“Walking through Difficult Times”

July 29, 2012


Job 2:11-13

Mark 15:33-39


In addition to the new and ongoing construction on the university campus this summer, the T. Anne Cleary Walkway just west of here is undergoing an extensive half-million dollar renovation. Sandy Boyd was quoted recently in the Daily Iowan saying that the Walkway provided “an opportunity for the university to gather together while going to and from classes…We don’t have to drive everywhere;” Sandy said, concluding, “we should enjoy the atmosphere, rather than everybody rushing.” A good suggestion.

When the Walkway reopens in August it will once again remind us that we have a very pedestrian-friendly campus. Even in the heat and humidity of summer or the ice and cold of winter, it is not so far from the Pentecrest to the Chemistry Building or Currier Hall.

And the Walkway will also remind us—if we let it—that it is also not that far from Iowa City to Aurora, CO.

Those, like myself, who haven’t lived here all that long, might forget or might not know of the day when gunshots were heard just to the east and west of this building. The nearby Walkway is named for Anne Cleary, the Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs and Grievance Officer who was killed a little over twenty years ago when a graduate student went on a shooting rampage that left five dead and one critically wounded.

Sandy Boyd reflected in the same interview: “It was a wonderful thing to name that walkway for her. It reminds us of a terrible incident, and reminds us that we should always be respectful of each other and not resort to violence.” We need such reminders.

The histories of our city and the university unite us with many other places—tying us to incidents of violence that shake not only a local community but the nation. Old memories, old wounds, old fears mingle with the new dread and foreboding of current events.

A little over a week after the shooting in Colorado, is there anything that can be said that hasn’t been said already?

I’m not sure.

I am sure that much, if not most, of what has been said so far has been of little help. Yes, we have heard stories about the lives that were ended that break our hearts and inspiring stories of lives saved because of great heroism and sacrifice.

But news outlets in their search to fill twenty-four hours of air time each day and web sites in need of constant updates have gone on and on with old video tapes and guesses and introductory psychology class analyses of the shooter.

The President and the presidential candidate each had to say something, although none of it was memorable.

The gun lobby was quick to state that access to assault weapons should not be denied adding that the situation would have been better had a few people in the theater been armed with concealed weapons. Gun control advocates cry for the need for regulations, but their voices will not be heard in the legislative halls where NRA money speaks much, much louder.

Fewer have spoken the distressing truth that for a great number of people in our nation access to a personal arsenal is far easier than access to mental health care.

I imagine that a week ago many ministers rushed to put together sermons that addressed the events in Colorado. Because we had a guest preacher last Sunday, I was beyond being swayed by such a temptation.

And I recalled those words from the Book of Job that we heard this morning. After all the tragedies that befell him, surrounded by death and devastation, Job wonders aloud: “Should we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?” It is a question that we would want to take time in answering.

Job sits among ashes, unrecognizable to his friends who come to comfort him. As his story began, Job was described as “the greatest of all the people of the east.” Now his friends recognize that not only in good fortune but also in suffering Job has exceeded all others. While he and his three friends sit on the ground for seven days and seven nights, no one speaks a word to him, for they see that his suffering is very great.

The response to crushing tragedy and suffering? A week of silence.

No speeches. No analysis. No speculation.

All of these will come later.

First, however, there is silence—silence that, as Sandy Boyd recommended, respects one another. We need each other, not to take away our pain, not to speak, but to simply share the burden of sorrow, of grief, of fear.

The Book of Job along with Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are often together called “Wisdom Literature.” These three books contain a number of short sayings and longer poems that speak to the “dominant concern of wisdom,” which is “daily experience and how to cope with it.”[1] Coping with daily experience is always the challenge, isn’t it? It requires all the wisdom we can possibly find—and even more so when we are confronted with tragedy either through news reports or in our own personal experience.

The writer of Ecclesiastes famously tells us: “For everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven.” This includes both “a time to keep silence and a time to speak.”

Speech that matters grows out of a deep, respectful silence that searches the mysteries.

We face the mystery that is each human person. Who can really say or fathom what causes a promising young person to succumb to mental illness and descend into despair, depression, or even violence? And who can really understand what causes one person to shelter another even with their very life?

We face the mystery that is God. Writing about Job and his friends sitting in silence, the Old Testament scholar Carol Newsom says: “It is God the creator who made us as we are, capable of love and attachment, but also susceptible to disease, accidents, violence. In this sense it is God who gives and takes away, from whom we receive both what we yearn for and what we dread. There is a tendency to want to associate God with only what is good. If one does that, however, then when trouble comes it is easy to feel that one has fallen into a godforsaken place.”[2]

Suffering, tragedy, and misfortune send us back to the basics. We look again at the formative stories of our faith for wisdom—for ways to cope with daily experience.

For us as Christians, the crucifixion of Jesus is one of our basic keys to living in the mystery that we call God. It is a source of wisdom.

And it is one of those stories that we usually ignore.

It is strange to hear Mark’s account of the crucifixion of Jesus during worship in late July. It jars our souls and our sense of time. These are words we generally reserve for springtime. Usually we only read this account during “Holy Week,” in the days leading up to Easter.

And, honestly, most of us skip over it. We jump from Palm Sunday to Easter as if nothing of much import happened in between.

The Congregational tradition in the United Church of Christ doesn’t put a lot of emphasis on the historic creeds of the Church. Those of you who know the Apostles’ Creed, however, will remember that the one aspect of the life of Jesus it affirms is that he “suffered under Pontius Pilate,” and “was crucified.”

That’s it—not much to go on. It is, though, enough to begin with. The crucifixion tells us that if we are going to look for God, at some point we will have to look at those places of suffering and tragedy—in the world and in our own lives.

The crucifixion reminds us that suffering is real.

We speak theologically and say that this is a fallen world—that we are alienated from God, from one another, even from the best in ourselves. In a fallen world there is cancer and war and accident and broken minds and terror and greed and human evil.

We are so alienated that, at the depths of our suffering, it can feel like abandonment.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The cry of the psalmist, the cry of Jesus is our cry as well.

And it is the deep question throughout human history.

Suffering is real.

But it is not the ultimate reality.

Beyond suffering, even in the midst of suffering, we encounter the crucified God who calls us into life on behalf of the suffering world.

In Jesus crucified, we begin to get a picture of God. It is not a complete picture, because we do affirm that, as one theologian said, “The edges of God are tragedy; the depths of God are joy, beauty, resurrection, life. Resurrection answers crucifixion; life answers death.”[3] But when we encounter the suffering and pain that are a very real part of our lives and the life of the world, the cross is the best place for us to begin our search for God.

We open ourselves to the One who suffered on the cross, we see that the God we worship is no stranger to pain and sorrow and suffering. And our actions, our lives begin to announce to this hurting and frightened world the deep mystery that in this Jesus Christ, we see the crucified God.

We need one another—in silence, in support. There is the hope that even in simply walking between classes or the stores downtown we will learn to respect each other, to see in each person—in their own joy and their own suffering— an image of the living God. There is the hope that in our growing respect we may find ways to bring a greater peace to this University, to this city, and even to the greater world.

We need as well the peaceful presence of God in the midst of the swirling chaos of our lives. We need the healing and the forgiveness of God for our broken lives. We need seek the comfort of God when life is brutal.

I don’t know if, a week later, there is anything to say that hasn’t yet been said.

Still we find good news in gathering together. Each day you seek to bring to life the peace, the healing, and the comfort of God. Each day you live out your faith in difficult and challenging situations, coping with daily experienc. Whether a member, a friend, or a first time visitor, this morning you came to worship God with such people. That is the special gift of this day.

Sometimes we have to lift up the troubling realities of the present moment so that together we might bring our best to meet the challenges head on. Know that you are held in the care of this congregation that values the image of God in each one of us.

May this be our peace.

May this be our comfort.

May this be the healing that we share with each other today and take into the world as we walk together in the days ahead.

[1] NOAB—NRSV, pg. 623 OT.

[2] Carol Newsom, “Job,” NIB, pg. 360.

[3] Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, God, Christ, Church, quoted in Bearing our Sorrows, pg. 166.