The Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
The world is full of suffering. So much of it feels incomprehensible and entirely demoralizing. Most of us, at one point or another in our lives, find ourselves asking how a just God can allow the suffering we see.
Sometimes the suffering is personal and individual. This summer I visited with a hospice patient who was dying, in her 40’s, and leaving behind children. She asked why God was letting this happen to her.
Sometimes the world’s suffering happens on a larger scale, either as a result of human frailty, or human evil. Yesterday we again heard the devastating news of a mass shooting in a congregation of people simply gathered for prayer, and in recent months we have watched the unfolding drama of persons fleeing persecution and violence in their homelands, looking for asylum in our own country, only to be turned away (at best) or put into detention.
And this is apart from the tragedy of millions losing their homes, businesses, and sometimes their lives to extreme weather events occurring (at least in part) because our species has been unwilling to make the changes that might alter the course of global warming.
How can God allow it? This is the question asked by an ancient poet who took an even more ancient legend and produced the Book of Job, in the Hebrew Scriptures, from which we have been hearing excerpts for the last three weeks, and then again this morning.
The legend that opens and closes Job is a pretty disturbing tale. The narrator tells us that a man named Job was a person of integrity, and without sin. He was fully blessed by wealth, family, and the respect of all who knew him.
One day it seems that things got boring in the heavenly court where God hung out with the angels, and was bragging about Job and Job’s faithfulness. An accusing angel suggested that Job was only faithful because he had it so easy. And so God and the Accuser decided to enter into a bet. God allowed the Accuser, Satan, to punish Job with terrible suffering, to determine whether Job would retain his faith or not.
And so Job’s sons and daughters were all killed in a terrible building collapse, and his servants and flocks likewise all died in a series of attacks by enemies, and finally, Job himself contracted a horrible disease. Despite his wife’s loss of faith – she urged him to “Curse God and die” – Job remained faithful.
“The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken;” he told her, “may the name of the Lord be blessed”*. This is the Job of whom James wrote in his Epistle, when he spoke of “the patience of Job”.
As Job sat, living with the losses that had befallen him, three of his friends came to visit, to mourn with and comfort him.
And then the great poem that constitutes the Book of Job begins, and it tells a different story than the one to which we had been listening.
The poet’s Job finds, in himself, a different voice, and he begins to cry out in outrage against the troubles that have befallen him.
God damn the day I was born, and the night that forced me from the womb…
Why couldn’t I have died as they pulled me out of the dark?
Now I would be at rest.
Job’s friends, who have sat silently with him up until this point, can’t live with this angry Job’s new attitude.
They are very certain of the way reality is structured – God rewards the just and punishes evildoers. The tragedies that have happened to their friend must be the result of SOME sin he has committed: he needs to acknowledge it, and perhaps God will show mercy.
For about 35 chapters, Job and his friends debate the question of whether his suffering is the result of his (or even his children’s) sin, with both sides becoming increasing more strident and insistent.
God doesn’t make mistakes, the friends argue – there must be something Job has forgotten, which has caused his punishment, and the sooner he acknowledges it, the better. He will only be getting himself into worse cahoots with God if he persists in his denials.
For his part, Job grows more and more adamant that God is not behaving with the justice that Job expects of God:
God does not care: so I say
he murders both the pure and the wicked.
How can I prove my innocence?
Do I have to beg him for mercy?
Job eventually addresses himself directly to God – demanding a reckoning, his day in court, as it were:
Grant me one thing only, and I will not hide from your face:
Accuse me…I will respond
Or let me speak, and answer me.
What crime have I committed,
and how have I sinned against you?
Why do you hide your face
As if I were your enemy?
And so eventually God does show up, and responds to Job in a voice out of the whirlwind.
But God does not give Job the answers he demands: instead, he gives Job more questions. In a stunning series of images, God asks Job, in effect, “what do you really know?”
Where were you when I planned the earth?
Have you ever commanded morning,
Or guided dawn to its place?
Do you hunt game for the lioness
And feed her ravenous cubs?
Do you tell the antelope to calve,
Or ease her when she is in labor?
Do you show the hawk how to fly,
Stretching his wings on the wind?
And, astonishingly, God acknowledges the validity of Job’s challenges:
Do you dare to deny my judgement?
Am I wrong because you are right?
And after hearing God’s words, Job is both silenced and satisfied:
I know you can do all things,
And nothing you wish is impossible.
I have spoken of the unspeakable
And tried to grasp the infinite.
I had heard of you with my ears
But now my eyes have seen you.
The translation we heard this morning, the New Revised Standard translation, has Job conclude with these words:
therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.
I much prefer the translation of poet Stephen Mitchell:
Therefore I will be quiet,
Comforted that I am dust.
The Book of Job concludes with a return to the original legend. God chastises Job’s friends:
You have not spoken the truth about me, as my servant Job has.
God rewards Job with a return to health and prosperity, and Job lives for a hundred and forty years and “dies at a very great age”.**
So does this help us to understand the world’s sufferings that we began with?
Of course it doesn’t.
What this magnificent text teaches us is that we’re not God, and we are not going to understand. It holds a mirror up to the foolishness of our desire to write the rules and define the terms. Like Job, we don’t command the morning, or feed the lioness’ cubs, or show the hawk how to fly.
Our job is to live the best lives we can and do as much good as we can, accepting as graciously as we can the troubles that come our way, without claiming the right to determine whether or not they are “fair”.
And the text teaches us something else as well.
It reminds us of the grace of God’s presence with us, even in our most painful times.
It reminds us that even in the reality of our pain, it’s not all about us. As Job discovered, there is some comfort in understanding that we are dust, and that we only need to be ourselves, that we don’t need to be God.
When terrible things happen, we need to grieve, and then, little by little, we need to move forward, back into the blessings that we lose sight of when we suffer loss.
Ours is a faith that the cross is followed by the resurrection. Our call is to embody God’s presence in the world, through our love and service.
IN the name of God. Amen
**All quotations from Job in this sermon (except where otherwise noted) are from the Stephen Mitchell translation, published by Harper Perennial, 1987
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
Christian communities throughout the world are observing “Creation Season” in the month of September, running through October 4, the feast day commemorating the life of Francis of Assisi.
So what is Creation Season, and what’s the big deal?
Following Jesus, being Christian, is about relationship. It’s about our call to direct our lives more and more into right relationship with God and right relationship with our neighbor, with the help of the Holy Spirit. Following Jesus is about realigning and tuning the ways in which we live to be more like the example that Jesus gave us, in his own life: J lived in right relationship to God and to all that was around him.
In Creation Season, we extend our awareness and concern beyond our relationshis with our fellow humans, which is ordinarily our focus, to encompass, also, our relationship with the natural world that God has given us. It is our blessing to come to know God through the beauty and power of the world we live in. It is also our work to live our lives in ever greater stewardship of “this fragile earth, our island home”. Creation Season is a time when deepen our awareness of this.
I grew up in suburbia, in the greater NY area. We didn’t think about where our trash went or about how we heated our homes. Of course there would always be plenty of water! I took a lot for granted. I didn’t feel connected to folks in other parts of the world where people living in different geography and climate struggled to feed themselves. I certainly didn’t think about ways in which the choices my family and nation made affected those people’s lives, or affected the natural world itself.
Today we know differently. We face an unprecedented crisis of climate change. It’s caused by fossil fuel use affecting the atmosphere, raising temperatures, and changing the ecosystem in which we live. It is caused by destruction of huge areas of ecosystem for the purpose of economic gain. Hurricane Florence, currently devastating the coast of the Carolinas, is testimony to the reality of climate change.
This summer, record-breaking heat waves swept the globe. The global heat wave caused deadly fires not only in our own western states, but above the Arctic Circle as well. We’re on track to join 2015, 2016, and 2017 as the four hottest years on record.
Here in beautiful Western Mass we are largely protected from the most devastating effects of climate change. It is the poorest people of the world who are most impacted by the damage that the choices of the developed world has caused.
I read this week that what has been the strongest and thickest ice in the Arctic is breaking up for the first time. Scientists are worried that when the polar bears who hibernate in Greenland emerge next spring they will find that their hunting grounds may have literally floated away.
Back to what I learned growing up – while I heard a lot in church about God caring about humans, no one ever said anything about God caring for the rivers or the trees or the other living creatures that inhabit our world. We were very complacent, and we were arrogant.
The indigenous peoples of the world have always recognized that the world itself is sacred, that the whole of nature reflects the presence and power of God. Francis had an inkling of it in his tribute to Brother Sun and Sister Moon.
Scientists are discovering amazing things about the other beings with whom we share the planet. I understand that octopi have a range of personalities, solve problems, play jokes and share affection with marine scientists.
The book The Hidden Life of Trees makes the argument that that trees are social beings that can count, learn, remember, and warn each other of impending danger.
Surely, God cares deeply about this beautiful and complex system that God created and, according to scripture, declared to be “good”.
Surely nature and its creatures are beloved of God, just as we and God’s other human children are beloved.
Surely, God calls for us to care responsibly for this world that God has entrusted to us.
In today’s gospel from Mark, J begins to teach the disciples that following him means losing one’s life. It’s a critical point in the gospel:
Peter has the right answer – “You are the Messiah” – but Peter doesn’t understand what that means. And so J begins to teach them a truth that goes completely against the grain and is so incomprehensible that even up to the very end, they can’t absorb it:
Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.
This teaching is, again, about relationship. Being in right relationship means being willing to sacrifice. Loving means willingly losing those things that make us comfortable, that let us feel safe, for the sake of the loved one.
I think that taking seriously our responsibility for creation is one of the ways that we need to “lose our lives”.
I do not like thinking about the ways in which we are destroying the environment, and I frequently avoid it.
But we all need to work on this if we love God and want to follow Jesus. We’re not going to reverse the environmental damage that we human beings have done so far, but that is no excuse for not trying.
I invite all of us to pause and see, hear, smell, taste and feel the presence of God in the world around us.
I encourage all of us to take this Creation Season as an opportunity to think about the things that none of us like to think about in relation to the ways in which the environment is suffering, and to learn more about what we can change to make things better.
I hope that in this Creation Season every one of us will commit to doing some of the things that will make it better – to making some of the small changes that together will make a difference.
I ask you to pray about these things – to pray for greater wisdom and resolution for all of us, and particularly for those who hold the authority to make the big decisions that impact our world.
For the next four weeks we will be using the creation care liturgy we are using this morning. May its words help us to remember that we are part a beautiful, complex web that is loved by God, and may we learn to love it in ways that preserve it.
And let us also believe and trust that God is at work through us and beyond us and that our sincere efforts to love and care for God’s world will help God heal the planet. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Molly Scherm
On this second Sunday of Easter we read Thomas’ story. We read it in all three lectionary cycles, making it the ONLY one of the post-resurrection stories that we hear every single year. The story includes Jesus’ breathing the Holy Spirit on the disciples, but most of the content of the story is about Thomas.
I saw a cartoon online this week that illustrates the fact that poor Thomas seems to be indelibly linked to this story of his questioning the other disciples’ report of Jesus’ resurrection. In the cartoon, he is addressing two other disciples: “They don’t call you “Denying Peter”, or “Ran-away-naked Mark”. Why can’t I catch a break?”
So I want to spend some time with the Thomas story, but first, I ask you to take a brief side trip with me, to pause and take note of John’s statement that when Jesus came among the disciples, the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews. The Evangelist John speaks about “the Jews” 71 times in his gospel, almost always in a negative light. By contrast, the other three gospels counted together refer to “the Jews” 16 times: Matthew, Mark, and Luke are more inclined to refer specific groups of Jewish leaders such as the Pharisees, or the Priests and Scribes as opponents of Jesus.
John was written at a time when there was very significant animosity between the Jewish Christians following Jesus, including John’s community, and those Jews who remained loyal to Jewish tradition and did not recognize Jesus as the Promised One. Scholars generally agree that John’s negativity toward “the Jews” is a reflection of this dynamic characterizing the time when John’s Gospel took shape.
I think it’s important to notice and remind myself of this every time I come across John’s bias. Such claims as “the Jews killed Jesus” have fueled antisemitism throughout history, and I think it is important for us to be very intentional in recognizing and rejecting those roots of anti-semitic prejudice found in Christian scripture.
But back to Thomas!
Here’s what I want to suggest: It’s time to rethink Thomas. Everything we have known about Thomas up to this point in the story tells us that he is a pragmatist, a realist, and a truth-teller. He is the one who, when Jesus was going to raise Lazarus, urged the disciples to go with him even though, he pointed out, it might mean their own deaths. And then in Chapter 14, when Jesus is telling the disciples where he is going when he dies and assure them that they know where this is, it is Thomas who is willing to speak up and admit that they have no clue what Jesus is talking about. He is just not into the mystical stuff.
On that afternoon of the third day – and notice that whereas WE are a week into Easter season, John’s story takes place the very day that the disciples have heard Mary’s story of seeing Jesus in the garden – the disciples are together, locked in together because they are frightened. But Thomas is not with them.
Where is he? John doesn’t tell us. Bishop Fisher published a column this week in which asserts his belief that Thomas is out on the streets carrying on with Jesus’ ministry of mercy, compassion, and hope. I’m not sure I’m that optimistic.
I do think that in his pragmatic way Thomas is doing what he can to get on with life. I think he’s trying to figure out what comes next and is probably just someone who does his thinking best outside, on the move. Thomas is grieving, absorbing and processing the memories of Jesus’ terrible death, and with his death, the end of the hopes and dreams Thomas nurtured during his time with Jesus. He’s working on seeing a new alternative. (Maybe the Bishop is right and he’s out feeding the hungry – I could be wrong.)
So when he gets back to the disciples’ lodgings, and hears that they, too, have seen Jesus, he doesn’t just doubt, he honestly can’t believe it. It is too implausible, too much. I think his remark about seeing and feeling Jesus’ wounds is not so much a serious request as it is a statement of how absurd he finds his friends claims to be. I think his statement is the equivalent of saying “Yeah, I’ll believe it when pigs fly.”
But, of course, Thomas’ perspective does change. The risen Christ appears to him, too, in the very same place, a week later. Jesus comes to Thomas in the flesh, offering the very wounds that Thomas has claimed to want to see without ever believing that he might.
Thomas the realist, the pragmatist, has his entire understanding of reality upended. What he never imagined to be possible is actually true and undeniable. Thomas discovers that his reality was much too small, and his vision much too limited. In seeing and hearing from the risen Christ he is given a new understanding of what is possible, of what God can do. He does not hesitate before declaring “My Lord and my God.”
I get Thomas. I try to be practical, and I tend to be a realist, and this often results in my seeing the limitations rather than the possibilities. I don’t thinki I’m alone in this. I think that often when we “expect the worst” even as we “hope for the best”, we do so to protect ourselves from disappointment. We don’t want to be let down. We want to be prepared for the things that can harm us so that perhaps they won’t cause us pain.
I remember years ago when I was teaching having an advisee who was trying out for a readership position that I was quite certain she wouldn’t get. I was worried about how her self-confidence would be undermined. I tried to – in a gentle way – lay the groundwork for rationalizing the rejection I expected her to be facing. I remember telling her that sophomores are almost never selected for something like this, and that I was confident that she’d be chosen in another year or two, if not now. I was soon astonished, because she was chosen!
How might life be different, for those of us who tend to expect things to be the way we’ve always known them, if our minds and hearts could remember and trust that God’s abundant grace is always ready to surprise us? What miracles await our discovery?
When Jesus calls Thomas to faith, Jesus is inviting Thomas into a greater vision. He calls him to focus on possibility rather than failure, on abundance rather than scarcity, on forgiveness and reconciliation rather than on the burden of remembered offenses.
Can we dare to think large? Can we look beyond our fears and our discouragement to trust in God’s grace that, working through us, can do more than we ask or imagine?
God give us the grace to do so.
We believe God is calling us to cultivate a community of love, joy, hope, and healing. Jesus is our model for a life of faith, compassion, hospitality, and service. We strive to be affirming and accessible, welcoming and inclusive; we seek to promote reconciliation, exercise responsible stewardship, and embrace ancient traditions for modern lives.