Monday, January 1, 2018

What can we say September 23? 18th after Pentecost

   This superwoman, the uber-mom described in Proverbs 31 could evoke some sort of sermon – although I wonder if it’s a reading that inflicts some pain on the wife who never gets praised, the one abandoned, the one abused, or the mother whose children never rise up in gratitude. It’s in the Bible, so God wants us to read it. I for one will forego the challenge and preach either on a combination of the Psalter and the Epistle, or just the Gospel.

  Psalm 1. The editors of the Psalter positioned this non-prayer at the head of all the prayers as a signal to show us the sort of life that prayer and worship cultivate in us, and then the sort of life required for the prayer and worship to be fruitful. Translations lunge for “happy” instead of “blessed,” but “happy” is just too tinged with American pursuits and the trivialities of feelings to work well. 
It’s “blessed,” not like the absurd blessings imagined in Bruce Wilkinson’s atrocious Prayer of Jabez (God’s got a warehouse of blessings in boxes for you, you just have to back up your station wagon and pick them up…). It’s a life of peace, contentment, goodness, and hope.

   The company you keep matters. Church ought to be the village for raising our children, and for becoming wise, good people – but too often we become a self-righteous, gossipy enclave eluding the realities of the world and growing knottier and more inward instead of holier and more outward-looking. My repeated phrase lately is “If you only hang around with people like you, you become ignorant and arrogant.” At the same time, keeping the company of those striving for wisdom, goodness, holiness and a boundless passion to save the world? This will save your own soul.

  The Psalmist speaks of meditating on God’s law “day and night.” The very zealous Jews at Qumran kept someone up 24 hours a day meditating on Torah to fulfill this. For us? We can have Scripture on our minds at least a lot of the day – perhaps echoing what Dorothy Day said late in her life: “I tried to remember this life that the Lord gave me – and I just sat there and thought of our Lord, and his visit to us all those centuries ago, and I said to myself that my great luck was to have had him on my mind for so long in my life.”

    The image of the tree planted by water is unforgettable, simple, profound. The tree thrives not because of what we see above ground, but what is transpiring unseen, underground. Such a person “prospers” - which we mis-hear in our capitalist, upwardly mobile society. Again, in a subsistence level economy, it’s about living, at peace, having enough, being part of a community and contributing to it, and receiving from it.

     James 3:13-4:8a (skipping 4:4-6!), our Epistle reading, links beautifully to Psalm 1. How fascinating to contemplate the likelihood that this James is Jesus’ brother – and that he probably heard Jesus’ teachings, such as the Beatitudes (Matthew 5:1-12), which are clearly echoed here! Did he, as he became familiar with Paul in the early years of the church, ponder Paul’s thoughts on the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), which also are echoed here! Fruit is being yielded. The Beatitudes, and the Fruit of the Spirit aren’t commandments (like Go be merciful! Go be patient!) – but beautiful portrayals of what a life well-rooted in Christ and the Spirit is like.

     Mercy, peaceableness, gentleness, wisdom, all so very counter-cultural, needing reiteration from the preacher, and tangible portrayals, as we get overstuffed with what James bemoans: ambition, disorder, wickedness, selfishness. Think of anyone you know, and maybe that they know, who fulfills in some measure James’s list of virtues. Tell a story. Or use this lovely quote from Mark Helprin (in Winter’s Tale): “Little men spend their days in pursuit of wealth, fame and possessions. I know from experience that at the moment of their death they see their lives shattered before them like glass. Not so the man who knows the virtues and lives by them. The world goes this way and that. Ideals are in fashion or not, but it doesn’t matter. The virtues remain uncorrupted, and uncorruptible. They are rewards in themselves, the bulwarks with which we can protect our vision of beauty.”

    Jesus’ brother speaks of resisting the devil. But how? How do we know it’s the devil anyhow? There is a BS element to the devil’s assailings, and outright deception – probably saying what we want to hear. When is tough going from the devil and when is it from God? In Nikos Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation of Christ, every time young Jesus reaches out for pleasure, “ten claws nailed themselves into his head and two frenzied wings beat above him, tightly covering his temples. He shrieked and fell down on his face.” His mother pleaded with a rabbi (who knew how to drive out demons) to help. The rabbi shook his head. “Mary, your boy isn’t being tormented by a devil; it’s not a devil, it’s God – so what can I do?” “Is there no cure?” the wretched mother asked. “It’s God, I tell you. No, there is no cure.” “Why does he torment him?” The old exorcist sighed but did not answer. “Why does he torment him?” the mother asked again. “Because he loves him,” the old rabbi finally replied.

   Preachers must tell what people will hear no place else: there are evil forces (not our political foes or foreign powers) that are sneaky, and pervert the good and beautiful into the evil and tawdry. It’s silly but I think of Lewis Grizzard’s distinction: naked is when you don’t have clothes on; necked is when you don’t have clothes on and  you’re up to no good. C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters will always be unmatched in wit and wisdom regarding the way we get undone by what is not of God.

   How to resist the devil? Thomas Merton, who suggested the devil wants, above all else, attention – is simply to pay no attention, to turn toward the good and beautiful. Someone else, can’t recall who it was now, wrote that we might think of jiu jitsu, where you use your opponent’s energy to undo himself – so we are still, we know God is God, and evil’s violent lunges whip by us and defeat themselves. 
Or we could do as Martin Luther did and hurl an inkwell (or was it what he was producing on the toilet?) at the devil.

   But then I love today’s Gospel reading, Mark 9:30-37. Jesus, once again, is explaining to them the way of the cross – and just like us, “they did not understand what he was saying and were afraid to ask.” Afraid – that he would think they were slow? Afraid – that his talk might just implicate them in the way of the cross? Afraid – just why, really? Worth exploring in a sermon – and better to tease them with three good possibilities and leave them hanging instead of nailing down your one right answer.

   Notice Jesus didn’t reveal he knew their confusion on the road – and while they were on the road he didn’t let them know he overheard their chatter. It was only when they were back in the house (and this is that fabulous stone house archaeologists found in Capernaum with the graffiti proving it was the house! – marked now by the not to lovely church I’ve dubbed The Millennium Falcon) that Jesus asked “What were you arguing about on the way?” Again they were silent. Silence is golden! – and a great virtue in the spiritual life, and yet silence can also be an embarrassment, a cover up, a subterfuge to hide what God knows is in us.

    Typically, like so many clergy, and like the people to whom we minister, their impulse is to be “the greatest.” There’s nothing wrong with striving for excellence – and hearing about “the greatest” I get tickled by those famous Muhammad Ali quotes about being the greatest (the funniest two being “It’s hard to be humble when you’re as great as I am,” and “My only fault is that I don’t realize how really great I am”). The biblical assessment of greatness intrigues: you’re so great you’re a temple of the Holy Spirit, you mirror the image of God to others, you have an eternal, glorious destiny – so the problem comes down to being puffed up about the wrong things, and as the disciples put on exhibit in our text, competing, stepping on others, which is a thinly veiled insecurity and pathetic delight in crushing the other.
 God’s children don’t get crushed, and they don’t crush – reminding me of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s quote of Sarah Grimke during her Supreme Court hearing: “I ask no favors for my sex. All I ask of our brethren is, that they will take their feet from off our necks.”

    Jesus shows the way with yet another of his child sayings. This time it isn’t “become like a child” but rather “whoever welcomes a child.” I wonder about asking a random child to walk up and join me at the front – picking him or her up, and talking some about love, greatness, friendship, humility. Risky, but the potential is rich. Must be exactly what Jesus did that day in the house in Capernaum.

 My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips. 



What can we say September 30? 19th after Pentecost

  A flawed weakness of the lectionary is on exhibit with the snippets from Esther 7 and 9 prescribed for this week. We don’t see the most famous moments (Mordecai’s “for such a time as this,” and Esther’s courageous “if I perish, I perish” in chapter 4). The preacher will need to narrate, in condensed form yet with telling details, the whole story – which can profitably be done. The lectionary sliver, when Esther springs her trap on Haman, intrigues, as he winds up hung on his own gallows intended for the Jews – suggesting the way evil eventually impales itself on its own devices. And the paradox of Jewish readings of Esther is rich: the sorrow and mourning is turned into a festive holiday – Purim, a Halloween-like party with costumes and fun, celebrating sheer survival in a hostile world.

   Most interestingly, the book of Esther does not mention God! (which seems like the sort of thing a biblical book ought to do).  Mind you, the reader is drawn into noticing an unlikely series of chance occurrences (Vashti disses her husband, the king cannot sleep, he chances upon the moment that matters out of the vast royal annals, etc.).  Is David Clines right in describing what he calls “deliverance by coincidence”? “The chance occurrences have a cumulative effect. Each incident, regarded by itself, might well appear the result of chance – but taken together, they all converge upon one point, the guiding hand of the Great Unnamed.”  “The holes in the story are God-shaped.”

    I’m fond of this – and not.  We experience God, generally, as hidden, unseen, not obvious – and so learning to discern God where God isn’t explicitly named is the life of faith.  And yet it’s too fatalistic if taken to the extreme.  Clines offers a corrective: “Without Esther’s and Mordecai’s courage and craft the coincidences would have fallen to the ground; and without the coincidences, all the wit in the world would not have saved the Jewish people.”

   This reminds me of Sam Wells’s reading. He points out that the story happens just a few weeks before Passover. “Here is the bitter irony. If the Jews were to wait for Passover for their deliverance, it would be too late. If they were to survive, the Jews had to make their own story.” Pluck, improvision, guts, planning: get busy – and maybe the luck falls into place and you survive.

   Our Epistle, James 5:13-20, reminds me of a marvelous moment when I was awoken to a more biblical ministry. One of my members asked me to lunch at McDonald’s. He read this text to me, and asked “Shouldn’t we be going to the sick and anointing them with oil?” After a few days, when I’d gotten my anointing oil organized, we went to a man in severe pain with bone cancer. We prayed, and anointed him. The church being the church.

   How moving to envision Jesus’ brother, James, providing this very simple counsel to the fledgling churches!  His wording matters: while fully believing in the power of the prayer to heal, he speaks of the sick being “saved” and “raised up.” Had James witnessed Jesus raising up the little girl with his Aramaic talitha cum? Had he learned too well what we pastors know too well – that our prayers matter, but people still die of their maladies, like the gentleman with bone cancer I’d anointed?

   Notice James urges us to confess our sins – and to one another! not just silently and to God. I am sure I have oversimplified in my explanations, but I love to tell new Methodists about the way Wesley organized people into small groups, and they would entertain hard questions with one another, like Have you sinned since we were last together?  You could say No… but better to go with Yes… and then report on your struggle and feel the love, support, and accountability.

   I’m not sure I’ll preach on the Gospel, Mark 9:38-50, but it poses interesting questions about divergent groups doing the Jesus thing. If we “see someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name,” we don’t “try to stop” them; but we might ignore, or judge, or snicker at them?  Jesus is chill on it: “Whoever is not against us is for us.”  And yet we have acrimonious divisions in the church…

    Notice Jesus’ wording: “Whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ…”  He doesn’t say “Give a cup of water!”  You’re the recipient of kindness here.  This “cup of water” is, of course, an image for mission.  I recall making a presentation at a church in another state and asking the crowd about how to be holy.  The answer a man gave, and everyone nodded, was “Give a cup of water.”  It’s like we know mission, doing something for somebody, but personal/private holiness is elusive. 

   Jesus is fixated on personal holiness, and the way your body (which Paul calls a temple of the Holy Spirit – 1 Cor. 6!) can offend and lead you into unholiness.  Cut it off!  We shudder over ancient Christianity’s habit of castration (Origen and others!) – but we can see the deadly serious nature of the ongoing struggle with the body, which we want to love and affirm and yet vaunts itself as an implacable foe of holiness. 

    And I can never forget that riveting scene in “Little House on the Prairie” (episode 215, “A Matter of Faith”), when Caroline Ingalls is home alone, suffers a virulent infection from a scratch on her leg. Desperate, burning with fever, she turned to her Bible and read “If you leg offends you, cut it off.”  She picks up a big knife… and winds up saving her life by lancing the infection, impressing Doc Baker.

    It’s hard to miss the irony in Jesus admonition not to put a stumbling block (the Greek is skandalizo) in the way of the little ones – for we know from Paul that Jesus himself is a stumbling block! 
Different kinds, of course, but worth pairing these images, and even showing what a millstone from Bible times looked like (which you would not want hung around your neck!).


My newest book, Weak Enough to Lead, is available, and my next most recent book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

What can we say October 7? 20th after Pentecost/World Communion Sunday

   World Communion Sunday – for which there are no proper for-the-day lections in the RCL! Any of our texts could work well (as I’ll try to explain). I fretted a few years back when my daughter Sarah, for the sermon she was to submit for ordination, preached on Mark’s divorce text on World Communion Sunday. Turned out to be entirely fitting and lovely; check it out. I’ll let her words stand as my preaching suggestion for the Gospel reading. Not hard to add that churches should be one and not divorcing, loving, resolving their dilemmas – and notice how, right on the heels of speaking of divorce, Jesus turns to children, who can be the most pained victims of divorce, and speaks of welcoming them. This text, in my view, doesn’t solve the church’s homosexuality wars at all – although it gets used that way.

     Two of our texts present the preacher with an opportunity to engage in a preaching series – not a topical series, but a series on a biblical book.  I love this (as topical series, for me, wind up forced, and more about some stuff I want to say than what God might be saying to us – although I’m sure others do this very faithfully).  I’ve done series on a Gospel, starting at Advent and running through Easter, and on Acts, Psalms, Philippians and some others.  It gives people a chance to work through a book themselves (hopefully reading during the week, laboring over the book in classes, etc.) – and reminds our people there are actually books, longer contexts, a beautiful and deep sea of material, instead of the shallow dives we take week to week. I’ll take up Hebrews first, but then my personal preference, Job, second.

     Hebrews runs through seven Sundays in the RCL!  Hebrews is a tough book – unless you’re like the early Christians, who seemed to groove effortlessly with Melchizedek!  I adore Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary above all others I’ve read. He says “Hebrews proposes as real a world that most of us consider imaginary.” Who wrote it? Johnson avers “It was the sheer usefulness, the sheer truthfulness of Hebrews that ensured it place in the canon, despite lingering and never-resolved doubts about its authorship.” Noting its refined Greek, and that it was written to be read aloud, in toto, in one sitting, he reminds us that as Scripture, Hebrews isn’t an ancient text “that throws light on the present, but the voice of the living God.”

    How God speaks is clarified wonderfully in this Sunday’s text (1:1-4, 2:5-12). After speaking in many ways, “in these final days, God has spoken to us in a son.”  Boom.  The Gospel. 
Scripture as God’s Word is a bunch of words of immense value; but the real speech is the Son, Jesus. Hebrews could not have a higher view of Jesus – reminding us of George Lindbeck’s “rules” regarding how we do Christology.  Scripture, theology and the church delineate that we say maximally amazing things about Jesus – and Hebrews, not after centuries of theologizing, but within a couple of decades of his execution, ascribes to Jesus the creation and shaping of the world. This is God.  He is the imprint, the radiance of God’s glory, bearing all things. 

     The sermon can just bask in the wonder that is God in Jesus.  There’s no take-away, except perhaps amazement and awe.  We extol God in Jesus, as Hebrews does, and the sermon has achieved more than a thousand with little trite to-do lists. This God above all gods, the one language fails to depict except with embarrassed but amazed fumbling, makes us holy but calls us brothers and sisters.  Wow. 
I so wish more sermons would dare to do this (as I argue constantly in The Beauty of the Word).  I call it Transfiguration Preaching.  When Jesus shimmered and glowed, the disciples didn’t start a mission program or decide to go on a diet.  No, “they fell on their faces in awe” (Matthew 17:6). Many think the first readers of Hebrews were second generation Christians who were exhausted. We preach to exhausted people. What they need isn’t more stuff to do – but to be caught up in something way larger than themselves, to be lost in wonder, love and praise.

     Back to the OT: Job offers us four Sundays for a potential series – and given people’s constant questioning about the problem of evil, the sufferings of today’s world, and the bogus views of God Christians carry in their souls that are exposed and overturned in the book, Job is well worth preaching through.  The lectionary choices are curious, skipping most of the momentous chapter 1, and skipping entirely Job’s conversations with his “friends” (maybe the most important portion of the book).  I’m going to adjust, preaching on Job 1-2, then 3-14 or 15 which probes the lousy theology of the friends who aren’t friends after all, and then poke around in God’s whirlwind speech in 38-41.

     Job works for World Communion, as the book is ultimately about relationships and God (see next week’s blog!), problems of evil in the world – plus Job is a foreigner, and the story takes place outside the Promised Land, and treats universal problems.

     For this week’s reading (and including all of chapter 1, without which chapter 2 makes zero sense…), here are some thoughts from a commentary I am writing just now on Job.

     The opening phrase of the book, “There once was a man,” tips us off that we have come upon a folktale. This fable-like story takes place in a strange place, the land of Uz, which isn’t in Israel or anywhere else we can pinpoint on a map. Vaguely to the east, Uz is a foreign place, and Job is a foreigner too, not an Israelite at all.

     More importantly, the theology of this opening scene in chapters 1-2 is entirely foreign – and the preacher can and must explain why. The God portrayed here is not the God we believe in, not the God revealed in the rest of Scripture, not the God whom Jesus intimately called Abba. This folktale’s god is moody, capricious, with henchmen prowling around, a bit of a gambler, thrown off balance by a snarky remark from an angelic being, a god who rolls the dice. Chapters 1-2 give us a caricature of God, a straw man that will be exposed and torn down by the rest of the book. We needn’t be flummoxed and ask why the God of grace and goodness would behave so sophomorically. The point of the book is to correct such a flawed notion about God.

     Job’s god is a braggart. The Job character in this folktale is as good as humanity can get. He is good, holy, and pure. Job “fears” God – not meaning he’s scared, but that he is reverent, devoted, in awe of and entirely latched onto God. Of course, the small-minded god of chapters 1-2 is flattered by such obsequious devotion, and boasts – but to whom? God here has a heavenly host attending in heaven, a divine entourage, a squadron of advisers and assistants. And at least one of them is nosy: Herodotus tells us about “the eyes and ears of the king” of ancient Persia, secret police ready to tattle on anything they might find. One of this god’s entourage is called “the satan.” Many translations use the name Satan, but the Hebrew has “the,” and it’s not the devil, God’s evil and implacable foe we know from later centuries. The word satan means something like prosecuting attorney, adversary or intelligence agent. His mission is to find fault.

     Knowing the satan has just returned from some surveillance, this god preens a bit and asks if he’s noticed Job, his most spectacular specimen. The satan’s cynical reply? “Does Job revere God for nothing?” – which is a pivotal question the book asks all of us. Do we serve God for what we get out of it, whether it’s health or success now or eternal life later? Do we love and adhere to God even if the hoped-for benefits seem lacking, or if we’re taking it on the chin all the time?

     Job, after all (as the satan points out), could be the poster boy for a “prosperity Gospel” message. He seems “blessed” (which we’ll see isn’t the right word at all) with dizzying wealth and a giddily happy, healthy family. The satan accuses this god of doing all of this for him as a reward – or as a motivator! Of course, the book will eventually show what we should know: the true and holy God doesn’t lavish favors on some and not others, and certainly not as a reward for righteousness.

     The satan proposes a wager, a game of sorts: take it all away, and see how devoted Job will be. God agrees to this vicious gambit. This is not prevenient grace, but prevenient caprice, prevenient fickleness; such a god is devoid of love. And so the Lord tells the satan (whom the fairy tale writer assumes has unlimited power!) to do with him as he wishes – with the lone proviso that he not harm Job himself. Leslie Weatherhead, in his classic Will of God book, ventured the idea of God’s “permissive will.” But if Job could lose everything, and learn this god only permitted it but didn’t do it – would he find solace in such a thought?

     The dramatic skill of this folktale author is impressive. Instead of narrating the onslaughts live, the storyteller plops us down next to Job as wave after wave of terrible news rolls in. Each messenger is breathless. One hasn’t finished his bad news when the next rushes in and blurts out even worse news. They barely survived themselves, so swift and violent was the terror. How many great stories in history and literature repeat this theme? In Moby Dick, all on the Pequod was lost, only Ishmael survived. John Wesley, the proverbial “fire plucked from the burning,” barely survived that rectory fire at Epworth.

     Of course, the greatest horror, the grotesque climax to the satan’s ruthless attack, is the slaughter of Job’s ten children. Unspeakable. To lose a child is the most numbing sorrow. But ten? Again, it’s a folktale, so we expect that story to be of grandiose proportion. The richest, best man ever loses the most ever. Worst of all, the folktale pictures a sham of a god who could, after the pointless murder of a holy man’s ten children, beam with pride over his unfaltering piety.

     Job’s pious oath, his persistence in devotion to this awful god, rings hollow, and is a comic-book perversion of what prayer and a real relationship with God are about. Fortunately, chapters 3-41 were added by the far wiser poet, or Job would be a cardboard spirituality of absurd denial, so much garbage. Job’s words, reminiscent of “You can’t take it with you,” are true, and yet ridiculous, and utterly inhuman. Yes, Job’s alleged patience and forbearance have been held up as the ideal of piety, the gold standard of faith. But as we will see, the larger book of Job has a far better and profounder idea.

     And the bell rings for round two. The folktale resumes in heaven. The satan has again been out on patrol. God, with no trace of grief or compassion, brags even more cockily about Job. Again, this is not the God Jesus tenderly called Abba. Refusing to concede, the satan points out that perhaps Job’s piety is only skin deep. Go at his skin, afflict his body, the satan suggests. The logic seems to be Job doesn’t mind losing his vast possessions, or even his children; but the health and comfort of his own body? This he will cling to, or abandon his faith. What a low opinion of Job this satan has! Even the most pedestrian parent would prefer to suffer in place of their children. And think of the martyrs, and Jesus himself, who bore physical harm willingly, even eagerly.

     And so the macabre test intensifies. Job is struck with “severe sores.” And it’s not just his back or legs, but the burning is all over, “from the sole of his foot to the top of his head.” He couldn’t sit, or stand, or get any slight moment of relief. Entirely pathetic, and barely alive, Job is reduced to scraping himself with a potsherd – to relieve itching? to release pus? or lacerating himself in a ritual of grief?

     The cameo appearance of Job’s wife is puzzling. She’s like a Rorschach test: is she overwhelmed by sorrow, sharing in her beloved’s agony? Or is she a nag, blaming the victim, sure that her husband who was to protect her and her children has violated the order of the universe somehow? Does she want him to curse God and die to escape his and her misery?

     Why was she spared when everyone else was killed? St. John Chrysostom suggested that she was yet one additional curse, one more burden for Job to bear! St. Augustine called her the devil’s assistant. And in the Qur’an, she was in cahoots with the devil, who promised to restore all she had lost if she would only worship him. Job’s wife, never mentioned again in the book, is forced to share in suffering Job didn’t deserve, but neither did she. Collateral damage: we fixate on the suffering victim, but then there are other victims, as the agony ripples out to the web of family, community, and world.

     Still he persisted. With a superhuman, or utterly unhuman dint of will, Job refuses to curse God. The folktale does shift an inch though, adding that he didn’t curse God “with his lips,” making you scratch your head and wonder if some cursing was welling up in his heart. Jesus would be fascinated by inner, attitudinal sin, diagnosing anger as a kind of psychic murder, and lust as intangible but very real adultery, dreaming of liberating us from what ails us not just in word and deed but also thought. Was the editor of the larger book of Job preparing us for Job’s cursing to come? Or was he meeting a sufficient standard simply by keeping his mouth shut?

     The whole premise of chapters 1-2 is the mistaken belief Job, his wife, and a great many Christians today share: that God is the great inflicter, the heavenly smiter. As we’ve seen, it’s too flimsy a defense of God to pigeonhole suffering as something God even permits – as if we could peer into heaven and learn that God didn’t do it, God just allowed it, and we’d find solace? We lunge toward half-truths and bogus lies, like Everything happens for a reason, or God doesn’t give us more than we can bear. Have you read Kate Bowler’s book, Everything Happens for a Reason - and Other Lies I've Loved?

     For now, two aspects to that grappling emerge. After both rounds of the satan’s attacks, the narrator declares that Job did not sin by cursing God. But would it be sin to curse God? Job is about to sin repeatedly, vehemently and unrelentingly – and frankly with good company. The Psalms, Jeremiah, and Jesus himself do not shy away from railing against God in prayer. The folktale seems to feel the darkest sin would be to curse God. The rest of the book will debunk this. The greater sin would be the cover-up, pretending, or perhaps just refusing to talk to God at all.
Images: Job & friends, by William Blake; Job and his wife, by Georges de la Tour.

 My new book, Worshipful, now has an online study guide with video clips.

What can we say October 14? 21st after Pentecost

  Let’s look at this week’s lections in reverse order. Mark 10:17-31 (here's a sermon I did on this recently) opens a window for us into an encounter Jesus has with a man of “great possessions.” He’s a jobs producer! – and a commandment keeper. Verse 17 reminds us it’s not a still life. Jesus is “on a journey.” I picture him the way Pasolini did in his fabulous Italian film, “The GospelAccording to St. Matthew,” with Jesus walking urgently from place to place, speaking over his shoulder to breathless disciples trying to keep up. This wealthy man runs to catch up, kneels, and inquires about eternal life. He has so much, and now wants even more.

   Jesus, like Socrates or Columbo, rarely pronounces definitive answers, but asks dizzying questions. The nameless man insists he has behaved well and adhered to the law. He’s good. But Jesus perceives a lack. Something’s missing. Something’s always missing. Like Martha vs. Mary: she’s distracted by many things, missing the one thing. The rich man has a pile of great things, a great life. But missing just one thing doesn’t mean he’s got 99 out of a 100 and just needs 1 to complete the set. The 1 he’s missing makes the 99 feel like only a little, not nearly enough. The one thing, the main thing, the only thing – this is precisely what even our finest people know they lack. It’s the grace – but really more than that, it’s the person. Others lay down their things not to get some grace, but to stick close to Jesus, who’s moving, travelling. Salvation is Jesus, being near him – which is hard to do while maintaining your plantations and investments. 

    Jesus, genius diagnostician, sees deeply into this man (as in the Epistle reading!!!) and pinpoints the big blockage for him: it’s his stuff, his wealth, his things. We could (rightly) say Jesus wasn’t proposing all people give up all for the poor; it was just this one guy. Whew! But how many suffer this malady? As Morna Hooker pointed out, not many of Jesus’ listeners were rich. But the desire of riches can be the big blockage even for those who don’t have much. And we may recall John Wesley's rephrasing: "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for those that have riches not to trust in them." For him, the rich were those with more than the bare minimum to survive... Wealth destroys humility; wealth annihilates patience; and wealth produces vices and leads to idolatry (as explained in Theodore Jennings's amazing Good News to the Poor).

   St. Francis heard these words in worship, and took the Bible literally – and the rest is history. Others have approximated this radical divestment. Millard Fuller, founder of Habitat for Humanity, gave up his millions to build affordable houses for and with the poor. Who else can you find who has fundamentally taken a massive downward step on the economic ladder in order to empower others and change the world to be more in sync with God’s kingdom? And don’t forget that John Wesley suggested that laying up treasure on earth, keeping more than the minimum needed for survival, amounts to theft – from the poor, and from God.

    What a lovely touch, Mark noting the man’s sadness. Genuinely he’s sad, he’s missing out, sticking with the blockage does create sorrow. Jesus feels sad for him as well, and points out to his friends just how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom. That medieval fiction about camels crawling on their knees to get through the gate called “the eye of the needle” has zero basis in fact and is worse theologically – as it implies it’s really hard, or it’s only through prayer you enter the kingdom. No, Jesus picturesquely reveals it’s absurdly impossible, just as you can’t shove a 6 foot tall, 1000 pound camel through a tiny single millimeter hole.

   Clergy should pause and recall Karl Barth’s worry. “Can even the clergy be saved? With the clergy, this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” Salvation – and not just getting into heaven, but living into the kingdom of God here and now: it’s not hard, or really hard. It’s impossible. It’s all gift, all miracle – as the same phrase punctuates the story of over-aged Sarah’s pregnancy with Isaac, and Mary’s virginal pregnancy with Jesus.

   When I was pastor in Davidson, one of our Disciple groups studied this text, and engaged in the usual ducking and weaving: Jesus means for us to be willing to sell all we have – but you really shouldn’t. You have to provide for your family! And if everybody did that, civilization would collapse, etc., etc., etc. The following week, they were serving homeless guests, and had thought it a good idea to invite them to study with them. Doubling back to this story, after reading it with the homeless, no one had the guts to say in front of them Jesus only means you should be willing… I mean, you have to provide for your family, blah blah blah.

   We dare not overspiritualize Jesus here. Ched Myers (Binding the Strong Man) pointedly reminds us that Jesus envisioned a real and radical shakeup of the social and economic order. Myers is probably right: “Jesus contends that the only way to salvation for the rich is by the redistribution of their wealth – that is, the eradication of class oppression.” And Jesus didn’t envision an impersonal give-away or transfer of funds. As Jürgen Moltmann put it, The opposite of poverty isn’t property, but community. We share what we have with others so no one is in need, so all have enough – like Acts chapters 2 and 4.

    Hebrews 4:12-16 is a compact and powerful text, bursting with urgency and tenderness. God’s Word is personified: it’s the message, the messenger, the whole Christian dispensation. And it’s alive, not chiseled in aging stone. It’s the proverbial two-edged sword – but we should not feel it’s a threatening weapon (as some wish to use the Bible). Think scalpel, sharp, cutting away what is awry, piercing deep into the soul, or paring away what is not of God, what if left unattended will be your undoing. For God’s Word cuts deeply – the way Jesus does in Matthew 5. God cares not merely about outward behavior but also inner motivations, moods and feelings.

    Jesus is amazing. He’s the high priest. He is the sacrifice. He offers the sacrifice. He sympathizes with us. What a profound, hopeful, tender depiction of God, come to us in this Jesus. What such a God does for us is he gives us good cause for “boldness” – parresia in the Greek, meaning frankness, or free speech. We can speak up candidly to God, we can’t help but open our gut and pour it all out to such a God, as we are granted access to his gracious throne of mercy.

    I love the notion that this God is a help to us “in time of need.”  Isaac Bashevis Singer once said “I only pray when I am in trouble.  The problem is, I am in trouble all the time.”  We are in need, not just in those 911 moments, but all the time – perhaps most pointedly in those times we think all is well and we don’t need God so much.

     Job.  The lectionary offers us chapter 23 as part 2 of their 4 week series, which is more directly accusatory of God than chapter 3. God is hiding, inaccessible… an experience all too real for the sufferers to whom we preach. For me, as part 2 of a Job series, I’ll look at the response of Job’s so-called “friends.”

   After Job’s startling tirade in chapter 3, enter his three friends. They had been doing what friends do in times of crisis: they came, they sat, they loved, they were simply present. Unfortunately, they then decided to speak. William Blake depicted them flawlessly. Words are appropriate if they speak of love, if they offer solidarity in prayer. But theological “answers” designed to reckon with why bad things happen, or to make the other feel better, are what James Russell Lowell called, after the death of his daughter, “a well-meant alms of breath.” His response is spot-on: “But not all the preaching since Adam has made death other than death.”

     What is a friend? We might think a friend is someone you enjoy hanging around with, someone you might even trust with your private self. Aristotle said the opposite of a friend is a flatterer. And Søren Kierkegaard wrote that a friend is someone who helps you to love God. Job’s friends would ringingly claim they were helping Job toward God. But like so much krap theology, they only isolate him from God at the hour Job needs God the most. The book of Job dares to ponder the possibility that a true friend will actually take your side against God.

     Beginning in chapter 4, the book of Job offers us an extended glimpse into failed friendship – right in the thick of immensely needed friendship. They quote Bible to Job – but insensitively, and out of context. Immanuel Kant suggested that Job’s friends talk as if God is listening, and they are eager to cull favor with God instead of weighing the immense horror of the sorrow of their friend. The problem of evil, why bad things happen, isn’t an intellectual exercise for friends to solve for one another. Let the wound remain open. It needs the air, the space, instead of a blistering medicine of theological half-truths.

    We hear this so very often. Friends, half wanting to help, half terrified that the pain of a friend has crowded them so closely that they too might lose everything, mutter trite falsehoods that only isolate the sufferer from others and from God. “Everything happens for a reason.” “God doesn’t give you more than you can bear.” “He’s in a better place.” On and on go the laughable but tragic remarks that are nearly snarky from the point of view of the one who has loved, lost, sought God, and come up empty. Emmanuel Levinas pointed out that, if we ever for a moment justify a neighbor’s pain, we open up a road to all kinds of immorality. Pain is never justifiable. We always, if we are friends, shudder, weep, and cry out with the beloved who has lost their beloved.

    The book of Job’s larger lesson is that God is known in Job’s blistering, relentless, savage questioning, not in the simple, vapid answers of the friends. The moving scene in Steel Magnolias says it all. M’Lynn, played deftly by Sally Field, is at the cemetery where her daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts) has just been buried. Her friends come to comfort. Annelle, kookily played by Daryl Hannah, attempts pious comfort, telling M’Lynn she “should be rejoicing” because “she is with her king.” M’Lynn takes exception, and launches into a Why? Why? Why? Tirade of immense emotional power. Who spoke more truly theologically? M’Lynn, clearly. Annelle even acknowledge that her thoughts about eternal life “make her feel better in situations like this.” Indeed. Pious comfort is for – the comforted, who aren’t comforted? Or the comforters?

    We say God speaks in Scripture – but God speaks here by not speaking. It’s baffling, exasperating – and true to life. Intruding into the mystifying but elegant silence is the racket of the friends talk, and then the mortified shouts of Job in reply. Three rounds of interchanges with three ex-friends. Karl Barth said that they purvey falsehood, they spread deceit; they are like false prophets, spouting theological truisms but not understanding the situation or the need. 

Thomas Aquinas wisely declared that they need to make Job look bad so God will look good. But their God is too small, and is too easily manipulated. Job is reaching out to find a God who is bigger than theirs, who is not boxable, not trivialized, and a God who will at least show up and speak with Job, be present with him in his hour of agony.

     Eliphaz, perhaps the senior friend, begins politely, asking if he can venture in before speaking with Job. He explains that he can’t restrain himself, perhaps as Jeremiah could not help but belch out God’s Word. But why? Good theology is at stake for him. Or is it his own fear? Order must be restored! For, if Job is right, nobody (including Eliphaz himself) can dwell safely in simplistic comfort with God. We may sympathize with him as he tries valiantly to sympathize with Job.

    He begins with a bit of a backhanded compliment. There is always a fine line between encouragement and disparagement; judgment can sneak its way inside comfort when nobody’s looking. Reminding him he has comforted others who were suffering, and hasn’t been shy about reproving those who had sinned, Eliphaz turns the tables and quizzes him on why, now that the pain has come his way, he’s struggling so. Hidden in his harsh suggestion is a helpful truth for us: sometimes we have our chipper counsel ready to spoonfeed others, but when the sorrow comes our way, we realize how trite, how unhelpful, how nearly sadistic it can be.

   Eliphaz verges on claims of being divinely inspired: “A word sneaked up on me… A breeze swept by my face” (4:12, 15). Was God’s Spirit moving? Or was God “not in the wind,” as Elijah learned on Mt. Horeb (1 Kings 19:11). Did Eliphaz breathe God’s breath? Or was it nothing but hot air?

    And so, feeling the rush of apparently holy wind, Eliphaz offers a little array of truthiness – speaking true things, sort of, but too thin, too trivial to sway Job or account for the horrors of severe trauma. He remonstrates with Job, declaring that if he sticks with his integrity, all will be well (4:6). Can a human being be more righteous than God (4:17)? Of course not – but Job isn’t vaunting himself above God; he rather is drilling God for failure to be righteous.

   As if anticipating the philosopher Thomas Hobbes (life is nasty, brutish and short), he muses that humanity is born to trouble (5:7) – not much solace, and hardly a fit for Job’s exasperation. Achilles said as much to Priam, grieving the death of his son Hector (in the Iliad): “The gods have woven pain into mortal lives, while they are free from care.” Or remember Gloucester, in King Lear: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; they kill us for their sport.”

   Eliphaz asks if the truly innocent have ever suffered (4:7, echoing the ridiculous Psalm 37:25) – implying Job may not be so clean, and clinging to the fake notion that God shelters those who are holy. Have the innocent ever suffered? Have you ever read a history book, or paid attention to the world around you? Naïve, blind, a perversely adhering to theological lies, this Eliphaz. He basically tells Job, Try praying! Mind you, Job hasn’t tried praying yet. It’s all too raw, he’s not quite on speaking terms with God just yet; and Job knows he had been a man of immense prayer right up to the onslaught, and thus quite rightly suspects that bowing his head and asking for help won’t work, and certainly won’t bring his children back to life.

    A laundry list of biblical thoughts are voiced in 5:8-16. God does great things, he sends the rain and lifts up the lowly, he foils the deceitful, he saves the need, echoing many Psalms. Yes, these are true confessions about our God – but they are not suitable for this occasion; they only grind Job’s soul into ever greater misery as this God isn’t being the God Job had hoped for.

    Eliphaz’s worst effort to calm or correct Job screams across the centuries from 5:17: “Look, happy is the person whom God corrects, so don’t reject the Almighty’s instruction” (or as the RSV puts it, “Despise not the chastening of the Almighty”). Here is the most distasteful pablum we hear in times of misery: God is teaching you something, God is disciplining you, God is afflicting you so you will… Well, complete the sentence any way you like. God wielding a divine paddle, God giving you a thrashing so you’ll behave next time, God smiting so we’ll toe the line. C.S. Lewis famously wrote, in The Problem of Pain, that “God whispers to us in our pleasures… but shouts in our pains; it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” But after Lewis lost his wife Joy to cancer, he relented on this.

     The God of grace is no harsh taskmaster. The God is grace lures us with love and compassion, not beatings and pinpricks. God teaches us through the goodness of Scripture, through the voice of our savior Jesus. Yes, we may learn from suffering. We may wake up from our sinful slumber when our world is rocked and racked with pain. But the notion that God afflicts to instruct is out of character with the God of mercy. Such a god would be no better than the one wagering with the satan, looking on like a fan as a bloodthirsty lion circles a barely armed gladiator.

    Hebrews 12 only seems to prop up Eliphaz’s thinking. “Don’t make light of the Lord’s discipline, or give up when you are corrected by him, because the Lord disciplines whomever he loved… Bear hardship for the sake of discipline. God is treating you like sons and daughters!” (12:5-7). The God of Hebrews is the one who suffers for us in Jesus, the one who cries out loudly in agony (5:7), who knows our weakness and sympathizes (4:16). And isn’t there a way of conceiving God’s discipline that is less smiting and more nurturing? God created the world in such a way that living out of sync with God does have its consequences. Constant alcohol consumption will ruin your health, and recovery is about learning the discipline of a sober life. Very different from concocting a God who is very angry you’ve been drinking, and dips a divine finger down into your liver so you’ll learn your lesson.

    Job’s uncharitable, angry, wounded and raging response in chapter 6 tells us what we need to know about failed friendship…

What can we say come October 21? 22nd after Pentecost

   If you’re continuing a series on Job (we’re to the whirlwind now!), go to the bottom of this blog. We’ll start with the Gospel, then explore Hebrews (not just for preaching it, but what it reveals about ministry).

    Mark 10:35-45. Jesus has clearly altered the plot of his story from striding about amazing people to this beleaguered journey toward Jerusalem to suffer and die. Along the road, he’s explaining this way of sorrows, and how following him similarly puts you in harm’s way, a road of downward mobility, a route toward suffering and death. 

    How dense are the disciples? The sons of Zebedee, acting this time without their pal Peter, sound like those Christians you’ve known who “claim promises” and feel sure God will do their bidding: “We want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.” Did Jesus chuckle? Grimace? Instead of chiding or correcting, Jesus quite typically followed up by asking them to continue. They seek the glory of sitting next to him in his glory. Posturing, jockeying – and don’t think clergy are immune from the allure of dreams of glory, sitting on the right hand of the bishop, sitting just to the left at one of the grand pulpits. Clergy: are you moving on up? Or resentful of those who are?

     Did Zebedee raise his boys with quite proper American-style ambition to succeed? Matthew 20:20 interestingly casts Mrs. Zebedee as the one seeking position for her boys.

    Jesus, continuing themes they’d missed, points out that his glory will involve “drinking the cup I drink,” that is, being arrested, beaten, and crucified. Even on hearing this, and perhaps they even understood a little, they cockily declare “Lord, we are able!” My theology professor at Duke, Bob Cushman, once told me his least favorite hymn was “Are Ye Able” – which similarly boasts “Yeah, the sturdy dreamers answered, to the death we follow thee. Lord, we are able!” But they are not able, and neither are we. God wants availability, not ability. And God’s realm is an upside down kind of glory. There is no hierarchy in God’s kingdom: “Gentiles lord it over others; but it shall not be so among you.” Or rather, there is a hierarchy, and it’s a flattened pancake on the ground of humility. Whoever can go lowest is closest to Jesus.

    James, as fate would have it, was martyred a decade later (Acts 12:2). John apparently lived to old age. Their naïve confusion on the road in Mark 10 was surely replaced by a mature, humble realization that Jesus’ way was the way, and that the world’s path to glory isn’t merely dangerous but a deceptive lie. Frodo understood that the ring had to be destroyed at Mordor, or the power of the ring would destroy him and the shire. When I preach on such themes, I am not optimistic people will be able to hear. Sometimes I settle for incremental gains: maybe somebody is a tad humbler, maybe somebody engages in some hard service for God. But the revolution Jesus envisaged: we have to look to the St. Francises of the world, the Dorothy Days, the Teresas and Thérèses of the world (Avila, Lisieux, Calcutta), maybe an Albert Schweitzer or maybe somebody you know who bought into the Jesus revolution with abandon.

     Our Epistle, Hebrews 5:1-10, is typically Hebrews: dense, profound, mystifying, moving. And obsessed with Melchizedek. I want to grow up to savor Melchizedek – but for now, the yawning gap between me and the early Christians is the way they got totally jazzed about the mention of the obscure king, and I just skate on by.

    The author compares and contrasts earthly priests with Christ as our priest – affording us a hopeful glimpse into both. I think it’s wise, on occasion, to talk about what it is to be a priest, like you, the preacher – not to elicit sympathy or to assert your authority. Every few months, as the context provides an opening, I tell my people that I love them, I think of them when they aren’t around, I worry about them, I pray for them. It’s my job; it’s my calling. 

    Hebrews speaks of the weakness of the priest. Apply for an open pulpit, or ask for a move from your bishop, and tell him/her you’re weak. No, we profess our strengths, our savvy, our work ethic, our robust theology. But I wound up writing a book entitled Weak Enough to Lead after teaching a doctoral class on biblical leadership – and noticing how the Bible simply doesn’t supply snappy formulas for how to be a strong leader. A weak bunch – as they are, and should be, these Bible leaders. Hebrews doesn’t speak of weak priests and then demand they get strong. Their weakness is their strength. 

    And why? They are able to sympathize, and be gentle. When I get hard on my people (in the privacy of my mind, of course), I am forgetting my own foibles and flaws. We are all broken. Rainer Maria Rilke (in his letter to a young poet friend) was right:  “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled. His life has much difficulty and sadness. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find these words.” Knowing this, and even daring to speak of it, might remind the critics and fault-finders that they are a bit off track, and refocus church life on compassion, not fixing people or even the world, but being with one another, not judging but overflowing with mercy.

     Jesus himself wasn’t superman come to earth, he wasn’t a man of steel. He himself was meek, lowly, woundable, wounded. Verse 7 poignantly reminds us of Jesus’ “loud cries and tears.” Gethsemane, yes (and I’d commend watching this scene from Jesus ChristSuperstar, and even better from the at-times weird but provocative film, The Last Temptation of Christ) – and weeping over Jerusalem from the Mt. of Olives, yes. But the text implies more, something regular. Jesus loved deeply. Jesus was one with the heart of God. Whatever broke God’s heart broke Jesus’ heart (in the words of Bob Pierce, founder of World Vision). Those who travelled with Jesus, and asked him to teach them to pray, witnessed his sorrows, his crying out to God in prayer.

    This blog labors toward good preaching. Maybe we should, instead, strive to be clergy who pray, who have tears and cries for our people, for the troubles of the world, for ourselves. I too often am annoyed, angry, frustrated with my people, and the world, and myself – and I am positive that even if I smile and talk sweetness and love, my inner mood bleeds out through my pores, and they feel it. 

    You may be a stalwart in prayer for your people. I for one am humbled when I consider someone like my wife’s grandfather, Charles Stevens – who was known for his all-night prayer vigils and intensity and length of supplications for people, challenges, big decisions. And it’s not that such prayers “work.” We just pray. Jesus, after all, prayed for the cup to pass from him – and the result only superficially contradicts the words of Hebrews 5: “He was heard for his godly fear.” Ah, but he was. God never adored his son more than in Gethsemane, and throughout Good Friday. 

    The diciest moment in Hebrews 5 is this notion that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” He suffered because he was obedient… and people have heard lots of pablum about God teaching people lessons through smiting them or inflicting harm on them (the whole premise being overturned in Job!). God is in the suffering. God suffers what we suffer. Knowing God is growing into that awareness – not sticking with the calculus of I am suffering, so what is it God is trying to teach me by sending this my way?

    In Weak Enough to Lead, I looked to a fictional priest who sympathizes (in Father Melancholy's Daughter): “The humble, nameless leaders who are office-holders, the steady as you go solid rock at work, those uncreative readers of our holy books may play the steady, reliable role we need when the charismatic leaders are out there doing who knows what. Consider Gail Godwin’s marvelous assessment of Father Gower: ‘He’s not trendy; he doesn’t pose. He’s neither a self-transcendent guru nor one of these fund-raising manager types who have become so sought after lately by our Holy Church. He’s just himself—himself offered daily. He worries about people, he worries about himself. . . . He goes to the hospital carrying the Sacraments in his little black case. He baptizes and marries and buries and listens to people’s fears and confessions and isn’t above sharing some of his own.  He scrubs the corner cross with Ajax. . . . He makes his services beautiful; he reminds you that the whole purpose of the liturgy is to put you in touch with the great rhythms of life. He’s a dedicated man, your father. He’s lonely and bedeviled like the rest of us, but he has time for it all and tries to do it right. He lives by the grace of daily obligation. He’s what the priests in books used to be like, but today he’s a rarity.’ Priests in Old Testament times offered themselves daily, and their services were beautiful. And we can be sure they worried about people. Only an insensitive dolt could have watched the same sorrowful woman bringing her modest sacrifices, weeping in the sanctuary, and not felt her pain. There was a pastoral tenderness in the implementation of ritual as we see in the story of Hannah. Barren and taunted by her husband’s other wife, Hannah prayed repeatedly and with such intensity that Eli surmised she must be drunk. After she explained her plight, he engaged in his regular priestly function by offering her a word of blessing: ‘Go in peace. And may the God of Israel give you what you’ve asked from him’ (1 Sam 1:17).”

     And finally Job. After Job rails against God and his pseudo-friends for so long, while God is entirely silent, the shocker is that God finally speaks in chapter 38. The lectionary only offers us a few verses; the preacher will need to account for God’s entire speech.  God doesn’t supply simple “answers,” or any smooth theological explanations of why bad things happen to good people. God instead takes Job on a tour of creation – and not the pretty places in creation, but the wild, inaccessible, puzzling, explicable places. God doesn’t point to the house cat or the hunting dog who do our bidding, or a caged parrot. God indirectly suggests to Job that God fashioned, not a neat world where everything fits together snugly and all is fair and placid. It’s dangerous out there, it’s amazing out there, and in here too. The speech clearly undercuts a too-small-God theology – or an anthropocentric theology.

     Partly God invites us to hear God’s voice in nature – and not in the pretty sunsets or photogenic hills with grassy meadows nearby. John Muir, after exploring Yosemite, wrote “As long as I live, I’ll hear waterfalls and birds and winds sing. I’ll interpret the rocks, learn the language of flood, storm, and the avalanche. I’ll acquaint myself with the glaciers and wild gardens, and get as near to the heart of the world as I can.”

    Martin Buber, weighing the speech of God in light of the progress of the entire story, suggested wisely that the book of Job guides us from the view that God is cruel (chapters 1-2) to a retributive God (the friends’ speeches in 4-11), to a hidden God (the one who simply refuses to respond to Job through chapters 3-37), and finally then to a God of revelation, a God who is present, relational. Job doesn’t get answers. But Job does get God. Preachers need to help our people to see that God doesn’t float down rewards or blessings or things. God’s gift is… God. Jesus gave them his body and blood – and invited them to continue receiving him. His nickname, after all, is Emmanuel.

    Robert Frost, in The Masque of Reason, imagines God finally explaining everything to Job – and his thinking is maybe the most on point assessment of Job ever written:

I've had you on my mind a thousand years
To thank you someday for the way you helped me
Establish once for all the principle
There's no connection human can reason out
Between their just deserts and what they get.
Virtue may fail and wickedness succeed.
Twas a great demonstration we put on.
I should have spoken sooner…
Too long I've owed you this apology
For the apparently unmeaning sorrow
You were afflicted with in those old days.
But it was of the essence of the trial
You shouldn't understand it at the time.
It had to seem unmeaning to have meaning.
And it came out all right. I have no doubt
You realise by now the part you played
To stultify the Deuteronomist
And change the tenor of religious thought.
My thanks are to you for releasing me
From moral bondage to the human race.
At first… I had to prosper good and punish evil.
You changed all that. You set me free to reign.
You are the Emancipator of your God,
And as such I promote you to a saint.

 Looking toward Advent: My book, Why This Jubilee? Advent Reflections, has much of what I've used as preaching material over the years, and also serves as a good group study for your people.