithful to Job, and restores what was once taken from him. It is the same with us. Our stories don’t end in pain or grief. Ultimately, our story is redeemed through Christ. Our hardship is transformed into peace, as God renews our bodies and our minds, if we allow God to do so.

If you are grieving right now, you will be okay, because you are not in charge of your grief - God is. And the God that grieves with you will restore you.

The woman whose life nearly ended in that hotel room – she is now a spiritual mentor to me – she is a beautiful, alive, vibrant, example of hardship and pain fashioned into peace. I thank God for her. I thank God for you.   AMEN.