Weekly Seeds: With Lament

Sunday, October 10, 2021
After Pentecost Year B

Focus Theme:
With Lament

Focus Prayer:
God of all who are cast down, you call us to seek good and to meet oppression with justice. Teach us to find salvation in the emptying of ourselves for the sake of those in need, so that goodness may prevail and your kingdom come in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Focus Reading:
Job 23:1–9, 16–17
Then Job answered:
2 “Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
3 Oh, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
4 I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
5 I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
6 Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
7 There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
8 “If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
9 on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
16 God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
17 If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!

All readings for this Sunday:
Job 23:1–9, 16–17 and Psalm 22:1–15
Amos 5:6–7, 10–15 and Psalm 90:12–17
Hebrews 4:12–16
Mark 10:17–31

Focus Questions:

  1. Have you ever experienced a time when God seemed to be missing?
  2. How do you search for God?
  3. How do you cope when God seems absent?
  4. What do you expect from God when encountering difficulty?
  5. How does our positioning impact our perception of God’s positioning?

By Cheryl Lindsay

Bitterness occurs when something that was sweet turns sour, when something delightful becomes distasteful, and when pleasure descends to pain. Job’s so-called patience has turned bitter. It’s important to note that while the Book of Job has forty-two chapters, most of the calamity that Job and his wife experience occurs within the first two. The bulk of the allegory consists of conversations. There’s a brief, but pivotal dialogue between Job and Job’s Wife that we explored last week. The rest are encounters between either Job and God or Job and his friends. The story continues not through action but through the unfolding internal progression of Job’s response to his circumstances. We aren’t often privy to this type of development, which makes this book a particular gift in confronting adversity.

Most stories of deliverance, healing, and restoration in the Bible happen with the immediacy that Mark is noted for expressing. We see glimpses of the story, but not the progression of the pain. We may know that the woman with the issue of blood suffered for years or that Namaan was beleaguered by leprosy for a long time, but we don’t get access to their daily struggle. We meet them at their point of breakthrough. With Job, we receive an invitation into his process.

Job copes with lament.

The Psalmist petitions the Holy One to “teach us to count our days” (Psalm 90:12), yet so often the Biblical story–with notable exceptions–leaps over those details of the journey. Connecting the event with the response of the impacted person makes a difference in how we understand the movement of God in the lives of people.

Remember how Job’s Wife cried out in pain, uncertainty, and despair? Remember how Job countered her lament with a word of encouragement to be faithful in times of difficulty? We never hear her voice again except in echoes found in Job who, over time, has his resolve to faithfully accept his lot continually tested. The test doesn’t come from new occurrences; it intensifies as he considers his condition, his inability to change it, the sympathetic but accusatory musings of his friends, and God’s seeming indifference to Job’s plight. In those dialogical encounters, we observe Job questioning God and receiving a rebuke that mirrors the one that he delivered to his spouse.

It’s much easier to offer words of encouragement in the face of disaster than to live faithfully through it. While Job undoubtedly uttered those words from a place of sincerity, it did not reflect a mature approach to profound grief. We often say words with the intention to comfort that, nevertheless, feel more like platitude than truth…even when they are true. Our consolation may reflect the conclusion that we’ve reached after fully experiencing all the stages of grief. They may be our truth, but that doesn’t mean that they will be helpful to someone in the midst of a very long journey. That may be compounded when dealing with our own grief while attempting to comfort another.

In this week’s focus passage, Job does not pretend to be okay. He doesn’t need to use his faith as a shield keeping him from acknowledging his own grief. Job is talking to God and God alone. He’s able to speak his truth to the God of truth. He names his words as complaint, yet we find in them a tension between fear and hope. The just God that he expects seems absent, but Job also expects that justice will be realized once the Holy One chooses to act:

Job’s compelling hope is that he might find a God who is more present than the One he now knows (23:1-7). Previously, Job has conceded that he has neither the strength (9:4, 19) nor the piety (16:15-17) to stay the course with a God who is determined to destroy him “for no reason” (cf. 2:4) and with “no mercy” (16:13). In his despair he had wanted nothing so much as the consent of his conscience simply to give up and die (3:11-13, 20-22; 6:8-9; 7:15-16; 10:18-22; 16:22-17:1). Now, however, that same despair fuels a new resolve. He determines to find the place where
God is hiding and to press his presence on God’s until the veil that separates them is lifted. Surely God will honor the arguments of a truly “upright person” like Job (v. 7; cf. 1:1, 8; 2:3), for a God of justice must be guided by reason and fair play, not power and petulance. (Samuel E. Balentine)

In the portion of the chapter that the lectionary skips is an important part of Job’s wrestling:

Job’s lingering fear is that the absent God who unjustly terrorizes him is all there is (23:8-16). In search of God, Job sets forth on an imaginative journey to the four points of the compass….but the God he seeks is nowhere to be found….In the second half of his speech, Job turns from the complaint about God’s hiddenness to God’s indictable failure as a fair and reasonable judge of the world. He begins with a critical question that authentic faith permits no innocent sufferer to leave unasked: “Why?” (24:1). Why do those who know God is just never see the judgment that confirms God is God? Why do the wicked run free, leaving their victims to cry for help to a God who sees nothing wrong with the way the world is working (24:2-12)? Why do those who “rebel against the light” have license to subvert the moral order of the cosmos by using darkness as a cover for their criminality (24:13-17)? By any normal definition of justice, such evidence requires God’s intervention. Yet the violations go on, and God remains silent. (Samuel E. Balentine)

It’s tempting to skip over the wrestling. It can be so much easier to move past the uncertainty to find a place of comfort…even if that comfort comes with the discomfort of knowing that we’ve avoided the hard but necessary thing. It’s why Jesus says in this week’s Gospel passage, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24b) It’s not that Jesus is predisposed against the wealthy, it’s that the comfortable get so wedded to comfort that it becomes an insurmountable obstacle to doing the necessary thing that God calls us to do.

Recently, a family I know made the difficult decision to place a loved one in a memory care facility. While the choice was clearly necessary, that did not make it easy. There’s grief, doubt, fear, and even guilt associated with moving forward. After the transition was complete, the family member I know expressed certainty in the rightness of their decision. It wasn’t easy, but it was right.

Too often we choose easy over right. Perhaps, that’s why denial is often the first stage of grief. We saw that in Job’s response to his spouse who appeared to hold anger and acceptance together in tension. Job negotiates with God through lamenting. Even that involved a process in which his plea for his own death (escape from suffering) transforms to a hope for vindication (release from suffering). Escape and release are different. Escape allows for avoidance; release includes validation and overcoming. Suzanne Boorer shares a helpful thesis:

Job’s hope relates to two areas: death and vindication. His hope in relation to death and his hope in relation to vindication are distinct aspects of his hope and yet they interact and become intertwined in the ongoing movement of the text. Job’s initial hope is for death (cf. the friends’ hope for his restoration and a prosperous life). His hope for death amounts to the rejection of life which he perceives as full of misery. As the dialogue moves on, however, death itself becomes a symbol of hopelessness, the means by which God destroys hope. Job’s hope for vindication arises in relation to his reflections on death, and then becomes increasingly strong. At first his hope is for vindication after death, but this is rendered hopeless because the permanency of death itself destroys any such hope. Subsequently, then, his all-consuming hope- which runs parallel to statements about the hopelessness of death – is to see God and be vindicated while still alive. Paradoxically, this God that (the increasingly self-righteous) Job hopes to encounter for vindication is perceived by him to be utterly unjust. The divine response takes up, contradicts, transforms and transcends Job’s hope in the areas of vindication and death.

Lament is an act of hope that engages the Holy One with the fullness of despair. Lament trusts God with the feelings we don’t want to have. Lament honors the God who does the hard things and has created us in that image. Lament moves us from the bitterness of longing for mere escape to the hope of believing vindication, redemption, and justice are possible.

In the gospel reading, when the disciples respond in dismay to the seeming impossibility of salvation, Jesus tells them, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God, for God all things are possible.” Lament reminds us that we have a Partner who has made Themselves accountable to us through the promise of the covenant. Job reaches the point in his journey that he can say what needs to be said. He implores the Omnipresent One to be found. Job challenges the All-Knowing God to provide the answers. He proclaims that the Creator has weakened him and the Protector has caused him terror.

This passage doesn’t end neatly with all the tension resolved. There’s no swirling soundtrack letting us know that everything works out for our hero in the end. Yet, still there is hope. There is hope that God is still there, God is still engaged, and God is still listening. Job’s lament is not venting in the abyss or griping in a fruitless attempt to feel better. Job’s lament is a part of his redemption.

Job has been put on trial; the grand jury convened in the first chapter. He knows his innocence. He hasn’t been set free, but despite everything that he has been through, he still believes that vindication is possible. As a result, he takes his case to the only one with power to redeem, save, and deliver him from that which has imprisoned him. He searches for that God, he prepares his arguments for that God, and he trusts in that God….with lament.

For further reflection:
“To lament means to express sorrow or regret. Lamenting something horrific that has taken place allows a deep connection to form between the person lamenting and the harm that was done, and that emotional connection is the first step in creating a pathway for healing and hope. We have to sit in the sorrow, avoid trying to fix it right away, avoid our attempts to make it all okay.” ― LaTasha Morrison
“Prayerful lament is better than silence. However, I’ve found that many people are afraid of lament. They find it too honest, too open, or too risky. But there’s something far worse: silent despair. Giving God the silent treatment is the ultimate manifestation of unbelief. Despair lives under the hopeless resignation that God doesn’t care, he doesn’t hear, and nothing is ever going to change. People who believe this stop praying, they give up. This silence is a soul killer.” ― Mark Vroegop
“A church that has lost its nerve to lament before God will likely lack the nerve to confront oppression and be prone to support the status quo.” ― Glenn Pemberton

A preaching commentary on this text (with works cited) is at https://www.ucc.org/what-we-believe/worship/sermon-seeds/.

The Rev. Dr. Cheryl A. Lindsay, Sermon Seeds Writer and Editor (lindsayc@ucc.org), is a local church pastor and worship scholar-practitioner with a particular interest in the proclamation of the word in gathered communities. You’re invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

About Weekly Seeds

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Weekly Seeds is a service of Local Church Ministries of the United Church of Christ. Bible texts are from the New Revised Standard Version, © 1989 Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Prayer: Reproduced from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers © 2002 Consultation of Common Texts. Used by permission.