Dare We Talk About It?
Pentecost VIII (O. T. 15); July 10, 2016
Job 4:1-9, 7:11-21
If you did not hear last Sunday's sermon, fear not; I expect that today's will make sense to you anyway. You may wish that it didn't; one of my colleagues recently told me that in his most recent sermon he had managed to offend everyone in the congregation over the age of fifty. I do not aim to match or exceed his accomplishment, but it may happen. Job is that sort of book: it asks questions we may rather not have asked, and raises issues we may rather not have raised. And if you want an introduction to the Book of Job, read last Sunday's sermon from our website.
First, a story. I used to belong to a small public service organization that was constantly struggling over membership. We were small to begin with, and then several members resigned shortly after I became President. Yes, I assumed it was because of me. And I talked to them; they affirmed that it was not because of me, but they would not talk about why they had quit. So for years I continued to believe that they hated me and had quit because I was President.
More recently it came out that one of the group's members had been behaving inappropriately toward the female members of the club and they no longer felt comfortable around him. None of them would say so, and the men who quit in solidarity with them did not say so either. And since no one would talk about it at the time, and so we could do nothing about it (you can't work on a problem that you do not know exists), the organization has since died. That highly worthwhile service organization no longer exists. It died of a disease that could have been cured – with difficulty, but it could have been done – but which was left undiagnosed because no one would talk about it.
The readings from Job over the next couple of weeks will raise some meaty questions for us, but today I want to spring from the two pieces I read to you that summarize the poetic conversation between Job and his friends. And then ask you, "Dare we talk about these things?"
Eliphaz is the first friend to speak up after Job curses his birth, and Eliphaz suggests that Job has often given wise counsel to others in the past, and Job ought to listen to his own advice. Remember that the wicked suffer. Since you are suffering, you must have done something wicked. Job replies that his friends are worthless and that he hates his life. He pretty much ignores Eliphaz and complains to God. It goes on like this for a long time: a friend will try to give Job some helpful advice, Job will reject it and complain. And here is a summary of what the friends say:
Bildad: Ask God, and God will make everything all right.
Zophar: God is wiser than you; trust in God, who will forgive you.
Eliphaz: Your words undermine people's faith in God and so you should not say those things.
Bildad: The wicked suffer.
Zophar: Wickedness is punished.
Eliphaz: You have robbed the poor; you are wicked.
Bildad: No mere human is righteous before God.
And if Zophar had anything else to say, it's been lost. Job rejects his friends' arguments, insisting on his integrity and the injustice of his suffering, and demands an accounting by God. Then another character intervenes, a young man named Elihu, and he has six chapters of poetry in which he says, "God is teaching you a lesson." You have heard that before, I am sure.
Now it would be interesting to get into the issue itself: suffering and the justice of God. But today I simply want you to ask yourselves: dare we talk about difficult things? Eliphaz told Job that he should not say those things, because it isn't helpful for people to think about those things (chapter 15). So I asked our church leadership when we gathered here Tuesday evening what they thought: are there things we should not talk about? And they quite appropriately suggested the importance of being measured and careful in public worship, but when it comes to the life together of a congregation, nothing should be off the table.
Nothing off the table, but with a condition: mutual respect. This week I watched the movie 1776, something I love to do the week of Independence Day. There is a powerful scene, where the question of slavery is debated. John Adams believes it a closed question; there's no point in listening to what anyone else has to say. But Benjamin Franklin reminds him that the Southern gentlemen that Adams thinks should just shape up are not merely self-interested boors. It struck me then: people are more than the labels we assign to them. In our country and in our churches we often simply assign people labels and then dismiss everything they say, but people are always more than the labels we assign them. And so the first rule of talking about difficult questions in society and in church is mutual respect. I may disagree with your opinion, but I respect you.
A follow-up to that rule is to actually listen to one another. That is implied in respect, but I thought it needed to be said. You may have experienced trying to talk about a difficult question with a friend or relative, and the other person hears a buzz-phrase or something and simply reacts to that phrase, rather than paying attention to what you actually say. As a preacher, I experience that a lot: someone reacts to a word or phrase but doesn't listen to what I actually say. Politicians, public officials, school teachers – they all experience it. I'll bet children and young people do too: we don't listen to what they actually say. To respect another means to listen.
A recent editorial in the Omaha World-Herald showed me another rule for talking about difficult things: we must be willing to do hard thinking. One of our state senators, Laura Ebke of Crete, changed her party affiliation in response to pressure from the Governor to toe the line on partisan issues. She said that a legislative body has to be able to discuss ideas, and make policy based on those ideas rather than on party affiliation. She said, "Those who want my vote on a controversial issue will have to make the case based on solid reasoning – not on manufactured partisan hyperbole." Can we do hard thinking and talk about things, or will we simply align ourselves religiously and politically?
Dare we talk about the situation of Palestinians living in occupied territory and the struggles of the State of Israel? Or do we have to align with our partisan biases and not actually listen to what other people have to say? Dare we talk about police officers and black people? A peaceful protest in Dallas this week was disrupted when a hate-filled man used the occasion to murder police officers. There was a story in my university's alumni magazine by an alumna of our business school, who accidentally locked herself out of her apartment. She got a locksmith to let her in, but a neighbor saw her and, since she is black, assumed she didn't belong in that neighborhood and so called the police. This woman, a vice president of a multinational corporation, was confronted by two police officers shouting at her and pointing guns at her, with sixteen more behind them, who forced themselves inside her apartment without a warrant. That is the side of the story that we white folks in the suburbs don't usually see.
Now, some of you are angry at me for appearing to take her side, others think I have simply recited the facts. And some are simply angry at what happened to her. But my question is: Dare we talk about it? Or do we have to retreat into our preassigned roles, based on political labels? Dare we talk about race relations in our country?
So much more… many schools prohibit teachers from talking about the presidential campaign. What are they to do when their students bring it up? In some states, it is against the law for state-funded research projects to consider the possibility of human beings having an effect on earth's climate; does prohibiting scholarly research into something prevent it from happening? A recent conversation on NPR (June 17, 2016; I didn't note the program, only the date) asked whether the Orlando massacre should be thought of as a hate crime or as an act of terrorism, whether it should spark conversation about guns in our society, about religious extremism, or about the place of LGBTQ persons in our society. Why choose? I wondered. Why should we not talk about all of those?
Dare we talk about it? Dare we ask difficult questions and respect each other in the Church and respect our fellow citizens enough to consider a variety of answers, or do we have to accept the answer that's imprinted on us already? Here's a clue: at the end of the Book of Job, God punishes the three friends who give prescribed, imprinted answers and who want to shush Job, and God rewards Job for asking the difficult questions.
I prefer to ask questions and listen for answers from people who think differently from the way I think; that's the only way I can learn something. But I do like to listen to people who think, whose opinions are researched, well-reasoned, and based on evidence. If it fits on a bumper sticker, it probably isn't true.
Since I don't know how to tie this up with a ribbon, I will not try to do so. God makes clear in the Book of Job that God is not threatened by difficult questions. If we as Christians or we as Americans consider difficult questions, what have we to lose except possibly our imprinted, unexamined prejudices? Dare we talk about it?
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Benson Presbyterian Church
Omaha, Nebraska Say no to 'lazy policymaking' World-Herald editorial, Tuesday, July 5, 2016  Fay Wells, "In the Crossfire," Dartmouth Alumni Magazine, May/June 2016, p. 44.  When I preached this sermon, I forgot this important question about the Orlando massacre. Usually I delete from the manuscript anything I don't actually say in preaching, but this time I decided to leave it in.