Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
October 14, 2018
Amy Plantinga Pauw
Scripture: Job 23 1-9, 16-17 and Ps. 22 1-15
The lectionary texts from the Old Testament today are voices of pain, grief, and anger. You could call them downer texts. And that’s why I’m so glad they are in the Bible. Listen now as Brad and Ada give voice to them for us.
The Word of God for the people of God.
Job and the Psalmist are in the Bible because they are voices of faith. This is what faith in God feels like, sounds like, sometimes. The Psalmist is feeling abandoned by God, persecuted and mocked by others, in pain and close to death. I trusted you, God, she cries. Why aren’t you showing up for me when I need you most? According to Luke and Matthew’s gospels, Jesus prayed this psalm from the cross. And then there’s Job, in such a bad place that he can’t even pray anymore, where all he can do is complain about the God who seems absent, unfair, unfeeling. In his distress Job zigzags back and forth. One minute he wants to cross examine God and get the justice he deserves, and the next minute all he wants is to hide somewhere God will never find him.
It’s a temptation for preachers like me to ditch the lectionary when passages like Job and Ps. 22 turn up. And it’s a temptation for people of faith in general to steer clear of downer texts like these, to pretend that faith in God is always in a major key. When my mother was a little girl growing up in Oostburg, Wisconsin, she learned a song in Sunday School. “The b-i-b-l-e, yes that’s the book for me. I’ll stand alone on the word of God, the b-i-b-l-e.” The second verse is even worse: “I’m h-a-p-p-y, I’m h-a-p-p-y, I know I am, I’m sure I am, I’m h-a-p-p-y.” So what happens when you are feeling s-a-d? What happens when you are a-n-g-r-y? Do you stop praying? Do you stop going to church? Does it mean that your faith is weak?
Job and the Psalmist show us another way. They show us that faith in God is not just a game of pretend. We can bring our whole selves to God, not just the happy, respectable parts. Our faith needs more than one song, more than one emotional setting. I expect we have all been there with Job and the Psalmist—when we are overcome with grief at the death of a loved one; when we are furious about innocent children being herded into Texas detention centers and hauled before immigration judges; when we despair about the irrevocable damage that we have done to the earth. As people of faith, we bring our grief and rage and despair to God. Where is your justice, God? Do you hear us? Do you care? Were we fools to trust in you?
I’ve been reading The Prison Letters of Nelson Mandela this fall. They are extraordinary. In some of the letters Mandela is playful and affectionate. He signs off letters to his young daughters with “tons and tons of love and a million kisses.” In other letters he sounds like the lawyer he was: making calm but defiant demands that officials respect the rights accorded to prisoners under South African law–rights for medical attention, for decent food, for family visits. And in some letters Mandela sounds like Job, overcome by the grimness of life on Robbins Island, the petty vindictiveness of prison officials, the despair of waiting year after year for justice that never comes. Every one of those letters represents part of who Mandela was. We need the whole range of his letters to begin to understand him.
Our lives before God have that kind of range too: joy, affection, comfort, laughter, anger, fear, grief, and tears. And these feelings don’t stay in neat, separate compartments either: we experience hope in the midst of pain, sorrow in the midst of joy. Faith in God has many rhythms, many melodies. I hope you will hear that in the music that Debbie and I planned for our service this morning.
In choir practice on Thursday nights, we don’t just practice what we are singing the next Sunday. We practice pieces that we won’t sing for several weeks. In fact, we are just about to start practicing for Christmas. On Thursdays this fall we’ll be singing about angels, stars, and mangers. When it comes to getting ready for Christmas, I think the choir is only a little behind Walmart. We need to practice the melodies and rhythms of Christmas now so that when the season comes, we will know them. They will be part of our repertoire. It’s the same way here on Sunday morning. We practice all the rhythms and melodies of faith week after week, so that we learn them, so that they become part of our faith repertoire. Then when trouble comes, when someone precious to us gets very sick, when something or someone we’ve always counted on betrays us, when we see vulnerable people suffer, when we despair at ever seeing justice in the courts, we can turn to voices like Job and the Psalmist. We have their melodies of faith to draw on.
Having these voices in our Bible is a special gift to us as a congregation right now. Even at church, we sometimes disagree, we sometimes get mad at each other, we sometimes disappoint each other. Our grief and pain that Jane has left and is dealing with cancer is compounded by grief and pain over Elisa leaving. Job and the Psalmist give us holy permission to bring our raw, unfiltered feelings before God. We don’t have to deny these feelings, or sweep them under the rug, only to have them come out in destructive ways that hurt ourselves and others.
But here’s the thing: Job and the Psalmist encourage us to turn to God, rather than turning on each other. We don’t have to pretend that everything is fine. But we do have to find ways to walk with each other, to be kind and gentle to each other, to be channels of God’s merciful presence to each other. Here I think CHPC has a deep faith repertoire to draw on: we are a congregation who knows how to weep with those who weep. We have a lot of practice walking with each other in times of trouble and sorrow: listening to each other, lifting up each other in prayer, sending cards, making hospital visits, bringing over food, showing up for funerals. You have been channels of God’s love to my family and me during our hardest times over the last 28 years, and I can testify to what an enormous gift that has been to us. And I know many of you could add your own stories too.
We are also a church who knows how to rejoice with those who rejoice. I am convinced that there are times of great rejoicing that lie ahead for CHPC. And when they come, we will have the right songs to sing. But even now we have many reasons to rejoice, to thank God for each other and our common life. The music ministry of Debbie and Lewis, Connie’s kind helpfulness, Paul and Jen’s work with children and youth, the faithful behind-the-scenes work of Jack Leake and Ted Trautwein, the deacons who bring soup to those who are sick, the squeals of laughter coming from the 3-6 year old Sunday School class, the youth leadership for Build-a-Bed, the Guatemalan Connection, ELL, the Earthcare Team, and so much more.
Faith in God comes in both major and minor keys. The good news is that God’s love for us is so unconditional that we can come to God as we really are. Whether we are laughing or weeping, God hears us, God heals us, God blesses us. And in case we forget that, in case we can’t find the right words, we have gathered all the melodies of faith—grief, doubt, joy, assurance—and put them in our community’s holy book, our b-i-b-l-e, so that we always know where to find them.
Thanks be to God.