Posted by: owizblog | October 4, 2015

Smack Up Against Reality: Sermon, UCB, 4 October 2015

Job 1:1, 2:1-10

I’ve said it before; we remember television adverts over years and years, often better than the programmes that interrupted them. Here’s an advert you might remember.

Flext 1

A man is talking on his mobile, and he falls gently, unworried, backwards out of his window, towards the hard slabs of the square outside.

Flext 2

But when he lands, the paving just ripples like a mattress…

Flext 3a

… and flips him back onto his feet. He walks on down the street, still talking into his phone,

Flext 4

and notices a friend, through a café window. He stops, and simply pushes on the glass, which bends like a bubble

Flext 5

and lets him tap her on the shoulder and start a conversation.

In another version of the same advert – it’s for T-mobile’s “Flexting” contract phones – the camera cuts from street to street among the skyscrapers of a big city as the chap and his friends, separated by the tall buildings, put their phones to their heads – and the skyscrapers collapse like concertinas so that they can see each other.

Significantly, that advert dates from 2006. It’s set in the world before the credit crunch, when we were sold products on the basis that they would make the world bend to our will – and if we didn’t have the money, well, society was awash with credit, and the money to make things happen the way we wanted, and make hard facts melt away and difficulties disappear, was there waiting for us.

The world was soft, and pliable, and bent to our will. And then we hit the buffers. We don’t live in a world any more in which the right phone contract will make the pavement cushion our fall, or the obstacles just fall down.

2

“Facts are gentlemen who won’t just fall down…” said Burns. Well, what he actually said, of course, was the far more couthy and poetic “Facts are chiels that winna’ ding…” And he’s right. Daily experience confirms it. Facts, things as they actually are, reality… reality doesn’t just yield when we push against it, doesn’t just go away if we wish it away. And if we run full-tilt at it, shoulder-charge it – we bounce off, and hurt ourselves, and land right back where we started, anyway.

Not that that stops us. I know I’ve done it, but don’t we all have the experience of being so frustrated by the unyielding quality of life, and its problems and difficulties, so exasperated, that we lash out physically against it, punch a wall, bang our fist off the table?

And hurt ourselves doing so?

Long ago, and in a place far, far from Scotland, a therapist I knew who treated muscular and skeletal problems and injuries had visit him as a patient a little old nun, the gentlest, saintliest wee lady you could ever have met – and genuinely saintly, not “pit oan”. And she was having terrible pain from her elbows. My friend examined her, and expressed amazement at the extent of the damage to the joints. And he finally scratched his head and said “Sister, I can’t think of a way to ask you this without seeming terribly offensive – but were you ever a boxer?

“No!” she laughed.

“Well,” said my friend, “The only way I can see that you can have incurred this damage is from years and years of doing this…” And he smacked his fist into the opposite palm.

And the gentle old lady blushed to the roots of her hair. And she said “Well, the truth is this. Living in a convent isn’t anything like as gentle and spiritual an existence as you might think. It can be terribly frustrating. And there have been many years when I have gone back to my cell quietly furious, and done this…” And she smacked her fist into the opposite palm, repeatedly, and hard. Her frustration with things she couldn’t change led her to lash out against them, and, over the years, to hurt herself – really hurt herself.

3

We live in a world which doesn’t yield to our wishing or wanting or dreaming. We know that; at least most of the time we know it. Sometimes, we rage against it. And sometimes that’s all we can do. Well, not quite all. Because faith can do something that very often we don’t think we’re allowed to do.

Faith can ask “Why?”

If you don’t believe that anything means anything, there’s no point in asking why.

It never ceases to amaze me that people who profess (and I accept them at their word) that they have no faith tax us who believe with wanting “comfort,” and then develop a spurious argument that faith is all about false comfort and the inability to face things as they really are.

Such a view of what faith is and has to be doesn’t survive a serious contemplation of Job, comfortless, with only questions, yet clinging to faith. Oh yes, of course, there is faith which is full of false comfort, full of easy answers, assertions which brook no further questioning, because they are designed to turn off the questions at their source.

The American comedian Ring Lardner used to tell of a road trip he made as a teenager, being driven by his father. They got lost. The teenager had the map, and asked his father why they’d taken such and such a turn instead of another, why they’d gone down this road instead of that one… Lardner’s account of his tight-lipped father’s response to all these questions is memorable;

Shut Up

“‘Shut up!’ he explained…”

And sometimes, people who profess do that. They tell people who unsettle them, people who seem to challenge what they believe, who bring out their insecurities – sometimes even just people whose circumstances challenge their small, shougilly understandings of how the world is – to shut up. Centuries after the colossal poem of Job explored the vast theme of undeserved suffering, centuries after Job’s friends, the famous “Job’s comforters – that’s where that expression comes from – were holding forth about their understandings of what was right and what was wrong, and trying to force Job’s plight into their tiny understandings of existence and of God, and Job was protesting “NO! I don’t fit! Things aren’t like that!”, centuries after that, Jesus was having to tell people that suffering and illness aren’t God’s punishment of people who aren’t like us, that the people who sit and suffer are exactly like us, and might be us. And two thousand years after that, we still blame victims for their own suffering because their suffering unsettles our view of how the world is, and makes us think that we, too, might find ourselves where they sit – which is where Job sat – asking questions of God.

Yet not giving up on God…

4

Job doesn’t give up on God. His wife tells him to: “Curse God and die!” And between them, in her despairing injunction, and his despairing and adamant refusal to contemplate it, they raise what Albert Camus, the great French philosopher-novelist, says is the question.

“Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories — comes afterwards.” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus)

Camus, like Sartre, is the kind of atheist you can, and should, respect, the kind of atheist who asks the hardest of questions, and keeps asking them. “Atheism” said Sartre in one of his last interviews “is a long, hard, cruel road, and I think I can say that I have followed it through to the end.” There is a wimpish, cocktail-party atheism, that sniggers, and holds in easy contempt, and assumes that moderately-intelligent, comfortable, middle class human beings who can afford to pretend to some sophistication, and need to have the right books on the coffee table, and the right conversation-topics at dinner parties, are all going to be atheists, because who believes all that rubbish any more? And of course, if the meaning of your life is something that you make for yourself in a group with your friends, well, as long as it isn’t put to the test, that’s fine.

Sartre, Camus, these were people who put their atheism to the test. Job is the very symbol of the human being whose faith is put to the test. And on the one side of Job are his friends, with their glib, shallow version of faith, which they are desperate doesn’t ever get put to the test in their lives, and they are horribly embarrassed that it’s being put to the test through Job’s suffering. So they wheel out their platitudes, and their dogmatic certainties, and Job, desperately trying to hold faith and truth together, says “No! This doesn’t fit. My situation doesn’t fit your tiny frameworks. Neither does God. I don’t know what to say about God, I long in agony to put my questions to God, but I know this: God is bigger than the cosy frameworks in which you are trying to confine him…”

And on the other hand, there’s Job’s wife, a distraught, shattered woman, who has moved to the opposite pole, from her own suffering and from her contemplation of her husband’s. Have done with it, she says. “Curse God and die…”

And Job says – brusquely, rather cruelly, to a traumatized woman, if truth be told (and it always must) “‘You are talking like a foolish woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’”

Job, I suppose, has in the end to maintain his own defences, to hold his position against someone who, even with a wife’s love, is actually trying to undermine it. But here’s the heart of it.

‘Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?’

Things are as they are. Our situation is what it is. Facts aren’t the only chiels that winna’ ding. The world is the way it is, and the truth of that is hard and unyielding, and we need, before anything else that this is where we are. And if we are intent on talking about God, and holding all of this pain together with anything you might call faith in God – and, says Job, I am, wife, no matter what you say – then we have to start with things as they are. And then, we have to ask “Why?”
5
And we have to believe that it makes sense to ask “Why?” Even if we can’t get an answer…

And for thirty seven chapters of the most astonishing poetry, in what is even just as world literature one of the most astonishing productions of the ages, Job asks, and asks, and asks.

And then, he gets his answer. The only answer the ancient world, the only answer the ancient faith of Israel could compass. God speaks to Job out of the whirlwind.
God is God. Job is not, radically not, God. Job, throughout the whole book, has clung to his refusal to be done with God, to give up on God. In all this pain that he doesn’t understand, this hard, unyielding reality that he can’t make sense of, he refuses not to carry on trusting in God. He offers no explanation, because there is no explanation.

So Job finally stands before God. And faced with the unmeasurable, unfathomable reality of God, Job falls silent. All he can do is admit that God is God and he is not. But it’s just exactly at that point, at which he confesses that he stands before an unimaginable reality, and stands before it as, in himself, nothing, that Job, whatever he says, actually isn’t nothing. Because God addresses him. God talks to him. God marks his existence. This, at the last, is the dignity of Job, and his vindication. God adresses him. God acknowledges him. God is God, but Job isn’t nothing…

This isn’t the Christian understanding of God, not yet, and not by a long, long way. But it’s the threshold of it. It takes us to the point where we realize what faith is, and that faith is trust, even when the reasons to trust seem to have been taken away one by one.

And that red thread that runs from this point on in the Biblical tradition takes us on into the New Testament, and this morning’s Gospel reading. But we approach that through another poem, another poem about suffering, in fact, and about the discovery, even in suffering and loss, that we are not nothing, because that is where God finds us. We sing George Matheson’s great hymn “O love that wilt not let me go…”

[Break: Hymn 677]

O Love that wilt not let me go,

I rest my weary soul in thee;

I give thee back the life I owe,

That in thine ocean depths its flow

May richer, fuller be.

O light that foll’west all my way,

I yield my flick’ring torch to thee;

My heart restores its borrowed ray,

That in thy sunshine’s blaze its day

May brighter, fairer be.

O Joy that seekest me through pain,

I cannot close my heart to thee;

I trace the rainbow through the rain,

And feel the promise is not vain,

That morn shall tearless be.

O Cross that liftest up my head,

I dare not ask to fly from thee;

I lay in dust life’s glory dead,

And from the ground there blossoms red

Life that shall endless be.

Mark 10:13-16

6

Job takes us to the edge of human existence, and the huge questions that become inescapable when we go there. Very few of us spend more than a relatively brief time there; all of us become acquainted with it at some point in our lives, and there are many times when the safety of being far from the edge is suddenly compromised.

In truth, the edge runs right through the middle of life.

Like children, we are caught between the yearning for a love that will make us safe, and a reality that is harsh to the point that it doesn’t even seem to notice our existence. And like children, we are asked to trust.

There is such a thing as a childish faith. There is such a thing as a childlike faith, and it’s a very different thing. A childish faith refuses to look at things the way they are, refuses reality, insists that we must be in control of everything. A childish faith is something grownups tend to have, because children, even in our society, which is finally beginning to take them seriously, are without power and influence over their own lives. Oh, children can sometimes be childish –

tantrum 1

remember the advert about the child who reinforces his demands for something by shouting and bawling in the supermarket aisle,

tantrum 2

only for his mother to lie down on the shop floor, screaming and kicking, then, when he’s sufficiently mortified,

tantrum 3

get up, strike him a look of “that’s enough!” and nod her head in a way that says “You – with me! Now!”

tantrum 4

But child-likeness is trust even when we are bereft of a say over our lives, trust that however things are, all will be well. It’s an attitude that the American sociologist and theologian Peter Berger calls “trust in Being”.

It’s trust. And we sang about it earlier on:

Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,

whose trust, ever childlike, no cares could destroy,

be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,

your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.

And we’ll sing about it again, as the service comes to an end:

All my hope on God is founded;

he doth still my trust renew,

me through change and chance he guideth,

only good and only true.

God unknown,

he alone

calls my heart to be his own.

These are profound insights into the meaning of faith, developed, yes, in the light of two thousand years of reflection of God as Jesus Christ reveals him to be. But they are also developments of an insight derived from the contemplation of a solitary figure, stripped of everything in life, who refuses to give up on God. And God, it turns out, is there. What that means is what the Biblical tradition explores.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Categories

%d bloggers like this: