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The Right to Face Your Accuser

The Reverend Matt Gaventa

October 21, 2018
Job 23:1-17

A Reading from the Book of Job

Then Job answered:
‘Today also my complaint is bitter;
his hand is heavy despite my groaning.
O that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his dwelling!
I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.
Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.
There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.
‘If I go forward, he is not there;
or backward, I cannot perceive him;
on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him;
I turn to the right, but I cannot see him.
But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.
My foot has held fast to his steps;
I have kept his way and have not turned aside.
I have not departed from the commandment of his lips;
I have treasured in my bosom the words of his mouth.
But he stands alone and who can dissuade him?
What he desires, that he does.
For he will complete what he appoints for me;
and many such things are in his mind.
Therefore I am terrified at his presence;
when I consider, I am in dread of him.
God has made my heart faint;
the Almighty has terrified me;
If only I could vanish in darkness,
and thick darkness would cover my face!

The first time I met William, he was hand-rolling a cigarette in the Georgetown student cafeteria. And of course he wasn’t just hand-rolling it; he was hand-rolling it while monologging about the subtle art of hand-rolling loose tobacco. He had a crowd of disciples around him — not a one of them, I think, actually interested in learning how to hand roll tobacco. I mean, even if you wanted to, where were you going to source loose tobacco on campus in the first place? I didn’t know then that William Brownlow the Fifth drove around with a bumper sticker that said “Tobacco Money Pays My Bills” and I didn’t know then that he almost certainly brought that loose tobacco from the family holdings back in Knoxville and he almost certainly brought enough for everybody and I didn’t know then that William Brownlow the First had been the reconstruction-era governor of Tennessee although William the Fifth would monologue all of this to me in short order. Because nobody could resist his charisma. That was the whole thing. He was full of life, from the first moment I met him.

In some ways, in our group, he was the odd one out. We were a bunch of northeastern prep school dorks with too many thoughts about Star Wars. William was an outdoorsman, a self-described redneck who made a regular habit of coming back from vacation with venison and quail for the freezer, a gift for the house, as if any of us who were eating Kraft Macaroni & Cheese on a near-daily basis had any idea what to do with it. But William just lived at full volume. He was brash. He was arrogant. He was infuriating. He was brilliant. He was the best storyteller I’ve ever known. We loved him so profoundly, through college and beyond, at random get-togethers, at weddings, at reunions, at whatever opportunities presented themselves for those of us in that group to gather up again and tell the old stories. And then, in late 2006, five years after graduation and but just a few short months since we all seen each other last, we got a call, on some random Tuesday in December, that William was gone.

It was sudden. It was senseless. William had gotten sick in his mind, quickly and quietly and dangerously, and one terrible night in December his life came to an end. I’ve never quite understood the diagnosis except to understand that it was arbitrary in the most frustrating sense. There was nothing anybody had done or could have done. His brain broke and it took his body alongside it and that’s all there was to say. Last week in reading from the first chapter of Job we talked a bit about the arbitrariness of the world, how sometimes the bread rises and sometimes it doesn’t and we don’t always know why and here we are again except  it’s not always bread, sometimes it’s people that you love. And so, all of our lives broke, all the people who loved him, all of our lives sort of broke for a while in the aftermath. I went home in a daze and lay on the floor staring at the ceiling. I stayed there for a long time in shock.

I don’t remember most of the next day or so — I know there was a lot of having the same conversation over and over with friends and family everywhere. I know there was a lot of feeling like everything was in suspended animation. I don’t know much else. The next thing I really remember was a few nights later, when I showed up for  choir practice at my congregation, Westminster Presbyterian Church. I think it was the first part of life that I showed back up for. But I didn’t really come to sing. I didn’t really come to see my friends. I remember coming that night because I needed to talk to someone. Someone specific. I said a bit to the choir about what was going on but that wasn’t the point. The point was, after rehearsal, I sidled up to our director, and I said, “Look, is there any way I could get a few minutes in the sanctuary on my own? You know me. I can lock up. I just need a few minutes. I need to talk to someone specific.” Because I was as angry at God as I’d ever been. And my plan was to march in there and demand an audience. My plan was to march in there and we were going to have it out, the Almighty and me, one-on-one, mano-a-mano. I was going to demand to be heard. So after rehearsal the director let me in, and he said, “Stay as long as you need.”

And in I went, to give God a piece of my mind.

“Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.” Job and I were on the same page. Job has also been the victim of this same seemingly-arbitrary God and he has come to give God a piece of his mind.

You will remember that Job’s life was systematically destroyed in last week’s reading — his family, his fortune, even eventually his own body, until he finally snaps, and curses the day of his birth. And we now jump twenty-odd chapters later into a book that has by now become a familiar cycle. Job has three friends staying by his side, and they get lots of points for staying by his side, but they don’t get points for saying the right things. In fact they keep saying the wrong things — they keep talking about how Job must have done something wrong to offend God and God is too perfect to let this stuff happen arbitrarily and then Job will say something like, “No, I don’t think you’re quite hearing me, just   listen,” which prompts one of Job’s friends to do another 2-chapter long soliloquy, and Job gets angry with his friends, and his friends get angry with him, and by the time of our reading today, everybody is just ticked off at everybody else and the whole thing is boiling over with righteous indignation.

All of which sounds very familiar. We are living in times that boil over with anger. Anger feels like the currency of the moment. For a while there it felt like apathy might win the day but anger has come roaring back. Political anger. Cultural anger. Anger born out of resentment. Anger born out of disappointment. Anger born out of dread. Anger born just because it feels good to be angry, just because it fires whatever neurons it fires and they make you feel alive and they make you feel vital. The movie-lovers among you may remember the infamous scene in 1976’s Network where newscaster Howard Beale has a kind of on-air meltdown, and starts telling his viewers that he knows things are bad, worse than bad, but in order to fix any of it first they’ve got to get angry. He says, “I want all of you to get up out of your chairs. I want you to get up right now and go to the window. Open it, and stick your head out, and yell, ‘I’M AS MAD AS HELL, AND I’M NOT GOING TO TAKE THIS ANYMORE!” And of course they do, and it feels cathartic, and if you watch that scene in 2018 it will feel amazingly familiar, like, yes, we’re all mad as heck, and maybe we should be, but it doesn’t mean we’re not playing with fire.

And Job’s not just angry. He’s angry with God. And there’s a difference there somewhere. We’re supposed to be angry. All the time, in all the news we read, in every Facebook post we see or tweet that goes by, in every campaign ad that rolls through our feed, we’re supposed to be angry. It is a peculiarity of this historical moment that the anger around us feels comfortable. It feels like home. It feels like belonging. But being angry with God is a different thing altogether. Being angry with God feels dangerous. Who gets angry with God? Who gets angry with the Creator of Heaven and Earth? Who gets angry with God who has the capacity to get angry back ? We have no language for this. We have no prayers of righteous indignation. We have no hymns to give God a piece of our mind. There is nothing in the regular tradition of the white mainline American Protestantism that equips us to get ticked off at the God of all things because for a long time we weren’t supposed to be angry in the first place and more to the point who would march in there and demand an audience?

Except Job. Job does exactly that. “I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments,” Job says. And then a remarkable thing happens, Job starts playing out the fight in his head, we’ve all done this, he’s rehearsing the fight he’s about to have, he’s psyching himself up in the mirror, and then he sort of talks himself into a corner by mistake. It starts easy enough — I’m gonna lay into him so bad, he doesn’t know what’s coming. “My foot has held fast to his steps, I have kept his way and not turned aside.” I have done everything right and doesn’t he know it. But he is God, and does whatever he wants — “he stands alone and who can dissuade him” — and if he actually shows up he’s just going to have his way with me — “For he will complete what he appoints for me, and many such things are on his mind, Therefore I am terrified at his presence; when I consider, I am in dread of him.” Now that I think about it. I  wanted to see God so badly. But what happens if God sees me?

Do not miss the profound epiphany that Job is having. He so wants to be angry. But what he’s really scared of is being known. “If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!” Job spends twenty chapters railing against God and demanding an audience; Job spends twenty chapters stating in no uncertain terms that he’s in the arena and God is nowhere to be found and how dare God not show up. And then just here at the end, once he starts to think about it, he realizes that maybe he’s not actually ready for that kind of intimacy — and of course shortly thereafter God really does show up. That’s next week’s reading, but it’s coming, and it’s haunting even these verses. God will show up, and see Job exactly as he is, for better or worse. That’s the trick with being angry with God. It’s not wrong. God is big enough to take it. Get as angry with God as you want. Knock yourself out. Just be warned. If you go looking for God in anger. You might find God. In fact, you might find God looking for you.

So the choir director shows me into the sanctuary, and he shows me how to lock up, and he said “Stay as long as you need.” And so I waited for everybody else to clear out, and I got my speech ready. I think I had seen too many times that West Wing episode where President Bartlet stalks up the aisle at the National Cathedral yelling at God in Latin and I didn’t have the Latin but I was going to be just as cinematic in my rage and so I took a seat in the pew waiting for the moment and rehearsing my lines. William was so young. And he was so beloved. And he didn’t do anything wrong. And why did you take my friend away from me? And what kind of God would take William away from us for nothing? And even now, I wish I could tell you the very beautifully righteously vitriolic prose that came out of my mouth but the truth is before I knew it, I was just sitting in the pew by myself, weeping, all my imaginary speeches for nothing. As it turns out, the word anger is just an Old Norse word for grief, and sure enough. I just sat there weeping. In some ways I still am. I still miss my friend, I don’t know that I’ll ever stop grieving him. But I know exactly when I started. I know exactly when the good work of grieving and healing began. It began right there in those pews, because I was so angry with God that I went to find God. And instead I got found.

I’m still angry. I’m still angry about Will. I’m still angry about the news of the world. I’m still angry that sometimes the bread rises and sometimes it doesn’t. And I bet you’re angry, too. I think we all are, for better or worse; these are angry times and it has a contagious quality to it. The Gospel for the morning is not to explain that away, lest we would sound like Job’s only somewhat-helpful friends, so eager to have it all make sense. The Gospel is rather this. Your anger is welcome here, because it is part of who you are, and you are welcome here. Your grief is welcome here, because it is part of who you are, and you are welcome here. Which is not to say that we should come to church and take out our anger on one another; I don’t mean it that way. I surely hope we don’t. I don’t want you to get up out of your chairs and go to the window and start yelling. I think we get enough of that Monday through Saturday.

What I mean is, if you need to be angry with God. If you need to show your grief to God. If you need to give God a few choice words. If you’re looking for a fight with God. Then get up out of your chair, and come to this sanctuary. Get up out of your chair, and come to these waters. Get up out of your chair, and come to this table. Get up out of your chair, and seek God where God may be found. Get up out of your chair, and seek God where you may be found. Get up out of your chair, come to this table of grace, and be known in the breaking of the bread.

The Gospel is this. You can stay as long as you need.

Thanks be to God. Amen.