Text: Job 1:1; 2:1-10
One’s middle-aged years, I’m beginning to learn, force you to accept that oddly paired truths can co-exist quite easily. For example, though I take better care of my hair than I once did, it continues to betray me and exit the scene. Good hygiene may be a virtue, but it does not guarantee a bushy result. I also noted the other morning that in a conversation with my daughter about the history of Christianity I could immediately recall that the Catholic Church split between East and West in 1054, but a couple of hours later I could not recall the last name of one of my oldest and dearest friends. Maybe if that friend would convert to Catholicism I could remember his name.
Yes, these middle years put one in touch with many oddly matched emotions and experiences. That has been especially true for me in these days since I announced my impending resignation as one of your pastors. The clarity I have about this decision is exceeded only by the grief it produces in my heart. To feel so sure and so sad simultaneously about leaving this church I love, and the only profession I have ever known, makes me a bit disoriented. But there is no denying either of these truths. They are the odd couple in my soul these days.
Which brings me to our scripture reading. The story of Job produces two distinct feelings when we read it. The text revolts us in some ways. This ancient drama portrays God and Satan playing a cruel game to prove which one’s view of humanity is accurate. God allows the destruction Job’s fortune, the death of his children, and the affliction of terrible suffering on the poor man to prove that his faithfulness is not just the result of his good lot in life. This story makes us uncomfortable to say the least, and when our reading concludes with the nasty and misogynistic exchange between Job and his wife we are relieved to be done with it
Only, if truth be known, Job remains one of the books in the Bible with the most consistent appeal for people. Reverends and rabbis, playwrights and poets, saints and sinners—all find within this story something of irresistible allure. So, what is the element in this text that draws us to it even in the midst of our revulsion for it? It is a universal story.
The Bible has many texts that are narrow and specific to a particular time, place, and people. Even those of us who claim the Bible as our sacred scripture come across passages that we know have nothing to do with our lives and concerns. Read the book of Leviticus if you are looking for an illustration of what I’m describing. But Job is different. This is a book that risks talking about that most universal of topics: suffering. It’s not that we find easy answers to Job’s unjust misery in these chapters; no, we simply get an acknowledgment that unexplained suffering is the lot of all human beings, and along with it come friends who say too much to enlighten us and a God who says too little to relieve us.
Those of us who claim Pullen as our spiritual home take some solace in the broadness of this story’s appeal. Though we are members of a particular religious tradition, Christian, and a particular denomination, Baptist, we are drawn toward universal themes and affirmations. We do not buy the simplistic notion that for our faith to be true all others must be false. On the contrary, we believe that other traditions have light to shine that can illuminate the shadows in which all people of faith live. When you peer through a glass darkly trying to perceive God’s truth, as the Apostle Paul suggests, then light from any direction is a welcome thing.
This has been the boundary our church has walked for a long time. We are Christian and we are open to those who are not. We teach our children the ways of Jesus, and we expose them to truths from other faiths. We know in our hearts that if we sink our roots only in our narrow tradition that we will end up covered in bias and theological redundancy. We also sense that if we give ourselves over to an attitude that says any belief system is as good as another, then we will spread our roots so thin we will become uprooted by the slightest storms of life. So we drop our roots in a particular religious soil, progressive Christianity, but not so deep that other truth and light cannot seep in.
Maintaining a religious perspective that is narrow and broad simultaneously is not always easy, nor is it always intellectually consistent. But by maintaining these oddly paired truths together, Pullen has been blessed with many wonderful experiences. The late, great Alan Neely, a Pullenite of the first order, was the original president of the Interfaith Alliance of Wake County and became a model for how a Christian can befriend and defend people of different religious heritage. In a post-9/11 world Alan’s example went from admirable to essential as the world’s religious tensions were set on fire.
I also recall that a few years ago when the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh was interviewing a candidate to be their new minister, and their search committee needed neutral turf on which to hear the candidate preach, they called us to see if we would allow the sermon to take place in our Sunday service. Of course we said yes. I’m just speculating, but I imagine there aren’t too many times in the course of human history when the Unitarians have called the Baptists about hosting a candidating sermon.
One of the finest sermons we have had at our annual MLK service with Martin Street Baptist was given from this pulpit not by a Baptist, or even a Christian, but by Rabbi Eric Solomon of Beth Meyer synagogue. And just two weeks ago our good Muslim friend Jihad presented us with the beautiful hanging you see displayed on the chancel, a gift he brought from Egypt to thank us for our prayers for his family during their recent travails. These are just a few examples of what has become a way of life for our church. We are progressive Christians rooted in the Baptist tradition, but some of our best friends in this city are neither.
One of my fondest memories of my decade in our church comes from the trip that our youth took to Coventry Cathedral in 2002. Canon Andrew White was at the cathedral at the time and the Anglican Church had made him its lead negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. On that trip Canon White spent more than hour talking to our youth about his relationship with Yasser Arafat and his conviction that Christians must befriend people of different traditions and seek to be reconciling agents in a world divided by religion. In the years since that trip, Canon White left Coventry and went to Baghdad to become the vicar of the last Anglican church in that city. He has been kidnapped and threatened with death repeatedly, and he suffers from multiple sclerosis, but his love for the people of that war-torn nation has made him the most respected and trusted Christian in Iraq today. Whenever I see Andrew profiled on 60 Minutes or the New York Times I smile and think, “This is a man who has been in our church; this is a man who talked to our youth; this is a model for how to be a Christian and open to people of different religious and cultural backgrounds.”
On this World Communion Sunday, we pause to remember the universal Church in all her expressions found around this world. In particular, we celebrate our connection to our sisters and brothers in Cuba, Nicaragua, Zimbabwe, the Republic of Georgia, and Coventry Cathedral. To be associated with Christians who are doing such important work in their particular contexts has been a great privilege for our church. We pray for our friends in those places, and we pray that the Church of Jesus Christ, so long divided by doctrine and cultural bias, will embrace communion instead of conflict.
But for Pullen, Christian unity cannot be the only goal. Quite frankly, much of the larger Church will struggle to accept our convictions and commitments for years to come. This church cannot sit by waiting to be embraced by Christendom, especially when religious intolerance is at the root of the world’s ills. You must continue to seek out the broadest possible communion with people of all faiths. Even as the life and teachings of Jesus inform your spiritual path, remain open to the light from other traditions. Even as you make a case for liberal Christianity in general, and the Baptist tradition in particular, remain open to the truth God has blessed other faiths with. Be universal Christians. Resist the lie that says my truth is only real if yours is false. Live on that uncomfortable boundary where oddly matched truths co-exist naturally. Embrace this part of your heritage, teach it to all who enter this place, and you will not be big, nor will you be rich, but you will be blessed.