The Adventurous Lectionary – Pentecost 21 – October 17, 2021
Job 38:1-7, 34-41
Psalm 104: 1-9, 24, 35c
Today’s scriptures join the Infinite and the intimate. Divine glory and divine suffering, challenging us to embrace both awe and sacrifice, everlasting life and painful mortality.
Job begins and ends in divine conversation. The ambiguous dialogue, “pissing match” between God and HaSatan, morphs into a divine revealing of the universe in its wondrous complexity and a meditation on the grandeur of God. Job has endured losing everything that had brought joy to his life – privilege, wealth, family, social standing, and even respect. He and his wife face an uncertain future, bereft of any social or material support. He is accused of hidden sins by his friends; sins so bad that they merited his misfortune. He has experienced God’s absence, and God has endured Job’s rantings.
Finally, out of a whirlwind, God speaks. God doesn’t answer the question of deserved or undeserved suffering, but by God’s silence regarding the “problem of evil,” God challenges any linear acts-consequences calculus of wealth and poverty, success and failure, or health and illness. God’s revelation of the universe in its complexity to Job is multisensory. In this theophany – divine encounter – I believe Job not only hears God’s voice but catches a glimpse of the world’s beginnings and hears the sounds of an evolving universe.
In the spirit of Psalm 8, Job experiences the contrast between God’s grandeur and human finitude. In this kataphatic presentation (revelation through images), the revealed God is more than Job can ever imagine. He is overwhelmed by God’s grandeur. We can only see a portion of God’s handiwork, but that small portion is overwhelming. The tapestry of creation’s unfolding and God’s vision is beyond our comprehension. This doesn’t mean that God is ethically suspect or has a hidden will that includes our destruction as well as salvation. It simply points to our limits experientially and theologically.
God’s creativity has a moral element to it. God parents forth a universe of order and beauty, within which pain and suffering can occur. These are inevitable aspects of an evolving, imperfect, and finite universe, in which creatures are often at cross purposes. Without complexity in the creative process, there would be little beauty and artistry. Yet evolution and complexity bring with them the possibility of suffering, accidental and intentional.
Awe inspires praise. The grandeur of the universe evokes a sense of radical amazement. And all we can do is stammer, “How great thou art?” Cosmology is defined by axiology, or divine wisdom and value – creation reflects God’s aim at beauty and goodness. There is an implicit moral order, giving birth to all things, or as the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead avers, the aim of the universe is toward the production of beauty. The ambient universe is both awesome and awe-full. (For more on Job, see Bruce Epperly, “Finding God in Suffering: A Journey with Job.”)
Psalm 104 continues this meditation on divine grandeur, noting that all creation reflects divine wisdom. Amazement and gratitude flood our hearts when we ponder life’s wonder and immensity. There is no need for supernaturalism here; naturalism is amazing enough. All is miracle, as Walt Whitman avers. God is not out there, but within all things. Transcendence and immanence are the polar partners of God’s nature.
Hebrews 5 points to the moral order at the heart of reality. The vastness of the universe reflects relationship not solitude. We are not alone. God is with us. In the cross, we experience Christ’s incarnation of suffering love is embedded in all things. Christ represents, as high priest, the intimate connection of creator and creation. In Christ, God is so intimate with creation that God feels the pain of the world. God incarnate in Christ the Priest, celebrates our joy and empathizes with our pain. God understands because God experiences our lives from the inside, touched by everything. In contrast to the aloof God of Aristotle (the unmoved mover) or the deity who predestines all things, unconcerned with the plight of the forgotten, and much Christian theology, the personal God of Hebrews is, as philosopher Charles Hartshorne and Clark Pinnock aver, the “most moved mover,” able to heal our wounds because God feels our wounds. The universe is aimed at salvation and wholeness as a result of God’s immanence and empathy. (For more on divine suffering, see Bruce Epperly, “Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God” and “Process Theology: A Guide for the Perplexed.”
In the selection from Mark’s Gospel, the disciples foolishly focus on temporal greatness as they embark on the path to Jerusalem, the way of the cross. They forget that God’s grandeur embraces creativity and suffering, and that those who follow Christ must themselves incarnate God’s Tragic Beauty. A personal God is a relational God who both suffers and rejoices with the world. They see greatness in terms of power and control, and leadership in terms of power over and prestige that separates. They believe leadership places them on a higher spiritual pedestal, distant not only from their fellow disciples but from ordinary humankind. Jesus takes a different path. His relationship with God connects him with human suffering. His spiritual enlightenment sensitizes him to our pain and suffering. His sinlessness enables him to understand our temptations and failures and bring healing to our brokenness. Greatness is defined in terms of service and willingness to promote others’ well-being and not our own uniqueness or distance from others. Jesus’ spiritual stature is revealed in his willingness to suffer for our healing and become near to us, embracing our joys and sorrows with God’s healing vision. Nothing is too great or too small, too majestic or too fragile, for God’s presence and concern. (For reflections on Mark, see Bruce Epperly, Mark’s Holy Adventure: Preaching Mark’s Gospel
for Year B and Healing Marks: Healing and Spirituality in Mark’s Gospel.)
Today’s readings join grandeur with relationship. God is ultimate yet intimate. God is beyond yet within. Our quests for greatness, from one perspective, don’t matter much in the grand scheme of things, but they are important to us and our world and are important to God. God is more than we can imagine but transparent in love for creation. Our calling as finite creatures, hurtling in space, is to redeem the world in which we live. Though infinitesimal in the scheme of things, what we do matters to us and to God. Small though we are, we have the task of “tikkun”) mending the world – seeking justice, protecting the environment, healing the sick, and welcoming the outcast.
We may not ever receive an adequate answer to the reality of suffering. We can however open to the pain of those who suffer, empathizing with their pain, and then responding with acts of kindness, personally and politically.
Bruce Epperly is a pastor, professor, and author of over sixty books including WALKING WITH FRANCIS OF ASSISI: FROM PRIVILEGE TO ACTIVISM; MYSTICS IN ACTION: TWELVE SAINTS FOR TODAY; PROCESS THEOLOGY: EMBRACING ADVENTURE WITH GOD; PROPHETIC HEALING: HOWARD THURMAN’S VISION OF CONTEMPLATIVE ACTIVISM; and 101 SOUL SEEDS FOR GRANDPARENTS WORKING FOR A BETTER WORLD. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.