If ever there was a confluence of people not “getting it,” in holy scripture, today is that day of confluence. First, we have the Job story. Many of us are thrilled to hear the victorious ending of Job today. After weeks of following Job’s story – from the fateful bargain between God and Satan, to Job’s suffering, to those around him cajoling him to give up on God – we finally arrive at the great redemption of Job. But what I love most about this last chapter of Job is not what we heard, but the verses we skipped. The verses we skipped are about Job’s friends, his friends who have tried and tried to tell Job what he has done wrong, what he needs to change, why all this bad stuff is happening to him. In verses 7-9, God expresses God’s anger at Job’s friends, saying, “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.” At least, the New Revised Standard Version translates the text that way. But the original Hebrew does not say, “you have not spoken of me,” but “you have not spoken to me.”[i] In other words, the friends of Job talked and talked to Job – but never to God. They sat and mourned with Job, but when they opened their mouths, they did not open them in petition to God. They just ran their mouths, spouting all sorts of unhelpful nonsense.
We could argue the same of the followers of Jesus. They are faithfully following Jesus toward Jerusalem, presumably the innermost circle of Jesus’ followers. When blind beggar Bartimaeus shouts out to Jesus, their immediate response is to shut him down. We are not clear if they are embarrassed by this filthy beggar’s presumptuous cries, or they feel as if the beggar is breaking protocol for appropriate ways to seek healing, or they just think Jesus is above helping this person in need. Regardless, their immediate reaction is to shut him down, push him aside, shush him into oblivion. The crowd following Jesus assumes they knew better and they presume to speak for Jesus about when, how, and to whom God offers healing or blessing. They never speak to Jesus himself.
The summer I spent as a hospital chaplain, I saw this sort of behavior all the time. Hospitals can be places of deep despair and suffering. The hospital can be the place where we face our mortality, where a diagnosis changes the course of our lives, or where decisions have to be made that no one ever wants to make. In that thin place of life and death, all sorts of things are said, much of which is an attempt to make sense of things that do not make sense. I cannot tell you the number of times a patient was blamed for their fate by a family member, a patient began to question their life choices, or a friend blamed God for the patient’s suffering. When there was no medical solution, those who were suffering seemed to be looking for something or someone to blame. Those were the times when devastatingly hurtful things were claimed or God was used as a weapon instead of a companion.
We could easily wag our fingers at the friends of Job or at the followers of Jesus or even those patients and family members in the hospital, saying in exasperation, “When will those people ever get it?!?” We fancy ourselves as Jobs or Bartimaeuses. But that is not where God is speaking to us today. God sees us in the crowds today. God sees us as we saddle up to friends, and instead of simply listening or affirming someone’s frustrations or sufferings, we offer explanations and answers, we think of hundreds of “if you just would do this” solutions, or we even act as judge, thinking of reasons why maybe they, in fact, deserve this suffering. God sees us as we scold a panhandler or judge a family living in a motel. God sees us when we judge someone’s addiction or mental health challenges as if they are not medical conditions. God sees us secretly wonder about whether someone’s suffering is a result of “bad karma.”
This summer, in the days before General Convention started, the House of Bishops held a listening liturgy for victims of sexual abuse in the church. The first-person accounts of twelve men and women were read by bishops. Unlike most of General Convention, where one person after another makes impassioned, but time-limited speeches at a podium, this was an opportunity to simply listen, to let the painful words fall on those gathered, and to make space for painful truth. The liturgy was made all the more powerful by having male and female bishops in purple clericals saying the words aloud – in essence, taking on the victim’s pain through their own voices, and ultimately, demonstrating the pain of individual victims belongs to the entire church. Resolutions, covenants, and task forces would follow, but for that hour and a half, everyone stopped and sat in the ashes, not presuming to speak for God, not explaining the suffering away like the friends of Job, or not trying to stifle the voices of the suffering like the crowd around Jesus.
The counter example to the friends of Job and the crowds are Job and Bartimaeus. Job could easily listen to his friends and turn his suffering inward, accepting his suffering is somehow his own fault or assuming his suffering is God’s way of casting Job out of favor and relationship. But unlike Job’s friends, who God proclaims refuse to speak to God in the midst of suffering, Job does nothing but speak for about forty chapters. Instead of abandoning his relationship with God as his friends do, Job does something different. “In the midst of his dark night, he dares to tell the truth of his life to his Creator. By lamenting, complaining, and shouting his discontent to the God he believes to be attacking him, he keeps his relationship with God alive.”[ii] As Biblical scholar Kathleen O’Connor explains, “In the midst of his abyss, Job holds fast to God; he argues, yells, and acts up in courage and fidelity; Job clings to his dignity as a human, maintains his integrity, and sets it without qualification before God.”[iii] Job understands that suffering is not an occasion to walk away from God, but to stay in brutally honest, painful, vulnerable conversation with God.
Bartimaeus seemed to embrace a similar relationship with Jesus. When Bartimaeus needs healing, he shouts out to Jesus – an uncouth, ugly, socially unacceptable, raw cry to Jesus. And when the crowd shushes him, he cries out even more loudly. Where the crowd wanted boundaries around Bartimaeus’ relationship with Jesus, Bartimaeus understands that relationship means staying in conversation, calling God to account, demanding presence with God.
Now the fact that Job is restored to wealth and wholeness and Bartimaeus’ sight is restored is not really the point. We could easily and cheaply want to say, “all you need to do is cry out to God and you get whatever you want.” You and I both know from firsthand experience that that is not how God works. As O’Connor explains, “It is not true that good things always come to good people, but it is true, as Job discovers, that new experience of life requires new ways of speaking to God.”[iv] What we see today in scripture is a model of how to engage with God throughout all of life’s journeys – the joys, the sorrows, the celebrations, the suffering. We are not promised a happy ending, but we are promised a transformed life when we stay in active, vulnerable, ugly conversation with God.
Today we are celebrating our blessing to belong to this faith community, and are offering our financial pledges to support the work and ministry of this place that has blessed us beyond measure. But our invitation today from scripture is to also celebrate the way in which we belong to God. For some of us, that invitation will be quite easy. We may be in a place where our love for the Lord is abundant, and we can happily proclaim our love. For others of us, that celebration may be more difficult, because, quite frankly, we are a bit angry with God, have lost trust in God, or are just trying to make it through this day. Part of our responsibility as a community who is blessed to belong here at Hickory Neck is embracing each one of us here and wherever we are in that journey with God. The blessing of this community is that no one here is going to be like the crowd or the friends of Job, telling you to get your relationship right with God. But we will sit with you in your suffering and celebrate the transformation of your life in Christ. Because we know part of being blessed to belong here at Hickory Neck means you will do the same for us someday. And that is a community I want to belong to everyday! Amen.
[i] Rolf Jacobson, “Sermon Brainwave #629 – Ordinary 30 (Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost),” October 20, 2018, http://www.workingpreacher.org/brainwave.aspx?podcast_id=1068, as found on October 24, 2018.
[ii] Kathleen M. O’Connor “Theological Perspective,” Feasting on the Word, Yr. B, vol. 4 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 196.
[iii] O’Connor, 198.
[iv] O’Connor, 194.