by Ken Sehested
Circle of Mercy Congregation, 8 October 2006
Text: Job 1:1; 2:1-10
Several things converged to inform my reflection this evening. One is that I simply want to take advantage of the wake of Marc Mullinax’s excellent sermon last week, when he preached on the topic “This I disbelieve.” Disbelieving is a crucial part of our vocation, as Marc so eloquently said. Afterward, I remembered a quote I heard years ago: The reason ancient Rome oppressed the early Christian community was not because Christians proclaimed that “Jesus is Lord.” The Roman authorities were actually quite tolerant of a variety of religious expressions. The thing that got them mad is that when Christians say “Jesus is Lord,” they were also saying “Caesar is NOT Lord.” In Rome, as in lots of places, it’s OK to be religious as long as you don’t threaten the existing order.
So I decided to flip the coin over to talk about “This I Believe.” As Marc and all our teachers know, students sometimes have to “unlearn” certain things in order for good learning to occur. In the same way, “disbelieving” is integral to deciding what we do in fact believe.
A second factor that shapes these comments has to do with all the bad news we’ve heard recently. Three school shootings in a week, the most horrific of which was the one in Lancaster, Pa., just a few miles from where Joyce grew up. A man still grieving over the death of his infant daughter 9 years earlier—and maybe still haunted by the memories of his abusing two children many years earlier—attacked what may be one of the most defenseless communities in our country, wounding 10 children (specifically female children—the gender choice was deliberate), killing five of them, in an Amish school house.
Old wounds, left untreated, often become broken records: They keep on playing the same line, over and over and over again. Keep on re-enacting the same violent response. Keep on screaming, like an infant that receives no comfort.
On a much larger level: Our war in Iraq now consumes $267,000,000 a day. Nearly 14 U.S. soldiers killed or wounded…every day. An average of 100 Iraqi civilian fatalities . . . every day.
A couple of weeks ago we lifted special prayers in light of the announcements by the New Vistas mental health program that they would be closing later this month. Four people in or related to this Circle will lose their jobs. And you can imagine the trauma that Carol Minton, chair of the New Vistas board of directors, has had to endure. Worst of all is the precarious existence of New Vistas’ clients in danger of losing medical care.
Consider this fact: The entire cost of New Vistas’ caseload—10,500 people in the 8 counties of Western NC—could be funded for a year with what we spend in three hours fighting the war in Iraq. Or, to give another frame of reference, New Vistas’ annual budget could be paid for with the amount it will take to build 250 feet of the 700-mile long wall Congress has approved building on the US-Mexican border.
It’s cause enough to make you wonder: What are the old wounds that feed this kind of national behavior? What unacknowledged traumas are turning us into a “Linus nation,” that makes us clutch ever more tightly to an ever-expanding security blanket?
It makes you wonder: What are the fears behind the recent U.S. Navy’s issuance of “Prepare to Deploy Orders,” for mobilization of an entire carrier group to the waters around Iran. Is it conceivable that the President is actually planning yet another war? Can it be true, as former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s recently said, that World War III has already begun?
Old wounds, stored up, ready to explode. And a dearth of vision for a truly new world order. Our is a modern dilemma to which an old text speaks: “Without a vision, the people perish.”
And then there’s the story of Job, today’s text. If you haven’t read Job’s account recently, I encourage you to do so. It is a genuine cross-cultural experience! And it’s among the most unorthodox books in all the Bible.
Starting right at the beginning. . . . where the heavenly council gathers. And who should show up, but Satan. Very strange. Actually, Satan’s name can be translated as “The Interrogator.” And he functions not so much as the ruler of the underworld of damned sinners, but as heaven’s own prosecuting attorney.
Satan actually dares God to put Job’s piety to a test. And God says OK—initially saying can do anything to Job’s circumstances but not to put Job himself at personal risk. When Job does not bend even after his family and his property are taken, the Interrogator says, “Well, sure, he’ll not curse you as long as you don’t threaten his own personal life.” So God says, OK, do what you will, just don’t kill him. And Satan inflicts Job with terrible sores, from his head to his feet. But still Job refuses to curse God.
What follows for a good part of the rest of the story is a long series of speeches which represent an extended conversation between Job and his so-called friends—Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar Ellihu—each of whom recite to Job some of the most revered and orthodox theology in Hebrew Scripture, trying to get Job to see that he’s got unrepented sin in life. But Job continues to insist on his innocence.
About the only thing most people know about Job is his supposed “patience.” But the fact is, Job gets very unpatient. And not just with his friends. Job actually challenges God to a debate. And, escalating even further, Job demands that he and God show up together before a courtroom judge.
If you ever felt the secret (or not so secret) urge to argue with God, here’s your biblical authority to do just that!
To our modern sensibilities, there’s just so many things about this story that embarrasses us, especially the portrait of God allowing a convincingly “righteous” person to suffer. But in fact it’s our failure to engage in cross-cultural understanding that obscures the question which the ancient author was posing. Namely, for what reason do we love God? Is it possible to love God for selfless reasons? If God provides no goodies for our consumption . . . if God does not provide a personal security detail for our peace of mind . . . if God is not in the business of bartered relationship—“you give me this, and I’ll be not only nice but very, very pious as well”—is there any other reason to love God?
You probably saw the story in the paper last week of a man who left threatening messages on the Buncombe County Democratic Party headquarters phone. He was sick and tired of receiving what they call those robocalls, the automated, voice-recorded messages that come to your home. I suspect we’ve all gotten a bunch of them recently, both from Charles Taylor and Heath Shuler.
The man who left those messages was quoted in the paper as saying: “I did all the nice things [to get them from calling me]. But nice didn’t work.”
Nice didn’t work for Job, either. Nice sometimes doesn’t work for us.
In case you haven’t read the remainder of the story, or in case you’ve forgotten, I’ll not give away the ending. It’s worth your trouble. . . which is not to say it’s easy to wrap your mind around. But I will give you a clue which has helped me understand the Job narrative. It’s a poem from the 8th century Sufi mystic, Rabia, when she wrote:
If I adore You out of fear of hell, burn me in hell.
If I adore You out of desire for paradise, lock me out of paradise.
But if I adore You alone, do not deny to me Your eternal beauty.
(Keep in mind that the Arabic word for “beauty” can just as easily be translated “truth,” or even the more colloquial “open arms,” as in “Do not deny to me your open arms.” It is this embrace that our hearts long for more than anything else. And, in fact, it is this embrace that unlocks our own capacity to embrace each other—even our enemies.)
Here in our Circle we will soon begin the process of planning for our fifth anniversary as a congregation. Those of you who’ve been here know that means we will ask of each other, yet again, “do you want to be here for another year?” If you’re new here, you need to know that membership in our Circle is not assumed from year to year. We ask everybody, even those who’ve been here since the beginning, to decide again. Seniority here gets you nothing, and there’s no hereditary membership. It’s kind of a hassle and requires more bookkeeping. But it’s a structural way that we press each other, year after year, to be clear, yet again, on why we’re here. It requires us to regularly push up against the question of what it is that we believe—and at least by implication, what we disbelieve.
There are many ways to say what it is we believe—and there are no words finally that can capture everything we believe about God. All human words are frail. But that doesn’t mean we collapse into silence, because words are the basic building blocks of communication, of human community.
So let me take a stab at saying what we believe. It has to do with old wounds and new visions.
We are all wounded. There’s no way to escape it. Getting wounded, physically and emotionally, is simply a part of life. Few wounds heal immediately or without our attention. One of the things we do here in this Circle is help each other heal from our wounds. We operate a kind of outpatient clinic, gathering regularly to open ourselves to the healing hands and the loving care which flows from the Spirit through the brothers and sisters which surround us.
Simultaneously, we are renewing our vision, for we believe, as Seamus Heaney said in his poem which we read as our pastoral prayer, that “a further shore is reachable from here.”
When I was in high school, one of the downtown streets in our city was changed from one-way to two-way traffic. One afternoon while driving I had this overwhelming sense of confusion. For a second, I thought I was in the “Twilight Zone.” A number of the signs on the street were familiar, but I was thoroughly confused about where I was. It suddenly occurred to me that for the first time I was driving the opposite direction on a very familiar street. I was disoriented because the sequence of signs was backward.
The process of spiritual formation is often like that. In those breakthrough moments, as the Spirit is reshaping our lives, our values, what we believe in, there is often a similar kind of disorientation. The “facts” are the same, but they are ordered according to a dramatically different pattern, and so the “facts” mean something else entirely.
This reorienting is what we do together, along with the work of healing old wounds.
So who are we?
We are not a social service agency, though there are times when some of our ministries and missions are expressed in those ways.
We are not a therapy group, though the healing of our hearts and souls is one of the results of our being together.
We are not a political advocacy group, though we are not hesitant to offer support or resistance to existing authorities.
And we are not simply a social club, though the relationships we build in the process of being together is surely a part of the glue which holds together everything else.
What we do here is to keep bringing each other back to the well; to continually rediscover the reason for our counter-cultural values; to be reminded again and again that Divine living in the world is intimately linked to Divine embrace.
Matthew Fox said it well: The paranoid and the mystic share something in common: but where paranoid persons believe there is a conspiracy in the universe against them, mystics on the other hand believe there is a conspiracy in the universe on their behalf.
It is this Divine Conspiracy to which we are called. Staying in touch with this Movement of the Spirit requires a lot of disbelieving in what we hear from the world. For indeed imperial powers always want to limit what is possible to what is available. We, on the other hand, believe something more is available and is therefore possible, even if we don’t live to see its fruition.
Old wounds. New visions. Does this agenda interest you? Soon you’ll have the chance to say so.
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