Changing the Question

A sermon preached on selections from the book of Job.

The world is full of seemingly unanswerable questions:
How can you tell when sour cream goes bad?
How much sin can I get away with and still go to heaven?
Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour?
Why does it seem that matter can neither be created nor destroyed?
Is light a particle or a wave?
Is the universe finite or infinite?
If God is omnipotent, Why does God allow suffering to happen?
If God is omniscient… Why Charleston

Unanswerable questions serve an important purpose. Whether they happen in jokes or in science or real life, their function is not only to open up new possibilities but also to create some boundaries around what is meant to be discovered by a particular question.

So the question “How can you tell when sour cream goes bad?” isn’t a question about the nature of sour cream, how much it costs, what it weighs. But since sourness is the way we tell if dairy products have gone over, what has to be discovered in order to determine whether sour cream is still useable?

In truth, these kinds of questions aren’t all useful for gathering information. They really are meant to give voice to the internal struggle of the ones asking. This is what we forget when we think about suffering and in particular, when we think about suffering using the story of Job as template for understanding.

If Job were asking the kinds of questions intended to gather empirical data to prove a theory, or if he were asking the questions necessary to prove a legal case in court, he would be fighting a losing battle, almost right from the get-go. God doesn’t have to work very hard to show Job that the way of the cosmos is beyond his understanding. All God has to do is ask: “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
Have you said to the sea: ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? Do you know the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?”

Ummm. No.

So what if Job isn’t asking research questions. What if Job is standing alone, launching a protest movement before God – not seeking the answer to the question: “Why do you allow this?” but rather insisting that God remember – remember what is righteous… remember why God created humanity and the cosmos in the first place? What if we begin to see Job in a new way: not someone drowning in grief, not lost in self-pity, but standing with a fist shaken toward heaven: “You’re better than this, God! I know it! And you do too!”

Though he has every right to, Job never turns away from God with hatred and disgust. He never denies God’s existence. He never says: “If God can’t bring an end to suffering, then God must not be God at all.” Instead of giving up, and walking away from what he could rightly interpret as an unjust God, he turns to dissent. He confronts his dogmatic understanding of a dogmatic God and turns his suffering into an act of defiant protest.

Job launches a full frontal assault by accusing God: You denied me justice. You seem to delight in tormenting, harrassing, hunting and mauling. I see you as sadistic and devious.

Job’s words are the keening wail of lament are more than just a cry before God. They are meant to engage his friends and neighbors too. The people around him have the opportunity to become not just witnesses to the pain he feels but collaborators and co-workers in the struggle to work for righteousness.

Unfortunately for Job, his friends don’t get it. These people of status and power, Job’s equals, have come to commiserate with their comrade. They, like Job had been given more than most – and they, like him had so much to lose. Out of their fears, rather than joining him in his moment of crisis, they move into default mode: trying to answer the unanswerable question – Why is God allowing this to happen?

Their responses are predictable and familiar to us: God has a plan. God’s ways are invisible to us. We’ll understand it by and by. And worst of all: Since God is good and can only do good things, maybe you HAVE done something wrong and you just didn’t realize it.

Job’s friends spent all their energy trying to figure out why these terrible things were happening. And as a result, they were of absolutely no help to Job. So what should his friends be doing?

But we’ve all heard these words before. Maybe a well-meaning friend said them to us. Maybe we’ve even said them when we struggled to find something to say to a friend or loved one whose suffering was too much for us to bear. We all look for answers in these times. And the only way to change the answers is to ask a different question. What if, the question isn’t: “Why does God allow suffering?” and “What have they done to deserve this?” What if we begin to ask the question that emerges out of Job’s protest to God.

O God! What is to be done about this suffering!?

If Job’s lament is really a call for help, and if his friends are listening too, they, with God, must hear: “Why are you standing there and listening. How can you tolerate my suffering?”

Though Job’s lament may begin with an accusation of God, in the end, we need to wrestle with why Job’s friends, who are made in Gods image, allow Job’s suffering to continue? Why we, who see so much suffering around us keep asking why God allows it instead of asking: how has God gifted/called us to bring comfort, to end suffering in whatever form we see it?

What if to be like Job is to live into the image of a loving and creative God that is in each one of us and resist suffering with all our might? What if being like Job means we show our grief and lament the pain and suffering we see and then stand in solidarity with those who are in pain?

Imagine what would happen if we heard the laments of the chronically ill, the lonely, those suffering from mental illness and joined the work of being a gracious companion who visits and accompanies those who are hurting. Imagine what it would be like if we not only showed our outrage in the face of injustice but got to work to right the wrongs we see!

Imagine what it would look like if when we heard about the shootings in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston or arson in black churches, we joined hearts, minds and strength not just to weep and mourn, but to confront the systems and behaviors that foster racial injustice in our own community as a way to be part of the larger effort to bring an end to racism in all its manifestations!

This might seem like a super-human task… Overwhelming in its scope, considering the resistance we are likely to encounter. Impossible even, given our capacity to make enormous mistakes and to fall short of the goals we set. But it seems that if we are to live as children of God, with that image imprinted on our souls, then we are called to do God’s work. It’s time to change the question.

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