22 Pentecost 2019: A Data-Driven Theology

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“I know that my redeemer lives.”
That line in Job seems pretty clear
and it forms the heart of the anthem
that begins the Episcopal burial liturgy.
Clearly the Lectionary Committee
that fastidiously pairs these readings
as if entrées with wine,
wants us focused like a laser on resurrection.

But that is not what Job is about,
and it is not what even this line from Job is about.
And even the translation of the lines before
and after “I know that my redeemer lives,”
is totally uncertain.

I am not a Hebrew or Greek scholar
and so all I can tell you is that those who are
have a lively debate
and serious disagreements
about this very passage from Job.

I don’t have a dog in that fight
so that is not where I want to spin our tires.
But here is what I think is amazing
about this section of Job.

Listen to an abbreviation of some lines
that come immediately before the part we heard today.
“(God) has put my family far from me,
and my acquaintances are wholly estranged…
my serving girls count me as a stranger…
My breath is repulsive to my wife;
I am loathsome to my own family.
Even young children despise me…
All my intimate friends abhor me
and those whom I loved have turned against me…”

THEN, Job turns around and says,
but still “I know that my Redeemer lives.”

Much of what we may have learned
about the Book of Job
is written, preached, or taught
through the filter of Christian beliefs.
That filter misreads Job
in favor of using it as proof of Christian ideas,
like resurrection.
That is not what Job is about.
What Job is doing here
is standing up to God,
and standing up to his own friends
who he accuses of siding with God
instead of performing their obligation –
which is to be HIS “Goel.”

Goel is a Hebrew word and core concept
in the ancient Hebrew religion.
It was and is a big word –
like resurrection is a big word.

Goel represented a worldview,
and at the same time,
a detailed prescription for living life.
Goel could refer to a human being or God.
A Goel, or to be a goel,
was to be a vindicator,
an avenger,
a protector of the family line,
a redeemer of lost lands or fortunes.
A goel looked after the vulnerable,
like widows and orphans
who had no natural protector or redeemer.

Every family had a goel,
someone whose task it was
to continue the family line
or avenge the blood of someone in the family
whose life or limb was taken from them.

If an individual within the family,
or the family itself,
lacked the power to redeem losses
or avenge injustice
or protect the family line,
then another family
or another person
or another God for that matter,
was recruited to be a new or additional goel.

A goel required power
and power sufficient to protect the family.
It comes from the Book of Leviticus
and is deeply rooted in the DNA of Israel.

When the prophet Isaiah comes along,
he makes the bold imaginative leap
to claim that the God of the cosmos
is Israel’s go’el – literally, “Go’el Yisrael”.

So when Christians talk about Jesus as “Redeemer”
and sing Handel’s “Messiah,” it springs from Goel.

Job is declaring then,
that he will get another god
to stand up for him as his avenger
against the god who has wronged him
because he is an innocent man.
Job is standing toe-to-toe with God
and with maximum confidence and hubris,
declaring his innocence
while prosecuting God as a wrongdoer.
Now prosecuting God
may not seem like a wise thing to do
for a human being,
but that is what Job was doing.

Nowadays we have a difficult time
allowing the text to speak for itself
because we want to harmonize it
with our preconceived notions.
How could there be more than one god
we ask from our 21stcentury perch.
How could a Biblical text
suggest more than one God?

So, we harmonize it by declaring
it means something else even though it does not.
And because early Christians
were always on the lookout for Hebrew texts
to reinforce their ideas
about redeemers and resurrection,
Job was a low hanging fruit to pick
and pretend it was about Jesus and resurrection.

But that is not what the Book of Job is about.
Rather, it is about God put on trial
by an innocent man
standing up to the god, family, and friends
who done him wrong.
It would make a great Country Western song.

Don’t worry, no spoiler alert here.
If you haven’t read it yet,
I am not going to tell you how it ends.
But I do want to hunker down
on that idea of goel, redeemer,
in a very specific and very 21stcentury kind of way.

I think the data is pretty convincing
that God is not going to save us from ourselves.
The notion that God is our goel
who will protect us from environmental disasters
provoked and enflamed by human behavior,
seems a foolish theology
based in nothing we have ever seen.

On the other hand,
the idea that God empowers us to be goel
for the planet earth and forone another –
the protectors and care-givers of our own garden –
seems much more plausible.

If we want a data-driven theology
it seems pretty clear: When we are good stewards
of the land and the resources that come from it,
and when we live in community
that takes it upon itself
to care for all its members,
and especially the most vulnerable within it,
then the garden grows pretty well
and so do we right along with it.

Conversely, the evidence is also clear
that when we simply use the earth
and do nothing but gluttonously consume it,
and when we create a steep hierarchy of privilege
with justice for those at the top
and injustice for everyone else,
then things go badly for us as a species.

It is not a big spiritual secret and there is no magic to it.

We may have a redeemer in heaven
that makes it all better in the afterlife,
but we will never really know until then.
On the other hand,
we are the redeemer
when it comes to doing what Jesus
asked us to do:
which is midwife the kingdom –
the one that is to spring forth
on earth
as it is in heaven.

We keep looking at Jesus as the redeemer
but Jesus commissioned us as goel.
Indeed, we are co-creators with God,
authorized and assigned
as stewards of the garden.

So, if we need to redeem the earth
and bring about the kingdom here –
instead of the miserable situation we have created –
then we better have each other’s backs,
and we better be “goel” for one another
in the here and now.

That brings us to what the heck we are doing here.
Whether we are a small group of people
working out of an old wine bar
in downtown Geneva,
or a small group huddled
in the holy darkness of a college chapel,
what is this thing we are doing
and why are we doing it?

It is essentially a stewardship question –
not necessarily a money question
but a question about who we are
and whosewe are,
and really,
underneath it all,
whywe are.
My theory of spiritual community is that
it nurtures and empowers us to be goel –
redeemers – in the places
and among the people
with whom we live and work and play.

Here are three ways spiritual community
nurtures and empowers redeemers.

First, it provides a thin-place for an encounter
with the holy.
Now there is not a lot to say about this part,
because God is quite mercurial
and will be who
and where
God will be,
and there is not much we can do
to force an encounter.

But we can soften ourselves
and become more open to being touched by the holy
in the places
and among the people
that foster it.
Because, truth be told,
all of us are like the haunting call of a loon at night
in that we live alone within ourselves
and deeply desire to be touched inside –
to touch and be touched
by a power greater than ourselves.
Within us is a dry thirsty voice
calling with a hope against hope
for a whispered response.

You may prove me wrong,
but I truly sense most of us come to a place like this
in search of an encounter
with a power greater than ourselves;
or a wisdom wiser than we are;
or a flame more passionate than our own;
or a hope more trustworthy than what we wish for;
or a vision so much clearer than ours.

We want it.
We need it.
We hope, often secretly, to find it
in a place like this.

So that is the first thing – an encounter.

Secondly, spiritual community
can provide another kind of connection.
I am thinking of the human connection,
touching and being touched by ‘the other.’

Just as we wander the universe
in our solitary bodies,
and we hanker for a deeper spiritual connection
with that power greater than ourselves,
we also wander about in human society
among our small,
fragmented bands of family and friends.

We often feel dislocated,
strangers in our own land.

Even those of us with strong, healthy families
can feel the vulnerability of the few.
Even the sweetest of small tribes
is but a molecule
in the ocean of humankind.

The painful irony of our sorrowful fragmentation
is that every single one of us
has been taught to believe
we should be self-sufficient.
We were nursed on a mother’s milk of individualism
that brainwashed us into believing
we are not quite mature enough,
not quite healthy enough,
not quite together enough
if we can’t make it on our own.

It was an awful socialization
that makes our desire for community –
for connection with people we may otherwise
have never known or cared about –
all the more confusing and complicated.
We are not supposed to need other people,
especially other people outside of our own tribe.

We were taught,
and it is likely still nagging at us,
that there is something wrong with needing it –
something not quite right.
And yet once we get a little taste
for that connection, it is really good.

Maybe we stumble into a friendship
with someone whose politics or lifestyle or background
are very different from our own.

Maybe we find ourselves in an unintended
conversation with somebody we don’t know well,
making self-disclosures we don’t normally make
to people outside our own family.

It is an encounter with a kind of power
greater than ourselves.
An encounter with community
that locates us as a small part of something bigger.

The power of community
is accumulative over time
and deepens its resonance within us
like an aged wine.

The more we get the more we want,
and the more we have of it
the more powerful its influence
and healing can be.
Community is in fact, redemptive
for the redeemers.

Finally, spiritual community is healing.
And who doesn’t need some of that?

There are all kinds of wounds.
Some deep, some shallow;
some mortal, some festering.
There are routine wounds –
the kind of dings and scrapes and dents
that are going to happen to anyone.
There are extraordinary wounds
that should never be inflicted on anyone.
There are in-between wounds
that are injuries awaiting us all
but that all of us do not receive.

Every one of us here has multiple wounds.
I dare say that every one of us here
has at least one wound that has been debilitating,
and that can be counted upon
to be debilitating again.

It might be some kind of limitation
that has been painful over time,
and that held us back.

Or maybe we have just been a round peg
placed in a square hole,
and over time the wedging and pinching
has rubbed us raw.

It could also have been a deep loss
and the grief of it
sits in the pit of our stomach like a tumor.

Whatever the wound
or more likely wounds,
we pretty much want to get rid of it.
We get tired of the pain.
We get sick of its onerous presence.
We want to be cured of it – to be free.

But what spiritual community
can help us discover
is that healing
is not the same thing as curing.

We want our wounds magically cured –
taken away as if they never happened.
But that is not very likely.
If we are lucky
and if we are open,
we may discover that a healing wound
is more like a fountain than a cut.
It somehow restores and transforms
more than it bleeds.

In redemptive community,
recovery from whatever hurt we carry
can become a source of wisdom and strength
even as it continues to be a wound.

All woundedness is like that:
offering the possibility of wisdom and strength
when we allow them to heal
instead of demanding
they just go away.

Spiritual community
can offer a safe place for healing,
and that is redemptive because it allows us
to be fully engaged in midwifing the kingdom
among the people with whom
we live and work and play.

So, when it’s working,
spiritual community
nurtures and empowers us to be a goel –
a source of redeeming presence
for the kingdom
that is to come on earth
as it is in heaven.

We can be redeemers to one another,
and to those who find their way to us,
by providing access to the holy,
an experience of deep community,
and a place of healing.