Sunday, August 28, 2016

Faces in the Cloud

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
August 28 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Hebrews 11:29-12:2
By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as if it were dry land, but when the Egyptians attempted to do so they were drowned.
By faith the walls of Jericho fell after they had been encircled for seven days.
By faith Rahab the prostitute did not perish with those who were disobedient, because she had received the spies in peace.
And what more should I say? For time would fail me to tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets— who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched raging fire, escaped the edge of the sword, won strength out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received their dead by resurrection. Others were tortured, refusing to accept release, in order to obtain a better resurrection. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment.
They were stoned to death, they were sawn in two, they were killed by the sword; they went about in skins of sheep and goats, destitute, persecuted, tormented— of whom the world was not worthy.
They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground. Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.

The word of the Lord
Thanks be to God.

Did you watch the Olympics this past month?
Did you have favorites – the Simones? or the divers, or the swimmers?
It’s always inspiring to watch great athletes compete, even if you aren’t terribly athletic yourself. If you are an athlete, or if you used to be, you are acutely aware of the amount of effort and focus and dedication that goes into any competition, whether it is track and field in school, or the Olympics. Everyone knows that when you compete at that level, you play to win. Of course, it is always an honor just to GO to the Olympics, but the reason athletes go is in the hope of winning.

That’s why I think it’s really compelling that the biggest story from Rio this summer was not about Michael Phelps. It was not about all the winners. It was about a runner -- someone who lost – Abbey D’Agostino. She came in last because as she was running, she tripped over New Zealand runner Nikki Hamblin. Instead of getting up and running on, as her coach had taught her, she stopped, helped Nikki up, and said, “Get up. This is the Olympics!”

Abbey and Nikki - video

That kind of perseverance, that kind of commitment, is a rare thing these days. But it is just that kind of perseverance that we heard about in Hebrews. The reading starts in chapter 11, with a recounting of a kind of family tree. It isn’t a genetic family tree, but a faith heritage we’re hearing about. The list is like a hall of fame of faithful people. Chapter 11 starts out with the definition of faith “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Then, examples of the faithful are given – Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Moses. And it seems that the writer realizes that listing everyone is going to take forever, so we come the verses you’ve heard today – the delivery of the Israelites from slavery, the victory at Jericho, when the walls came tumbling down. Then we hear of people who ran the race, starting with Rahab, a pagan prostitute, and going on to heroes of the Hebrew scriptures: Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David and Samuel and the prophets— the martyrs who died for their faith, who had died for “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Then, we see this most amazing assertion:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses…”
THEREFORE – this is the conclusion coming up – get ready.
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses.”

That cloud of witnesses? All those faithful people just named. Who knew we were surrounded by the Israelites, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Joshua, David and Solomon and the martyrs? And not only them – that cloud of witnesses is all of the people who lived by faith and have joined the church triumphant. They now are in the bleachers of heaven, cheering us on.

Wait. Stop one second. Who demonstrated that kind of faith in your life?
What faithful person showed you how to be faithful?

For me, it was my Grandmother Shultz, who raised nine children, then learned Spanish and went to Mexico City and taught Bible stories to children in one of the poorest parts of the city. For Jamie and Amanda, whose daughters will be baptized today, one of the faces in that cloud of witnesses is their grandfather, June Lee, and another is their grandmother, Callie Lee. Maybe for you it was a parent, or a grandparent. Maybe it was a Sunday School teacher, or youth leader, or a neighbor. Maybe it was more than one person. Whoever it was that guided you in faith, that face is in this cloud of witnesses. So we run the race, cheered on by those saints. Can you see them?

If we want to run well, to finish well, the scripture says,
“let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely,
and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.”

Like Abbey D’Agostino, we say, “This is the Olympics! We have to keep going!”

But our eyes are not fixed on the finish line, or on those who run alongside us, or even on those beloved, encouraging faces in the cloud of witnesses. No, as we run, we are looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. He’s the one we run to, the one who endured the cross,
who gave up glory and took on shame,
who never medaled in anything
who was a not a winner in the world’s eyes.
who sits at the right hand of the throne of God.

In ancient Greece, the runners ran as tribute to Zeus. In the modern Olympics, they run for their countries, for honor, glory, medals. We run toward the open and loving arms of Jesus.

As we run with endurance, we run alongside one another, helping each other along, hearing the cheering of the cloud of witnesses, not worrying about who gets the medal. In a few minutes, when we baptize Molly and Ellie, we will invite them to come with us. Their parents will promise to bring them along, and we’ll promise to help Kevin and Amanda and Kyle and Jamie. We’ll promise to support and encourage them in their faith, every step of the way. We’ll promise these baby girls that they are not entering a competition-- this is a race they cannot lose!

We will stop and wait for them, pick them up when they fall, and cheer them on as they grow. We promise all that, and we want to keep those promises. That’s why we try so hard to stay connected to our young families, to the children we have baptized, because we want to be an encouraging and faithful presence in their lives. We like to think that someday, when they think about the “cloud of witnesses” maybe they will see OUR faces in the cloud.

The race, of course, is a symbol, a good metaphor for our lives. Another less competitive metaphor is “the circle of love.” Marianne Williamson says, “The circle of love is deep and strong. It can forgive mistakes and cast out error. It can foster greatness and bring forth new life…. This is our function in each other’s lives: to hold the space for each other’s beauty, that our beloved can leave us and we still feel in his or her absence how beautiful we are.”

That’s a beautiful way to think about the community of the baptized – a circle of love, where we hold space for each other, and everyone knows they are beautiful. The truth is, though, that church life isn’t always puffy clouds and unicorns. The community of faith is not made up of perfect people. While we seek to teach, to mentor, to mother, and to encourage, sometimes we don’t get it right.

But there is no other place like it.
Anybody can teach their children to be nice people.
Anybody can read Bible stories to their children.
Anybody can pass on moral lessons and old hymns to their kids.
But baptism is about more than that!
Church is about more than that!

I always tell the parents of children about to be baptized that the only place they can receive what the church has is in the church:
an intergenerational faith community,
a place of complete acceptance, no matter who you are,
a place to explore and question and learn about faith,
a place to learn how to get along with all kinds of people,
a place where sometimes we are linked – through a shared love of Jesus –
with those we may not understand,
a place where we learn how to pray and worship and share the peace
with someone we may not even particularly enjoy.

You can’t get that at school, or in your family, or in a club.
You won’t get this in a sorority or fraternity, or even on a sports team.
You can’t get that at the mall or at

In our baptism, we receive a new identity, a name and family that we share not only with those present, but with those who have joined that great cloud of witnesses. There is no other place in the world where a child can be so beloved, and can be so inspired, and so challenged.

When everyone is going the same direction,
when all eyes are fixed on Jesus,
when every voice joins in the same hymns of praise and promise,
when everyone prays the same prayers of confession,
when each heart hears the assurance of God’s pardon,
when every person is blessed simply because they are alive!
when everyone comes to the same table,
receives the same bread, the same cup,
it is truly a foretaste of heaven – of the great banquet in the presence of God.

In those moments, everyone wins.
Love wins.

And God does that, not us, you know?

When I went to do some research about Abbey D’Agostino I thought I’d learn about an Ivy League runner with an extraordinary sense of sportsmanship. And I did. But the person I encountered was not just an extraordinary young athlete. She is a committed, faithful Christian.[1] About helping Nikki up in the race, Abbey told USA Track & Field, “Although my actions were instinctual at that moment, the only way I can and have rationalized it is that God prepared my heart to respond that way. This whole time here he's made clear to me that my experience in Rio was going to be about more than my race performance—and as soon as Nikki got up I knew that was it."[2]

Isn’t that something?

What informed Abbey’s action is her Christian faith. I can’t help but believe that there were some faces in the cloud of witnesses that were alight with joy that day at the Olympics. All of us who saw it, or watched the video clip, had tears in our eyes. This past week, D’Agostino and Hamblin became the 18th and 19th recipients of the Pierre de Coubertin medal. It is not awarded at every Olympic Games. Rather, it is reserved for the most exceptional displays of sportsmanship and the Olympic spirit. But there’s even more to the story.

Abbey D’Agostino didn’t just lose the 5,000 meter qualifying heat.
She came in last, long after everyone else had finished.
But the crowds in the stadium were cheering their heads off.
Abbey didn’t know that they were cheering for her.
In an interview, she was asked about the cheering crowd.
She said, “I wasn’t really sure if it was happening in the front
You never know what’s causing the fans to go wild…
But I definitely noticed, when I was finishing, I was the only one on the track.
I was praying my way through the finish. It was crazy because I knew my leg just wasn’t right. But I knew God was able, and I wasn’t. I’m thankful to have been a witness to that kind of power that wasn’t my own.[3]

Friends, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses,
since we have promised to nurture the faith of those who are baptized,
since we have fixed our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith,
let’s run together, toward Jesus, 
encouraged and urged on by the cheers and smiles 
of all those faces in the clouds.





Sunday, August 21, 2016

Happily Ever After

Job 42:7-17
August 21, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Today we come to the end of the book of Job. I’ve enjoyed this series, and I’m also glad it’s over! You too? You have been great to walk through this difficult book of the Bible together. The ending of Job is both satisfying and troubling. The satisfying part is that it ends with this kind of “happy ever after” and the troubling part is that it ends with this “happy ever after.” God has spoken to Job at last, and pointed out that Job’s understanding of God is as limited and finite as God is unlimited and infinite. Job agrees, and as he has throughout the story, trusts in God’s promise. Then, the friends come back into the picture, and everything Job has lost is restored to him. At first reading, we tend to say, “Oh, look, it all worked out okay.” But then on reflection we might say, “What? What kind of story is this?”

Let’s listen and be satisfied and troubled by God’s word for us today in Job:42-7-17
7 After the Lord had spoken these words to Job, the Lord said to Eliphaz the Temanite:
“My wrath is kindled against you and against your two friends; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has. 8 Now therefore take seven bulls and seven rams, and go to my servant Job, and offer up for yourselves a burnt offering; and my servant Job shall pray for you, for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly; for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has done.”
9 So Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite went and did what the Lord had told them; and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer. 10 And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job when he had prayed for his friends; and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.
11 Then there came to him all his brothers and sisters and all who had known him before, and they ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him; and each of them gave him a piece of money and a gold ring.
12 The Lord blessed the latter days of Job more than his beginning; and he had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. 13 He also had seven sons and three daughters. 14 He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 15 In all the land there were no women so beautiful as Job’s daughters; and their father gave them an inheritance along with their brothers. 16 After this Job lived one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. 17 And Job died, old and full of days.

And they all lived happily ever after. Every story that starts out “Once upon a time” ends this way, right? Well, not exactly. Little Red Riding Hood, in the original version, is eaten by the Big Bad Wolf. And they all lived happily ever after. The end.

So here in this last chapter of Job, everything turns out all right. After God and Job are reconciled, God addresses Job’s friends, sharply rebuking Eliphaz the Temanite and Bildad the Shuhite and Zophar the Naamathite. Job prays for them, presumably interceding on their behalf, and God is reconciled to them. After Job prays for his friends, his fortunes are restored.

He had double the amount of money that he had before.
He had twice the number of livestock that he had before.
His family gathers around him with support, with gifts, with love.
And he gets seven more sons and three more daughters.

These daughters are so outstanding that they are not only given names – Jemimah, means "dove"; Keziah, means fragrant – like cinnamon, and Keren-Happuch, which means "cosmetics box” they are also given an inheritance, which must have been unusual at the time. (I suppose he kept the same wife, the one who suggested that he should curse God and die.)

Also, Job’s lifespan is now double the normal threescore years and ten –now he lives to be one hundred and forty years old. So, phew, there we go, the Lord gives and the Lord takes away; blessed be the name of the Lord, right? But wait – it is not all happy ever after!

Sure, you can replace a flock of sheep, or a pile of gold coins, or a house.
But to lose TEN children? And then get ten new ones?
“Here you go, Job – ten new kids. We’re all square then, right?”

Job loved his seven sons and three daughters. He delighted in them. I’m sure he loved the second set, too, but they weren’t replacements. It’s interesting to note that the laws of the Israelites required restitution after a theft – the thief had to repay double what was stolen. It’s also worth noting that the ending seems to imply that the friends were right when they said Job had done something wrong. This ending of the story, like the beginning, in the way it characterizes God, and humans, and their relationship, tells us more about humans than it does about God. When tragedy strikes, we want a happily ever after. We want everything back like it was.

But even this seemingly happy ending is not really so happy. Maybe the ever after is not quite so easy, and the place to seek happiness is in the meaning of events, and how we can make sense – and happiness – out of the most difficult days.

It was a little over a year ago that I was in my room at Austin Seminary, when my friend Sharon posted on Face Book: “There has been a shooting in Charleston,SC @ Emanuel AME church. My home church! Please pray for all. Don't have much info.”
A few minutes later Sharon posted “My Mom works at the church.
… She’s usually the last one to leave. I'm freaking out!!”
The next post was simply “Gone to glory.”

Sharon’s mother, Ethel Lance, was one of the nine people killed in a race-based shooting at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. Two of Sharon’s cousins were also killed in the shooting. Nine people. They’d later come to be known “the Charleston nine.”

There was an outpouring of support for my friend Sharon, just as this community has demonstrated such love and care for families who have lost loved ones, whether by natural causes, or in accidents. Sharon was, of course, on the news, giving interviews, making statements, pictured at the funeral, and at the graveside. Then she went back to her home in Dallas, where she had been a chaplain at Parkland Memorial Hospital.

But she did not live happily ever after. A few weeks after her mother was murdered, Sharon had a birthday, the first on which her mother had not sung to her. There were arrangements to make, and the media to deal with.

There was the continued, heart-wrenching news coverage of the killer, and his allegiance to white supremacist groups, and the story of how he obtained the gun he used to kill those nine people who had welcomed him to Bible study. Sharon re-evaluated her life, and then she quit her job and moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. She has dedicated her life now to speaking out against gun violence. She’s given testimony at Congressional hearings, and she has been to the White House twice.

Sharon has made meaning of the tragedy by turning her energy to speaking out and acting. She can’t bring her mother back. But she can find a way to make life better, for everyone.

There’s no happily ever after when you suffer that kind of loss. It’s impossible to believe that if Job were a real-life character that he’d have been fully happy ever after, having suffered such unspeakable loss and trauma.

So what do we make of this story of suffering? We make meaning.

We reject the neat, tied-up-with-a-bow easy answers when terrible things happen to us, or to anyone we know and love. And we look for meaning in our loss, in our sacrifice, and in our grief. This is no easy thing, and there are not easy answers. Our friends, like Job’s, may come to us with their explanations or scriptures.

They may say, “It could be worse.”
No, in that moment of devastation, it could not be worse.

They may say, “It was God’s will.”
No, suffering and death and sickness are not God’s will.

They may say – I’ve said it: “We know that all things work together for good, to them that love God and are called according to God’s purpose.” And that may be true, and it may be that it happens beyond our vision. But here’s another way to read that Bible verse, from Romans 8:28: “We know that in all things, God works for good.” In everything, God works for good.

That may not make meaning of tragedy, not right away. But it is the start of hope, the first tiny flicker of light in the darkness. God is with us, not against us. God is not cruel and capricious; God loves us. And in spite of that, terrible things happen in this world, and in our lives.

This past week, a family in our community lost a beautiful, vivacious daughter. She stood on the brink of adulthood, about to begin her senior year. And now she is gone, and we grieve with her parents, and her friends. She is gone, a life cut short. Her parents will not see her again in this life. Not all tragedy ends in happily ever after. Life is not a fairy tale. Sharon is not going to get her mother back. But God is working for good in her life, as she works to make this world a safer place.

Each one of us has faced or will face difficulty and challenge in our lives. Some of us have experienced devastating loss. When that happens, we go where Job went in this tale – the depths of despair. We may shake our fist at God and wonder what God is going to do about it. What we learn, if we are open to learning it, is that God does not engineer our sorrow, but redeems it for us.

When our friends and loved ones suffer, and are in despair, we may shake our fist at God and ask, “Why don’t you do something?” What he hear, if we are open to God’s voice, is God saying, “I did do something. I created you.”

God created us, and set us on this earth for a purpose. And God has done and is doing even more than that. Not playing some kind of cosmic gambling game with our lives, or tormenting us to see how we’ll react, but redeeming creation in every moment.

God is doing something, coming in the person of Jesus Christ, to live among us and teach us and heal us, to live and die for us, and to conquer death and sin.

God is doing something through the power of the Holy Spirit, surrounding us and filling our hearts, breathing peace into our lives and leading us to love.

God is doing something in this world through us, as we face failure and loss, and as we uphold and support one another in difficult times, and as we offer our prayers and presence to each other.

Looking back to the beginning of this series on the Book of Job, we look back at a series of tragic news headlines. It seemed to never end, a relentless, overwhelming tide of sorrow.

In that first sermon, as we grieved the events of the previous week, I said,
“Let’s hold fast to faith.
Let’s hold fast to God.
Let’s hold fast to the promises….
Tomorrow, we can begin to transform mourning to movement.
Tomorrow, we can change our anger to activity.”

As we end this series, I want to suggest – no! I want to challenge us --
that we can be the agents of change in this world,
that we can transform mourning to movement,
that we can change anger to activity,
and we can do it by claiming some truths from the end of the story of Job.

Job prayed for his friends; and God heard his prayers.
We can do that.

Job’s friends ate bread with him in his house; they showed him sympathy and comforted him for all the evil that he had suffered.
We can do that.

They helped to restore his fortunes, with their support and love.
We can do that, too.

Brian Andreas, that poet from Decorah, said
“there are things you do because they feel right
and they may make no sense
and they may make no money
and it may be the real reason we are here:
to love each other and to eat each other's cooking and say it was good.”

We can love each other, and eat each other’s cooking and say it was good.
We can do that.

And we can in the bleakest hours, rely on the promise that in everything,
in everything God is working for good.
Thanks be to God.
Thanks be to God.

Hold fast.


Sunday, August 14, 2016

God Speaks (Let the Mystery Be)

Book of Job, Chapters 38-42
August 14, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

You heard last week some of the 38th chapter of Job, when God answered Job out of the whirlwind. God’s beautiful, powerful and poetic speech goes on for three more chapters. I want us to overhear some of conversation between God and Job. Then we’ll hear what Job finally says in response.

I hope you’ll take some time to read this entire section – it is beautiful. Just a side note here – you’ll hear in this reading about “leviathan” and if you do some reading on your own, you’ll run into the “behemoth” too. Depending on the translation you use, those may be translated as names of familiar animals. Creationists sometimes claim they are biblical terms for dinosaurs. These are primordial, mythological beasts – the behemoth some kind of land animal, and Leviathan some kind of huge, fire breathing sea serpent - think of the ancient maps that say:”here there be dragons.” They are meant to be alien and terrifying.

Well, we are not yet at the end of the story – that is next week – but we are, in my opinion, at the most important part of this tale. Listen for God’s voice to us this morning in these selections from Job, chapters 38, 39, 40 and 41, concluding with Chapter 42, verses 1-6

So God answered Job out of the whirlwind and then God asked some impossible questions:

Chapter 38
4 “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth…
when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
12 “Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
and caused the dawn to know its place?
31 “Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?
36 Who has put wisdom in the inward parts, or given understanding to the mind?
37 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?

Chapter 39
“Do you know when the mountain goats give birth? Do you observe the calving of the deer?
19 “Do you give the horse its might? Do you clothe its neck with mane?
26 “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars, and spreads its wings toward the south?
27 Is it at your command that the eagle mounts up and makes its nest on high?

Chapter 40
And the Lord said to Job: 2 “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty?
Anyone who argues with God must respond.” 3 Then Job answered the Lord:
4 “See, I am of small account; what shall I answer you? I lay my hand on my mouth.
5 I have spoken once, and I will not answer; twice, but will proceed no further.”
6 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind:
7 “Gird up your loins like a man; I will question you, and you declare to me.
8 Will you even put me in the wrong?
Will you condemn me that you may be justified?
9 Have you an arm like God, and can you thunder with a voice like his?
10 “Deck yourself with majesty and dignity;
clothe yourself with glory and splendor.
14 Then I will also acknowledge to you
that your own right hand can give you victory.

Chapter 41
“Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook,
or press down its tongue with a cord?
2 Can you put a rope in its nose, or pierce its jaw with a hook?
5 Will you play with it as with a bird,
or will you put it on leash for your girls?
33 On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear.
34 It surveys everything that is lofty; it is king over all that are proud.”

Chapter 42
Then Job answered the Lord: “I know that you can do all things,
and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
5 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Have I ever told you that I am a lover of physics?
If I could have been a scientist, I’d have been a physicist.
Not that I have any real expertise – let’s just say I’m better at playing piano than I am at physics. But I love the science, and I love the amazing mysteries of the cosmos – that there is a universe in tiny little particles that are smaller than we can even imagine. These verses that we just heard from the Book of Job call to mind for me the astonishing things that physicists are teaching us about the universe.

On the Science Friday website, there’s an interview with Harvard physicist Lisa Randall, and one of the questions was:
What’s it like to study things that you can’t necessarily see?
She answered: “Well, they’re just as real— just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they don’t exist. All observations can be thought of as indirect, and as long as they’re reliable and reproducible, we trust what’s going on. In some ways, it’s more exciting to go beyond the things that everyone else sees, and try to understand what underlies them.”[1]

I thought, wow! That’s what I do!
I spend a lot of time thinking about things nobody can see!
And most of us spend at least part of our lives trying to understand things that nobody can understand. And that’s a lot of what is happening here in Job.

If you recall, Job was a fine, pious, upright and righteous man. And in this folk tale, there’s like a little bet going on between God and “ha-shatan,” the adversary. The adversary asks if God thinks Job would stay faithful even if his whole life fell apart, and God says, yes, yes he would. And what follows lets us know this is a parable, because God basically tells Satan: “Have at him but don’t touch him.” And we know something about what God is like, and this is not what God is like.

Job’s happy life turns into a life of tragedy and devastation. First, all of his livestock die.
One after another, his servants come and report some horrible event, saying “And I alone was left alive to tell you.” Then all of his children die. Still, he stays faithful.

God sounds kind of smug about it.
So Satan ups the ante.
“Let’s see what happens if he himself is afflicted,” the adversary challenges.
And Job is afflicted with physical pain and misery.

His friends come around and they are compassionate at first, but then they commence to offering their opinions, and they aren’t much help.

Job is basically staring up into the heavens and asking, “Why me?
You used to watch over me, God. You used to bless me.
I haven’t done anything wrong, I’ve done nothing to deserve this.
Where is the indictment from the adversary?
What is going on here? Where ARE you, God?
Why have you done this to me? Why have you abandoned me?”

And God answers.

Do you remember the story about Elijah, when God is going to speak to him? The voice of God was not in the whirlwind, nor was it in the fire, nor was it in the earthquake, and when God finally spoke, it was a “still small voice.” In Job, the voice of God is as far from a still small voice as you can get. It reminds me of the Wizard of Oz, when the Wizard’s voice booms out, “Who dares to disturb the all powerful Wizard of Oz?!”

God asks Job, “Just exactly who do you think you are?
And just exactly who do you think I AM?”

God proceeds to demonstrate to Job that he knows NOTHING about God.
I’m the one who created the cosmos, God says.
I pushed back the watery chaos and set the stars in the sky.
I know the ways of all the birds of the air and beasts of the field.
Do you know when the mountain goats give birth, 
or do you know what makes the warhorse so strong?
I made the hawk and the eagle,
and it is I who spill the rains down from the sky.
Moreover, God says, I created behemoth, and leviathan,
these monstrous creatures of chaos which are beyond taming.
And you may be terrified of them, but I am not.

These few chapters in Job, beyond their power and beauty, are, to me, a picture of God’s profound freedom. They are glimpses of the cosmos, of the infinite mystery of our world, in which physicists tell us there is so much that we do not know.

On the Science Friday radio program last week, there was a conversation with MIT physicist Janet Conrad about the search for new subatomic particles.
NEW particles? 

Part of the conversation with Dr. Conrad concerned something called “sterile neutrinos,” and how scientists are learning from some of their research in which they find nothing! She said that studies that yield nothing can lead them to new discoveries! They learn more about what they do not know.

Sometimes I imagine God watching us “discover” the Higgs Boson particle and laughing a little bit, saying “You think you know? You don’t know!”

And we don’t.

We don’t have an explanation for all the mysteries of the cosmos. Many of the explanations we do have are beyond our power to understand. If we can take any certainty away from this book of Job, that’s what it is, I think: about some things, there is no certainty. There is more to life than we know. And some things, like suffering, are simply unexplainable.

So where does that leave Job? Humbled, to be sure. In awe, as I am certain any of us would be. Ready to admit that he does not, and cannot, understand the impenetrable mystery of the almighty. But Job is also ready, as some of us might not be, to simply bow in silent humility before that mystery.

As Shakespeare said it, “There’s more in heaven and on earth than is dreamt of in our philosophies.”
Or, on the more prosaic side, if you prefer we can go with songwriter Iris Dement, who said,
“I think I’ll just let the mystery be.”


Iris Dement: "Let the Mystery Be"

[1] interview with Lisa Randall, accessed 08/13/2016

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Finite Suffering, Infinite Hope

Job 14:7-15; Job 19: 23-27
July 31, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We’ve come to our third installment of our series on Job. We’ll just do a brief recap of the story so far. This is an ancient folk tale, a story about suffering. The story opens in a kind of courtroom drama, with God and the adversary debating whether Job will keep the faith, even in the event of unspeakable suffering.

Within the first two chapters, Job loses everything except his wife and his life. All of his livestock been killed, and a house has fallen on all of his children. Only his wife survives, and her suggestion is that he “curse God and die.” Job’s friends show up, and first they sit with him in silent empathy. Then they open their mouths, and nothing they say is helpful. They suggest that he somehow deserves this suffering, or that he needs to just suck it up and deal with it. Job does not care for their answers and neither does God. Finally, Job himself speaks to God, demanding some answers. His words sound almost like anti-Psalms, the opposite of a song. They express poetically, eloquently, his despair.

Let’s listen for God’s word to us in Job 14:7-15

7 “For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. 8 Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, 9 yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. 10 But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? 11 As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, 12 so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.
13 O that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me!
14 If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come. 15 You would call, and I would answer you; you would long for the work of your hands.

In all his grieving, though, Job has never turned away from God. In all his misery, he has not forsaken his faith in the Go of the covenant. Now, for a moment, Job has a glimpse of hope. Let’s listen for those words of hope in Job 19:23-27:

23 “O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!
24 O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!
25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; 26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, 27 whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another. My heart faints within me!

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Mary was the daughter of Methodist missionaries in China. When she was nine years old, she and her parents were taken from the Chinese mission school, and interned in a nearby town with other foreigners. That concentration camp was her home for nearly four years, until American paratroopers liberated them in 1945.[1] Mary recalls, “It was November 1942.

Wearing olive uniforms, the Japanese soldiers led us off to our first concentration camp, three miles across town. A straggling line of perhaps 200 children, proper Victorian teachers and God-fearing missionaries, we went marching into the unknown, singing from the Psalms. "God is our refuge and strength. .. therefore we will not fear...." We had become prisoners of war.”[2]

Nearly five thousand miles away, in 1944, a young Elie Wiesel was taken to Auschwitz, where his mother and sister were killed. There were beatings, and daily selections of those who would be put to death. A few weeks before the camps were liberated, Elie’s father died.
He was fifteen years old.

It is hard to imagine the kind of suffering that Mary or Elie experienced. But somehow, it is easier than imagining the suffering that Job experienced. Grasping the nature of that kind of devastating misery is beyond most of us. The story of Job is so relentless as it piles on misfortune after misfortune, that it could almost seem like farce, were it not for the empathy we feel when we read this poetic account, if it were not for the ways in which we identify with Job’s suffering

Sadly, it becomes easier as we consider the suffering in the world we know. We see distress around to us, almost every day, if we pay attention to the news. Since the first of July, just before we began this series on the book of Job, thirty eight people in Chicago were murdered. Worldwide, this month, in 158 separate terrorist incidents, more than a thousand people died.[3]

Whatever the circumstances of these deaths, whether murder or terrorism, the surviving families, if there are any, must be in agony. Whoever the terrorists are whatever their aims, the victims’ suffering is beyond description. Where terrorist acts take place, the entire community suffers, and the world weeps alongside them. Closer to home, we watch, helpless, as friend are beset by illness, as they struggle to understand the diagnosis, as their families take in the prospect of loss. In our own families, and in our congregation, we suffer alongside those who suffer, heartbroken to see their pain.

Like Job, we daily confront the reality of suffering and death –and we join him in his lament: “mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.”

Not all of us are willing to confront God, in our laments. But Job calls God out, asking why God has become his adversary. Job brings his charges against God. He compares himself to a city under siege from an army with superior power. He asks what God is doing to him, and why. He presents his evidence, and awaits a verdict. He demands an explanation.

Like Job, we may rail against God.
Like Job, we may ask why?
Like Job, we cry out for relief.
Like Job, we begin to feel hopeless.
We look around for a savior.
We search for someone who will offer us some answers, any answers.
We grasp at any possible lifeline, in our confusion and pain.
If we are not careful, our pain can turn to hopelessness and to hatred.
We need something – someone - to keep our hope alive.

For Mary, during those years in the concentration camp in China, that someone who kept hope alive was the adults who were interned with her, who kept their faith in Christ,  and kept her faith and her hope alive. The adults were determined that their children would have a childhood. They organized classrooms and sports, and made winter clothes from blankets. They managed to keep the Girl Guides and Boy Scout troops going, helping the children earn merit badges. They held school each weekday, and church every Sunday.

They taught the children songs and games and hymns, and never let on how terrified they were of their captors. A few kind guards would occasionally let the children come into the guard tower, where they were let down gently to a meadow outside the fences. And a kind man they called Uncle Eric taught their science lessons. Uncle Eric, who died in the camp a few weeks before they were liberated, was Eric Liddell, the famous Scots runner, who refused to run an Olympic race on a Sunday and became the inspiration for the movie “Chariots of Fire”

With these hope-filled adults, Mary and her friends read the scripture, they prayed and sang:
God is still on the throne; And He will remember His own ...
His promise is true; He will not forget you.
God is still on the throne.

When the American paratroopers landed to liberate them, they gathered at the gates of the camp and sang the Star Spangled Banner.

For Elie, the situation was far more grim. The daily violence and death threatened his spirit. Elie recalled that eventually, the Jewish leaders in his barracks decided to hold God accountable. Like Job, they called God to account. One night, Elie’s teacher took him back to his own barracks. As Elie watched, three great Jewish scholars- masters of Talmud, Halakhah, and Jewish jurisprudence- put God on trial.

Robert McAfee Brown says they created, “in that eerie place, a rabbinic court of law to indict the Almighty.” The trial lasted several nights. They called witnesses, presented evidence, and made arguments. The final verdict was unanimous: the Lord God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, accused of crimes against creation and humankind, was found guilty.

And then, after … an “infinity of silence,” the Talmudic scholar looked at the sky and said “It’s time for evening prayers,”... [4]

God is guilty.
It’s time for prayer.

In the intensity of their torment, they cried out against God.
And when they were finished, they prayed.
They cried out to God for deliverance.

Like Job, in the floodtide of misfortune, we seek the solid ground of hope, grasping at anything that will keep us afloat. And like Job, we have the promise of God’s steadfast love.
Like Job, we can trust that God’s covenant of grace will never be broken.
Like Job, we can say:
“For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side….”

Mary survived the war. As an adult she served in the New Jersey General Assembly, and as a director of a non-profit. She located every adult she could find from the camp, and met with them and thanked them personally. Elie Weisel survived the concentration camp, too, as you know. He became an internationally renowned author and speaker.

When he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, he said:
“Let us remember Job who, having lost everything – his children, his friends, his possessions, and even his argument with God – still found the strength to begin again, to rebuild his life. Job was determined not to repudiate the creation, however imperfect, that God had entrusted to him.
Job, our ancestor. Job, our contemporary. His ordeal concerns all humanity.
Did he ever lose his faith? If so, he rediscovered it within his rebellion.
He demonstrated that faith is essential to rebellion, and that hope is possible beyond despair. The source of his hope was memory, as it must be ours.
Because I remember, I despair.
Because I remember, I have the duty to reject despair.
I remember the killers, I remember the victims, even as I struggle to invent a thousand and one reasons to hope…. There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice,
but there must never be a time when we fail to protest. The Talmud tells us that by saving a single human being, man can save the world. … Mankind must remember that peace is not God's gift to his creatures, it is our gift to each other.”[5]

Our suffering, like our lives, is finite.
Our hope, the hope that comes from God, is infinite.

We remember.
We live in hope.

The hope we have in our faith is the hope we are called to share with others. That hope is for all people, so that they may know that when the lament is done, when the pain subsides, God’s grace remains. Our call is to say to ourselves, and let our lives speak to the world, the truth of the hope we have in God.

We become the people we needed when we were young.
We give the gift of hope, of peace, to one another.

So we can boldly say, with the psalmist:
Sorrow may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning.

In that hope we stand at the grave, and even there we can shout alleluia!
With Job, we remember, and we proclaim with our lips and our lives:
“I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”

Suffering is finite.
Hope is infinite.

Thanks be to God.


[4] Brown, Robert McAfee, introduction to The Trial of God by Elie Wiesel.