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Losing My Religion

Jarrett McLaughlin
November 8, 2020
Job 1 and 2 (selections)
“Losing My Religion”

Pre-Scripture:

I have a friend.  This friend is quite persuasive.  I once helped him drive cross country.  We had ten days to get him the 2800 miles or so to Seattle and we intended to spend as much of that time hiking and camping out west.

Our solution was to leave Richmond at 6:00 am and we didn’t stop for anything other than food and gas until we hit Cody, Wyoming.  It was dark all the way through Nebraska…Perfect, right?

Cody, however, was not part of the plan.  It was there that we began to hear this horrible grinding sound whenever we tapped the brakes….and seeing that we were about to drive on some of the steeper roads in the continental 48, working brakes sounded like a priority.

But there was one problem: it was Memorial Day weekend – and among the 10,000 souls that call Cody Wyoming home, there were no mechanics open until Tuesday.  This was a setback.  But first order of business was to find lodging.  There was a hotel in town – but it cost an exorbitant $80 some dollars a night and – well – that just seemed too expensive for a couple of students on a budget.  So we kept looking.

As I mentioned, my friend is persuasive – like Jedi mind tricks persuasive.  We’re walking around downtown Cody and we see a Bed and Breakfast with a moving truck out front.  He snaps his fingers and says “Here’s the plan – we’re going to help those folks move that furniture in and they’re going to let us stay there for free.”

He walks in, throws his hands in the air yelling out “Hey friends!” like it’s a family reunion.  Mary, the new owner, gives him that slightly alarmed “Do I know you?” look – he tells her the plan and the whole time I’m inching closer to the door because I’m sure this will never work – but what do you know…she says “that sounds like a good idea.”  We move furniture with her husband John, her son Brad and a family friend Peter for no more than two hours – then she hands us the keys to the cottage out back.

But it doesn’t stop there – the realtor who had just brokered the sale stops in and she’s having a dinner that night and we absolutely must come she says – 6:00 pm.  We show up very punctually in the way that only free food can command – we’re mingling, making small talk…turns out the friend Peter is a masseuse.  “I’ve set up my chair in the back if you want a massage.”  My buddy says “after all that sofa lifting today…I don’t mind if I do.”

Over dinner we’re all talking and somebody finally asks the question I’d been waiting for all day long: “What are you guys doing here anyway?”  We tell them about our predicament with the brakes and how there’s no mechanics open until Tuesday morning.  The son Brad pipes up and says “I’m a mechanic…I’ll change your brake pads …just pay me for the parts ands I’ll take care of it first thing tomorrow morning.”

I look at my friend and say “Son – I don’t know how you manage to coast through such a semi-charmed kind of life, but for now can I just say how happy I am to be along for the ride?”

Sometimes – sometimes – everything goes your way.

Other times…it’s the complete opposite.  Allow me to introduce you to our Biblical brother Job who goes from high on the hog to down in the dumps just like that.  Selections from the first and second chapter of Job

There was once a man whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil…

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and the Satan also came among them. The Lord said to the Satan, “Where have you come from?” Satan answered the Lord, “From going to and fro on the earth, and from walking up and down on it.” The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” Then Satan answered the Lord, “Does Job fear God for nothing? 10 Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side? 11 But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has, and he will curse you to your face.” 12 The Lord said to Satan, “Very well, all that he has is in your power; only do not stretch out your hand against him!”

13 One day a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were feeding beside them, 15 and the Sabeans fell on them and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 16 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The fire of God fell from heaven and burned up the sheep and the servants, I alone have escaped to tell you.” 17 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “The Chaldeans made a raid on the camels and carried them off, and killed the servants with the edge of the sword; I alone have escaped to tell you.” 18 While he was still speaking, another came and said, “Your sons and daughters were eating and drinking wine in their eldest brother’s house, 19 and suddenly a great wind came across the desert, struck the house, and it fell on the young people, and they are dead; I alone have escaped to tell you.”

20 Then Job arose, tore his robe, shaved his head, and fell on the ground and worshiped. 21 He said, “the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”  In all this Job did not sin or charge God with wrongdoing.

One day the heavenly beings came to present themselves before the Lord, and Satan also came among them to present himself before the Lord.  The Lord said to Satan, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth.  He still persists in his integrity, although you incited me against him, to destroy him for no reason.” Then the Satan answered, “Skin for skin! All that people have they will give to save their lives. But stretch out your hand now and touch his bone and his flesh, and he will curse you to your face.” The Lord said to the Satan, “Very well, he is in your power; only spare his life.”

So the Satan went out from the presence of the Lord, and inflicted loathsome sores on Job from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head. Job took a potsherd with which to scrape himself, and sat among the ashes.

Then his wife said to him, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God, and die.” 10 But he said to her, “You speak as any foolish [one] would speak. Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” In all this Job did not sin…with his lips.

11 Now when Job’s three friends heard of all these troubles that had come upon him, each of them set out from his home—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar. They met together to go and console and comfort him. 12 When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud. 13 They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.

This is the word of the Lord
THANKS BE TO GOD

Sermon:

The story of Job is hard and sad.  While you can scarcely find somebody whose life is as tragic as Job’s, plenty among us have stood at the abyss of profound loss, asking “why me?  Why us?  Why him?  Why her?  Why them?”
As much as we may grasp for answers, there are some things that will never make sense.

In a nutshell – Job begins from that assumption – tragedy has no logic or reason.  It just…is.

A lot of times we go to the Bible expecting that it will give us answers, but Job stubbornly resists platitudes and easy answers.  If anything Job is a book that complicates our image of God.

I find it most disconcerting to read about God making wagers with his most faithful servant, and I think that’s the point.  This is where it’s important to recognize what genre of literature we are operating in.

My experience of reading Job is not unlike the day in 9th grade English class when my teacher handed us a packet of stapled Xeroxed pages that read
“A Modest Proposal” by Jonathan Swift.  It read

I think it is agreed by all parties, that the prodigious number of children in the arms of their mothers…is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom, a very great additional grievance; and therefore whoever could find out a fair, cheap and easy method of making these children sound and useful members of the common-wealth, would deserve so well of the publick, as to have his statue set up…

YAWN! Went my 14 year old brain.  More social commentary from way back when…but then I kept reading:

I have been assured by a very knowing American that a young. healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious, nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled

Wait, wait – did he just suggest that they…eat children?!?
That was my introduction to satire – the intentional exaggeration of one point of view to demonstrate just how absurd a situation has become.

As I understand it, the narrative prologue of Job is cut from a similar cloth.  Yes we have God playing fast and loose with a real human being – but if I understand the text…this is less about describing what God is like.  Rather, it confronts the reader with the question – do you really think God is up there playing games with our destiny?

The Bible is less a book and more a collection of books – which means that it speaks with different voices.  Large portions of the Old Testament were shaped by what scholars call the Deuteronomic voice.  The Deuteronomists believed that there is a consistent, moral order at play in the universe.  To capture it in a couple of well-worn cliches –
“Everything happens for a reason.”
And
“What goes around comes around.”

Are you blessed?  You must be doing something right.

Are you suffering?  Well, what did you do wrong?
In the Deuteronomist’s perspective – suffering is proof that God is not pleased with you.

If the Hebrew Bible is dominated by that Deuteronomic voice, you can think of Job as the minority report.

To fully understand the prologue, it’s important to look at what follows.  What follows is a poetic, back and forth conversation between Job and his three friends that lasts for 36 chapters.  36 chapters of Job fumbling for some reason to his suffering, insisting on his innocence, all the while his friends keep reciting the Deuteronomic party line – “Job – you would not be suffering like this if you hadn’t done something wrong.”

And what we the readers witness is the complete unraveling of a man’s faith in light of his own suffering.  A couple weeks ago I showed you the cover to the album Murmur with all the Kudzu on it.  If I may keep throwing bones to the REM crowd, it would not be unfounded to catch Job singing:

That’s me in the corner – that’s me on the ash heap – losing my religion.  Trying to keep up with you.  And I don’t know if I can do it.  Oh no, I’ve said too much…I haven’t said enough…

That chorus would fit just fine in Job’s mouth because the man has A LOT to say to God
Here’s just a sample:

Who would do a good job reading this dramatically?

I would speak to the Almighty,
“Let me have silence, and I will speak,
and let come on me what may.
See, the Lord may kill me; I have no hope;
but I will defend my ways to his face.

Whoo!  Now that is what I call defiant!  But here’s the thing – even with all that defiance, Job still lives under the thumb of that Deuteronomic understanding of God.  His defiance is still rooted in this belief that suffering happens for a reason – that God has punished him unjustly.  He has not left that belief behind…not yet.

The brilliance of this book lies in how it subverts your expectations.  The prologue sets you up to think that this is little more than a hero’s test – will Job remain faithful even when material and family blessing has been stripped away?  And at first you get this Job who loses all of his possessions and his children and he still says “The Lord has given and the Lord has taken away – blessed be the name of the Lord.”  Prologue Job makes you feel guilty for ever feeling angry with God.

But then in the heart of the book you have this other Job who is spitting mad – who relentlessly argues with the Lord.  The contrast is enough to make some scholars wonder if this isn’t rather two different writings jammed together.

That could be true – but I can imagine these two Jobs being a single person just fine.  When that house collapsed on Job’s children, the foundations of his theological world are shaken – and yes he still clings to his faith to make meaning out of that tragedy – because that’s what we do in times of sudden loss.  It’s so… human.

But consider the prologues second episode – the story loops in a way with the same heavenly court, the same conversation between God and the Satan, but this time permission is granted to inflict those sores on Job.  The one thing that does change is Job’s response.  He angrily lashes out at his wife saying “Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” And then the narrator says “In all this Job did not sin with his lips.”  That’s different from before.

He may not be able to suss it all out at once, but I wonder if the narrator is hinting to us that something is shifting inside Job’s heart…something he can’t articulate with his lips just yet – that this what-goes-around-comes-around theology is on its last leg and about to dissolve for good.

That may be one more way Job distinguishes itself from other parts of the Bible.  Scripture often narrates these moments of instantaneous conversion – think about the Conversion of Saul we read just a few weeks ago.

I wonder if Job nods to the fact that sometimes revelations take time and we do not quickly let go of our long-held beliefs.

So that is Job – the Hebrew Bible’s great minority report.
Some may find that this book does nothing but muddy the water – confusing our understanding of who God is and how God operates.
I, for one, appreciate what brother Job offers us.

He reminds us that God will not fit in any box of our design.
He warns us that what we say about God matters.
Careless God-talk can tie us up in psychic knots that take years to unravel.  So let us to the best of our ability speak truthfully of God:­

That suffering isn’t punishment for our misdeeds;
And God does not sit in heaven cooking up catastrophes for us.

I’ll be honest with you – this sermon is being filmed on Thursday in a week that has yielded an incredibly close and contentious election.  In this moment – we still have no idea what is going to happen…perhaps it will be more clear by Sunday.  Perhaps not.  SO what shall we say about God this week?

Some may find themselves – like Job – sitting on the ash heap in mourning.
Others – like my incredibly persuasive friend – may feel like everything is going their way.

Whatever the state of your soul may be –
Let us speak truthfully and remember that God is not careless with our lives…not yesterday; not today; certainly not tomorrow.  Amen.

Jarrett McLaughlin , Pastor

Email: jarrett@upcch.org

Phone: 919.929.2102 ext. 112

Bio:

Jarrett grew up in Raleigh, North Carolina where he had a pretty regular childhood – riding bikes around the neighborhood, muddling through school, trying to play various sports (emphasis on try), going through a phase of wearing lots of black in high school, and through it all, always finding a place of welcome in the Church. Jarrett became a “traitor” to his NC State traditioned family when he went to UNC-Chapel Hill for college.  Missing youth group terribly, Jarrett quickly discovered Presbyterian Campus Ministry where, in addition to exploring his call to ministry, he also met Meg. After college, Jarrett served as a youth minister for one year and then spent another year traveling, spending a great deal of time in Port-au-Prince, Haiti living in community with disabled children at Wings of Hope. He then went to Union-PSCE Seminary (now “Union Presbyterian Seminary”) and then went on to serve as an associate pastor for mission and young adult ministry at Village Presbyterian Church in Kansas City.  In June of 2013 Jarrett and Meg accepted a call to serve as co-pastor Heads-of-Staff at Burke Presbyterian Church. In July of 2013 they learned that they would be expecting. In August of 2013 they learned they would be expecting twins.  In September of 2013 they moved and told the Church all of this on their second Sunday. Jarrett is very much looking forward to NOT repeating that pattern as they accept the call to serve University Presbyterian Church. When not engaged at Church, Jarrett enjoys running and hiking.  He is also an obsessive music fan intent on keeping up with independent music of all kinds – reading blogs and record reviews, scoping out live shows and constantly spinning tunes in the car, home or office.  Most of all, Jarrett has a deep passion for the Church as a place of radical welcome and hospitality and tries his best every day to honor the ways he has experienced that in his own life as grace upon grace.