FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God of creation, eternal majesty, you preside over land and sea, sunshine and storm. By your strength pilot us, by your power preserve us, by your wisdom instruct us, and by your hand protect us, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.
Perhaps it is because my reflections this week happen to have been influenced by the works of two very profound poetic works. Or maybe I am impressed with how deeply the scriptural narratives this week are rooted in the poetry of the psalms and prophets. Whatever the reason, I have been thinking a great deal about poetry, its influence on us and the value (or lack thereof) that our contemporary culture places on it.
I was introduced to poetry in the same way that I suspect most of you were: through music. The choruses I learned in Sunday School, the hymns shaping worship in my church and the songs I sang in school and at civic ceremonies gave me an appreciation for the power of words wrapped in music. It is difficult for the most hardened cynic to remain unmoved while standing among a crowd of people singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic.
My introduction to the naked word of poetry came largely through my sophomore high school honors English class with Mrs. Boyer. She began our unit on poetry by pointing out that poetic works are looked upon with suspicion and suppressed in many countries throughout the world. “But of course,” she added, “that is not true of our own country. Poets here are free to write and publish as they wish.” Then she added with a wry smile, “The state department knows very well that nobody in this country reads poetry anyway.” Turns out she was right. Even poets are not necessarily readers of poetry. It is my understanding that the Poetry Foundation’s publication, Poetry, has more contributors than subscribers! Mrs. Boyer was determined to do everything in her power to change our cultural disinterest in poetry. To her credit, I can still recite The Road not Taken and Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost as well as Mark Anthony’s funeral oration from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
To be honest, my relationship with poetry over the years has been an on and off sort of thing. I was glad to be done with the poetry unit in Mrs. Boyer’s class. I figured that I had probably had about as much exposure to poetry as a normal person needs. But in my senior year I discovered the Psalms-quite by accident as it happened. Being in study hall with no desire to study, I happened to notice a paperback book containing the Psalms someone had left in the rack under my desk. I picked it up and began reading. There began a practice that I maintain to this day: two psalms per day, one in the morning and one at night. Just like vitamins. I discovered T.S. Elliot in college and got re-acquainted with Robert Frost in seminary. As a classics major, I could hardly avoid Homer, Sophocles, Euripides, Aeschylus, Virgil, Ovid, Juvenile and all the other usual suspects.
After graduation from seminary, I lost contact with these and other poets just as I did with most of my classmates. There was no animosity involved. It is just that our lives wound up going in different directions. My life did not intersect again in any significant way with poetry until the end of the 1990s. At that point, I began writing my own poems. I cannot say what drove me to it. There was a great deal of uncertainty during that period of my life. I was struggling professionally in my law practice, dealing with the chronic illness of my wife and wondering how (if at all) I would ever get my children through college. Poetry gave me back my imagination, enabling me to see beyond the dead end I had made for myself. I found that writing poetry allowed me to enter into and view my life from a different perspective. It also made me sensitive to the rich texture of existence that can so easily be overlooked when you are working twelve hours per day at a job that requires intense focus on detail. Nothing I wrote was worth publishing nor was it so intended. Its value lay chiefly in the spiritual support it gave me at a low time in my life and the appreciation I developed for the difficulty of the poetic task.
I don’t write poetry anymore and (apart from the Psalms) I read it only infrequently. Reading poetry is hard work. The disciplined concentration it demands does not develop naturally in our tweety, texty, brief memo, “get to the point already” culture. I think, however, that such disciplined and imaginative concentration is precisely what we need. The lessons for this week invite us to engage in poetic imagination. The poetry of Job challenges us to look past our simplistic assumptions about God, morality and the universe. The Psalm gives poetic expression to God’s acts of salvation experienced by seafaring merchants caught in a violent storm. Paul cites the bold poetry of Isaiah to encourage the church at Corinth in its common mission with him. Finally, Mark suggests that a hint to Jesus’ true identity might be wrapped up in the poetic testimony of our Psalm. Each of these poetic threads is leading us down the path of discovery. Let us follow them with awe, reverence and openness to the power of imagination.
“Stay away from the Book of Job,” my preaching professor told me in seminary, “unless you are prepared to go the distance.” What he meant, I think, is that preaching Job honestly requires us to deal with the whole messy, troublesome story. And this story is plenty messy and troublesome.
Job, you may recall, was a righteous man. So righteous was he that he not only took care to avoid sin himself, but offered sacrifices on behalf of his children to atone for any sins they might have committed. Job 1:1-5. God rewarded Job’s righteousness with a beautiful wife, wonderful children and fabulous wealth. “Now there was a day,” we read,” when the sons of God came to present themselves before the Lord and Satan also was among them.” Job 1:6. The NRSV translates “sons of God” as “heavenly beings” which, though making the text properly inclusive, says more than we actually know. It is presumed that we know who Satan is, though we might wonder at how he manages to slip in and out of God’s court with such freedom. Though clearly adversarial, Satan’s relationship with God seems almost collegial. Their rivalry resembles more the philosophical jousting typical among professors within the same university faculty than cosmic conflict between mortal enemies.
God, it seems, is a humanist convinced that human nature is capable of righteousness and moral progress. Satan, by contrast, is a hardened cynic. To him, human beings are a bundle of nerve endings. They do whatever they do to avoid pain and obtain pleasure. The specimen Job seems to prove God’s position and God cannot help but rub this in a little. “How ‘bout that Job, Heh? Blameless, upright, not an evil bone in his body! Now tell me Satan, doesn’t the existence of a man like that put the lie to your pessimistic outlook on the human race?”
“Righteous, yes. I’ll give you that.” Says Satan. “Of course, he’s got good reason to be righteous, doesn’t he? You reward him well enough for it. Pay me like you pay him and I’ll be righteous too!”
“What are you suggesting?” God inquires, a little uncertainly.
“Oh, just this,” says Satan. Job is righteous because he knows it pays to be righteous. But take away all the goodies, rob him of his wealth, introduce a little tragedy into his life and he will turn on you in a New York minute.” This, by the way is strikingly similar to the tactic the serpent used on Eve in the Garden of Eden. “Can God really be trusted to do right by you? Are the commands he gives you really for your own good? Or is God holding something back? Is there something God wants to keep all to God’s self?” Just as the serpent undermined humanity’s trust in its Creator, so now Satan seeks to undermine God’s confidence in God’s creature. Like Eve, God takes the bait-hook, line and sinker. God gives Satan leave to take everything from Job but his life and health.
If Satan thought he would score an easy philosophical victory here, he was wrong. Job lost his wealth and his children in one fell swoop. Though urged by his wife to curse God and die, Job replies: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I return; the Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.” Job 1:21. Now God can hardly contain himself: “Have you considered my servant Job…he still holds fast his integrity, although you moved me against him, to destroy him without cause.” Job 2:3. In what God thinks is a victory speech, God has unwittingly conceded defeat. God admits that Satan has “moved” God against his faithful creature. That has been Satan’s game plan all along.
Satan has more dirty work to do, however. “Well,” says Satan, “I must admit that your Job held up much better than I expected. But every man has his price. Job still has his health. Break his body, render him incontinent, deform his appearance and afflict him with chronic pain and he will crack. A human being is but a bundle of nerve endings. Let’s see how well he pronounces blessings when those nerve endings start to hurt.” Once again, God takes the bait and Job is afflicted with bodily sores that disfigure him. At this point, Satan drops out of the story and is heard from no more. God is also off stage until the very end of the drama. In the meantime, Job receives a visit from three friends who come to comfort and advise him.
Job can see no reason for his suffering or the failure of God to respond to his cries for vindication. His friends, however, know full well what the problem is. Job is being punished for his sin. That is the only explanation there can be if we accept as true the theology of Psalm 1, which teaches us that the righteous one “is like a tree planted by streams of water, that yields its fruit in its season,” who prospers in all that he does; whereas the wicked “are like chaff which the wind drives away.” If Job is perishing, it can only be because of some evil he has done. Any other conclusion ascribes injustice to God-which is blasphemy. Naturally, the friends’ theology of God constricts their ability to speak a life giving and comforting word to Job. Job’s insistence upon his innocence only threatens the friends’ deeply held beliefs about how God’s justice works to reward the righteous and punish the wicked. Their lengthy poetic argument with Job on this point proceeds for thirty-four dreary chapters, becoming more vitriolic with every verse. The friends seem to be more concerned with defending God’s honor than comforting poor Job. Job increasingly ignores his friends’ arguments and directs his speech to the God who does not answer. Finally, just as the argument seems mercifully to have ground to a halt, one more friend steps out of the shadows to put in his two cents worth. In fact, he puts in more than two cents worth of pedantic blather, lecturing poor Job for six more chapters on his pride and impiety.
Then God speaks, and that is where our lesson for Sunday comes in. God bypasses the friends and speaks directly to Job, peppering him with rhetorical questions that Job cannot possibly be expected to answer. The point seems to be that creation is such a terrible, fearful, beautiful and awesome mystery that no mortal can comprehend it. Human life in all of its complexities cannot be boiled down to simplistic rules of moral cause and effect. The reasons for beauty, terror, joy and despair defy rational explanation. It should be enough to know that the creation is a wondrous place filled with potential for human joy and fulfilment as well as human tragedy. It is not for Job to complain that God did not make the world differently or that God could have made it better.
All of that might fly well enough if only Job’s suffering really were inexplicable. But it’s not. We already know that Job’s suffering has nothing to do with mysteries too deep for human understanding. The reader understands only too well why Job has been so cruelly afflicted. God was induced by Satan to brutalize Job in order to make a point. Worse than that, it is obvious that God is not coming clean with Job. God has Job believing that his suffering lies hidden in mysteries too great for his understanding. In the end, God restores Job’s wealth and gives him more children. The inadequacy of such a remedy is clear enough to every parent who has lost a child and been told by some well-meaning friend, “Well, thank God you’re young enough to have more children.” Children are not fungible goods. So the Book of Job ends as it began-with a lot of very troubling issues.
I have a feeling some folks might be taking offense at my treatment of this great book. In my own defense I can only say that I have chased commentators, preachers and linguists from hell to breakfast looking for a way to derive a positive message from Job. But the only way I have found to make peace with the book is to interpret it as satire from beginning to end. It is, I believe, a cautionary tale about religion run amok. “This,” says the anonymous author(s) of Job, “is what you get from a religion of moral causation, a religion that interprets all events as rewards or punishments for human behavior. (Are you listening Pat Robertson, Frank Graham and Assemblywoman Shannon Grove?) You wind up with people like Job who can find no comfort in their faith. You wind up with people like Job’s friends whose religion can provide no healing or life giving word to those who suffer. You wind up with a god who is unworthy of Job’s worship and trust.
The latter observation is aptly expressed in Robert Frost’s play Mask of Reason, which is based on the Book of Job. The drama takes place years after the events related in the Bible have transpired. God pays a visit to Job and his wife and Job poses the question: “Now after all these years You might indulge me. Why did You hurt me so? I am reduced to asking flatly for the reason-outright.”
God responds: “I was showing off to the Devil, Job, as set forth in Chapters One and Two. Do you mind?”
“No, No. I musn’t,” Job Replies. “Twas human of You. I expected more than I could understand and what I get is almost less than I can understand.”
Mask of Reason, lines 207-269; lines 327-233 printed in Frost, Robert, The Poetry of Robert Frost (c. 1969 by Holt, Rinehart and Winston) pp. 473-390.
If there is a positive word in this book, it finds expression in the character of Job. Though Satan succeeded well in turning God against God’s creature, he failed to turn Job from his faith in his Creator. So the question posed by the Book of Job is this: “Is there a God out there worthy of Job’s steadfast trust and confidence?” The book does a fine job of telling us what such a god is not. We must look beyond that book for a portrait of who that God is.
This is a psalm of praise. Verse 22 suggests that it was sung by the faith community before a sacrifice of thanksgiving. That the worshipers are “gathered from the lands, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south” (Vs. 3) suggests that this psalm was composed after the Babylonian Exile and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem. Though some of the exiled Jews returned home to Palestine, most of the Jewish population remained scattered throughout the Mediterranean world, making pilgrimages to Jerusalem on high holy days. Such pilgrim journeys were fraught with dangers, escape from which was one of many occasions for thanksgiving.
Our lesson begins at verse 23 and relates the adventures of sea going merchants (who might also have been pilgrims). In addition to being a powerful metaphor for the primordial chaos that reigned prior to creation (Genesis 1:2), the sea was also a very tangible source of terror for the Israelite people. How many Jewish sea captains do you read about in the Hebrew Scriptures? Jonah is the only Hebrew scriptural character known to have gone to sea-and it did not turn out well for him. Yet even the terrifying power of the sea is subject to the voice of Israel’s God.
“Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress; he made the storm be still, and the waves of the sea were hushed.” Vss. 27-28. These words parallel the cries of the terrified disciples in our gospel lesson and the Psalm as a whole implies the answer to their question: “Who, then, is this, that even the wind and sea obey him?” Mark 4:41. Of course, for the pilgrims in the Psalm standing safely within the confines of the temple courts, escape from the dangers of the sea seemed no less miraculous and God driven.
These are the testimonies of persons who have experienced in a graphic way God’s saving intervention. That God does not always so act and that there are also ships full of people that go down does not dull the effect of their faithful witness. Rather, it underscores the gracious nature of God’s salvation which is neither earned, deserved, nor can it be expected as a matter of course. People who have experienced God’s salvation from death understand that each morning is a gift of one more day in a finite lifetime. Such humble thankfulness is well expressed in a poem by the late Jane Kenyon:
I got out of bed on
two strong legs.
It might have been
otherwise. I ate
milk, ripe, flawless
peach. It might
have been otherwise.
I took the dog uphill
to the birch wood.
All morning I did
the work I love.
At noon I lay down
with my mate. It might
have been otherwise.
We ate dinner together
at a table with silver
candlesticks. It might
have been otherwise.
I slept in a bed
in a room with paintings
on the walls, and
planned another day
just like this day.
But one day, I know,
it will be otherwise.
Jane Kenyon from Constance (1993)
Moreover, such salvation experiences are not to be understood as special favors reflecting God’s preference for one person over another. Instead, they are occasions for God’s mercy and steadfast love to be manifested to the world. Hence, the command: “Let them extol him in the congregation of the people, and praise him in the assembly of the elders.” Vs. 22.
Paul has just finished a very fine articulation of his apostolic mission set forth in II Corinthians 5:16-21. He describes himself as an “ambassador” for Christ; God making God’s appeal for reconciliation through Paul’s ministry. In the name of Christ, then, Paul appeals to the Corinthian church “not to accept the grace of God in vain.” That is, let not the grace of God be without effect. Furnish, Victor Paul, II Corinthians, The Anchor Bible Commentary (c. 1984 by Doubleday & Company, Inc.) p. 341. Quoting Isaiah 49:8, Paul urges his readers to respond faithfully now, for time is of the essence. Vs. 2.
Verse 3 seems to be an abrupt transition. Paul has been speaking of his apostolic mission to the world, but now seems fixated once again upon his detractors’ rejection of his apostleship. Some commentators suggest that the material in II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 belongs immediately after vs. 2 rather than after verse 13. Ibid. 353. There is no question that this material seems wildly out of place where it now is and that II Corinthians 7:2 follows naturally after verse 13 in our lesson. But the transposed section does not seem to fit any more naturally between verses 2 and 3 than it does after verse 13. Accord, Furnish, supra. For my part, I am doubtful that II Corinthians 6:14-7:1 is even genuinely Pauline. It seems to contradict entirely the advice given in I Corinthians 7:12-16. If, however, one enlarges the focus to include the whole of Chapter 5, it becomes evident that Paul is simply circling back to the defense of his apostleship begun at II Corinthians 5:11-15. He points out that his credentials are the hardships he has embraced and the sacrifices he has gladly made for the sake of Christ’s reconciling mission. Vss. 4-10. Paul argues that he has done everything possible to earn the trust of the Corinthian church and asks that, as he has opened his heart to them, they similarly open their heart to him.
This passage illustrates how the greatest asset any church leader has is his/her integrity. A pastor that tithes need not apologize for asking the same from his/her congregation. A trustee that takes up the rake need not be bashful in calling upon the rest of the congregation to pitch in with the spring cleaning to avoid the expense of landscaping bills. Nothing takes the wind out of criticism quite as effectively as honesty, transparency and reliability.
In this gospel lesson Mark continues pressing the $64,000 question: “Who is Jesus?” Of course, those of us reading the gospel already know who Jesus is because the gospel begins in Mark 1:1 by telling us that this is the story of Jesus, the Son of God, the Messiah. Jesus knows who he is because the voice from heaven spoke to him at his baptism saying, “You are my beloved Son.” Mark 1:11. The demons know that Jesus is the Son of God and Jesus has to tell them to keep quiet about his identity. Mark 1:23-25. The only people who don’t seem to be getting it are the disciples.
Mark’s telling of this story is rich in allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures suggesting that Jesus is something more than a mere teacher. Indeed, as will later be demonstrated on the Mountain of Transfiguration, he is more even than Israel’s Messiah. The ability to control the sea and subdue storms was regarded as divine. Psalm 89:8-9; Psalm 93:1-4; Psalm 106:8-9; Psalm 107:28-29; and Isaiah 51:9-10. Additionally, the image of “the waters” was a common metaphor for the powers of evil and the trials of the righteous. Psalm 69:1-2; Psalm 18:16. Finally, in the mist of such tribulation, the faithful are called upon to express confidence in God’s power to save and deliver. Isaiah 43:2; Psalm 46:1-3; and Psalm 65:5. It should also be noted that the ability to sleep peacefully, as Jesus is evidently doing, is a sign of trust in the protective power of God. Proverbs 3:23-24; Psalm 4:8; Psalm 3:5; and Job 11:8-19. Jesus’ posture of trust evidenced by his sleeping is therefore a potent contrast to the agitation of the disciples. For a fuller discussion of these Hebrew scriptural echoes, see Nineham, D.E., Saint Mark, The Pelican New Testament Commentaries (c. 1963 by D.E. Nineham, pub. by Penguin Books, Ltd.) pp. 146-148.
It is tempting to criticize the disciples for being such dolts. Particularly after they make the remark, “Who is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?” vs. 41. Unwittingly perhaps, they are practically quoting from this week’s Psalm. Had they realized what they were saying, they would not have had to ask their question. Yet the problem here is deeper than mere failure to connect the scriptural dots. Surely the people to whom Mark’s gospel is addressed, like us, know that Jesus is the Son of God. The question is, does that knowledge make any difference to them or us? Though we confess that Jesus is the Son of God, is he the first one to whom we turn in the midst of a raging storm? Or do we call out to him only when our strength, our wits and our resources have all failed us and the boat is half swamped? In these troubled and fearful times, we can still hear Jesus speaking to us, “Why are you afraid? Have you no faith?” vs. 40.