Christina Kukuk Sermon: “Kin to Sorrow 1” (October 18, 2020)
October 18, 2020 / “Kin to Sorrow: Reflections on Suffering with Job” Series / Congregational UCC, Ashland, OR // Rev. Christina G. Kukuk // “Once Upon a Time: The Set-Up”: Job 1:1-22;
That year, it just seemed to be one thing after another. That year, my friend out in Minnesota could not get a break – no matter how hard the rest of us were praying for her to get one. Three months before she was due to deliver her first child, she got a call from her father in North Dakota. Her mother had suffered a stroke. It was unclear whether she would recover. So my friend, in her last months of pregnancy, drove back and forth almost every week to set with her father and brother at her mother’s bedside. She stood vigil, as families will, even though her own relationship with her mother was fraught with a history pain and hurt and abuse and control. She never got the chance to work any of that out while her mother lived. The first stroke took away her mother’s ability to speak. A second stroke killed her. Two weeks after delivering little Henry, (the birth itself a harrowing experience), my friend drove back to North Dakota for the funeral. Six months later, while she was still reeling from the loss of her mother, the pain and struggle of new motherhood, and a baby who never slept well, my friend’s spouse got laid off from his job. Bye-bye health insurance and thank God for the Medicaid that at least covered the baby. That year, my friend faced one devastation after another. Whether she ever yelled out loud to God or not, I do not know. But I do know I shouted to the sky on her behalf, at least once: Is this some kind of cruel joke, God? Can’t these people get a break? (Pause)
Perhaps this has happened to you. Or perhaps it was one of your friends or family members who endured some relentless pile-on of suffering. One of my first favorite poets, Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote “Am I kin to sorrow / that so oft / Falls the knocker of my door / neither loud nor soft / But as long accustomed / Under Sorrow’s hand?” Some years it’s just one thing after another, after another, after another. You don’t have to work my kind of job to find yourself in a hospital room next to a human being who’s been to hell and back as they ask, “Is this some kind of cruel joke, God?” (Pause)
My own theory is that the storyteller behind the book of Job found himself or herself in just such a place, the desolate place of innocent suffering. And in this place, with the question, “Where is God in this?” ringing in her ears, she told this tale:
“There once was a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job.” Like an old fairytale, she spins this yarn. There once was a man who was blameless (see, it is fiction) and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil. This man had all the blessings we’d expect of one who lived rightly: the perfect number of children, the perfect herds of livestock, and all the help he needed to care for his wealth. But one ill-fated day, in the midst of the heavenly council’s morning meeting, God singles out Job in conversation with the Accuser. [In Hebrew, the word is ha-satan, meaning the Accuser, Heaven’s Prosecuting Attorney, as it were. The Accuser roams the planet to catch humans breaking the rules.] God takes an opportunity to brag on Job. “There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man.” The Accuser decides to call God’s bluff: “Does Job fear God for nothing? Have you not put a fence around him and his house and all that he has, on every side?” You’re protecting him, the Accuser says. It’s easy to be faithful when life is going great. But take away his wealth or safety or future, and then see what happens. And that’s exactly what the God in this story does. “Very well,” God says, “all that he has is in your power.” Calamity gets unleashed. One day, messenger after messenger arrives with news of loss and devastation. Job rips his clothes and throws ashes on his head in grief, falls on the ground and… worships? “In all this,” the storyteller says, “Job did not sin.” God, on the other hand, does not come off well. Today, we get the set-up. (Pause)
This is a set-up. In a way this first scene imagines one of our deepest suspicions: That humans are puppets in a world where God pulls the strings, sometimes benevolently, but other times devastatingly. In this opening chapter, Job is a pawn. And with this first scene… comes a direct challenge to “God as the Big Guy Up There Who Pulls Strings.” We could dismiss this as a silly fairytale and read no further. A God who plays with human lives in a game of one-upmanship with Satan? Puh-leez. Barbaric. Prehistoric and pre-scientific superstition. And yet… And yet, how often have we hoped for a God who can pull strings? For ourselves or our loved ones? I’ve heard everything from a prayer request for a good barber to a winning game to finding the right parking space to a mother prayer her daughter finds THE prom dress I the right size and color and none of these were joking. I don’t belittle prayer in anyway, and there is nothing too small for prayer, but I wonder: How much does the Accuser’s question still fit us today? How often do we bargain: “If I do this for you God, then I’ll do this.” The Accuser’s question is a good one for any spiritual pathway: Am I taking on this spirituality or religion in order to finally avoid suffering? With this path inoculate me against pain? There’s a new-thought version of the set-up portrayed in this first chapter of Job, an insistence that if we are aligned and our intensions are right we can manifest peace and prosperity. We can call security into being. Even if this Puppeteer in the Sky doesn’t have a face – perhaps we call it the Universe instead of God – there’s a spiritual pawn broker behind the curtain just the same.
In the parable of Job, God acts like a pawn broker. At least, that’s the set-up. But that little question in the mouth of the accuser works ironically, asking us, the audience, to ask ourselves: Is this really why we worship God? Because we want something out of it. If so, is this really the God we want to believe? Or is a pawn-broker God too small to truly be God in the face of human suffering? (Pause)
That’s the first question Job gives us to ponder in this parable. It won’t be the last. But the blessing of this “once upon a time” story is that it gives us room to ask questions about our time, our lives, and the devastations we’ve faced in them. Job is the longest treatment on suffering in the Bible, and the story invites us to gather as a community not unlike the early church where the suffering, the cheerful, the sick and the sorry alike are called to share their lives. Bit by bit, as the story unfolds, false gods that are really too small for our real lives get dismantled. As the storyteller tells her tale, bit by bit, we too get a chance to move from a puppet-string spirituality to a much bigger God… and a much bigger faith.
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