Opening words: Wild Geese, Mary Oliver
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting–
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Sermon: Job Was a Serious Man
Why is there evil in the world? Why do we suffer? If God is an all-powerful God of justice and mercy, a good and loving God, why is there so much evil and suffering in the world He created and controls?
These are serious questions. The book of Job is a serious chapter in the Bible because suffering is such a serious part of life.
What is God? What do you think? What do you believe about God, or the gods…about the nature of evil, about human suffering, about justice…karma?
In the film, A Serious Man, Larry Gopnik plays a modern-day Job – a man who suffers unjustly.
To appreciate the film it helps to know the Biblical story of Job, even if you have no interest in the movie. So the sermon will address both the film and Biblical story, and address the prickly issue of human suffering, or, speaking in religious terms, the problem of theodicy: justifying the existence, omnipotence and goodness of God in the face of suffering, especially of undeserved suffering.
The story of Job is an attempt to justify the ways of God to man – and those ways of God include God’s allowing the innocent to suffer – a God that allows a psychiatrist at Fort Hood to open fire, calling out His name, “God is great!” and killing and wounding dozens, merely because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
How do you reconcile the idea of a good, all-powerful, all-knowing God who allows the innocent to suffer…what theologians refer to as ‘theodicy.’
The story of Job is often described as a trial in which Job accuses God of crimes against humanity. Job was a serious man. The word serious comes from the Latin – weighty, important, grave.
Biblical historians often refer to Job as a poem, composed by many authors over the course of centuries, beginning about 3,500 years ago, probably in Sumaria. After some centuries a happy ending was added as a post script.
The story opens with the simple statement: “There was a man in the land of Uz, whose name was Job; and that man was blameless and upright.”
That’s the most important line in the Biblical story of Job; he is referred to as ‘the most righteous man on earth.’ In other words, he’s a good man.
In the opening passages God and Satan are chatting in a familiar way, a couple of old friends at a morning coffee klatch at an outdoor café. God brags about his perfect human specimen, Job, knowing full well that bragging about a good man will rankle the hell (literally) out of ole’ Satan, personification of evil that he is.
It’s no surprise, then, that Satan scoffs at the way God is bragging, so Satan says that Job is blameless and upright only because he just wanted to get on God’s good side – he is good for selfish reasons, expecting his reward, and, indeed, Satan point out, God has been very good to Job – Job is on the top of Forbe’s list of the wealthiest guys in town.
Satan says that if God took some of Job’s good things away, Job would not have such kind words for God, would not be such a model of goodness.
So Satan and God make a little wager. The plan is for Satan to put Job to the test, cause as much suffering as it takes, short of causing Job to die, since Job’s death would put an end to their little game of testing Job.
Satan asserts that people love God only for what they can get from him – furthermore, Satan suggests that the ‘entire human project should be destroyed.’
Let’s taste a bit of the Biblical story with a passage from the first chapter that describes Satan’s work:
13 One day when Job’s sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, 14 a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys were grazing nearby, and the Sabeans attacked and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
16 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The fire of God fell from the sky and burned up the sheep and the servants, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
17 While he was still speaking, another messenger came and said, “The Chaldeans formed three raiding parties and swept down on your camels and carried them off. They put the servants to the sword, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
18 While he was still speaking, yet another messenger came and said, “Your sons and daughters were feasting and drinking wine at the oldest brother’s house, when suddenly a mighty wind swept in from the desert and struck the four corners of the house. It collapsed on them and they are dead, and I am the only one who has escaped to tell you!”
20 At this, Job got up and tore his robe and shaved his head. Then he fell to the ground in worship and said:
“Naked I came from my mother’s womb,
and naked I will depart.
The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away;
blessed be the name of the LORD.”
22 In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.
So, here we have it – natural disasters which cause so much suffering, and man-made violence, war and plundering, the source of more suffering.
Job suffers without complaining, so God is, of course, quite pleased with Job.
God rubs it in to his friend Satan, bragging some more about his servant Job. Wiley old Satan gets back to work and inflicts Job with “…loathsome sores from the sole of his foot to the crown of his head, and (Job) took a potsherd to scrape himself, and he sat among the ashes.”
At this point Job’s wife approaches him and she says, ‘why don’t you just curse God and die,’ and get it over with!
Job tells her that she sounds so silly, he asks, rhetorically, ‘shall we receive good at the hand of God, and shall we not receive evil?’
Job is alone, sitting in his grief over the loss of his children, his wealth, and his health, when three friends approach and they realize that Job’s grief is too deep for words, so they sit in mournful silence with Job for seven days and nights: the passage says, ‘and no one spoke a word to him, for they say that his suffering was so great.’ (Sitting shiva)
(The first instance of sitting shiva was in the book of Genesis, when Joseph mourned his father’s death ‘for a week.’ Shiva, or seven, is an important number in the creation story – in six days God made everything and on the seventh day he rested.)
(It’s worth noting that favored sons often suffer the most: Joseph was Jacob’s favorite, evidenced by ‘the coat of many colors,’ which became a curse, since his brothers were so jealous and abused him for it; Job is God’s favorite and paid a big price for that favoritism.)
Job’s friends sat with him for a week without saying a word, and if they were smart they would have left at the end of that week. But they didn’t. They blew it!
After seven days Eliphaz says, “If one ventures a word with you would you be offended?”
What a question! What a set up! Beware of a friend who prefaces a remark by saying, “I hate to tell you this.” The best response is, “Then don’t!”
Eliphaz proceeds to tell Job that he must confess his sins – he says that Job must have done some pretty bad things to deserve the suffering God visited on him. Job just asks them to leave him alone. He says his suffering was bad enough, but his so-called friends only made it worse.
His friends said, “I hate to tell you this but God is not only just, causing suffering only when it is deserved, but God is merciful, so you deserved even greater punishment!”
From their point of view, if Job could receive undeserved punishment or suffering, then they, too, were vulnerable, and they didn’t want to believe that!
This is the place where well-meaning but cruel clerics say that the baby died because ‘God needed another angel in heaven,’ at which point those in mourning have to remind themselves of the commandment against murder!
Job does, eventually, cry out to God in protest, cursing the day he was ‘delivered from his mother’s womb,’ wishing he had never been born, wanting only to die!
God’s voice comes over the heavenly loudspeaker, out of the whirlwind, and gives Job a sermon, in the traditional meaning of the word, reminding him that he, Job, didn’t create everything – didn’t set the world in motion, didn’t teach the eagle to fly or give the horse his strength, and so forth.
Job apologizes, saying to God, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know…I heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees thee; therefore I despise myself and repent…”
God is pleased with Job’s confession and humility; he orders Job’s friends to give Job ‘seven bulls and seven rams,’ since they failed to comfort Job and spoke things about God ‘what is right.’
The happy ending that was added to the book of Job says, “…the Lord restored the fortunes of Job…and gave Job twice as much as he had before…and after this Job lived a hundred and forty years, and saw his sons, and his sons’ sons, four generations. And Job died, an old man, and full of days.”
The film, A Serious Man, by the Coen brothers, Joel and Ethan, is a somewhat autobiographical story of undeserved suffering, illustrating things from the Biblical version, like so-called friends who add fuel to the fire.
The film is shot in suburban Minnesota, where they grew up as sons of Jewish academics in the early 1960’s.
But there’s a Yiddish-language prologue, a short story set in 19th century Poland, in which a couple open their door to find a needy neighbor who they suspect is a dybbuk in disguise. (a dybbuk is a malicious spirit that takes possession of an innocent victim. The dybbuk is believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person, a Satanic demon)
Larry Gopnik, their Job-like figure, looks like a man possessed by a malicious spirit! He’s a physics professor who seems haunted by a demon, getting hit from all sides.
The dean of the college where he’s teaching fills the role of one of Job’s so-called friends; the dean tells Larry about unsigned letters he’s been getting accusing Larry of questionable ethics and threatening his tenure – his job. Job is the word job spelled with a capital J and Larry’s job is his livelihood, the basis of his sense of security in the world…his wealth.
Larry is feeling tormented by the dean’s comments; he’s being slandered but there’s nothing he can do about it. Larry’s response to all his misfortunes, like Job’s response to his friends, is “But I didn’t do anything.”
Mark Twain said, “It takes your enemy and your friend, working together to hurt you to the heart; the one to slander you and the other to get the news to you.” Ah, friends!
Larry’s personal life is a mess: his son, Danny is habituated to pot and watching The F-Troop; he shows up for his bar mitzvah stoned. Larry’s daughter, Sarah, is obsessed with getting a nose job and she fights constantly with her brother. Larry’s unemployed brother, Arthur, is crashing on his couch and getting into trouble that he brings home, and Larry’s wife, Judith, is leaving him for a family friend who is like one of Job’s smooth-talking friends who rub salt into the wounds.
So Larry is Job, being tested and tormented. He has to deal with a scary Jew-hating neighbor – sort of a Satan figure in the film, the personification of evil, or a dybbuk!
To add to his torment, Larry is seduced by a neighbor who sunbaths out in her yard, next door, in the nude – he innocently glances at her when he goes up to his roof to adjust the t.v. antennae so his son can get a better picture to watch F-Troop. She represents the temptation Larry has thus far resisted – the Eve to his Adam – she’s the apple from the Garden of Eden myth of the Fall. (I thought they were going to have him fall off of the roof when he’s taking a long second look at his neighbor in the nude.) Larry seems to have been evicted from the Garden without ever tasting the apple, so when he sees and visits his nude neighbor he figures, ‘oh, why not!’
This wasn’t his only temptation – a Korean student who failed his final exam tries to bribe him, leaving an envelope stuffed with hundred dollar bills on his desk. Maybe he’ll give in to that temptation, too – he needs the money!
Larry’s divorce lawyer warns him to ‘expect the worst.’ So Larry seeks help and counsel from several rabbis, who prove to be no help at all (which is the way clergy are generally portrayed in films.) Like Job’s accusing friends, the rabbis seem only to be capable of increasing his suffering – no help at all.
The characters in the film refer to God as Hashem, which simply means ‘the name.’ Strict Jewish law forbids the use of the word God – the four-letter name of God, YHWH, is forbidden to be uttered out loud except by the High Priest in the Temple on specified occasions.
At work, Larry specializes in topics like Schrödinger’s Paradox, which his Korean student claims to understand, even if he can’t do the math for it. Larry tells the student that no one really understands it, but you have to be able to do the math! We say, “God knows,” meaning we don’t.
Archibald MacLeish’s interpretation of Job, J.B. was written shortly after W.W.II and the Holocaust – one of the characters, Nickles sings a song that includes the play’s central paradox: “If God is God He is not good, / If God is good, He is not God.’’
The so-called theodicy problem is only a ‘problem’ if you believe in an anthropomorphic god. For me, God is not so much a noun as a verb. God is the process of Creation, of which we are a part; we determine, to some extent at least, what kind of life we will live, what kind of person we will be. We influence the quality of life around us, especially in our close relationships – relationships characterized by love, by making strong, deep and sincere connections. In that way we are co-creators in God’s ongoing Creation.
Yes, bad things happen. Bad things happen to good people who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, as happened recently at Fort Hood. There is evil in the world. Humans are capable of the most horrendous destructive deeds for reasons we’re trying to understand better than we do. Blaming it on the devil or on God may be tempting, but it’s a dead end. We need a better, more mature concept of God than the one personified in the book of Job.
We opened the service with Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese. We’ll close the sermon with a brand new poem sent to me a week ago while I was working on this sermon. The poem is by J. Roger Rowell, which he told me he wrote that morning, that ‘it just came to him,’ and he doesn’t write poetry. But he wrote this:
We are like two old geese,
Paired but no longer able to fly,
To feel the excitement of the sun’s first ray,
The anticipation and then the sudden rush into the full light,
The wind in our face,
The world reaching out,
The promise of the miles before us.
Now we watch others go,
We spend our days gathering what we can against the winter,
At night we lie together,
In each others eyes we see the certainty of the coming cold,
And the fox.
We huddle a little more closely,
And then we sleep.