Monday, October 29, 2012

Comfort in the Dust

This was a sermon given at our (the Deer Creek Charge) annual combined service with Clarks Chapel United Methodist Church, pastored by Rev. Mark Groover. I give thanks to Maggie and Robert Kribs for giving me permission to use their story.
This was perhaps the hardest and most fulfilling sermon I have preached so far. Part of that was the context: it was such an honor to be lifted up in my preaching by Clarks Chapel. Part of that was also working through my own grief and anger with the text. I give thanks for the opportunity.
Scripture: Job 42: 1-7 and 10-17
The scripture translation I used is a bit different from what you are used to reading. This is a translation of the Book ofJob by poet Stephen Mitchell, translated in such a way to capture the poetry of the original text. Hear now these words.

Then Job said to the Unnamable:
I know you can do all things and nothing you wish is impossible.
Who is this whose ignorant words cover my design with darkness?
I have spoken the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.
Listen and I will speak; I will question you: please, instruct me.
I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.
Then the Lord returned all Job's possessions, and gave him twice as much as he had before. All his relatives and everyone who had known him came to his house to celebrate. They commiserated with him over the suffering that the Lord had inflicted on him. As they left, each one gave him a coin or a gold ring.

So the Lord blessed the end of Job's life more than the beginning. Job now had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen, and a thousand donkeys. He had seven sons and three daughters: the eldest he names Dove, the second Cinnamon, and the third Eye-Shadow. And in all the world there were no women as beautiful as Job's daughters. He gave them a share of his possessions along with their brothers.

After this, Job lived for a hundred and forty years. He lived to see his grandchildren and his great-grandchildren. And he died at a very great age.

Sermon: Comfort in the Dust

Holy One, we know you are not always a patient teacher---
we know more often than not we need your voice out of the whirlwind
to open our eyes. May our eyes be opened this morning.
Bless our worship, bless the words of my mouth
and the meditations of all our hearts that we might grow stronger and more courageous to ask questions of you as well as to admit to our own limitations in knowing you.
We pray this is the name of Jesus, who opens our eyes that we may see. Amen.

November First is All Saints Day. When we think of saints, we often think of that process of canonization and martyrdom that is usually associated with saints in Catholic traditions. But my mom always used the holiday to explain to us that our church believes that we could all be saints, that there is a little saint in all of us. She used to say during the church service, “Let me show you what a saint looks like.” And then she would hold up a mirror, so we could see our own reflections. Within each of us, she was saying, is the ability to make our lives a glimpse into the divine, opportunities in which we can help someone say, as Job did, “I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you.” Our lives can be windows into the mystery of God, ways to lead people from death to life.

Surely though we may have difficulty thinking of ways in which we have been saints, we can name saints in our own lives. Maggie and Robert are two saints in my life I have thought of often this year. Theirs is a love story that opened my eyes and continues to inspire awe in me whenever I think of them.

I don't even believe in soulmates, but that was the only way I could describe these two together. They just completed each other. They began dating sometime in summer of 2010. Maggie has a bit of a new age spirituality, always hungry to see God all around her. Robert at first seemed more reserved, a devout Catholic, but he too was hungry for God and the two of them could journey together, leading one another to books that inspired them, taking walks together and sharing their experiences of God. And they laughed together, which was a necessary healing for them both.

But theirs was certainly not an uncomplicated romance. Maggie was finalizing her divorce, getting out of what had been an abusive marriage. She had just started seminary with us, moving to a new place after spending over fifty years of her life in Syracuse, New York. It was a time of massive transition for her, and she wasn’t searching for more change. And then here Robert came, sweeping her off of her feet.

And then they found out he had cancer. She moved in with him, and lost her ordination because of it. I halfheartedly wanted to caution her, to remind her that they had just met, but theirs was one of those rare romances that it didn't matter if they had been together a day or a decade, they knew. They made each other better people, more deeply spiritual people, people who knew God better every day because they opened a window into God's love every moment they were together. His cancer went into remission. They were married last summer in California, on the beach, where her son lives. They honeymooned in wine country, picking up a bottle to share on their first anniversary. They were windburned, sunkissed, and so happy it was infectious. Just being around them would leave me uplifted, knowing that their completeness together was what God hopes for all of us to find in one way or another.

And then his cancer came back. Maggie didn’t talk about it much, but her laugh wasn’t as easy, and Robert got tired so easily, they had planned with two other couples from seminary who also got married over the summer, to celebrate their marriages all together with the community in our chapel. But they kept having to push the date back until finally they pulled something together quickly and quietly between doctor’s visits, only their closest friends present. We used the wine from Maggie and Robert's honeymoon for communion. She didn't want to drink it without him on their anniversary.

She showed me their wedding pictures for the first time as we sat in the hospital just before he was put on hospice. Can you imagine? Sharing your new wedding pictures while your spouse is dying? She was one of the most beautiful brides I have ever seen, a peacock feather fastener and birdcage veil over her crazy curly dark hair, a beautiful ivory lace dress letting the green underdress peak through. And he looked handsome in his light suit, both of them sporting brilliant smiles.

She cared for him as he died. She is a good caretaker, patient, gentle, funny. But the cancer went to his brain, messed with his personality, and that guy she so loved she said sometimes she wanted to punch him. And still, she persevered, if only for those moments when they could touch, just their fingertips because he was in too much pain to have even a feather brush up against his skin. But they would touch and know that there was no separation. They would know that that moment of connection was worth everything.

She said he wrote a lot, and she'll bring up profound spiritual things he said from time to time. He told her to remember that “there is grief, there are tears, but there is no more separation.” He died in March. They were two whose bond of love would surpass the power of the grave. They would keep on living and loving hard, even when their physical bodies weren't together. Maggie signed her congratulations to me and my new husband this October from her and Robert, writing he was loving us from there too. And he is.

I was so angry all winter and spring at God, at the cancer. I, even as an outsider, was channeling Job on Maggie’s behalf. I thought God was a rotten God, tearing apart a love that lifted up all those who came in contact with it. And I think it is the way many of us pray in the face of tragedy, in the face of gross unfairness. And I think Maggie prayed this as well. It is an important step in our grief. We must ask God why. We must argue with God. Wrestle. How could God separate a love like that, a true, good, holy thing that gave light and life to all who came into contact with it? How dare God separate true soulmates before they even celebrated their first year of marriage together?

But that wrestling is not the end of the story. It will continue through the end, I think. But instead, God breaks into our lives, stepping into those moments of profound despair. God doesn't answer our questions. At least God didn't answer Job's question and didn't answer mine. But God opened our eyes and encouraged us to live. In Job’s case, God spoke directly from the whirlwind, but in my case, God used saints to burst into my life, to show me how limited my understanding of love was.

I saw Maggie in the hallways at school, afterwards. I ate with her and went on walks with her, and every single time my eyes were opened to the immense power of love. She would see a cardinal and smile, seeing it as a token of Robert's love for her, a bit of beauty in her sorrow. He is still making her a better person, still completing her, still teaching her; even when all our human understandings of love say “until death do us part.” See, God's Creation does not follow our human rules of life and death, of justice even. Robert and Maggie are saints whose lives reflect more God's beauty than human limitations.

Are there saints in your life who are teaching you more about God every day?
Are there saints who still open your eyes to God long after they have passed on?

Job in our scripture reading today really needed a saint in his life. The first two chapters of Job are in folktale form, and we are told in few words that Job was righteous, and feared God, and God let Satan take all his wealth and his children away from him to, basically, satisfy a bet. The lesser known part of the Book of Job is the thirty-six chapters of poetry in which Job blasphemes God and Job's friends insist that Job must deserve his life. Job’s friends are not saints. They are afraid of Job’s anger, of his grief, of his questions, and rather than responding with compassion, they lecture him. Job does not need a lecture. He needs love. Job calls God a rotten excuse for a God, showing his righteousness, rightly refusing to give up his claim to innocence. Here he has been sitting in ashes, unable to move. And we all need that time to sit in ashes. We all need to be angry. But we can't spend the rest of our lives not living, cursing the day we were born as Job did.

And so God spoke. God speaks to us in still small voices, in the chaos of the storm, and through the voices of others, always trying to lure us back to life. In Job’s case, God does not answer Job’s question why, but paints a beautiful picture of the intricacies of Creation, turning Job’s affirmation of death into one of life.1

When God's voice from within the whirlwind quieted, Job could not think of what to say, not at first. Finally comes: I am comforted that I am dust. These are the words that Job utters, eyes wide, voice small as though it had been frightened away. Here in the forty-second chapter of Job, we take our first breath since God has spoken. In most translations we are familiar with, we read Job's response as that he “abhors himself and repents in dust and ashes.” Scholars today see this as an incorrect translation, pointing out that a better translation of the Hebrew is what we read this morning, that Job names himself dust.

For some of us, calling ourselves dust doesn't seem much different than saying we hate ourselves. But Job calling himself dust was not a way of self-loathing, but rather a way of recognizing that he is not God--- in fact that he is so far from being God that he is merely dust, swirled by God's movements throughout the world but unable to fully understand the Divine. The burden of explaining God is lifted from him, from all of us. The burden of rationalizing is lifted, and instead we can live free to wonder at the ways God moves among us in each moment.

Job said in response to God's voice from the whirlwind: “I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you.” Many of us know of God. But how have we seen God calling us to life? How have we experienced God? And how have we changed when we experience a God who does not follow our expectations of what the divine should be?

Saints channel this voice from the whirlwind, I think. They show us life even when we are surrounded by death. On All Saints Day we remember their work, and we acknowledge the ways they have shown us how to live, even after they have died. Saints themselves do not have answers, but they offer us glimpses, moments, of love and life that don't erase the mystery but help us live into it.
Being a witness to Maggie and Robert's continuing love story has helped me regain my sight, has helped me not only to have heard of God, but to have seen God, seen this mysterious beautiful Creator who offers us new life, though not on our terms. And today, I give thanks for those relationships and moments that have left me comforted that I am dust, comforted that I cannot define God but rather am constantly amazed at the human boundaries the Divine bursts through. May God break through boundaries you have set up for the Divine. May God open your eyes, whether from the midst of the whirlwind, as God did for Job, or through the hands of those saints in your life. And may you, to use Maggie's words from her eulogy for Robert, help the world to know how close heaven is.

Let us pray:
Creating God bring us to life. Help open our eyes to see you, not to erase the mystery, but to see more of that mystery, to be moved by your unexplainable grace. In the name of Jesus, the one who came that we might have life abundantly, Amen.

1“This general turning of Job's first affirmation of death into an affirmation of life is minutely worked out in the language and imagery of the poem that God speaks.” Robert Alter, “Voice from the Whirlwind: God Answers Job in a Panoramic Vision,” from Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985), 85, 94, 96-97, excerpted here: