First Church of Christ, UCC, Woodbridge, CT
October 7, 2012
Sometimes, when I am preparing for a sermon, I’ll search the internet for a photo or a piece of artwork that will illustrate the theme. I post my sermons on my weblog, usually with some images that embody the text of the sermon.
So I went to Google.com and typed in the word integrity, which Webster’s defines as honesty, incorruptibility or the state of being complete or undivided. I found hundreds of images: some were for business WebPages, as in Integrity Home Builders; some were for school and college websites; one was a picture of the residents and staff of Integrity House, a home for those with cognitive disabilities. I even found a billboard sign from
displaying the value of integrity in the community. New Zealand
The most striking image for the word integrity was a pair of grimy, filthy, cupped hands: hands that looked like they hadn’t seen water in months. They were the hands of a man: somebody’s father, son, or brother. They looked like they had been used bare to dig for survivors for days on end at the site of an earthquake, the remains of a tornado or hurricane or tsunami, a plane crash, or a bomb site. Or hands used to dig through a city dump for a living and a few scraps of food. They could have been the hands of a homeless person, outstretched for a few coins and a little mercy. They could have been the hands of a soldier or an insurgent. They looked like the hands of someone who had suffered much and lost everything, yet could still form their hands into the shape of hope, hands waiting to receive yet able to give and be thankful.
They looked like the hands of Job. Here is a man who has, indeed, lost everything: his children, his livelihood and all of his livestock, and his good health. All he has left is a broken piece of pottery with which to scrape his sores, his wife who is ready to curse God (and who can blame her), and a few friends who come to sit with Job in his suffering and offer their fair-weather advice and religious platitudes. Eventually he rages against these friends and protests his suffering before God who comes to Job not in a vision bathed in light but in the eye of a violent storm, leaving Job quaking in his shoes, if he had any.
Yet where we’re at in the story, Job persists in his integrity, in his incorruptible faith. Even though he has lost everything, still he says nothing against God. Even in his great suffering, Job is still faithful to God. He does not allow his suffering to alter his fundamental belief that there is a power greater than himself that will restore him: the ineffable mystery of the universe we call God. He still has his hands offered as a cup, waiting on the mercy of the Lord. Job asks: How can we give God credit for the good days and yet curse him for the bad? Are we not then fair-weather friends of God ourselves? Yet how can we give thanks in all things, even in our suffering? How can we retain our integrity, how can we remain incorruptible, in the face of pain and anguish?
This is the same question that
have been asking herself during and after the time of exile in Israel :
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land, in a place where our
faith is mocked? It is estimated that the
book of Job was written in an early period after Babylon had returned from its
Babylonian exile, a time of great suffering for the people of Israel . The city of Israel had been destroyed and the temple along
with it. The people had not been allowed
to worship Yahweh in their captivity but were forced to worship the Babylonian
gods instead. It was difficult to remain
faithful and to keep one’s integrity, one’s guileless honesty before God. The story of Job is universal, in that it is the
story of all those in relationship to God when in the face of suffering. Jerusalem
When all has been taken away from us, when all that is familiar and usual is gone, when we can’t even recognize ourselves as whom we used to be, how do we worship God? How do we meet God in the midst of our suffering?
All of us deal with suffering in our own way. Some of us draw back from the church, finding it difficult to be with our sisters and brothers in faith. Some of us become trapped in the belief that our suffering is due to falling short in our faith; we feel separated from God when we are in pain. We think of ourselves as different from others because of our pain and assume that no one can enter into it with us. Often our well-meaning friends can sound like the friends of Job, wanting to fix whatever situation we’re in, offering answers for questions that have none, further pushing us into the solitary confinement of our feelings.
Our culture teaches us to medicate, to numb our suffering, to cover it up or distract ourselves from it with any number of ways, by being a consumer and spending our money, working hard and getting ahead, being successful at whatever we do, indulging in pleasures and leisure activities, feeling good by looking a certain way, to more hurtful and self-destructive practices such as drinking and eating to excess, abusing drugs and keeping our pain to ourselves. There is no place for suffering or being vulnerable in our culture, lest it become like a disease that is catching. We try to avoid suffering, hide our vulnerability but more often than not, these come to us and strip us of the façade we’ve worked so hard to construct, regardless of our careful watching.
Suffering is an inevitable condition of the human experience. There are those days when it feels like God and Satan are playing a game of chess with our lives. Suffering comes as a result of living in this fragile flesh and loving life and those around us with our whole heart. Jesus knew that.
The grace of suffering is not that we are to find God in it but that God finds us and meets us in our suffering. Through the life and death of Jesus, God comes to us and “shares our common lot, conquering sin and death and reconciling the world to itself”. The author of the book of Hebrews tells us that through Jesus, we learn how to suffer and to keep our integrity as faithful people. By opening ourselves to suffering, not by our ego or through any false sense of piety, but by trusting in God’s grace we open ourselves to God and the possibility of transformation.
We who follow Jesus know of his radical forgiveness. From the cross Jesus forgave those who crucified him, saying that they did not know what they were doing. Most of the time, when we are the cause of suffering, we don’t know what we’re doing either. Jesus shows us that it is never too soon for forgiveness. Even in the midst of suffering, healing can be found through love, forgiveness, compassion, and the willingness to open our hands to God and to give thanks.
When we allow suffering to harden our hearts and close our fists, we allow ourselves to lose our integrity before God. We are no longer whole-hearted and undivided. Yes, we feel anger, sadness, and despair when we suffer but God is more than big enough to take it and to listen. When we open ourselves to our suffering and to the suffering of others in the presence of God, there is power to be transformed, to be made more of who we are, that is, children of God. We were created to be loving, compassionate, to be a reflection of the One who made us. Our sufferings connect us to others in a mysterious way and remind us that all we really have is how we treat each other.
In the Buddhist faith there is what are called the Five Remembrances, five truths to remember about the human condition, and they are universal. One: I will grow old. Two: This body will know sickness. Three: There is no escape from death. Four: Everything and everyone changes. Five: All I have are my actions.
Suffering does and will happen. It is a fact of life. How we respond to it can mean the world of difference to the integrity of our souls and the lives of those around us. But we cannot do this alone. Paul said in his first letter to the Corinthians that when one suffers, all suffer together; when one rejoices, all rejoice together. Often we are tempted to believe that our pain is singular, that no one suffers as we suffer. That is our ego talking. The soul only knows that it is in pain and desires connection and wholeness.
Often when we are wounded we lash out at each other, we strain the bonds of covenant and connection, sometimes to a point we wonder if they can be repaired. There are times it seems easier to just walk away. But the need for relationship, healing and wholeness is still there, though frustrated by our solitude. Through our actions with one another, even when we are in pain, we can communicate the deep love that God has for all persons. With God’s help, we can love our neighbor as ourselves, even love those who have wronged us and pray for them.
In truth none of us is incorruptible. We all lie, mostly to ourselves. Yet we are called to remain incorruptible and keep our integrity in the midst of suffering. How might this be accomplished as a faith community? How have you allowed suffering to open you to God’s new possibilities? When have you, as an individual and as a congregation, kept your hands open to God and when have you closed them? How do you allow your own suffering to connect you to others who are suffering and to the suffering of Jesus on the cross? How have you reached out to other faith communities in their suffering and rejoicing? What keeps you coming back, week after week?
The God of Job, the God of Jesus Christ, is the God who invites us to come and die as well as to come and live. God promises to be with us in the face of suffering, to suffer with us, and to welcome us on the other side. God calls us to integrity, to be incorruptible and honest in our faith, to love with whole and undivided hearts, to find our completeness in community, to keep our hands open: willing to receive whatever comes yet able to give and be thankful. Amen.