Sermon Text: With Friends Like Job's...
My good buddy John, a priest who is now retired, sent me a birthday present. It’s a plaque with a lovely slogan. It says, “Friends will help you up when you fall...but BEST friends will push you back down and laugh.”
I got all choked up. He’s a funny man.
Now, over the past few weeks, we’ve been having readings from the book of Job. Job is a fascinating book, part of a genre called “Wisdom Literature.” The book of Job wrestles with the problem of suffering. If God is all good, and all powerful, then how do we explain suffering?
In this story, Job is rich and wise and good and fortunate, and then the world crashes in on him. All at once, all his children are killed, and then he loses all his worldly goods to enemies. Next, Job came down with leprosy. Obviously, Job is in agony.
But Job’s wife is still alive, and Job has four friends left. Unfortunately, they are like the friend on the silly plaque I got for my birthday. Job’s wife tells him to curse God and die, which Job refuses to do. But Job’s friends are worse...they come to explain to Job why he is suffering like this.
Job’s friends tell him that if bad things happen, it’s because you deserve it. Job says they are full of prunes...he has done nothing wrong to deserve all this horrific suffering. But his friends stick to their story...he has done something wrong, maybe that he doesn’t remember, and that’s why he deserves all this pain. And one friend adds the comforting insight that the death of Job’s children and his leprosy and the loss of all his property was also God’s way of making Job a better person.
All Job wants is for God to hear his complaint. God does show up to hear Job’s complaint. Unfortunately, God does not answer the question of why this terrible suffering has come to Job, although God agrees with Job that the friends are full of prunes. God says they have not told the truth. But God gives no answer, either. Maybe there is no answer.
Now, I am not in Job’s league as far as suffering goes. But I have known a little of Job’s kind of pain. The saddest, hardest thing in my life is my daughter’s disability. My child can never live on her own. She can never be unattended. She will never drive a car or hold a job or get married. She is very limited in what she can understand. She does now have a happy and safe life, and I am so grateful for that. But her mother and I agonize over her limitations and her future.
And Job’s friends have shown up to talk to me, too. We have had people, well-meaning people, tell us why our daughter is disabled. People have told us what God intended by allowing our daughter to suffer in this way. People have given us a wide range of answers, explaining God to us and explaining our daughter to us.
Let me give you a little advice. Don’t explain someone’s suffering to them. It’s not your job. It’s arrogant. And you are almost certainly wrong.
I understand why people do this. I understand why Job’s friends did this. We want the world to make sense. We want there to be a reason. And we want God to keep us from such suffering. If we can answer the question, “Why is this pain here?”, it will be easier.
I understand that, but I disagree. If I got an answer about why my daughter is the way she is, so what? I don’t need answers. It won’t change anything.
So what do I need? I need a friend. A real friend. A friend who will not just push me down, and laugh, and then explain why I need this pain.
You know the old hymn, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus.” The gospel, the good news, says that Jesus is one of us, and in his sufferings, he experiences our sufferings. There’s one friend.
But I also need Job’s friends. You see, Job’s friends messed up — and messed up big time — when they decided to explain Job’s suffering to him. Even God said they messed up big time.
But if you read the entire book of Job, you will discover that Job’s friends did one thing right. They were really great at first. When Job’s children were killed, and when his property was destroyed, and when he came down with leprosy, his friends came to be with him. They sat with him for seven days. And for seven days they said...nothing. For seven days they were just with him. They did not explain. They did not rationalize. They did not teach theology. They just sat with their friend in his pain.
That’s the best thing they did. That’s the best thing we ever do. When someone is suffering — whether through terrible illness or the loss of a loved one — the best thing we can do is show up. Just be there. We don’t have to say anything beyond, “I don’t know what to say, but I sure care about you.”
When I am in pain, I don’t need answers. I need companionship. I need compassion. I need love.
Besides, no one has the ultimate answer, anyway. God refused to give an answer to Job. In the face of ultimate Mystery, we know almost nothing...except that love is what gets us through.
My wife pointed out a local news story that gives her hope for the future. It’s a story about the playground at the school across the street from us right here at St. Mark’s.
A few weeks ago, Eric Laine and I took the middle school kids of St. Mark’s across the street to play on the playground. I had a great time running around with them. I saw there was a new red bench on the playground, but I didn’t pay attention to it. But this news story did.
It’s a Buddy Bench. Some Girl Scouts thought it would be a good thing...one of them remembered a Buddy Bench from her old school. So now the Chenango Bridge school across the street has one.
If a child is feeling lonely or sad, the child can sit on the bench. And pretty soon, another kid or two will come over and say, “Hey, do you want to play with us?” Several of the kids talked about going to sit on the bench, and how much it meant when some other kids came to include them.
One girl said, “My friends weren’t being very nice and I went over there on the bench, and some other kids were like, ‘Are you okay? You can hang out with us.’” Another kid said, “Sometimes I get lonely so I come here to sit and wait and most of the time a lot of people are here.”
Isn’t that a great story? And from right across the street! Let’s bring it to this side of the street, too. The church can be a buddy bench. At church we can find a friend and find love and strength to get through the hard times.
It does not take having all the answers. All it takes is showing up and showing compassion and care. So be a buddy.