Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
June 24, 2018
“Children Ripped and Scattered: Book of Job, Part 1”
Job 1: 1, 11-19 – The Message
Job was a man who lived in Uz. He was honest inside and out, a man of his word, who was totally devoted to God and hated evil with a passion.
What do you think would happen if you reached down and took away everything that is his? He’d curse you right to your face, that’s what.”
12 God replied, “We’ll see. Go ahead—do what you want with all that is his. Just don’t hurt him.” Then Satan left the presence of God.
13-15 Sometime later, while Job’s children were having one of their parties at the home of the oldest son, a messenger came to Job and said, “The oxen were plowing and the donkeys grazing in the field next to us when Sabeans attacked. They stole the animals and killed the field hands. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
16 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Bolts of lightning struck the sheep and the shepherds and fried them—burned them to a crisp. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
17 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Chaldeans coming from three directions raided the camels and massacred the camel drivers. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
18-19 While he was still talking, another messenger arrived and said, “Your children were having a party at the home of the oldest brother when a tornado swept in off the desert and struck the house. It collapsed on the young people and they died. I’m the only one to get out alive and tell you what happened.”
“What do you think would happen if you took everything away from him?” And, in this case, everything was a lot. The Book of Job begins by describing that he had 7 sons and 3 daughters; 7,000 head of sheep, 3,000 camels, 500 teams of oxen, 500 donkeys; servants. His wealth was extraordinary. But he wasn’t just wealthy. He was always trying to do the right thing, going above and beyond. For example, any time his sons hosted a party, Job would get up early the next morning and sacrifice a burnt offering for each of his children, thinking, “Maybe one of them sinned by defying God inwardly.” Job did this “just in case.” He wasn’t simply rich. He was a really good guy. You might even say he’s one of the few who actually deserved what he had.
“What do you think would happen?” But that’s just one question in search of wisdom asked in Job. The overarching question is “Why would a God who is just and good allow such horrible things to happen to innocent people?” Rabbi Harold Kushner famously asks, “Why do bad things happen to good people.”
In chapter one, as you heard Vanessa read, Job lost everything. In chapter two, his misery is compounded. After another “I wonder what would happen…” he is then covered with terrible sores; ulcers and scabs from head to foot. So miserable, he tried to scrape himself with broken pieces of pottery. If that makes you want to gag, that’s the point. And if not gag, then cry and look away.
Like Rachel Maddow did on live TV when she had to deliver breaking news that, yes, in fact, even infants and toddlers were being ripped from their mother’s chest, from their father’s hands, and scattered into “tender age shelters,” a euphemism Chairman Mao would like. Rachel tried but could not regain composure. She looked away and told them to go on to the next program.
Administration officials defended this practice by, among lots of conflicting excuses, blaming the parents. And, I’ll be honest, people could be forgiven for asking, “What is wrong with a parent who would put their children through such an ordeal?”
Warsan Shire (pronounced “she-ray”) is a Somali-British writer and poet in her 20s. She wrote a poem called Home that provides a compelling answer to the question “why would you do that.” This is an excerpt:
you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
“go home” blacks
sucking our country dry
[beggars] with their hands out
they smell strange
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up…
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off
or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
or the insults are easier
than your child’s body
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
i dont know what i've become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.
Guadalupe could flee El Salvador or stay and be murdered by the same people who killed her husband. When her husband started a small electrical company, gang members showed up demanding “rent.” He didn’t have that kind of money, so they shot him 20 times. They said they’d come back and get it from her. She couldn’t tell the police. So, she paid a coyote and took a 23-day journey north with her two children. I had no other choice, she said.
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
Like Yessenia, she didn’t want to leave either. She’s a grade school teacher in the capital of Honduras. She rounded the corner one afternoon and saw a group of four boys beating another boy. They saw her too. “It’s the teacher!” one yelled before scattering. The boy they left behind was beaten so badly that at first Yessenia didn’t recognize him as one of her students.
“If I hadn’t showed up they would have killed him,” she said. But any consolation that she saved the boy’s life would be short lived. Two days later, she saw another group of young men she did not recognize near the school. Unable to avoid them on the street, she said, “Good morning,” and kept her eyes down.
Gangs frequently murder witnesses to their crimes. Yessenia had witnessed two crimes in as many days and knew she would be pegged as a police informer if anyone ever filed charges.
Racked with fear and anxiety, she stopped eating and sleeping. Finally, she simply fled the school where she had taught for 12 years without telling anyone. The 56-year-old is now one of tens of thousands of Hondurans who have become displaced from their homeland.
Everyone, she said, has a story about a family whose home has been burned down or a son recruited by gangs. Or murdered. The countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala have the highest death rates in the world for any country not at war. 81 murders per 100,000 in El Salvador in 2016, compared to 5 in the U.S. Women are not spared. LGBT people are particularly at risk. But these are also the most dangerous countries in the world for children. 540 children were murdered in 2016 in El Salvador; that is 67 per 100,000 compared to 4 in the U.S.
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
They aren’t just seeking asylum in the United States. Applications to the U.S. are up 1,000% from 2011 to 2017. But applications are up 2,000% to Mexico. And 1,500% to other Central American countries like Costa Rica and Panama.
Guadalupe and Yessinia didn’t have 7,000 head of sheep and 3,000 camels like Job (perhaps that’s the problem), but the question remains, universal through the ages, “Why would a God who is just and good allow such horrible things to happen to innocent people?”
I visited El Salvador 9 years ago for the 30th anniversary of the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero. It was surreal then to see homes and businesses covered with barbed wire and the presence of armed guards everywhere. But they spoke of hope. They were healing. Yet, I now remember their complaints that planeloads of American-born Salvadorans had begun arriving every week, full of young men stripped of their citizenship, sent to a country where many had never lived. The influx of these men was destabilizing their country, they told us, which was still recovering from the effects of a U.S. backed civil war. The U.S. is not innocent of these crimes today. But even if we were totally guiltless, the exhortations of scripture would still apply – to treat aliens as you would a citizen.
And yet, today, I am not interested in repeating the admonition to Christians to welcome the stranger, feed the hungry, liberate the oppressed, free the captive… We’ve been saying that for years. Or even recite the Hippocratic Oath to “first, do no harm.”
Instead, today, I want to tell the story of Job’s three friends who each travelled from their own country to keep Job company in his misery and comfort him. Eliphaz from Teman, Bildad from Shuhah, and Zophar from Naamath. The text says in chapter two: “When his friends first caught sight of him, they couldn’t believe what they saw—they hardly recognized him! They cried out in lament, ripped their robes, and dumped dirt on their heads as a sign of their grief. Then they sat with him on the ground. Seven days and nights they sat there without saying a word. They could see how deeply he was suffering.” They sat there in lament for seven days and nights.
That speaks to me today. I lament, you lament, we cry in lamentation. Powerless, or at least feeling relatively powerless, that our country has somehow again returned to its past of ripping children from their mother’s arms. From black women on the slave auction block. From Native women forced to give their children to government agents to place in boarding schools – to “civilize” and “Christianize.” Mass incarceration of children in the name of education, complete with miniature handcuffs. All of it “legal,” defended and enabled by a warped distortion of scripture, some unwittingly, some not. Congregationalists were among many denominations who operated boarding schools. Many thought they were doing the right thing.
I fear the same for agencies today that are caught trying to serve children but are enabling their separation from parents, places like Lutheran Social Services visited by Mrs. Trump on Thursday. Can you imagine what this is doing to the souls of agency staff, not to mention government employees carrying out their directives? I weep for them too. We were once champions of human rights. The U.S. led the way to the founding of the United Nations and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, although notably, incongruously, during the worst of brutal Jim Crow laws.
And, I can’t ignore, it’s hard not to notice the commonality of non-white skin tones of all these targets, as well as remember the Japanese, citizens no less, forced into concentration camps bounded by barbed wire in the desert.
All of these actions forever alter the bonds of parents and children. The legacy of children ripped and scattered has played out in multi-generational trauma. It will this time too.
Five-year-old Jose won’t forget being separated from his father, flown to Michigan, and placed with a foster family by a Christian agency that is trying to help. Janice and her family had provided a temporary home – transitional foster care – to minors fleeing violence from Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala before. In fact, twelve in the last two years. But this time was different. All the others had access to their parents on a daily basis. Janice said, “They talked to them on the phone. We’ve done video chats with Mom and Dad and siblings with every placement – except now.” Jose is the first to be forcibly separated and left with no ability to contact them. Every day he asks, “When will I see my papa?” They tell him the truth. We don’t know. He finally did get a call, but with no promise of when they would see each other again. That’s when a whole new trauma ensued. He erupted in anger, screaming, and crying at the table for an hour. When his fury subsided, he collapsed on the floor, still sobbing, crying “Mama, Papa” over and over. Janice just sat there on the floor with him. “It was really hard to watch,” she said, her voice breaking. “The look on his face was anguish.”
When I decided to do a three-week series on the Book of Job earlier this spring, I had no idea this would be our context. The news in the past two years, of course, has left us with no lack of sermon material, but I assumed I would end this first part in the series with what Job told his wife. Sitting with his body covered in scabs and sores, Job said, “We take the good days from God – so why not the bad days too?”
And it’s true. That is another way this is a universal story as old as the Book of Job and beyond. When we lose something, maybe not 7,000 sheep or 3,000 camels, but more likely a job, or a home, or our health, we hadn’t previously asked “why do I have a home, a job, or my health?” We don’t generally ask what did I do to deserve all these things. We ask “why” when it’s gone. It’s a story as old as Job.
But most of us also want those stories to have a good ending. The moral of the story. A nugget of wisdom. Job’s very words: “We take the good days from God – so why not the bad days?” A good sermon, too, should end on a high and hopeful note. And for the next two weeks we will continue to explore the meanings within Job’s story. But today I can’t offer a neat and tidy, uplifting answer to the mystery of suffering and redemption.
Because I feel like, first, we need seven days and nights to sit like a friend with Job in lamentation, rip our clothes, throw some dirt, and declare, this is what undeserved suffering looks like. We can give value to our tears. In addition, there are many faithful responses, which include speaking out; giving money to organizations trying to help; showing up at rallies; continuing to make phone calls; not being distracted from all the other egregious actions continuing to unfold while our attention is elsewhere. But as Christians and people of faith, we have another outlet for our grief and anger. Arguing with God. It’s healthy.
I’ll never forget the Holocaust story of the Jews at Auschwitz who decided to put God on trial. (Jews, of course, the “infestation” decried by Nazis). They created a court with a judge, defense attorney, prosecutor, and jury. Witnesses testified for and against. In the end, God was found guilty. When the verdict was read, everyone sat in stunned silence. Someone asked, what do we do now? They stared at each other and said, “now we pray.”
Everyone wants someone to blame for children ripped from their parents and scattered across the country. Or soon, perhaps, their unlimited detention together. Trump blames Barack Obama and Democrats. Before blaming the parents, Jeff Sessions blamed the Bible. “For the Bible tells me so.” Some may blame gangs. Some may blame God for not intervening. Or Satan. Next week we’ll hear arguments from his friends that surely Job is somehow to blame for his suffering. All I know is that parents are not to blame. After all,
no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land.
Lord, have mercy (tear cloth)
Christ, have mercy (dump dirt on the table)
Lord, have mercy
(Want to get involved? Here are 15 ideas.)
 Eugene Peterson
 The whole poem https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/no-one-puts-their-children-in-a-boat-unless-the-wa/
 Listen to the whole poem https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nI9D92Xiygo
 up from 60 in 2012
 Leviticus 19:34 among many others
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My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world