A Sermon for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Sunday, October 3, 2021

By: Amelia McDaniel, Lay Associate for Christian Formation


“Good Lord, Amelia. This is biblical.” That was my aunt’s text to me.

It was a Sunday night, and I was sitting at the emergency vet with our then 12-year-old yellow lab, Ruth, and two very tearful children. An hour earlier we had all been sitting in the living room when she was suddenly unable to stand. If you are a dog person you know this is the stuff that strikes fear in your heart. My aunt is a dog person and I had texted her knowing that she’d understand.

The Sunday before had been begun a week of unbearable sadness. We were together in the same living room when I had to tell my children that their father had died. Ruth had dutifully nudged and loved on each one of us as we sat there together. And now we were tearfully nudging and loving on her. Willing this problem to be fixable. Praying that this would not be the night to say goodbye too.

Looking into the faces of my terrified children, running the scenarios of how this could all play out in my head, feeling the sorrow heap upon sorrow, it did feel a bit “biblical” as my aunt had suggested. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I got down and whispered into my sweet dog’s ear, “Not tonight. No ma’am. Not tonight.”

Of course, my aunt was referring to Job whose story we begin in the lectionary today. Job, the blameless and upright man who feared God, who suffered mightily in the course of his biblical narrative. He is a Scriptural symbol and even secular code word for suffering, and I would guess that we are all familiar enough with his story.

Thankfully Ruth pulled out of that night and bless her she’s still with us today. And I can say with certainty that we definitely don’t deserve her because she is as blameless and upright a creature in this Kingdom as Job.

Job loses everything, his family, his home, his livelihood as the story unfolds. Job’s suffering is deeply relatable to us all, whether we’d like to own up to it or not. Job did not escape tragedy and losses through his good behavior or even the goodness of his heart. There was no way for Job to manifest good fortune for himself by changing his attitude or meditating or giving money to some cause.

Job’s friends show up to support him as the story goes on, but not really support him. They tried to figure out just what Job had done wrong for all this misery to befall him. Sounds like pretty awful friends. But, isn’t that what we so often do when we hear about a tragedy…

Well did you see the way he smoked, it’s no wonder he got cancer. That won’t happen to me. I’ve never smoked a day in my life.

Well, did you ever notice how recklessly they spent on everything, it’s no wonder that they made bad investments and lost it all. We are always very prudent with our money choices.

He always drank too much, it’s no wonder he ended up an alcoholic. I only drink on the weekends, that will never happen to me.
Well, she just never seemed good enough for him, it’s no wonder they got divorced. We are made for each other, that will never happen to us.

It is no wonder that we try to soothe ourselves, insulate ourselves from the perils of being a human being. We see the world around us offering us plenty of evidence that really bad things can happen. Our families are filled with stories of sadness and losses, whether we tell those stories, whether we own up to those stories or not.

I have spent many hours railing against God as Job does about how painful and terrible and absurd this life can be. And look. I’ve had it pretty easy no matter what I might wail at you in a low moment. I was born into a family that was able to feed, clothe and educate me not just adequately but with more than enough. My family loved me, valued me, encouraged me. I was able to do well in school and be employed. I fell in love in my mid 20’s and married. I wanted children and without trouble they arrived just as I had planned them. In all these “successes” I knew I was grateful to God, but I’ll tell you it also felt like I was pretty successful at being a human. It was shamefully mighty easy for me to come up with some “it’s no wonder that happened” when confronted with someone else’s misfortune. Because there I was busy following the rules, checking off the boxes, volunteering and in general showing up for life.

And then life wasn’t so easy. There were problems in my family that were talked about in whispers. I got bless your heart looks while I was returning from communion. And I had more than a sneaking suspicion that there were conversations involving me and my family that included the words, “it’s no wonder”. And I felt helpless and vulnerable, incredibly vulnerable. Because the construct of following the rules to avoid harm had not proven to be true for me at all.

Timothy Beal, author and professor at Case Western, describes the book of Job as a “fault line running through the Bible.” He continues, “In it, the moral universe affirmed in texts like Deuteronomy, according to which righteousness equals blessed well -being and disobedience equals cursed suffering, is shaken to its core.” Job shows us clearly that bad things happen to good people.

Cars slip on wet roads and the death of a loved one becomes part of our story.

We are born with genetic make ups that can light up on fire when alcohol or opioids enter our systems and addiction becomes part of our story.

Our brains get knit together in a way that produces too much or too little of chemicals that sustain us and mental illness becomes part of our story.

In this place right now, there are countless stories of the toll of being human, losses that have been unbearable. There are problems and diagnosis and crises we are facing that seem to have no end point in sight.

Writer KJ Ramsey says, “The stories worth telling are not just the ones where pain ends, but where God sustains.”

Although Job has a new family and prosperity by the end the story, the pain of his losses would never be diminished. There is not a silver lining to suffering that involves incalculable loss. But there can be new beginnings after losses like Job’s, like the ones we all encounter. And it is God’s love that sustains us always. There is no fault line to that love. It is always there, ever present.

In today’s Gospel we meet up with some Pharisees who are questioning Jesus about some of those laws of Moses from Deuteronomy. In this passage it’s divorce that they are quizzing him on and they realize that there is no answer Jesus could give that would not offend. I too realize that there is no answer about divorce that will not offend today. But I am standing here before you as a divorced woman. This passage haunted me as my marriage fell apart. And this passage has been used to shame those who seek divorce or have been divorced. But I do not believe that was the point Jesus was trying to make here at all.

In last week’s gospel you will remember that Jesus told people to pluck out their offending eyes and chop off their offending limbs. And I know many of y’all pretty well. And I love y’all a lot. And as I’m looking out at you all I do not see that y’all took this literally.

Jesus says that the laws permitting divorce were granted in Mosaic law because of the hardness in our hearts. What if Jesus is shaking things up so that we can see how miss the mark on marriage? That marriage is not a nice social construct that has benefits for the involved parties. It’s important also to note that Jesus knew good and well that women and children who were involved in a divorce were often left in terrible peril and throughout the Gospels he addresses the needs of those left vulnerable in society.

I hear Jesus asking us to how marriage can be a gift that shows forth God’s love into the world by the care and tending to one another as one flesh. That kind of care and tending that leads a couple to see what is sacred in this creation in the very life of their beloved. That kind of love, that kind of commitment is not about laws or rules, it is far more than that.

Please do not think that I do not believe that God has ways God wants us to live. And that there are some rules to be followed. Because really I have never met a rule that I don’t want to follow. It’s just how I’m wired.

But the story of Job, the teachings of Jesus do not throw the need to live a righteous life out, they show us why living a righteous life matters. There is nothing that can keep us from peril or suffering, no amount of rule following will sidestep that for us.

The day that I filed for divorce, I walked into my father-in-law’s den. I told him that I had just been to the lawyer’s office and signed all the papers.

Julian stood up from his chair and took me by the shoulders and said, “I told you on the day that you married my son you were mine, you were a part of this family. And nothing is ever going to change that. Nothing.”

The laws, the rules that society follows, would say that my father-in-law, would have no claim to me and certainly no reason he would let me lay claim him. But my father-in-law, a deep believer, knew something different. There was no hardness of heart in him. Years of suffering had taught him only love matters. Only God’s love sustains.

And in Julian’s act of love as he took me up into his arms, he helped me tether myself to the love of God. His love made the child like faith in me, the kind that in great vulnerability can trust in tremendous love, hold fast to what I believed about the goodness of God.

I pray that for all of those who are in the midst of great suffering or for those whose wounds and scars still ache from time to time feel the healing presence of God. And they may find comfort in knowing that nothing, nothing in all creation would ever be able to separate us from God’s love.