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Job Is For Real

Sermons on the First Readings
Series III, Cycle B
We find Job on the edge of town, his money gone, his children dead, picking at his innumerable sores and scabs. In the Joni Mitchell version of his sorrow, Job speaks of how the children of the wicked frisk like deer while his are dead and gone. In her version, we are also told that Job sees the diggers waiting, leaning on their spades, at the site of his grave. Job's three friends, Eliphas, Bildad, and Zophar show up to comfort him but they do so in a way that only pours iodine on his wounds. God is just, they say, therefore, Job must have done something wrong. Therefore, Job is the sire of his own sorrow, again in Joni Mitchell's words. Job festers even more because of his friends. They bring a conventional wisdom. Job refuses it to suffer more deeply.

This orthodox wisdom sounds true because it is said so often. Many still think that suffering is their own fault. Everything in the book of Job contradicts that, only to go on to say something much more damning. We suffer precisely because we live the illusion that somehow what we do matters. What we do matters much less than we would like to think. We are small in a large world. Get that straight and new behaviors become possible. One new behavior is humility; another is joy in participation in the cosmos.

What Bill McKibben pointed out in his book, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, And The Scale Of Creation,1 is that often it is the conventional wisdom that hurts us the most. Not only with regard to Job and his exquisite dilemma but also with things that transcend Job, the individual. The same conventional wisdom is spouted regarding the environment. It is not about suffering and guilt so much as accepted truth like "We must have more." Every individual should have a car and a private home. Growth is our orthodoxy in the same way that individual guilt's siring of suffering was Job's orthodoxy. We also nurture Job's orthodoxy, but we nurture the social/political frame even more. Growth is good. Therefore, if we grow we will not suffer. Just the opposite, unfortunately is true. The more we grow, the more the earth will suffer and the more we will suffer.

What is great about Job, according to both McKibben and Stephen Mitchell, the poet who does the translation of Job many use today, is his refusal to accept the conventional wisdom. Job refuses to accept his guilt. He says to the end that he is innocent. The first way that Job is right is that he refuses the conventional wisdom even when it comes from his closest peers. Job has a conversation with God that is transforming but it is on Job's terms, not those of convention.

Job had a terrible experience. He was a good man and things happened to him that should never have happened. The earth is having a terrible experience: things are happening to it that should never have happened. Bill McKibben's important book on God in the whirlwind shows how Job's experience reframes the environmental debates of the day. He argues that Job is absolutely right in his rant at God. He also argues that Job will get nowhere ranting at God. We might say the same of environmentalists.

McKibben's argument is that until we get rid of the conventional wisdom on matters of the earth and on matters of suffering, we won't get it right. The conventional wisdom, according to McKibben, is the problem. Job faces a new fact with courage. We are also facing a new fact today, the size of the Copernican surprise. We are experiencing what McKibben calls the de-creation. Our very climate is changing, increasing temperatures, with an average of ten species of ten chains of being dying every day. We are eroding the very ozone the trees and we need in order to live. We are voting citizens of the richest country in the world, which has as official policy a decision not to sign Kyoto, as if these new facts were somehow irrelevant to the next 25 years of our lives.

If we are lucky enough to live another 25 years, and many of us will be, in fact the great majority, will be, we will see part of the island on which we now live float away. We will sit at the edge of the city and see our money gone, our children threatened, and pick at innumerable scabs and scores. There we will wonder why we did not wake up sooner to global warming. We will wonder why we accepted the conventional wisdom in the face of unconventional facts. We will have to ask ourselves why we assumed, with our culture and our government that "something" would happen to reverse the trend. A new technology perhaps? A bit of good luck like some catastrophe wiping out half the population so we could have enough air to breathe? A new kind of car? While environmentalists are often described as radical and wide-eyed, romantic kooks, who have doom written on their eyeballs and in their words, the real radicals are those who today reject science. Scientific agreement on global warming is widespread. Only fools stick with the conventional wisdom that nothing big is happening and if it is, those who don't sign Kyoto and those who make no plans to avoid islands slipping away will manage it.

Job is a kind of visit to the frame shop. Like the reframing that happened for many when space ships pictured earth suspended, all of it, before our very eyes, we are in need of a reframing, that is Copernican in size and Hubble-ian in method. The Hubble telescope is so much like God's message to Job that it is not funny. When Job complains of his suffering to God, God responds Hubble-esque. The Hubble is widely known to have shown us a universe of such size that we cannot begin to comprehend it. We are not the only world. There are constellations and galaxies beyond us that we are only beginning to understand. One scientist described the change in our point of view made by the Hubble (now an old tool) like this. We used to think of the universe as about as big as the sand on Jones Beach. Now we see the universe as comprising the sand on all the beaches up and down the coast of Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina. Precisely this sea change (forgive the metaphor) is needed as we look at the climate crisis that our generation faces. We need to reframe the issue.

God reframed Job's suffering for him, using words that deserve repeating.

Where were you when I planned the earth? Tell me if you are so wise, do you know who took its dimensions, measuring its length with a cord? What were its pillars built on? Who laid down the cornerstone? ... Have you ever commanded morning or guided dawn to its place to hold the corners of the sky and shake off the last few stars?
-- Job 38:4-6, 12-13(2)

Let's just say that the almighty needs a little work on his bedside matter. You are upset, Job? Well, who cares?

Who cuts a path for the thunderstorm and carves a road for the rain -- to water the desolate wasteland, the land where no man lives to make the wilderness blossom and cover the desert with grass?
-- Job 38:25-27(3)

There are many scriptures that take exactly this point of view. Psalm 104 is my favorite: It uses the same voice from the whirlwind as It confronts Job.

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart oil to make his face shine, and bread to strengthen the human hearts.
-- Psalm 104:14-15

Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things are innumerable there, living things both small and great. There go the ships, and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.
-- Psalm 104:25-26

Like the story of the whale who stupidly took off up the Thames, only to lose his life to human activity being enchanted by him, Psalm 104 tries to tell us of great and beautiful things, which we are to enjoy, not destroy.

During the conversation that Job and God have, Job is consistently diminished, made to look small and hung out to dry. God continues.

Did you deck the ostrich with wings, with elegant plumes and feathers? She lays her eggs in the dirt and lets them hatch on the ground, forgetting that a foot may crush them or sharp teeth crack them open. She treats her children cruelly, as if they were not her own. For God deprived her of wisdom and left her with little sense. And yet when she spreads her wings to run, she laughs at the horse and the rider. Or did you give the horse his strength? ... Who unties the wild ass and lets him wander at will?
-- Job 39:13-19, 5-6a

I think of one of the most powerful moments I have ever had in years of dealing with people with sickness. Jim Crawford, the retired pastor of Old South Church in Boston, told the following to someone I later visited. I went to see a man who was terribly ill with emphysema. Every breath was painful. He wanted to die but somehow his body wouldn't let him go. I was stumbling around trying to make sense of his suffering with him. With Job, I stood on the edge of the city picking away at scabs. He found a way to wheeze to me what Jim had said to him, "When this first came up on me, I kept asking, 'Why me? Why me?' Crawford said to me, 'Why not you?' " And that of course is God's response to Job.

So is Job right? I think so. He was innocent and still and nonetheless he suffered. Why did he suffer? Who knows? Why him? Who knows? May we care anyway? Yes indeed. We may care. But we care about the cosmos more than about our little place in it. That is the turn McKibben wants us to make toward the environment. He reads Job's saga in the whirlwind as advising two things -- great humility, and even greater joy.

The challenge before us is to figure out how to link these two callings, these two imperatives from the voice in the whirlwind -- the call to humility and the call to joy. Each on its own is insufficient. Humility by itself is an arid negativism; a gleeful communion with the earth around us can turn quickly into some New Age irresponsibility, where we come to identify the cosmos with us and not vice versa. But together they are reinforcing, powerful -- powerful enough, perhaps to start changing the deep-seated behaviors that are driving our environmental destruction, our galloping poverty, and our cultural despair.4

We have an old painting. It is a painting of the earth. I don't know how you see it. Maybe with the first shot from Apollo where the earth is suspended so terribly lonely, so far away, so unified. Or maybe it is with the artist who did Scarface. Do any of you know this painting? It is by Elizabeth Williams and I have only seen it once. But I will never forget it. She is asked to paint a woman who has been enormously disfigured by an abusive husband. Her face is cockeyed, one eye is half shut, and the lips are bruised and engorged. The nose on the woman's face is sideways. Her skin is pockmarked. First, we see the photo. Then we see William's rendition of Scarface. In William's rendition she is beautiful. Like a model. Her skin is firm, her face is not distorted. She is gorgeous. Williams tells us that when she looks at this woman, this is who she sees. The Garrison Institute, 37 miles from here on the Hudson, is doing a monthly series on rethinking environmentalism in our region. How? By inserting religious and artistic perspectives of joy into the doom language of most environmentalists. By speaking of earth as our power not our problem. By reframing the language of pessimism regarding the environment.

The call of Job is a call to reframe. It is to see with the perspective of the Hubbell and the perspective of Apollo. It is to see just how beautiful this old scarface planet still is. It is to see just how small we are -- and then from within that consciousness to experience awe and joy.

We live in a world that is straining to catch its breath, losing oxygen and water, and heavy with people. That's where we live and still it is a beautiful wonderful place. It is our home.

The first time Gotham historians think that someone looked at the city, as a whole was in 1853 in an electrotyped woodcut, "Bird's Eye View of the City of New York" from Frank Leslie's Illustrated News encompassed the town as a whole. These new panoramic views of the city changed the way the city saw itself. We need a panoramic view of our city, our planet, and ourselves.

Was Job right in being furious? I think so. From that fury much can be born. We can whirl with the wind. We can escape the prison of our own self-consciousness. We can be pro-nature in a pro-urban way. We can treasure the largeness of it all and not be afraid of it.

We can't fix it. Nor is it meant to be fixed. The earth is created. In fixing it, we often join the de-creation. Instead, with humility and in joy, we transform the size of our footstep on earth. We think outside of the box of ourselves being the center of it all. We who commit mass murder by complacency can stop. We can stop the complacency. We can see the whole earth, not as a catalogue, but the whole earth and ourselves as planted within it. That is the reframe that can begin the saving of the air and water and our island home.

I find going to PETCO helps me. There I am surrounded by a lot of little nutty dogs and their owners who are desperately trying to make contact with nature. Imagine doing that through a chihuahua. Or me through a golden retriever? People sit in leather chairs reading books about how to "tame" a dog. Little do they know that the dog will soon tame them! What is the difference between a cat and a dog? A dog thinks you are the center of the universe and a cat thinks it is the center of the universe. God tried to teach Job to think less like a cat and more like a dog. Not that there is anything wrong with cats or dogs -- or Job -- or you or me. It's just that none of us is the center of the universe. Amen.


1. Bill McKibben, The Comforting Whirlwind: God, Job, And The Scale Of Creation (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2005).

2. Stephen Mitchell, The Book Of Job (New York: HarperCollins, 1987).

3. Ibid.

4. Op cit, McKibben.
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