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Rick Morley

Job lawyering up

I know that my redeemer lives,
And that at the last he will stand upon the earth

Job 19:25

These words from the Book of Job are read at the beginning of almost every Episcopal funeral.

There’s a pretty famous, and quite wonderful, musical rendition of this text which is included in Handel’s /Messiah/. You can watch a YouTube clip of that below:

On its own, the text seems to be pointing to Jesus, who is our Redeemer. Knowing that our redeemer “lives” appears to be a call of victory that would make sense on any Easter morning.

But, Job, when he utters these words, is in no way thinking about Jesus here. He has a whole different sort of “redeemer” in mind.

In fact, when Job extols the virtues of his redeemer, he’s actually talking about someone who resembles a lawyer who will come and help him take God to court. He wants to sue God because he has come to believe that God has wronged him—he believes that God wrongly allowed all the horrible things that happened to Job. He’s so convinced of his own innocence, and God’s guilt, that he believe that any impartial judge would see it this way.

All he needs is a good lawyer.

In this week’s lesson from Job 23 we find these words:

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

Isn’t this amazing?! Job the upright and just man, who God brags about to all the heavenly host, ends up getting so upset with God that he says /outloud/ that he thinks a good lawyer and a good judge could successfully bring suit against God.

And, not only does Job think this, and say this—but then his words get memorialized as scripture.

Now, next week we’ll hear God’s response to Job. It’s not pretty. At the end of it Job is put back in his place with his knees knocking.

But, also in the end, Job is found to honestly express to God what was on his heart. His relationship with God meant enough to him that he felt it appropriate to be honest with God. And, like when we spout off to a friend or spouse, Job had to go back and apologize.

But, I’m convinced that God was at least pleased with one thing: Job’s relationship with God meant enough to him that he was willing to express his displeasure.

What’s on your mind with God today?

Why?

The question that we always seem to ask ourselves is, “why?”

“Why did this tragedy happen?”

”Why is there such evil in the world?”

“Why is there so much suffering?”

”Why did this happen to such a good person?”

”Why would God do this?”

”Why would God do this… to me?”

As humans we’ve been asking this for thousands of years. We know this, because archaeologists and historians have dug up ancient documents inscribed in clay tablets and on sheets of papyrus which contain stories which seek to ask and answer these questions.

Tad DeLay—the philosopher and theologian who was with us this summer—has a fascinating point in his book “The Cynic and the Fool.” He says that prior to Jewish Monotheism (the belief in one God), the answers to these questions were different, and less strained. In Pagan Polytheism bad things happened because the gods were warring with each other, and you happened to get caught in the crossfire. Or, a god got jealous, and decided to punish you.

The pagan gods were fickle and naughty, and you never knew what might happen.

But, when Jewish Monotheism came around, there was just one God—who was supposed to be good and righteous. So… when something bad happened… the questions started rising to the surface: Did God allow this to happen? Was God not powerful enough to stop this thing? Is God punishing us? Or, does God not care about our suffering.

The Book of Job, which we’ll be reading for the next four weeks, is the ultimate book in the Hebrew Bible which asks the question: why?

We can tell from textual criticism (the science of looking at ancient texts) that the Book of Job was written in several different eras. There appears to be a very old story that was then revisited and added to. The bulk of what we know as the Book of Job today was composed during the Babylonian Captivity—when the Israelites had their homeland destroyed, Temple leveled, and were taken off to Babylon to serve as slaves.

In the wake of such suffering, can you guess what kind of questions they were asking themselves?

After Job loses everything, he is visited by several friends who try and comfort him at first, but who then want to figure out why this terrible thing has happened to Job. They come up with several of the same answers that we tend to come up with—answers that never seem to hold up to scrutiny.

In the end—Well… I’m not going to give the WHOLE thing away here!—the answer might surprise you.

James: a glorious ending

I think it’s helpful to read the conclusion of the Epistle of James in its full context. James was writing to a community engaged in conflict over class discrimination. It was apparently a vicious and heated inter-church argument. In the beginning of the Epistle, James urges the people in the church to be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger. He tells them that anger doesn’t bring forth righteousness. Later in the letter he tells them to watch their language and how they speak to one another. Really, it’s a good recipe for church unity, no matter the level of internal conflict, if any exists at all.

But then, after telling them us who not to be, he tells us who we ARE.

We are a people of prayer. We pray when we’re in distress, we sing our prayers when we have something to celebrate, and we pray together. We bring our sick into the midst of the assembly, and we reach out our hands and touch them. We even bring our troubles and sins to each other, knowing that no matter what we’ve done or failed to do, we will be met with gentleness and prayerful forgiveness.

It really is a glorious ending to this letter, and a glorious way to BE.

Gentleness

At your core, what drives you? What makes you tick? What is it that informs your every decision and interaction?

This is where James is going in the third and fourth chapters of his epistle. And his answer, is, quite frankly, nothing short of astounding: Gentleness.

James, writing to a church mired in conflict urges gentleness. And, why? Because gentleness is meant to drive our faith, our assembly, our relationships. Gentleness is meant to be at the very core of our understanding of God, our relationship with each other, and our common faith. And, it’s a gentleness that’s “willing to yield.”

Yes, there are times to act, to “stand firm.” Yes there are moments where we need to defend the faith, and rise up to aid the oppressed.

But, at our core we need gentleness. We need to be a gentle people. And we desperately need to be gentle with each other, and with those who need to experience mercy and grace.

Escape velocity

When things are hard, there’s a temptation to want to “bug out.” To “get outta Dodge.” To hop on the first train going anywhere else but here.

At times that temptation permeates the culture. We saw it with slaves in the American south. We saw it around the Great Depression. These times produced great music that was all about getting out of here and going to heaven. They’d sing for the “sweet chariot” to “swing low” and carry us away. They’d sing about that “one bright morning” when they could “fly away.”

Escapism reigned supreme, because the world was so bad—life was so bad—that the only thing they could imagine was getting out.

But, that’s not really the trajectory of the Bible. Most of what we find in both testaments are prescriptions for how God’s People can make this world better, for themselves, and for their neighbors. It’s about asking for the Kingdom of God to “come” here instead of us going anywhere else.

And, we see this theme firmly in James’ epistle. As we saw in the first chapter, James is writing to a community in conflict. People are fighting, people are arguing, and things are not going well. As we saw in last week’s reading the argument is over the bigotry of class distinction.

What becomes clear very early on in the third chapter is that the fighting is intense. People are speaking in anger, using words that pierce and hurt. James says that such speech is like arson. It sets things on fire. And some things that burn down can never be rebuilt.

How many of us know relationships that have completely broken down because one person spoke a harsh word to another? How many of us remember when someone said something harsh to us—maybe even a long time ago—and it still hurts?

Offense may not have been meant at all. But, that doesn’t matter.

Words hurt. Words tear things down. And, words can’t be unspoken, once they’ve been spoken.

James begs us to consider what we say before we say it, and not let our anger get the best of us, or our relationships.

The church that James is addressing is broken. In fact, it seems like it’s broken pretty badly. But, it’s not irreparable. It’s not time to burn it down and start from scratch. It’s not time to dream of flying away on a sweet chariot. It’s time to watch how we speak to one another, and to see our relationships with other people as something sacred and beautiful.

The old law: loving your neighbor

James is writing to a church in crisis. And we know what that crisis was: the bigotry of class. Rich members of the church were treating poorer brothers and sisters in Christ badly. Rich Christians were shown preference in the assembly over those without high means. Poor Christians were without food and clothing, and their needs weren’t met by those in the church with them.

James quotes an interesting part of scripture: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Christians will instantly recognize these words as words from Jesus’ mouth. But, they were not first uttered in Jesus’ ministry. They are found first in the Bible in Leviticus chapter 19. Jesus was quoting Leviticus. James is quoting Jesus quoting Leviticus.

This little commandment then isn’t just the foundation of 2,000 years of Christianity, but its foundation stretches back far longer than that.

But, the importance here isn’t in its provenance, but rather its grounding in our lives, our communities. Loving our neighbor as ourself is so basic, but it’s also incredibly hard. Maybe not intrinsically hard, but “apparently hard.”

And so, so necessary.

Five Sundays in James: What you need to know

This Sunday, September 2nd, isn’t just Labor Day weekend, it’s also the first of five Sundays of reading the Epistle of James. Here’s what you need to know:

Who was James?

So, James was a pretty common name—in Hebrew it’s the same name as “Jacob.” Yes, like the great patriarch of Israel. With such an important name, people loved naming their children after this important figure. In the New Testament there are a bunch of James’. But, THIS James appears to be the one who’s frequently identified as “James, the brother of the Lord.” This may mean that he was so close to Jesus that he was like a brother to him, or, more probably, was Jesus’ blood brother. One thing we know for certain, this James was not one of the twelve disciples—so, for him to be so close to Jesus, he had to be pretty important.

James the Brother of the Lord was also the leader of the first Christian Community in Jerusalem after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Oftentimes we think of Peter being this leader, but no, there are several places in the New Testament where James overrules Peter.

Who was James writing to?

Unlike most of Paul’s letters, where he’s writing to a specific and identified community somewhere in the ancient world, we have absolutely no idea who James is writing to. Though, if he is the leader of the Church in Jerusalem, then it figures that he might be writing to that community.

Why was James writing this letter?

Whatever community James is writing to, the community is in turmoil. There are major disputes and arguments going on, and the thrust of his letter is about finding a way through the nastiness.

What does it have to do with 2018?

Huh, can you even imagine people today being divided on issues that cause great consternation and anger?

#13sundays

Following Jesus isn’t easy.

I mean, loving your neighbor sounds all well and good…until you start contemplating who your neighbor actually is.

Forgiving people sounds fine, as long as we keep it to the people who just cut us off in traffic.

Loving and praying for our enemies? Forget it.

Being a peacemaker has a ring of nobility to it if we’re talking about peace in the middle east or something… but what about peace in our hearts, our homes, our relationships?

For two thousand years, Christians have had a school for helping people learn and follow this way. At this school the scriptures are read and wrestled with. Prayers of thanksgiving are offered for all the blessings we’ve been given. We seek forgiveness for the ways we’ve fallen short of the kind of life we’re meant to live. And we gather around a table where we’re offered a meal.

This school… well… it meets on Sunday mornings. Here at St. Mark’s in Basking Ridge school meets at 8AM and 10AM.

From January 7th to Easter Sunday (April 1st) there are thirteen Sundays.

What if you committed to coming to church for these 13 Sundays? Or, if you absolutely can’t come to church, we broadcast our services live (and archive them) on our Facebook page. And, of course, if you’re not here you could go to a church wherever you happen to be.

13 Sundays. That’s it. That’s less of a commitment than most Netflix series.

And who knows, by the end of 13 Sundays you might have gotten following Jesus down a little better. And, you might have helped someone else follow Jesus a little better.

#13Sundays