Amy Clark Feldman
October 18, 2015
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor”
When Jesus, as a Jewish man, is asked what are the greatest commandments of the Jewish Law are, he quotes Deuteronomy and Leviticus. “Love God”: That’s Number 1. And the second one, he says, is similar: “Love your Neighbor.”
We’re in the middle of our fall sermon series on the Hebrew Bible, and today is the third of three weeks with our beleaguered friend JOB. When we think about what Loving God and Loving Neighbor mean in times of suffering and uncertainty, I can’t imagine a better case study.
Last week Christy talked about Love of God – how Job, in his suffering; anger and lack of understanding – doesn’t turn away from God, but rather turns toward God and wrestles. He loves God with tenacity and bring his whole self to that relationship – complaints and ailments and all.
But what of loving one’s neighbor? The middle and largest portion of this book are accounts of conversations – between Job and God; and Job and his friends. Today, Gerry read the end of the book, and we learn that God is not happy with how Job’s friends have handled themselves in those conversations. Love of neighbor – what does Love require of us when the unthinkable happens. Let’s Pray:
God beyond our understanding: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, Our Rock and our Redeemer – AMEN
For years, my brother and I were the only children on our quiet neighborhood block, so you can imagine how much sunnier the neighborhood became for us when Brian, age 8, and Beth, age 5 moved in. We quickly became friends; and because I was around 4 years older than Beth, I got to stay with her sometimes as a ‘mother’s helper.’
But a few months after Bethie started kindergarten, she fell off a see-saw and had what the doctors confirmed was a seizure. By Christmas, she’d had a second one, and from there her condition got quickly worse. Worry followed tests, and tests followed worry, and in the span of months, she was suffering between 50-100 seizures a day. I remember going over to their house during this time and her mother taking me into the kitchen to say, “Beth will have a seizure while she’s with you… When she does, the best thing to do is just help her to lie down, move anything that might bump or hurt her more, and then…. Just sit still with her. Hold her hand until it’s over.” Clear away anything that could add to her pain, and just sit with her? I remember at the time looking up into her mother’s face and thinking ‘that surely can’t be all…’ There must be something more to DO or SAY…
I was reminded of that kitchen conversation when I re-read chapter two of Job when we first meet his friends. Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar each get word – Their dear friend is sick; he’s lost his home and his livelihood; his children have been killed. They travel together to Job’s house, as the story says, “to console and comfort him.” When they arrive, they find a desperate situation. They cry with Job; they tear at their own clothes and wail. And then they do a fairly extraordinary thing: they sit with him on the ground for seven days and seven nights, in complete silence, “for they saw that his suffering was very great.” What does Love require in the face of suffering? Seven days and nights in silence at his side— sounds like a vigil of LOVE to me.
So what happens between chapter 2 and chapter 42, which we read today, that makes God so upset with these friends? It all starts when they open their mouths. After Job breaks the silence, his friends jump in with increasingly anxious responses to his misery.
“Think NOW,” says Eliphaz, “We know that God only punishes wicked – What did you do?!” When Job declares his innocence and argues that God is being unjust – the friends are horrified. They feel the need to jump in on God’s behalf. Bildad urges Job to confess and repent, shoring up his argument by intimating that Job’s dead children must have been sinners; that got what they deserved. Zophar assumes Job’s guilt, and also blames Job for the grief, anger and sadness he continues to feel: “If you’d only direct your heart rightly,” he says, “you will forget your misery,” and “your life will be brighter than noonday” again. Look to God and get over it.
Job stands his ground, but becomes increasingly despondent: He cries out… is there no one who will stand with me, no one to intercede for me with God; no one who will serve as a “mediator?” Instead of feeling his friends’ support, he feels, in his own words, “like a laughingstock.”
Loving God and Loving Neighbor in the face of suffering… What is it about the responses from these friends that God finds so troublesome? I can imagine at least 3 things….
The first is what might hit us most viscerally. Love, this story seems to tell us, requires that we not add more pain (what Christy called affliction, in her sermon two weeks ago) to those who are suffering… and yet these friends end up doing just that. Perhaps driven by their own fear and worry, the friends follow their all too human impulses to control and defend, to fix and explain. But by doing that these friends leave Job’s side, and become a cause of suffering themselves. What does love require of these neighbors?
This story, I believe, gives us permission, when we don’t know what to say – or maybe when we are completely certain that we do – to consider stillness as an act of LOVE. Job himself calls for this in 13:5, saying “If you would only keep silent, that would be our wisdom!” In the words of Beth’s mother: “Remove anything that can cause her more pain. And then just sit still with her…” A call for Stillness and Presence in the convulsions of suffering.
This first point leads to a second one: The suffering and affliction these friends cause may be particularly irksome to God because much of it is done in God’s name. The friends have a specific idea of how God operates in the world, and they speak on God’s behalf again and again to try to bring Job back into line with what they believe God wants.
As we consider Job, we see him constantly turn to God in prayer. He doesn’t always get it right; his understanding is limited. But in his wrestling with and Love of God, Job is granted glimpse of the Eternal, the vastness of God’s creation; the greatness of mystery of God that is beyond all understanding. In the beginning of our passage today, we see that Job has gained a sense of the smallness of his knowledge — and in that humility his Love of God has deepened. In our New Testment reading today, Paul reminds the early church to be humble in their knowledge of God – and to always make sharing that knowledge subservient to LOVE. “Knowledge puffs up, but Love builds up. Anyone who claims to “know something” does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by him.” Presence and Humility.
And here a third point undergirds the other two. As his friends leave Job side in their judgement of him, Job cries out for a mediator – someone who will intercede for him with God. And yet, in their anxious attempts to speak for God and about God, we never once see these friends Speak TO God. We do not see them pray for or with Job. And are left to wonder what it would have looked like if these three friends had Humbly Stood by Job’s side, and turned their faces together with him to God. In the face of Job’s suffering, prayer would have been a great and healing act of Love.
What do we learn from these friends about how to be a neighbor in the face Suffering? Perhaps, in their negative example, we learn a great deal about how Love may work through our presence, our humility and our prayer.
I’ll close by sharing another chapter in Beth’s story. During those awful seizure-filled days, it turned out that the only time Beth would be seizure-free, was when her exhausted mother would prop her in front of the children’s TV show, Mister Rogers Neighborhood. There was something about Mister Roger’s calming and non-judgmental presence that kept her seizures at bay. Beth was eventually diagnosed with a rare rapidly-progressing brain disease with only one known treatment – a surgery that would remove the disease, but along with it, the entire left hemisphere of her brain. In preparation for the surgery, Beth’s mom wrote to the Mister Roger’s show sharing Beth’s story in hopes that maybe they would send a signed photograph for her hospital room.
Instead, following the surgery, at her daughter’s bedside in the ICU, Beth’s mother received a phone call. It was Mister Rogers himself calling to see how Beth was doing. She had to tell him that although the surgery had gone as planned, Beth was suffering severe brain stem swelling and in a coma. Mister Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, promised he would prayer for her.
For the following two weeks, Mister Rogers called every day to ask how Beth was doing and to pray with her family. During one of those calls, knowing that Beth would still be in her coma, he asked if he could come to visit her.
The next afternoon Mister Rogers flew from Pittsburgh to the hospital in Baltimore. He met with her family, and then sat by Beth’s bed. He had brought an old clarinet case filled with characters from his neighborhood – puppets of King Friday, Lady Fairchild, Daniel Striped Tiger, and he placed them around her. He stayed with her for an hour, and when he finally had to go, he left his neighborhood characters with her to continue the vigil.
Presence, Humility, Prayer – a neighbor in the face of suffering.
An addendum to Beth’s story: She did eventually wake up. Her recovery was not an easy one, but she is an extraordinary woman. She is now a teacher’s aid, a gifted writer (much of my account of her story draws from her own writing). Her real passion and training though is as a clown. She travels to nursing homes and hospitals to share her presence, smile and love with those who are suffering. Mister Rogers continued to call Beth through her recovery, and every year on her birthday up until his death.
During the children’s message, Christy shared stones with the kids to remind them of how we can hold those who are suffering in our Prayers; how we can help to carry the burdens of others with Prayer. These still and humble stones, small parts of God’s great creation. There are stones, not only for the children, but for each of us together today – they are at the doors and you are invited to take one home with you as you leave our worship time. Invited during the week to hold in your hands as reminders the value of stillness and humility when the storms of life surround us; A reminder to hold someone in prayer who you love or know who is suffering. A reminder that Presence, Humility and Prayer, are foundational stones to a life built on Loving God and Loving our Neighbor.