Living in mystery and not happy endings.


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“Life is more a mystery to be revered, than a problem to be solved”   Flannery O’Conner

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

Then Job answered the Lord
‘I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. 
“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. 
“Hear, and I will speak;
   I will question you, and you declare to me.” 
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
   but now my eye sees you; 
therefore I despise myself,
   and repent in dust and ashes.’ 

 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. 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.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. He also had seven sons and three daughters. He named the first Jemimah, the second Keziah, and the third Keren-happuch. 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. After this Job lived for one hundred and forty years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, four generations. And Job died, old and full of days.

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Full Text of Sermon

“And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job…and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before.  And Job lived 140 years, and saw his children, and his children’s children, 4 generations. And Job died, old and full of days.”

 You could not ask for a happier ending. It makes us feel good. Happy endings touch our hearts. Movies that don’t have happy endings tend not to do very well at the box office. What if Jimmy Stewart had not been saved by his guardian angel in “It’s a Wonderful Life”? What if the Von Trapp family had not escaped the Nazis by hiking over the Alpes, singing “Climb Every Mountain”? Think of other hits like Sister Act and Erin Brockovich and Pursuit of Happyness and the Blind Side. You get the idea. We love happy endings. Happy endings give us a sense of peace and assurance, of things-under-control, of the universe having order and harmony, of life making sense. “And the Lord restored the fortunes of Job…and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before”. You will recall that Job had lost everything—property and possessions, wife and children, slaves and animals and his good health. Job, in fact, suffered so much that it might have been more merciful if he’d lost his life too. But he survived and as the final verses to the Book of Job tell us, Job did far more than simply surviving. “The Lord restored the fortunes of Job…and the Lord gave Job twice as much as he had before”. What a happy ending to a tragic story.  If the story of Job was made into a movie, it may even win an Academy Award nomination. Happy endings appeal to our sense of order and justice. It is certainly how we would do things if we were in charge. When we work hard, we expect to be rewarded. When we study hard and do all our homework, we expect good grades and eventually a successful career. When we live good and moral lives, we expect favor with God. When we are obedient at home and to our parents, we expect love and approval. When we train and practice hard, we expect to be good athletes. When we eat carefully and take care of our bodies, we expect to be healthy.

I. And we know better don’t we? Life is NOT always fair; we are not always rewarded with a happy ending for doing the right thing. And this is why I want to call your attention to the fact that the happy ending to Job is not what it seems to be. If all we saw in the story of Job were these last 7 verses, we would miss the whole point of Job. Worse yet, if we took these last verses and this happy ending and expected God to treat us the same way, we will be sadly disappointed. There is much more to the story. We may be gifted with intelligence and work hard, but because of our gender and the color of our skin, we don’t get what we deserve. We may eat carefully and exercise religiously but we can still suffer heart attacks. As one of my former parishioners in Chinatown was told by his surgeon just prior to his triple-bypass surgery, “You didn’t have a choice of who your parents were.” Scoring high on your GPA’s and SATs does not guarantee admission to Harvard if you are Asian American. The worshipers at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburg, PA, could do nothing to avoid being shot and killed. There were no happy endings for them. The happy ending to the story of Job is problematic. It is misleading. It gives us the wrong idea. Life just does not work out that way.

The more suitable ending to Job is actually the first half of today’s reading, in verses 1 and 6, where Job says to the Lord: “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. So I yield to you and I admit my mistake in questioning and challenging your ways and your wisdom”. This is a very different kind of ending; and a very different kind of attitude towards life. It is not one that finds hope and meaning in order. It is not one that expects to be able to make sense of everything that happens in life. There is not a direct correlation of cause and effect in the way God operates. More important than happy endings or unhappy endings or fairness, more important than facts even, more important than talent and success, than wealth and achievement—more important than all that is how we view and live life. Flannery O’Conner, the short story writer, said: “Life is more a mystery to be revered, than a problem to be solved.” Life is a mystery to be lived in awe and wonder and devotion.

II. Alan Watts tells this familiar tale: “Once upon a time there was a Chinese farmer whose horse ran away. That evening, all of his neighbors came around to commiserate. They said: ‘We are so sorry to hear your horse ran away. This is most unfortunate.’ The farmer said, “Maybe”. The next day the horse came back bringing 7 wild horses with it, and in the evening everybody came back and said, ‘Oh, isn’t that lucky. What a great turn of events. You now have 8 horses’! The farmer again said, “Maybe”. The following day his son tried to break one of the horses, and while riding it, he was thrown and broke his leg. The neighbors then said, ‘Oh dear, that’s too bad’, and the farmer responded, “Maybe”. The next day the conscription officers came around to conscript people into the army, and they rejected his son because he had a broken leg. Again all the neighbors came around and said, ‘Isn’t that great’! Again, the farmer said, “Maybe”! It is really impossible to tell whether anything that happens is good or bad, because you never know what will be the consequence of the misfortune, or, you never know what will be the consequence of good fortune.

So what do we do with the happy-ending verses in Job? I think we can look at them in a different light now. Isn’t it possible that just as you could not explain the undeserved suffering of Job, that you can’t explain the happy-ending either? Aren’t happy endings as much a mystery of God as undeserved tragedies? Again, the story of Job is about the way we view and live life. Doesn’t Job remind us that many of our blessings are gifts, undeserved and unearned, and not to be taken for granted? In the end, Job did not deserve nor earn the doubling of his fortune any more than he deserved or earned his suffering and loss. Whether blessing or curse, both are mysteries to be revered. In the end God. That is the message of Job. In the end, God. Thomas Moore, a writer and lecturer, who lived as a monk in a Catholic religious order for 12 years, wrote this meditation: “A billboard near an old house of mine displayed in 6-foot type: PRAY. IT WORKS. I always thought this was the ultimate in American pragmatism. If it doesn’t work, do you stop praying? What does it mean to say that prayer works? You get what you want? Life gets better? My billboard would say: PRAY. IT MAY NOT WORK. Prayer is an alternative to working hard to get what you want. One discovers eventually that what you want is almost always what you don’t need. Pray—period! Don’t expect anything. Or better, expect nothing.  Prayer cleanses us of expectations and allows holy will, providence, and life itself an entry. What could be more worth the effort—or the non-effort?

III. In the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Rabbi Harold Kushner dispels a common myth about suffering and helps us see our way through intense pain. He writes: “The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because God knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed…but when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside of ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on.” When you find yourself burdened and open your heart in prayer, expecting nothing, you won’t get a miracle to avert a tragedy. But you will discover people around you, and God beside you, and strength within you to help you survive the tragedy.

In my last sermon, a couple of Sundays ago, I cited Professor Kate Bowler who examined and critiqued the prosperity gospel. In her latest book, Everything Happens for a Reason, she writes about her own personal burden and suffering of a deadly illness. She found that the great antidote, the great balm in her suffering was in the presence of others who accompanied her in her suffering. Unlike the world of the prosperity gospel where one’s disease is caused by one’s unconfessed sin coupled with not praying hard enough; and that one’s incurable disease is proof of God’s disfavor—feeling accompanied and loved, she writes: “It seemed too odd and too simplistic to say what I knew to be true—that when I was sure I was going to die, I didn’t feel angry.  I felt loved.”

I witnessed a horrific accident when I served as pastor on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation. From the church, we could hear and see the traffic traveling down the steep highway. A logging truck came barreling down the highway and sideswiped a pickup truck attempting to cross the highway. A child riding in the bed of the pickup was tossed from the truck and fell under the wheels of the logging truck. While all the attention was focused on the dead child, I spotted the driver of the logging truck standing alone by the side of the highway away from the scene, overwhelmed with guilt and grief. I had no words for him; there was nothing I could say to fix the problem. The child was dead; nothing that I could say would bring the child back. I put my arms around his shoulder, held him tight, and whispered a prayer.

The mystery of God does not mean mysterious, as something complicated and impossible to understand. Rather, mystery is to trust and to accept. Even in suffering and death, God is present. At Dr. Jim Emerson’s memorial service two Saturdays ago, his eldest son, John, shared something his father wrote: “When it comes to my service, I hope someone will emphasize that I had a deep commitment to Jesus, believed in the reality of the resurrection, am grateful for the good life I had thanks to my parents and my children, Migs’ parents and family, and especially Migs herself. Despite my having had TB as a child and growing up through the Depression, or MAYBE BECAUSE OF IT, I am someone who is the most fortunate of people.”

I don’t want to take away happy endings from you. We can still enjoy happy endings in film and in our own lives. But the Lord does have in mind something that is even better…the mystery of God, where God is with us always, whether in our suffering or in our blessedness. And for that we are the most fortunate of people!

 

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