Sermon preached in the sanctuary service at First Presbyterian Church of Elkhart, IN on 7.31.16.

3825     Who cut a channel for the downpours
and a way for blasts of thunder
26     to bring water to uninhabited land,
a desert with no human
27     to saturate dry wasteland
and make grass sprout?

41 Can you draw out Leviathan with a hook,
restrain his tongue with a rope?
Can you put a cord through his nose,
pierce his jaw with a barb?
Will he beg you at length
or speak gentle words to you?
Will he make a pact with you
so that you will take him as a permanent slave?
Can you play with him like a bird,
put a leash on him for your girls?
Will merchants sell him;
will they divide him among traders?
Can you fill his hide with darts,
his head with a fishing spear?
Should you lay your hand on him,
you would never remember the battle.

42 Job answered the Lord:

I know you can do anything;
no plan of yours can be opposed successfully.
You said,“Who is this darkening counsel without knowledge?”
I have indeed spoken about things I didn’t understand,
wonders beyond my comprehension.
You said, “Listen and I will speak;
I will question you and you will inform me.”
My ears had heard about you,
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore, I relent and find comfort
on dust and ashes.        (Common English Bible Translation)

When I left you all, right after worship on Sunday, July 3rd, to take a marvelous vacation, thanks be to God, we were just beginning to dip our toes into the complicated world of Job.  And you have been mucking through that world under the leadership of multiple preachers and have almost come to the end of it— I find myself picking up the story at perhaps it’s pinnacle.

We have today two sections of the conclusion of God’s speech to Job, and Job’s final response to God.  For much of the book God is talked about— by Job, by his friends, by the narrator… but for three chapters late in the book God talks and Job listens.  Job had put God on trial and questioned God’s order and justice.  And when God takes the stand in God’s own defense, God reveals the ways in which Job has made humanity, and his own particular human life, the center of the universe and reminds Job that he, and all human beings, are just one small part of a giant cosmos that is NOT ALL ABOUT US.

We have two snippets of God’s speech in our reading today.  The first from chapter 38 asks Job who it is who digs channels for rain to fill so plants might grow in parched land where humans do not live?  Of course the answer is God.  There are no humans there… And the fact that God does this suggests God’s creation is not just ordered for the good of human beings— life comes even where human beings are not.  The second snippet is a portion of a long passage about Leviathan. We don’t know exactly what Leviathan is; it is most likely a mythological sea beast that inspires dread and fear…  In the previous chapter God talks about Behemoth— a parallel, likely mythological land beast that inspires dread and fear. Both creatures seem to represent natural beings and forces that are a part of created order that are out of human control and capable of hurting or even destroying human life.

The questions that God asks Job about Leviathan point to the very real limits on human power— no human can conquer the Leviathan; none of the typical ways we conquer sea creatures will work.  God even seems to delight in this ghastly creature, its power, its strength… These creatures that are bad news for humans are yet part of God’s good creation.   And they are evidence that creation is not for us; it is for God… creation does not belong to us; it belongs to God.  One scholar suggests that these creatures are parallel to the Satan figure we met at the beginning of the book.  The idea of some evil power at work in the created order that can wreak havoc in human lives… God’s point seems to be that all of it, the good and the bad, it’s all part of God’s creative plan and it’s all under God’s power— it all exists only because God exists and God wills its existence.

God answers Job’s many questions with more questions— and leaves us surely with even more questions of our own.  But Job gets the point… as we heard at the end of our reading today he drops his case against God.  He acknowledges that all his God-talk before was rooted in misunderstanding— he grants that he cannot understand the wonders of God.  He knows this now.  He knows that he does not know. God’s self-revelation has made this plain.  And Job is content— even though at this moment NOTHING has been restored to him, his losses have been massive, his suffering profound, and none of that changed when God spoke— he still is left with dust and ashes, but he finds comfort now because he knows that he does not know and he can rest in the abiding presence of God.  He knows God now; he doesn’t just know about God.  And that has made al the difference.  All he needs is God.

That’s all any of us need.  But how many of us know that?

Privilege has a way of obscuring our awareness of this most basic truth.  I think I need a lot of things— a roof over my head— and running water— and two automobiles— and a full fridge— and adequate funds in the bank— and a pension plan— and health insurance— and wi-fi— and the respect of people I meet and serve— and vacations and study leaves— and quality time with family and friends— and a good school for my kid, — and netflix, definitely netflix—and… I could go on an on… Couldn’t we all?  Some of these are genuine needs.  A lot are trivial comforts.  If I lost it all; I’d still have God.  And what more do I need?  But does my heart trust in God alone?  Truly?  Did Job’s heart trust in God alone when he was delighting in wealth and privilege?

I’ve been thinking a lot about privilege the last few weeks.  It’s a sneaky thing.  When you’ve got it, you usually don’t realize it.  That’s part of the nature of privilege.  You move about freely, speak your mind comfortably— not even aware necessarily that you are so free and comfortable. I’m reading an excellent book right now by Jim Wallis called “America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America.” I hope many of you will join me in reading this book this year.

Early in the book he talks about growing up in a suburb of Detroit, but venturing into Detroit proper in his adolescence for work and other experiences.  He worked on the janitorial staff at the Detroit Edison Company with a young black man, his peer, named Butch.  He and Butch became friends. Butch grew up in Detroit at the same time Jim was growing up in suburban Detroit— and the more they talked the more he realized they lived in different worlds.  He shares a story of the first time he went to dinner at his new friend’s house, how quickly the young children in the household embraced him while the older children hung back, suspicious.  He remembers vividly his friend’s mother explaining the talk she gives her children about what to do if ever they are lost.  She told them that if they see a police officer they should go and hide in the bushes until the officer goes away and then emerge and try to find their way home.  Jim was shocked because his mother’s speech to him had involved seeking out a police officer if ever he was lost and that that officer would surely help him to find his way home.  Still to this day such disparate parenting is going on.  The point is not a denigration of police— there are many faithful, respectful, outstanding police officers who would help any child find his or her way home.  The point is rather a recognition of the effects of systemic racism and the privilege that some of us have without even knowing it.  The privilege of being able to raise our kids to trust institutions and public servants… the relative safety with which we navigate the world.

Unexamined privilege leads us to act in all sorts of unconscious ways to prop up unjust systems and structures. Examined privilege can allow us to use our privilege to further the cause of justice, and the health and well being of our society as a whole.  And… more basically… one thing I think we can take away from the story of Job, is that unexamined privilege can be a barrier to genuine relationship with God.  We don’t need to rely on God quite as much when things usually go our way.  Even when Job lost EVERYTHING, and suffered greatly, though he started off praising God nonetheless— when God stayed silent for a good long while and his suffering stretched out… he became indignant.  How could God allow this to happen to such a faithful servant… or to any human for that matter?  He put God on trial.  That’s something a privileged, entitled person would do.  And today we saw how that all turned out.  Job drops his case, realizes what he really needs, and finds comfort in dust and ashes.

I hope we don’t have to pass through the trials of Job to get to this point.  I hope we can willingly sit down with those in our society who suffer disproportionately and just listen to them.  I hope that we can build relationships with people profoundly different from us who will then help us to realize and examine our privilege.  And I hope, in the process, we’ll move from knowing about God, to truly knowing God.

Resources in addition to scripture which were cited in or influenced the writing of this sermon:

Clifford, Richard J. The Wisdom Literature: Interpreting Biblical Texts. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998.

Wallis, Jim. America’s Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America. Grand Rapids, Brazos Press, 2016.

Photo Credit: Clive Hicks via Compfight cc

It came near the end of a long catch-up visit with a mostly homebound member of the congregation I serve.  We were talking about praying for people when there’s nothing else we can do.  And she was sharing the many people on her prayer list right now.  She also shared her delight that another member of our congregation is now, after a year’s battle, cancer free.  She prayed for him every day, she said.  And the day she got the news of the positive results of his treatment she said “The Lord and I had a party that day.  I was so happy.”

A party with the Lord?  Yes, please.

“Until the killing of black men, black mother’s sons

is as important as the killing of white men, white mother’s sons,

we who believe in freedom cannot rest.”

– Bernice Johnson Reagon in honor of Ella Baker

The last sermon I heard at Wild Goose evoked these words from a beloved Sweet Honey in the Rock Song, words penned in honor of the civil rights activist Ella Baker. Though the song is decades old now it certainly seems as though it could have been penned today. Jim Wallis suggests that racism and white privilege is America’s original sin, and thus, sadly, it seems that these words could have been penned at any moment in American history.

These were interesting words with which to sit while on an extended vacation– taking rest.  I appreciated reading our co-moderator’s post upon her re-entry from a lovely vacation– Everybody should get this.  Indeed.

But, as she acknowledges, not everybody gets this.  In particular, people of color need to maintain constant vigilance– a vigilance that is the opposite of rest.  Part of my privilege is being able check out… for an hour, a day, a week, a month… years.  Because still, for too many, the killing of black men (and women and boys and girls and those of other colors and those who are queer…) is not as important is the killing of white men, white mother’s sons.  And still we are not free.  None of us.

The friend I made in the red tent indicated that she went to Wild Goose seeking her Jubilee.  She has been in the struggle for racial justice and reconciliation for 50 years and it seems high time that God grant her a year of rest.  But as we gathered we were getting the news out of Baton Rouge, St. Paul, and Dallas. While together we heard witness to the ways in which mass incarceration is functioning as the new Jim Crow.  How can she rest?

She suggested she found some Jubilee in meeting me.  And I take from that a charge to be more intentionally vigilant much more of the time, to work on waking up the congregation I serve to the privilege we possess.  There is nothing wrong with regular sabbath rest– there is nothing wrong with vacation. Indeed, as God commanded, EVERYBODY should get this. But being lulled into the complacency afforded by my privilege, while others are keeping watch with bloodshot eyes lest they or their children be killed, this is not an option.   And I want my friend to have her Jubilee, and all my friends, to have their Jubilee. I think I’m ready to get back to work…

I returned to my tent after 11 pm satisfied after hearing Dar Williams sing “Family” (among other things) and the Indigo Girls sing “Love’s Recovery” (among other things). I also returned to my tent regretting my choice to skip the shower lines the past few days, my skin gritty with three days sweat, bug spray, sunscreen, rain, and good ol’ dirt. I returned to my tent to find my beloveds sleeping soundly, C having declared she has excellent ears and would enjoy the rest of the concert from her sleeping bag. I am lying in my tent listening to lusty hymn singing for the third time today. I can also hear a band playing a bit further away. And the frogs and insects. And the quiet murmuring of neighbors. And raucous laughter further away.

It has been a day in which I have been invited to think, a lot, about mass incarceration and death row. A day on which I have been encouraged to participate in democracy and build community by positive proximity in order to make more broad based democratic participation possible. A day on which I was made a judge at a story slam. A day on which I shared my fertility story with a woman in her own struggle. A day which began with me sitting in an honest circle. A day on which Caroline said goodbye to a fast friend made here.

I’ll have to make something of all the notes taken. I have a week of rest ahead in which i can do so. Or maybe I’ll assemble the puzzle purchased in Richmond or color in the coloring book Caroline urged me to purchase for myself. Or talk it all through with beloved ones who join us. Or read, read, read. Or sleep. Or hike. Or all of the above.

Ah, vacation.

We’ll be back Wild Goose. For sure. Bringing a hammock next time. And my sister— who turned 37 today and TOTALLY should have been at my side tonight.

I rose with the sun after a fitful night of sleep. My intention had been to make it to yoga at 7:30 if awake in ample time. I surely was. But the headache that had been a contributing factor to my fitful night led me to request a massage from Kev. And between that time and time to trek to bathroom and eat breakfast, I made it to the practice tent with just moments to spare. Lots of people headed to the same space had mats slung over their shoulders, and my mat is propped against a wall in Indiana. I wondered if I’d have to turn around without yoga. When I got there it first seemed that would be the case. But the teacher said, mere moments after I arrived, that there was one more mat available and onto that mat I slipped for a sublime hour of practice.

A few hours later I approached a story telling workshop where I found precisely one chair available. I claimed it. But Kev and C, whom i had expected to meet there, were nowhere to be seen and I anxiously set off to find them. When I returned my seat was full. I took a seat on the ground. But moments later its occupant turned around and indicated her intention had been to give me the chair back the moment I arrived. The woman sitting next to me had told her the seat was claimed. I thanked her and reclaimed the seat.

In the afternoon, I went to the red tent for women and girls story time. I took Caroline and her new friend Sophia. I stayed in this tent for 2 hours, the girls moved on with Sophia’s mom after an hour. The longer I stayed, the more meaningful the conversation grew. The most powerful moment came when I discovered that an older African American woman in the tent had spent several of her childhood years in my precise neighborhood in my hometown. Her family was the first black family in the neighborhood. I grew up in a fairly integrated neighborhood. Two other people in the tent also had connections to my hometown, but this connection was the most powerful. I saw her later and told her how much it meant to me to meet her. She concurred. She can’t wait to call her mom and tell her all the hell they went through in my hometown was worth it. She met a decent human being who gets it, from her very neighborhood! (I’m touched she so perceives me.)

I heard and learned many powerful things today, but these experiences of fitting… Connecting. They were what marked the day as holy for me.image

The skies opened and a rush of rain brought uncontrollable laughter to my seven year old. We fumbled with our new ponchos, were already soaked by the time we got them on. We retreated to our tent. Stripped off our wet belongings and retrieved the keys for Kev to use to gather towels from the car parked at some distance away.

Flashes of light, followed by rolling rumbles, trigger whimpering, and the occasional shriek from the child. Snuggles and reassurances, “Raindrops on roses…”, Harry Potter Book 7… tapping of rain on tent top… As the rain slowed the insects and frogs started their symphony.

Now sound is layered… The natural symphony, my beloved impersonating Delores Umbridge, Matt Maher singing of saints marching in, and still the gentle tap of dripping water.

On habits

We are en route to Hot Springs, NC for this fabulous festival.  It is highly likely I’ll be without phone and Internet for much of next 10 days. After the festival we head to a mountain cabin for a week…

I’ve made a point of blogging every day for the last few weeks because I’m trying to re-establish the habit. I may write posts in Evernote or longhand and post later just to keep the habit formation underway.

But these 10 days, if challenging to my blogging and cross fitting habits, are a good chance to disconnect from the habit of constantly being connected. And this is a good thing.