By Seminarian Jean-Pierre Seguin on the Third Sunday after Pentecost:
I come before you this morning in the Name ✠ of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Six years ago, the thirty-eighth chapter of the Book of Job saved my life. Perhaps more to the point, God saved my life through the story of Job. I had been experiencing depression for months: the type of depression that lingers much like a late Michigan winter. Drab, with the changing gray palette of the silent sky the only visible difference day-to-day. It was summer, however. The weather was lovely. I was in the middle of my time in college and I was starting to actively discern a call to the priesthood. However, my family was moving and I had to leave the home I grew up in.
I found myself at a Benedictine monastery in the middle of farm country in late August. I tried praying with the monks; I tried going on a long run on the dusty dirt roads to clear my head. Nothing seemed to quite work. Then, however, I turned to the devotional handout in my room, and I tried reading the gospel assigned; it had some meaning. The real breakthrough came when I reached out to God and I told God that I needed something, I needed to hear something, and I just opened the Bible – something I rarely do, I usually follow the lectionary. But I opened up the book and I saw the beginning of the thirty-eighth chapter of the Book of Job: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the Earth?” I was struck by the question, so I kept reading. Immediately, something opened up. The question tore through all the gray malaise and I felt God’s mercy pouring into my heart. I was not there, I did not know who laid the foundation of the Earth. I did not experience when the morning stars sang together and the heavenly beings shouted for joy. I felt alive. I felt loved. I felt worthy of love.
Now I was lucky: I was able to contact my family, get the help I needed, talk to my priest who was very empathetic, find a therapist. Years later, the experience is one of transformation, and not of frustration or tragedy. This, however, is not always the case, which is why I think it is valuable for us to turn to the Book of Job. Experiences of mental illness are not normative, and U.S. culture unfortunately tends to treat the non-normative as suspect at best. One scholar of the Hebrew scriptures has labeled Job an anomalous book within the wisdom tradition, because of its dissenting view of the theodicy, or the theology of why people suffer. Perhaps this is why Job’s story reached me in the middle of depression: an innocent suffer who rails against God and begs for answers, while losing everything and finding his friends to be unreliable and judgmental. While it can often be helpful to focus on the importance of responsibility, Job reminds us that even when we do everything right, as far as is humanly possible, we are sometimes tested by circumstances beyond our control.
And after losing everything, and suffering so much, Job receives consolation from God in the form of a powerful message about God’s strength. This is the God who has created life-giving rain and knows when the mountain goats give birth. In the moment I read those words, I could only give gratitude to our amazing creator and wonder at a creation that contains so much variety, including my flawed, beautiful love itself. God is bigger than and cares for us in the midst of our troubles. Because if God loves me, God loves you, and God loves everyone. We live in a time when people in power seek to diminish the humanity of some for the benefit of a few. The children ripped from their parents’ arms at the militarized place called ‘the border’ or ‘la frontera’ signal to us the dehumanizing currents that run through much of American culture.
Migrants fleeing violence and persecution threaten some so much that they cling more closely to their nationalistic fear than to God’s commands. Like Jobs’ friends who taunted him in his misery, they self-righteously persecute the poor while literally attempting to destroy brown families. Horror stories like these have occurred in this country since its founding, and until white society takes love of neighbor seriously, they will continue, both at the border and in places across this land. Genocide, slavery, and white supremacy must be overcome within people’s hearts and outwardly within communities or its dark tempting power will cause people to continue to forsake God.
James Cone, the founder of Black Liberation Theology, explicitly connects the Cross and the lynching tree: two powerful symbols within the black community. He argues that for the African-American community, both came to represent death and the promise of redemption, judgment and the offer of mercy, suffering and the power of hope, a thirst for life even in the face of death. He later invokes the Womanist theologian Shawn Copeland who argues that enslaved African sang spirituals because they saw on the Cross the One who went all the way for them. As well: as a result of Christ’s crucifixion, triumph over the principalities and powers of death, triumph over evil in this world.
This weekend I witnessed something that gave me hope in God’s weapons of righteousness, something that can equip us for spiritual battle in these troubled times. The Poor People’s Campaign, a broad-based movement for justice, based in moral revival, beyond party lines, gathered in Washington D.C. to commemorate the end of six weeks of action. Across forty states and many sovereign tribal lands, people got together, talked, raised their voices. Thousands were arrested. And on Saturday, yesterday, thousands of people gathered on the National Mall to hear the stories of the poor from the poor, white black, brown, of all status. People called for justice in the economy, in education, in the treatment of the environment, for an end to racial injustice, and for our transformation beyond a war-based economy. The movement draws strength from Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders, and is based solidly in nonviolence, in nonviolent direct action.
There were many Jobs in that crowd, people doing their best to live while struggling with unemployment, lack of health care, industrial pollution, mass incarceration, and failing schools. People spoke for themselves and they did not hold back. Clergy and other leaders supported them in their testimony. Just as God did not order Job’s suffering, so also God does not condone the suffering human beings endure today. As people of faith who believe in this awesome God, any response not based in deep love is insufficient.
If Jesus went to the Cross once and for all time, why are the weakest and most marginalized still killed simply for existing? Why can we still read the Book of Job and relate it to so many stories of people suffering in the world today? Why’s the humanity of some cherished and cared for, while others are given indifference, or worse, treated with cruelty? We must see, as Job tells us, or as God tells us in Job, that God sees every birth and death in all of creation, and sit with Jesus in the back of the boat. Jesus, who calms the storm, who calms the fears of those he loves, of those who follow him. And who in such actions shows himself to be fully God. Jesus incarnate shows us through his ministry that God cares most especially for those who suffer, for those who are cast out, for those in need. This is the Jesus who is the Lord of Creation and who will bring about peace. God restores the life of Job. Jesus calms the storm for his disciples.
How will we open our hearts today and reach out? Amen.