Between the Universe and Ashes: A Sermon

**Originally preached for the 4:00 Jazz Service at Fourth Presbyterian Church – Chicago on Oct. 18, 2015.**

Job 38:1-7, 34-41

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
‘Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?
Gird up your loins like a man,
I will question you, and you shall declare to me.

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?
Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go
and say to you, “Here we are”?
Who has put wisdom in the inward parts,
or given understanding to the mind?
Who has the wisdom to number the clouds?
Or who can tilt the waterskins of the heavens,
when the dust runs into a mass
and the clods cling together?

‘Can you hunt the prey for the lion,
or satisfy the appetite of the young lions,
when they crouch in their dens,
or lie in wait in their covert?
Who provides for the raven its prey,
when its young ones cry to God,
and wander about for lack of food?

———————————————————

In general, movie days in class during high school were only exciting to the extent that they got us out of long-winded lectures, pop quizzes, and other more effort-dependent pursuits. The movies themselves tended to seem boring, dated, and irrelevant. For me, one of the only exceptions was the 1989 modern classic “Dead Poets Society” which I first encountered in my 11th grade English class.

Set at a prestigious all-boys boarding school in New England in 1959, the movie follows a group of young men caught up in a system that guarantees their success in every traditional way, but denies them freedom of imagination and self-exploration.  Their new English teacher Mr. Keating—himself a graduate of the institution—attempts to draw them past the conservative boundaries of their prep school world by exposing them to poetry about life and emotion and the wondrous expanse of creation. His message to them is clear: the world is much bigger than you or the lives planned out for you. Take it in. It is a gift. The boys are at first baffled by Keating’s enthusiastic and unorthodox philosophy. But one by one, they buy in, starting their own secret poetry club and finding inspiration to dream beyond the life paths prescribed for them. In response, their parents and other teachers chafe at their newfound liberalism and the tension rises in ways both frustrating and ominous.

In one scene, in the midst of this rising tension, Keating recites part of a Walt Whitman poem to them. The poem describes the seemingly ceaseless struggles of the world and then declares the ever-present question, “What good amid these, o me, o life?” And then, as Keating shares with his young students, Whitman’s poem offers this, “Answer: that you are here. That life exists and identity. That the powerful play goes on –and you may contribute a verse.”

The question “what good amid these, o me, o life” has echoes of Job’s struggle to understand the immense suffering he endures and how to hold onto hope or faith in the face of it all. While Whitman’s poetic answer and Mr. Keating’s inspiring enthusiasm might have resonated profoundly and transformatively with the boys of Welton Academy, it’s hard to imagine that such a concise and idealistic answer would have offered much comfort to the beleaguered Job. Indeed, the suffering that Job endures is far beyond the rigidly oppressive control that the boys of Dead Poets Society face.

In fact, Job’s bad fortune is so extreme that it sets a hyperbolic standard. His life serves as a fable of faithfulness in the midst of suffering so that—whatever suffering we encounter in our own lives—we can look to Job as an example. He loses his livelihood, his reputation, his wife and children, and even his own health. And somehow, he maintains his faith throughout it all—but not without some serious questioning. Like the poet, he wonders aloud what good is to be found amidst all the loss and pain? What point might there be? How could a good and loving God allow any of it to happen?

The risk in reading Job is that his circumstances might seem too ridiculous and extreme to relate to. But the truth is that the worst suffering a person has ever endured is still the worst suffering they’ve ever endured and it can seem unbearable. And certainly there are times in life when challenges seem to amass in an ever-growing pile and we wonder if things could possibly get any worse… and then they do. In these moments, like Job, we find ourselves with heavy questions. Why? What does it mean? And God, where are you? We seek to understand because we hope that somewhere in that understanding there will be comfort. Still, in our most painful moments—answers, however well intentioned—rarely provide the comfort we seek.

This is definitely true for Job, who listens to each of his friends ramble on and on for verse upon verse, seeking to explain away the depths of Job’s pain as the inevitable result of his own shortcomings. Job knows these explanations ring hollow and he dismisses them all as bad counsel. Only then does God speak directly to Job out of a whirlwind. And—perhaps knowing the impossibility of a satisfactory answer—God doesn’t offer Job one. Instead God offers a litany of God’s own questions which dwarf Job’s queries.

“WHERE WERE YOU WHEN I LAID THE FOUNDATION OF THE EARTH?” God thunders.

Tell me, if you have understanding.

5 Who determined its measurements—surely you know!

Or who stretched the line upon it?

6 On what were its bases sunk,

or who laid its cornerstone

7 when the morning stars sang together

and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

On and on it goes, for many more verses that we didn’t read today, with God naming wonder after wonder of creation, describing the intricacy and care and power and love imbued into every aspect of life. Over and over God questions Job, “was it you who did these things? Or was it me?”

34 ‘Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,

so that a flood of waters may cover you?

35 Can you send forth lightnings, so that they may go

and say to you, “Here we are”?

Well. It is, if nothing else, an impressive response to Job’s questioning. But at first glance—and even at second and maybe third glance—it is not a particularly comforting answer. Job asks, “why do I suffer like this?” And God says, “Forget about that – look at this incredible universe I’ve created!”

Thanks a lot, we might think along with Job. After all, this isn’t the response we want from a God who loves and cares for us. We want God to come running. To drop everything and take us up in embrace. We want undivided attention and unmitigated solace. In the worst of our pain and suffering, it is hard to imagine that any less than that could suffice as balm to our hurts. Instead God offers a song of wonder and power about the expansiveness of the world. Where, we might wonder, is the comfort in that?

I have to be honest with you. When I started working on this sermon earlier this week, I joked that I was being forced to find hope and comfort in God saying, “The universe is way bigger than you and your problems and therefore, your pain really doesn’t matter.” But of course, it’s not that simple.

There is something here, in this passage I think, about recognizing how big the world beyond our experience is. There is life outside of our suffering and life after our suffering and life in spite of our suffering. Our worst experiences of pain and loss can overwhelm us and our lives can shrink to the pinpoint of our circumstance. But whether we can feel it or not—there is more to God’s creation and God’s intention for us than that.

This is a profound, if not always comforting truth. But it is not the only truth present in God’s song to Job. Because here’s the thing: all the while that God is going on and on about God’s power and might and creating, all the while that God seems to be trying to shrink Job down to size—God is also taking the time and space to speak to this poor, hurting man. And that too says something about who God is and how God cares for us.

The year before I began seminary remains one of the hardest years I’ve ever experienced. In the space of a few months, I said goodbye to all my friends in town as they moved away for new adventures. I started a new job about which I was passionate but which forced me to confront devastating realities on a daily basis. My family lost our beloved grandmother unexpectedly to a stroke and a cat I had newly adopted had to be put to sleep within just a few months. My first real relationship ended painfully after several months of long distance and the person I had loved suffered a breakdown. I was alone, in deep pain that never seemed to quit, and my faith held on by the barest thread. My therapist validated my experience and helped me work through my depression, but that alone could not provide me the comfort I needed.

My mother suggested that I might find solace in becoming part of a faith community again and, for once heeding her advice, I began attending Central Presbyterian Church in downtown Austin, TX each Sunday. I sat in a back corner, barely spoke to anyone, came in late and left early. But week after week I heard scripture and sermons, sang hymns, and watched the life of that faith community unfold around me. More often than not, I wept silently throughout the service feeling both pain at my own struggles and joy at knowing that a world existed beyond them and that I had place in that world too.

There was comfort to be had for me there. Comfort to be had in both the humility of knowing the world was much larger than me and the recognition that my presence, too, mattered.

There is a Jewish oral teaching called the Two Pockets often attributed to a rabbi named Simcha Bunim of Pesishka. It goes like this: “Everyone must have two pockets, with a note in each pocket, so that he or she can reach into the one or the other, depending on the need. When feeling lowly and depressed, discouraged or disconsolate, one should reach into the right pocket, and, there, find the words: “For my sake was the universe created.”

But when feeling high and mighty one should reach into the left pocket, and find the words: “I am but dust and ashes.”

The comfort for Job and for us in this song of God’s out of the whirlwind is the tension between its extremes. We indeed worship a God who has created a vast universe down to its most intricate details. But that same God has created us each with the same intricate intention and deemed the universe incomplete without us. The frustrating reality of a God who will not drop everything to comfort and placate us is also the profoundly comforting reality of a God who will never, ever, for any reason and for even a moment drop any one of us. Who even while balancing the entirety of creation in her hands will sing a song of wonder for us from a whirlwind.

The proof of God’s care and concern for us is all around us. For who else but a steadfastly loving Creator would design a world of such loving detail? And who else but a steadfastly loving Creator would grant us a part in the magnificent unfolding of that world?

In the end, God’s message to Job isn’t so different from Walt Whitman’s answer in the poem that Mr. Keating recites to his students in the Dead Poets Society. As the movie unfolds, the boys explore new dreams and push the restrictive boundaries of their world more and more. Eventually, things come to a head when one boy’s pursuit of acting against the wishes of his father leads to a fight and then, tragically, the boy’s suicide. The parents accuse Mr. Keating of inciting their son with ridiculous notions, and he is fired, while the other boys are left to their grief and questioning and a system that still seeks to control them.

It seems at the end, that the pain and the struggle have won. It seems that all that Mr. Keating has done to teach these boys that the world is vast and wondrous and wondrous too is their part in it—all of that inspired teaching will end in nothing but more pain and destruction. But then, as Keating gathers his belongings and quietly makes his way out of the classroom, one boy after another stands on top of his desk and calls out, “O Captain, my captain.” Another Whitman reference and a resounding witness to the truths that Keating has taught them. They get it. There is a bigger world and a bigger hope. They get it.

Job gets it too. After God’s song Job is awestruck and apologetic. He remains steadfast in his faith and in time his pain gives way to new joy.

Do we get it too? The strange comfort to be found in the vastness of God’s creation? Will we walk outside this day and breath in the crisp autumn air, behold the crests of the waves on Lake Michigan and the falling colored leaves, and find comfort there for whatever pains we carry? Will we hear the song of God singing for us in the whirl of the wind and know that our  hope rests not in a God who loves any one of us more than everything else, but in a God who loves all of us every bit as much as each intricately woven, beloved thing? Will we trust and believe that God does not drop everything for us but holds us all and always in loving arms? In our joy and in our pain, in our hope and in our hurting, in the precious space of tension between the universe and ashes.

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