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Fifth Sunday after Pentecost — June 23, 2024

Teri McDowell Ott writes about suffering.

Job 38:1-11
Year B

When I entered seminary, I had no idea what I was in for intellectually. I knew learning the material would be hard, but I didn’t expect to have all my comfortable beliefs about God and Jesus – inherited, tacitly held beliefs – challenged and questioned. My seminary professors not only expected me to read and regurgitate Calvin, Barth, Niebuhr and Tillich, but also to say whether I agreed with their theology. I remember one of my professors asking, “Teri, you’re looking thoughtful, tell us what you think about this passage,” when (embarrassingly) my mind had just given up and gone out the window. The sparrow who sat on a tree branch outside that window felt more in my mind’s range than anything Tillich would ever write. This was just one of many humbling moments where I learned how much I didn’t know and couldn’t grasp of God.

I consider this humbling a great gift. There is wisdom in knowing our limits, in knowing what we don’t know.

In this Sunday’s lectionary text from the Hebrew Bible, Job has suffered terribly, and he wants to know why. He’s demanded an explanation, and God shows up to respond. What Job gets, though, is an excoriating speech reminding him how small he is before God. One commentator on this passage described God’s tone as “invitational.” But God’s speech to Job, which runs for two full chapters, reads more like a theological smackdown. In a whirlwind of words, God accuses Job of “darken[ing] counsel by words without knowledge,” then says, “Gird up your loins” — get ready, this is going to be difficult.

In the next 11 verses, God reminds Job of the boundaries of their relationship: God does not answer to humanity. Humanity answers to God. “Thus far you shall come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.” (Job 38:11)

Job is overwhelmed. His mind has given up and gone out the window. But now he understands his place and position, responding when God finishes, “I am of small account.” (Job 40:4)

It’s hard to be humbled. Harder still to read of Job’s humbling. He’s one of God’s best, and yet he endures such suffering. We might agree with Virginia Woolf, who wrote, “I read the book of Job last night — I don’t think God comes well out of it.”

But let’s pause here before we jump to judge. Let’s consider the way God shows up. For 32 chapters before this speech, Job calls and cries out to God, demanding his right to argue his case, to defend himself to God face to face. When God shows up, apparently Job’s Creator has heard every word. God listened, and God engaged.

When we stop to consider how God often feels so absent amid our suffering, Job is blessed to have this personal encounter. Job is blessed because when we are suffering, showing up matters.

A dear friend of mine is suffering with stage four lung cancer. Elizabeth is an Episcopal priest, who recently had to leave her parish and apply for disability because the cancer made her too weak. Elizabeth’s also a writer, and this week she wrote about getting a rollator that’s helped her resume the short morning walks that bring her peace. In her Substack newsletter, Desert Owl among the Ruins, Elizabeth writes about a brief encounter with a neighbor when she first sets out with her new rollator.

I feel self-conscious when I see people out running or walking whom I used to see when I was walking a couple miles each morning vs. the .23 miles I now manage going around the cul-de-sac. The rollator is also very noisy. This morning as I was walking with the noisy rollator, I saw a neighbor whom I don’t know very well.

I smiled at him as I followed the curve of the cul-de-sac, expecting him to quickly pass me. Instead, he slowed a bit and asked, “Are you OK?”

His question surprised me, as I don’t think we had ever said more than “Good morning” or simply waved. Am I OK? No. How to answer? “I have cancer,” I blurted. I felt emotional. I’ve had to give up my job that I love. I’m stage four and have multiple medical appointments every week. My world has become so small that a lap around the block is a highlight of my day.

He didn’t say anything but walked beside me for a bit. Then he said, “I hope you have a nice day,” and walked ahead. I thanked him and said that I hoped he had a nice day too.

Elizabeth appreciated how her neighbor didn’t negate or avoid her suffering. He didn’t suggest she try smoking marijuana — which people have actually suggested to my friend with lung cancer! He didn’t ask a bunch of questions requiring her to expend the little energy she has or wish her a speedy recovery. He just walked with her, silently, and then moved on.

When we are suffering, showing up matters. Simply showing up. Job’s story reminds us that our God is not a cold, distant god who peers down on us from a heavenly throne. Our God comes close. Our God engages us within our suffering. Our God walks beside us, even if our pace is slow.

Yes, we are small. Yes, we are not God. But these truths do not keep God from showing up for Job or us.

Questions for reflection

  1. What thoughts, feelings, ideas or images arise as you read this passage?
  2. When have you cried out to God in your suffering? In what ways did God show up?
  3. When have you been hesitant to show up for someone who was suffering? What kept you from showing up? What would help you show up?

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