Biblical Scholar, Seminary Professor, Episcopal Priest

Giving God a Piece of Your Mind

Sometimes I’m up; sometimes I’m down. Sometimes I’m almost level to the ground. Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.

Sometimes, I want to do like Hezekiah, and take my stuff – my hopes and my hurts – to God in person, or at least as close as a mortal woman can get. Sometimes like Job, I want to give God a piece of my mind, and not even a sanctified piece. This morning, I’d like to invite you to tell God how you really feel because God already knows and God can take it. God can handle it. God can work it out. God can. God is able. Giving God a Piece of Your Mind.

Let us pray:

Blessed are You, Yah our God, Heart of the Universe, who attends to us and hears the voice of our hearts; mother-love us and let us hear the soft, still voice. Amen.

Some things in this world just aren’t right: Children die. Babies are brutally murdered. They are shot while playing in their front yards or run down by drunk, distracted or texting drivers who don’t even have the decency to stop or call for help. Children are brutalized by the people who should love and care for them, their own parents. It’s not right.

There is so much violence in our world, in our streets, in our schools, in our homes. Pregnant women are more likely to die at the hands of some man beating on them than any biological complication from pregnancy or childbirth. One in four women and girls and one in five men and boys have been sexually assaulted and live with the trauma and after-effects, rarely receiving the help they need or even seeing justice in their days. It’s just not right.

People suffer terribly all over the world. Crops fail. Jobs disappear. Economies collapse. Hard work and education seem to mean nothing. The only thing that endures is the bills, bills, bills. Our own bodies betray us, dissolving into sickness, disability and unexpected, unwelcome and untimely death. It’s not right God.

The ones we love betray us even more. I learned in seminary that hurt people hurt people. But knowing that doesn’t make it hurt any less. Some things in this life just aren’t fair. People work hard, pay their bills and lose their jobs and their homes because of someone else’s accounting tricks. People invest in their children’s upbringing and education and watch them chase after all that they tried to protect them from, or see them cut down as an innocent bystander while they were doing the right thing. So many of our young men and women are locked up, locked down and locked out.

And there is war and terrorism on every continent in the world. The drug war in Mexico regularly crosses the border. Our sons and daughters, wives and husbands, neighbors and strangers are fighting, killing and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other places around the world. The impending tenth anniversary of 9/11 reminds us that not even the morning commute can be taken for granted – may we never see another day like that one in which airplanes became guided missiles and three thousand people left this life, some in agony burning alive while others choked to death, and yet others jumped to their deaths.

There is real evil in this world, much of it at the hands of other people. You know, sometimes it seems that this world would be a much better place if it weren’t full of all those other folk. I’m talking about me right now; you may have never felt like this. Or perhaps you have. Sometimes it seems like what is needed is for someone to just tell God all about it. Not because we doubt that God knows, but perhaps because it seems that God is so busy birthing new galaxies and stars, keeping all of the planets aligned in their courses, maintaining the moon’s proper orbit, keeping the sun from burning out or burning us up, sending the rain – and snow and sleet and hail, stirring the storms and calming the seas, blowing the evening breeze and trade winds across the Caribbean and Pacific, raising life from the dead husks of buried seeds entombed in the womb of the earth, feeding the birds and the bees, painting the flowers and the trees that it feels like God needs to be reminded that we need some help right here, right now.

We may know that God is attending to us every moment of every day, breath by breath, heartbeat by heartbeat, counting our hairs, freckles and wrinkles, but sometimes it feels like we’re out here all on our own, when life gives us lemons and we don’t have honey or sugar with which to make lemonade, especially when other folk start messing with us – hurting our feelings, hurting our hearts, hurting our families, messing with our livelihoods. And as much as we might like to see it, the earth does not open up her mouth and swallow them whole, no fire from heaven comes down and smites them, we don’t even hear voices saying, “Touch not my anointed and do my prophet no harm.” (And if we do hear voices, no one else hears them with us.)

Sometimes we need to call on God, to call God’s attention to our immediate circumstances in a particular way. Whether we believe that God is already actively, intimately involved with the details of our lives or think that God is so busy we need to cry out, “Come see about us!” there are ancestral stories passed down in the scriptures that speak to us about giving God a piece of our minds. Pray with me as I tell you the truth this morning: Sometimes I Feel Like Giving God a Piece of My Mind.

The first lesson, from the book of Kings is one such story. Seven hundred and twenty some-odd years before the scandalous birth of a Palestinian Jew with questionable parentage, Yeshua ben Miryam, Jesus, Mary’s child, the world as Hezekiah knew it changed for all time. The Northern Monarchy, the largest realm in the divided Israel was decimated and depopulated by King Shalmaneser of Assyria. He spent three years marching from the north: the peoples and produce, military and materiel of the tribe of Naphtali – gone, the peoples and possessions of the tribe of Issachar – gone, the citizens of the tribe of Manasseh and all their stuff, including the capital city of Samaria – gone. Burned to the ground and their people marched off and resettled as essentially slave labor in the Assyrian empire. And in their wake, unburied corpses, raped women, murdered children, hunger, desolation, grief, rage and cries to heaven.

Refugees from the other tribal lands poured into Benjamin, Judah and what was left of Simeon. There was no one left to govern in the north, even if the Assyrians didn’t march on every town and village, they irrevocably broke the Israelite monarchy, government and society in the tribal lands of Manasseh, Asher, Naphtali, Zebulon and Issachar, and Gad, Ephraim, Reuben and Dan. On the local level it was sheer anarchy; on the national level it was a return to foreign bondage. And Hezekiah watched it happen from his perilous perch on his own tottering throne.

And to make sure that there would be no one to rise up against him, Shalmaneser depopulated Israel of all its royal and military power, intellectuals and entrepreneurs, artisans and most skilled craftswomen and craftsmen. Then to keep the economy going and funneled into his coffers, he repopulated Israel with people he had taken captive and forced off their lands in other battles in other nations. The new inhabitants of Samaria were from Babylon, Cuthah, Hamath, Avva and Sepharvaim. They made what lives they could with the peoples who were considered too useless to deport. Their descendants became known as the Samaritans – as distinct from the former Samarians – the Samaritans were despised, not because their religion differed some from the religion in Judah, (and it did), but also because they were multicultural, multiethnic, multinational and living proof of the fall of Israel. That is why the Samaritans were considered impure.

Now let’s think about that for a moment. Who and what were the Israelites to talk about ethnic and national purity? (Remember race did not exist as a concept until less than five hundred years ago.) The founding parents of Israel, Abraham and Sarah were incestuous Chaldeans or proto-Babylonians; today they’d be Iraqis. They came from a family where incest was accepted; they were sister and brother from the same father; then their brother Nahor married their other brother, Haran’s daughter, Milcah, his own niece. She was the grandmother of Rebekah who married her cousin Isaac. Milcah was also the sister of Lot who claims to have been abused by his daughters – even though we know that many abusers blame their victims. Incest was common and inner-family marriage was the norm in the founding family of what would become Israel – a familial and religious designation, not an ethnic identity. One of the mothers of Israel, Rebekah and her brother Laban were Arameans, and Rebekah required her son Jacob to marry one of her nieces – he married both, but that’s another story. Jacob’s twelve leading sons – he had more and many daughters but that’s another sermon – Jacob’s sons and their women became the ancestors of Israel:

Judah had children with Tamar who was not from the founding family; she was a local Canaanite girl who had married into his family; she was his daughter-in-law. Simeon also had children with a Canaanite woman. And Joseph married Asenath, an Egyptian woman so that two of the latter tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh, were half-Egyptian, half-African. Even Moses married Midianite and Nubian women. So the claim from later generations of Israelites that the Samaritans were “impure” is something like the pot calling the kettle black. And all of that stems from the events Hezekiah watched unfold around him.

I say that Hezekiah was perilously perched on his throne because four years after Hezekiah was placed upon it, Shalmaneser and his army came back down from the north and this time, there was no Israelite army to slow them down. This time he pushed into Judah and took all of Hezekiah’s fortified towns, killing, maiming, raping and looting as he went. The Judean army was broken. There was nothing to keep Shalmaneser from ransacking and ravaging Judah. Nothing, but God.

But was God even paying attention? God did not intervene when Shalmaneser destroyed Israel. You know God does not intervene every time disaster befalls us. At least not in my life. I have had heartache and grief. I have watched folk I love cut down in their prime or linger in affliction savaged by disease. And like Hezekiah I have tried to do the right thing in my own life, and sometimes I have even managed to do so. But there was always someone around pointing fingers at every setback and tragedy, blaming me for my own misfortunes just as the Judeans blamed the Israelites for their devastation.

The Judeans comforted themselves by blaming the Israelites. Surely they were sinful and brought the disaster on themselves. Nothing like that could happen around here. We are God’s people. God is on our side. And there were plenty of prophets who agreed with them. But there were some prophets who said that Judah had their own issues with sin. And the surviving Israelites told the Judeans, just wait; your turn is coming. And to Hezekiah, this was more than an academic question; was God going to let Shalmaneser destroy Judah too?

Hezekiah prayed. He more than prayed, he gave God a piece of his mind. Hezekiah went to the house of God and literally laid his petition before God. You see the Assyrian military commander had presented Hezekiah with a letter detailing everything that he was going to do to him and his people, and naming all of the peoples and gods he had already come through to get to his front door. And as far as the commander was concerned, Hezekiah and his god was one more obstacle before dinner.

Hezekiah wanted God to see the disrespect of the Assyrian commander with God’s own eyes. Hezekiah took the letter dissing God and showed it to God: Look what they are saying about you! Look what they say they will do to your people. Look what they say they will do to your house. Look what they say they will do to the place where your name and your glory abide. Look at this mess! Every time they have sent somebody one of these letters, they have destroyed them and their gods – know I know there’s a big difference between you and their gods, but they don’t know you like I know you! Save us I pray, not for our sake alone – although we’d appreciate it. Show them who you are and whose we are.”

Hezekiah’s story has a happy ending, a miraculous ending. God heard his prayer and answered his prayer affirmatively. There was a rumor about an African monarch, Tirhaka, assaulting the Assyrians on another side. They left to face his formidable threat and never came back. They could have and should have turned back around and continued their siege. But they didn’t. There was no earthly reason for the Assyrians to refrain from attacking Judah. It was a miracle. Hezekiah gave God a piece of his mind and God listened to Hezekiah. But Hezekiah’s story isn’t the only story in the bible. He’s not the only person standing in the need of prayer. Some of you may be Hezekiah, come to church, say your prayers and everything works out all right. But me, I’m Job. Every once in a while God and I have issues. We need to work some stuff out. And like Job, if I knew where to find God, I’d give God a piece of my mind. It’s all right. God can handle it. God knows what I’m thinking anyway. I might as well get it off my chest. And who knows, God just might come to see about me. That’s what Job thought.

The book of Job is the story of a man who sues God. His name Iyov, means “enemy.” And it sure feels like God is his enemy. Job loses everything he has. His cattle and camels aren’t just money in the bank, they are the food in his belly, milk for his children, clothes on his back, the tractors with which he plowed his fields, fertilizer and fuel and transportation, social security and Medicare rolled up in one. His slaves are people and he has made it his business to treat them as justly as he knows how and he grieves their loss. And then there is the loss of all of his children at one time, a grief that overshadows everything else including the disgusting, oozing sores all over his body. All of his children are dead and gone – murdered – and nothing will ever bring them back. Even if he has children later – and he will – those precious lives have been destroyed in a fit of violence.

And God did nothing. God permitted it. And if Job knew what we know – that his life was crap because God was playing craps with his life – he might have wanted to do more than sue God. But Job doesn’t know that God set him up, used him and his children to prove a point. But Job does know that God is and that God is just even when he doesn’t understand how a just God could let all of this happen. He knows that God is real and that if he can just find God and serve the Most High a subpoena and give God a piece of his mind, everything will be all right.

I’ve been saying that Job sues God because the Hebrew text is full of legal terminology and presents Job’s claim as a personal injury lawsuit. Words like “contend” and “reason” in English bibles are all translations of the word that means lawsuit, riyv, in Hebrew. The basis of Job’s suit is that God has done him wrong by allowing his all of children to be butchered, him to be afflicted with a disfiguring disease and all of his possessions to be stolen or destroyed. He knows that none of this is his fault, no matter what the saints, aints and his fair-weather friends say. Job knows that he is blameless in God’s sight. He also knows that the prevailing theology of the day is that if bad things happen to you, it’s your own fault, you deserve whatever you get and you get whatever you deserve. But that’s not working for Job. Job knows that he is a good man. He knows that he does not deserve his misfortune and neither do his children. Job spends the majority of the book looking for God so that he can have his day in court. And Job believes that he will get a fair trial and a fair hearing from God because he believes in a just God. Job 23 could be translated,

Job 23:3 Who will grant that I might know where I might find God,

that I might come to God’s abode? [And serve God a subpoena]

4 I would set my [legal] case in order before God,

and fill my mouth with [legal] arguments.

5 I might know what God would answer me, [under oath]

and understand what God would say to me [from the witness stand].

6 Would God counter-sue me in the greatness of God’s power?

Ah, no! God would make space for me [to have my day in court].

7 There an upright person could be found to be right with God [to be acquitted],

and I would be delivered for all time by my judge.

Job seeks to draw a real, living God into court, and gets more than he bargains for. God shows up. God shows up. God shows up in chapter 38 and tells Job to tie up the man-flesh dangling between his legs and demands that Job answer, “Who is this that darkens counsel by speech without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you will answer me!”

Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Don’t you know that I am the mother of ice and snow, birthing them out of my own womb? Don’t you know that I am the father of the rain? Have you given marching orders to the sun every morning from the time before time? Did you plant the stars in the heavens joining them into constellations? Who do you think you are? Don’t you know who I am? And Job put his hand over his mouth.

The book of Job doesn’t whitewash pain and suffering. Its scandalous theology is that God is gambling with your life and the lives of your children. And at the same time, the book of Job affirms a God who is there, a God who responds, albeit a God who does not do what we want or think, but an all-powerful, sovereign God. When Job meets God, Job says, “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you. I reject all of this and am comforted in dust and ashes.”

The book of Job is an ancient theodicy; it is a theology of pain and suffering. Why is there evil in the world? Because God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, the satan – lower case, he has not yet evolved in biblical literature into the capital “S” embodiment of evil – God said to God’s chief prosecuting attorney, “Have you set your heart on my servant Job?…” One of the biblical answers to the problem of suffering is that God did it.

The book of Job is in the bible to bear witness to the truth of the victimized and devastated who know that life is not fair, you don’t always get what you deserve, the innocent do suffer and God is inscrutable. Ah, God. God is in the book of Job. God is behind the book of Job. God is underneath the book of Job. Belief in God in the face of the unbelievable and insurmountable pervades the book of Job. God is real and God is there and God will listen when you give God a piece of your mind. Even if you’re crazy enough to try to sue God, God will come to meet you where you are, God will speak a word – that if it doesn’t change your circumstances, will change you. God spoke to Job from chapter 38 to chapter 41. God spoke to Job for one hundred and twenty nine verses. And in that time, God didn’t change a single thing in God’s life. God changed Job.

I say with Job, I have suffered unbelievable loss, but it’s all right. I’ve faced the limits of my own mortality, and it’s all right. I’ve called God on the carpet and been blown out of the water, and it’s still all right. How can it be all right? I’m going to tell God. Women are being raped to death in Congo. Tell God. Children are being slaughtered with machetes in Darfur. Tell God all about it. The city of brother love and sisterly affection has been turned into Kill-a-delphia. Children and young folk who know better are running wild in the streets. Tell God. London is burning. Tell God. People who work forty, sixty, eighty hours a week are losing their homes through no fault of their own. Tell God all about it. There are people without running water and electricity in the United States of America. Children are starving to death while others throw food away. Tell God. Our country is going deeper into debt while the rich are getting richer and paying fewer taxes if they pay any at all. Tell God. Our president is under assault because of who he is and what he looks like. People are threatening his life. People are threatening his wife. People are even threatening their children. Tell God. It’s not always safe in the church for children or adults. Tell God all about it. Give God a piece of your mind.

If I knew where God was I’d sue. Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is right? Surely there is one who will take my case. I know that I have a living advocate to plead my cause. Somewhere there is a goel for me, a redeeming relative; some kin to help me save my skin. If I could just get God into court, I know I could get justice. I know I can’t win against God, but if I could just have my day in court, if I could just have my say, if I could just give God a piece of my mind, then I’d know there’s still justice and righteousness in the universe. If I could just see God.

God appeared to Job in a whirlwind. God was hidden from Hezekiah by the veil between the holy place and the most holy place. God appeared to a virgin girl named Miriam, called Mary in the flesh and blood of her own body.  God appeared to prophets and kings, shepherds, philosophers and astrologers as a baby in the stench of a stable. God appeared to the people of Israel as a rabbi who couldn’t keep his more 5000-member congregation together. And God appeared to the world on a cross-shaped lynching tree. God appeared to the women, Mary and Salome and Johanna and the other Mary who were the apostles to the apostles. And I’m here to tell you that God still appears. Not in the body that walked the earth two thousand years ago – although I hear it’s making a comeback – but God appears in the bodies and lives and ministries of God’s servants. God is here. Right now. And in the presence of God, all of our brokenness is welcome, redeemed and transformed. Tell God all about it. And if you can’t say a mumbling word. That’s all right too.

In the Name of God, the Author, the Word and the Translator. Amen

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