Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
July 1, 2018
“Dinner at the Red Hen with Jesus and Jeremiah: Book of Job, Part 2”
Job 28: 1-12 – The Message
“We all know how silver seams the rocks,
we’ve seen the stuff from which gold is refined,
We’re aware of how iron is dug out of the ground
and copper is smelted from rock.
Miners penetrate the earth’s darkness,
searching the roots of the mountains for ore,
digging away in the suffocating darkness.
Far from civilization, far from the traffic,
they cut a shaft,
and are lowered into it by ropes.
Earth’s surface is a field for grain,
but its depths are a forge
Firing sapphires from stones
and chiseling gold from rocks.
Vultures are blind to its riches,
hawks never lay eyes on it.
Wild animals are oblivious to it,
lions don’t know it’s there.
Miners hammer away at the rock,
they uproot the mountains.
They tunnel through the rock
and find all kinds of beautiful gems.
They discover the origins of rivers,
and bring earth’s secrets to light.
12 “But where, oh where, will they find Wisdom?
Last week I started a three-week series on the Book of Job with a sermon some described as “gut wrenching” as they were leaving. As I preached, I did, in fact, look out onto a congregation of people with tears and red eyes. I reflected on the main question of Job: Why would a God who is just and good allow horrible things to happen to innocent people? Innocent people, such as children from toddlers to teens ripped from the arms of their parents seeking asylum, held in cages, and then scattered around the country.
It’s a question of undeserved suffering. I explained that the response of Job’s friends was to sit on the ground with him for seven days and nights. They cried together in lamentation, ripped their clothes, and poured dirt over their heads. They sat on the ground with him and didn’t say a word. If only they had stopped there. Packed up their things and returned home. But instead they began to speak.
His friends tried out every excuse they could think of to find blame. Each of his three friends made three long, extended arguments. Speeches, really. Including, speaking of his loss, “think of it as a blessing that God wants to teach you.” On the other hand, they also insisted that sin is the source of all suffering. “Explore the depths of your soul, my friend. Surely, you have sinned to deserve this.”
The speeches of Job’s friends are another way this remains a universal story thousands of years later. They offered the modern equivalent of such wisdom as “You’re better off without that job.” Or, “Better off without him.” Or, “Well, at least she didn’t suffer.” Or, “Well, it could have been worse,” except that the story of Job is about how, no, nothing could have been worse.
But as Eugene Peterson explains, “Sufferers attract fixers the way roadkill attracts vultures.” At my 2-year-old nephew’s funeral, the pastor comforted us with the vulture-like words, “God needed another flower in his garden.” Sure, we say things like that because we don’t want to see people suffer, we struggle to find words of empathy and understanding for our friends, yet saying nothing is often better than “Are you sure you didn’t do something to do deserve this? Really sure? Really, really sure, cross your fingers and hope to die?”
Each time, Job replied back, including some very understandable self-pity: “Let God squash me like a bug, and be done with me for good. Where’s the strength to keep my hopes up? What future do I have to keep me going? Do you think I have nerves of steel? Do you think I can pull myself up by my bootstraps? I don’t have any boots!”
Sprinkled among Job’s responses are such wistful sentiments as “Oh, how I long for the good old days” to an even more bleak, “Why didn’t I just die at birth, my first breath out of the womb my last.” To which his good friend Eliphaz responded, “It’s my observation that those who plow evil and sow trouble reap evil and trouble. Has a truly innocent person ever ended up on the scrap heap?” Yeah, thanks for being so understanding.
But Job also made some very eloquent counter-arguments, like the today’s reading. I really resonated with Job’s statement: “Earth’s surface is a field of grain, but its depths are a forge.”
As I read through Job, that caught my eye. It might have been a dig at his friends for their shallow understanding of his suffering. If they looked deeper, they might better understand. But I also took it to mean that what’s on the surface is pretty. But what’s under the surface is beautiful. Job said, underground you can find sapphires and gold. Birds flying overhead will never see it. Wild animals will walk over the top of it but never know it’s there. Most humans too. But miners who hammer away at rock, who tunnel through the rock, will find all kinds of beautiful gems. They will discover the origins of rivers, and bring earth’s secrets to light. Yes, but where you will find wisdom?
You may find it amusing that these verses brought to mind how Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave the Red Hen Restaurant in Lexington, Virginia. Wow, that’s a stretch, you might say! But, here’s how.
When I first heard the story, I found fault with the owner asking Sanders to leave. That’s too far. We can’t stoop to that level, I thought. If we want civility in our world, we can’t practice incivility, no matter how sincere the intentions. More to the point, our Christian faith teaches: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Taking our cues from Jesus – we are called to love our enemies, although I don’t want to get into calling someone with whom we disagree an enemy. But you get the idea. Ultimately, what our world needs is for people to act better, not more people to act worse.
It took me a minute to realize, however, that my response was only surface level Christianity. Pretty. Nice, polite. Might we not need something deeper? And might not even Jesus suggest something more than “Do unto others” at this moment in history? Perhaps it depends on whether you think our country is inching closer to… I’m not sure exactly what.
Back to the Red Hen. I was intrigued by a person who suggested an alternative response: “tell Sarah we will treat you tonight the way everyone who comes to America’s door should be treated.” Another person suggested an even more subversive statement: “If you want to eat here, we will feed you. We will treat you with dignity. We will offer you hospitality. But know this. Any money you spend here tonight will be given to a legal defense fund for kids in cages.”
That’s the kind of thing Jesus taught when he told his followers to go a second mile or turn the other cheek. As I’ve said many times in the past two years, Jesus wasn’t talking about how to be a doormat but how to confound the Empire.
This second set of responses begins to open our moral imagination, offering something between resignation and rage. And deeper, more beautiful, than “be nice.”
But is even that enough? A number of people I respect began questioning, tentatively, at first. For example, Diana Butler Bass shared on Twitter: “I’m going to say something controversial. I don’t believe in public shaming. But I also don’t believe in false civility.” I held my breath before beginning to read the responses, expecting the worst. Instead, I heard some very thoughtful comments. And by going below the surface, I learned that the restaurant owner actually didn’t publicly shame Sanders. She quietly pulled her aside and even paid for the food and drink already consumed. Sanders made it public and shamed the owner, demanding to be treated with civility.
Yes. Because ripping and scattering the children of asylum seekers is model behavior for civility. And trashing Muslims and Mexicans and transgender soldiers. If mocking a reporter with a disability is the definition of civility, we have a problem. But false civility is routinely demanded by those trying to disguise grotesque acts of violence.
I take seriously Dr. King’s admonition that we cannot return hate for hate. Hate won’t change things, only love can do that. Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that. But let’s look below the surface.
What did he say from Birmingham Jail that’s worth remembering today? "I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's greatest stumbling block in the stride toward freedom is not the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Perhaps otherwise known as fake civility.
He continued his frustration with the white moderate who constantly says, "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can't agree with your methods of direct action;" who paternalistically feels he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by the myth of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait until a "more convenient season."
Dr. King laments, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
Shallow understanding. So, to go under the surface and mine for some sapphires and gold, I’d like to invite Jesus to the Red Hen for dinner and ask, what would you do? And maybe a few of the other prophets too, like Jeremiah, or Amos or Micah. What would they do?
But we’ll have wait until the Red Hen reopens, hopefully sometime in July, because right now the street in front of it is full of good people carrying Confederate flags, and another guy handing out business cards for the Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan, a guy whose license plate reads “vigilante,” and a couple from Michigan holding signs that read “LGBT – Let God Burn Them,” a message to the restaurant’s gay employees. The Confederate flaggers, however, don’t want to be associated with the anti-gay people. “We don’t want anything to do with that crazy religious bigot stuff.” And here I didn’t think there really were good people on both sides!
What would Jesus do? Well, first it might help to ask what did Jesus do? Just look to his interactions with the scribes and Pharisees. What did he say to them? Over and over, very publicly and to their faces he called them hypocrites and broods of vipers. Not as denigration to their religion but of their callousness to those who suffer. For example, they denounced Jesus for healing a man with a withered hand on the Sabbath. To which Jesus replied, as I said in a sermon a few weeks ago, doing good is not against the law. It embarrassed them. Mark chapter 3 is one of the many times the Pharisees left such an encounter to go conspire against him.
I don’t think every occasion is one right for confrontation. Effectiveness is lost in constancy. That was a point made by Washington Gladden in the late 1800s, a Congregational minister credited as one of the founders of the Social Gospel movement. Among other things, Gladden fought for labor’s right to unionize and use its power of organization for the purpose of collective bargaining, a timely reminder this week. He also fought for such things as factory inspections, the regulation of work hours, the abolition of child labor, and the control of monopolies. This was 1886. He deplored violence in strikes, but he continued to uphold the right to strike, though he urged them to be “employed sparingly, lest in its overuse it lessen its own effectiveness as an instrument of justice.”
I’ve told the story before of how he went to the home of Mr. Jeffrey, a mine owner who was a member of his First Congregational Church in Columbus. It was the night before Rev. Gladden was going to give a sermon supporting the strikers at his mine. Mr. Jeffrey came to church the next morning as usual, listened to the sermon, and was moved to settle the strike that week. What if Gladden had said “Christianity is about being nice and polite to each other?” Of course, another lesson is, we have to be in relationship with people from all walks of life and points of view. And we can’t do that by indiscriminately being in everyone’s face all the time.
But again, I’m convinced we have to keep asking, what kind of time are we living in? Two writers from Sojourners Magazine put it well. We are living in a moment of “moral obscurity.” They asked, “Is this a Bonhoeffer Moment?” Pastor Bonhoeffer was one of the first to question what the new chancellor of Germany was really up to in February 1933, two days after Hitler took office. We have to be very careful about making comparisons, but we can cautiously observe Bonhoeffer’s assessment of the time and place in which he was living. He described the “huge masquerade of evil that has thrown all ethical concepts into confusion,” and in which “evil appears in the form of light and good deeds.” It was a time he described as requiring “a radical form of ethical discernment, attuned to concrete reality, historical urgency, and the desperate cries of help from victims of the state.”
Such as a time like this? Scapegoating minorities and refugees, calling the press enemies of the people, taking away worker’s rights, openly admiring dictators and wishing for more authoritarian powers. Should I keep going? Calling for limits on free speech? Showing preference for one religion, and only a narrow version of it?
We have a decision to make. Which Jesus do we follow?
The one who says, “be nice and polite?” Yes.
The one who is confrontational? Yes.
The one who heals the sick and comforts the wounded? Yes.
The one who went off to be alone? Yes.
The one who overturned the tables of the money-changers? Yes.
The one who was crucified? Yes.
The one whose death transformed the meaning of suffering, underserved as it was? Yes.
We aren’t all called to the same task but to the same Christ. Paul told us some are teachers, some are healers, some are bearers of good news. That’s why we are the Body of Christ and not just his hands or feet or liver, kidneys and gall-bladder.
At this moment in time, requiring ethical discernment, concrete reality, historical urgency, and the desperate cries of help from victims of the state, if you are called to public confrontation, we stand behind you as a living embodiment of Christian faith. If that is not your calling, we stand together offering a vision of love and hope to those undergoing great suffering, undeserved suffering, during these dangerous, morally obscure, times.
Job asked and then answered his own question: Where can wisdom be found? He said, “Truly, the fear of the Lord, that is wisdom; and to depart from evil is understanding.” I don’t love the use of the word fear. On the other hand, I appreciate the use of the word in 2nd Timothy: “For God has not given us the spirit of fear, but of power and of love and of a sound mind.”
And with the power of God’s love, this world will be transformed. Although, it will take some time. That’s why we’re here. That’s why we need each other. That’s why we listen to Jesus and ask, “What should I do?”
(Want to get involved? Here are 15 ideas.)
 Job 2: 11-13 The Message (MSG)
 Job 5:17 MSG
 Job 4:7-11 MSG
 Commentary on Job in Conversations: The Message with Its Translator, page 714
 Job 6:8-13 MSG
 Job 3:11 MSG
 Statements on Twitter in response to Diana Butler Bass
 John von Rohr, The Shaping of American Congregationalism, Pilgrim Press, 1992, page 377
 Told by current pastor Tim Ahrens, friend and colleague from my time in Cleveland
 1 Corinthians 12:28
 Job 28:28 NRSV
 2nd Timothy 1:7 KJV
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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