October 14, 2018
Rev. Fritz Nelson
Text: Job 1:1, 2:1-10
Saturday morning over coffee, Rev. Nosheen Khan, who is visiting Eastminster Presbytery from Pakistan, told this story about a member of the Christian community in Gujranwala, the Pakistani city she calls home and where she works as president of Gujranwala Theological Seminary.
Rev. Khan’s friend had been very successful in business and had purchased a large house in a predominantly Muslim neighborhood. His neighbor, an imam – or Muslim cleric – had become jealous of his Christian neighbor’s financial success. So the imam burned a copy of the Koran, took the burned copy to the local Mosque, and blamed his neighbor for the crime – which, in Pakistan, carries the death penalty. After Friday prayers a mob descended on the house of Rev. Khan’s friend. The man and his son were arrested and thrown into prison where they were tortured. His wife and daughters escaped to a neighbor’s house. His house was burned and then the mob moved on to the nearby seminary, trying to climb the walls and break down the gates. The seminary was saved only because its next door to a police station – which was also threatened by the mob.
Everyone knew Rev. Khan’s friend and his son were innocent, but the politicians and the imams were afraid of the mob. Finally, they released the pair in the dead of night. The entire family slipped out of town and moved to Sierra Leone. From Sierra Leone they were able to come to Canada as refugees, sponsored by a Presbyterian Church.
As she told the story, Rev. Khan recalled how she had visited the family in Canada a couple of years ago. Her friend’s wife was crying – missing family, friends, community, culture, church, all left behind in Pakistan. “Don’t cry,” Rev. Khan recalls saying. “Look around you. You have twice as much as you had before – just like Job.”
Job, the great biblical tale of suffering. Job, the wealthy, righteous man whose family gets caught in a little game of one-upmanship between God and Satan. Satan, the trickster, going to and fro on the earth, walking up and down on it. God, calling Satan’s attention to his servant Job – blameless and upright. God, allowing Satan to strip Job of everything – his wealth, his family, his health. All to see if Job’s suffering would cause him to crack, to turn on God, to curse his creator.
Did God draw Satan’s attention to Rev. Khan’s friend? Did God allow Satan to encourage the neighbor’s jealousy? Did God free the evil spirits of hatred to incense the mob? Did God take away his hedge of protection in order to test a man and his faith, to test the resilience of his church? If God did do all of this can we still call God compassionate? Faithful? A good shepherd? A lover of his children? If God truly cares, shouldn’t he have protected Rev. Khan’s friend? Quelled the mob before it could burn his house? Struck down the neighbor before he could make false accusations? Intervened to bring peace between peoples?
If God really loved us, we think, he wouldn’t let us suffer. Yet we do. Suffering seems baked into the world. Its part of life. It has been as long as humanity can remember. It will be until that promised day when creation will be complete, God’s order will prevail and suffering will cease.
Sometimes its easy to understand why we suffer. We know a lifetime of smoking can lead to cancer and emphysema and heart disease. We know cheating on our spouse will likely ruin our marriage. We cause our own suffering. We cause the suffering of others.
Sometimes, of course, we accept – even embrace – our suffering. An NFL player, after detailing the toll the sport had taken on his body and sharing how he and his wife live in fear of permanent brain injury, declares without hesitation he’d do it all again. He loved playing. He also was grateful for the opportunities his sport had given his children – opportunities he’d never had. I’ve known recovered addicts grateful for their addiction – despite the scars it had left behind – because the recovery process had given them faith in the healing power of God.
But more often we scream why!! Why was so and so driving drunk and why did God allow them to kill my child? Why did my girlfriend’s car stall on the tracks just as the train was coming? Why do hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes destroy? Why do nations fight and rage? What is there so much hate? What makes a person desperate enough, or immoral enough, to break into my house? Why do those in power continue to oppress? Why is justice so hard to come by? Why does so much about life depend on where you were born, what family you were born into?
And scripture never gives an adequate answer. When God did intervene, God intervened to suffer. God, born into a family on the economic margins. God, like Dr. Khan’s friend, forced to flee his home and become a refugee. God who endures betrayal by his closest friends, persecution by the dominant religious system and brutal death at the hands of the government. God suffered. God continues to suffer. God suffers because we are part of him and our suffering is his suffering.
A barren woman gives her slave to her husband, a rich and powerful man, so he will have an heir. When the slave becomes pregnant relations disintegrate between the two. The woman beats her slave. The slave runs away into the wilderness. As the slave lies alone, exhausted, about to give birth, God appears. In her suffering the slave had not been alone. God had been with her. The slave’s name is Hagar. She names her son Ishmael – or God heard. She also names God: El roi – or God who sees.
God hears. God sees. God suffers alongside with us. And God helps us find peace in the midst of that suffering. Sometimes, as it was with Dr. Khan’s friend, the ability to find a new home and a new life after tragedy. Sometimes it’s the sense of not being along through disaster. Sometimes its healing. Sometimes, as with Hagar, who was sent home with her child to the difficult household, it’s the strength to endure and then, when the time is right, the strength to overcome.