“You can’t always get what you want, but…”

A Sermon by The Rev. Barbara Mraz

June 21, 2015

St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota

Job 38:1-11     Psalm 107     2 Corinthians 6:1-13     Mark 4:35-41

“You can’t always get what you want.

 You can’t always get what you want

But if you try sometimes

You just might find….

You get what you need.”

The Gospel according to four British rock stars sets the theme for today’s sermon.  Like the Rolling Stones and like the Biblical figure of Job, often we can’t get much satisfaction.  Satisfaction in having our questions answered, our good intentions activated, our hearts not broken.

Just as it has been a tumultuous week in America, it’s a stormy Biblical Sunday: God speaks to Job out of a whirlwind; Paul’s ministry is maligned: the disciples are in peril on the sea in a storm that terrifies even these experienced fishermen.

What we want and what we need, of course, are different.  We may want financial security, a conflict-free family, the respect of our peers, and peace on earth.

It is what we need that can have profound urgency: we need to have the pain stop; we need help in making a life-changing decision; we need a reason to get up in the morning.

What happens when we don’t get what we want or think we “need” from another person, from God, from the government, from the church, or from whatever has authority in our lives?

We can take it personally. I remember parent –teacher conferences at The Blake School the one year I taught freshman English. Referencing her son who had gotten an unacceptable C for the first quarter, a mother said to me, “He feels it’s because you don’t like him.” Needing to make one of the frequent, spirit-sapping compromises many of us have had to make to keep our jobs, I fought back the massive urge to say, “I really don’t like him! And likability is what I base all of my grades on…. Ma’am.” After all, she was taking things personally!

We can sabotage whoever denied our request, maybe dropping a warning to the folks in the office:

“The way things are going around here, maybe we should all be worried about our jobs.”

We can abandon all allegiance to the institution or person saying “no” to us:

“America is so deeply corrupt and hopeless, I’m not even voting. Maybe I’ll go to Canada.”

These tactics rarely work, as patient, long suffering Job finds out. But eventually he gets what he wants and needs from God!  How does he do it?

Barbara Brown Taylor gives the specifics about this devout and godly man: “Job had everything: a loving wife, ten children, thousands of animals and enough servants to look after the whole zoo.” And Job was righteous in God’s eyes.

So one day, God was singing Job’s praises to Satan, and Satan says, well, of course! You give him everything. Take these things away and I will bet you he will curse you to your face!

God agrees to the bet (!) and starts dishing out the punishment. Job loses everything: his family, his possessions, his health. He argues his innocence for 37 chapters.  At one point, four of his friends stop by to throw in the usual clichés: You probably deserved it; Other people have it worse; You’re going on way too much about this, Don’t be so negative!

Finally, alone, sick, in rags, and sitting on a dung heap, Job shakes his fist and demands God answer the question: Why! Why is this happening to me when I have done nothing but give you gratitude and praise?

Many of us get Job. We get his anger and his need to verbalize it. We get his desire to cross-examine God. Most of all, we resonate with his cry, “It’s not fair!”

“It’s not fair!” I cried to my father, who ignored my good grades and good behavior and still restricted my privileges on a whim.

“It’s not fair!” I thought, when two divorces caused me embarrassment and pain that I could do little about in the short term.

“It’s not fair!” I screamed, when I took estrogen-replacement drugs for eight years on the advice of several doctors, supplemented by my own exhaustive research. And then the FDA halted an extensive study of HRT with nurses as the test group, because so many taking the drugs were getting breast cancer. And so did I. Estrogen-positive breast cancer. It didn’t feel like a coincidence.

Early on, I learned survival tactics. From high school on, I was well-trained in argumentation and speaking, and I ate it up. I was one of those nerdy debaters you disdained in high school and college who was always in the library or on a debate trip.

What I loved about it was that a neutral judge decided who won on the basis of persuasive skill and evidence – facts, expert opinions, credible statistics. And you could cross-examine your opponent to expose weaknesses in their arguments. I found that I was good at this. And how I longed for these standards of fairness to operate in other areas of my life.

Later I discovered that not everyone was comfortable with this method of problem-solving, — some didn’t like it when I asked them to show me their “evidence”. This is especially true in the Midwest, I think, where restraint is the order of the day, so I pick my battles. I tell you these things because the quest for fairness- –for justice continues to motivate me and is also a major theme in Job’s story and in our world today.

On one level, Job was the victim of God’s discrimination, pure and simple, at least according to the way the story is set up.

One way to understand discrimination is to look at our own experience.

The discrimination I have known is so mild as to be laughable in comparison with what so many others have survived, but unfettered sexism impacted my life at several times.

I know now that a deep, culturally-driven sexism and intense desire to protect me was behind my father’s unfair treatment of me. My three-years younger brother was seen as a kindred spirit by my father, even though he brought home crummy grades and repeatedly flagged down my Harvard-Law-School-bound college boyfriend two blocks from our house who was coming to pick up. He did this to get the boyfriend to go and buy beer for him and what I called his creepy, under-aged, loser friends.

If my dad had found out about this, I am positive nothing would have happened. Beer was my dad’s drink of choice, too. Boys will be boys. Of course, I didn’t yet understand “The Male Bond of Beer”.

And then there was the church. After I was ordained in 1982, I had some men refuse to accept Communion from my hand and on two occasions men walked out when I walked to the pulpit.

Once you experience some of these things, something happens to you and you either step up or speak out, especially on behalf of those you see being treated the way you were–or you remain quiet and pray to God someone says something. 

But timidity has a price: When the spacecraft Challenger exploded in 1986, the investigators found two main causes: the failure of an of O-ring to hold during take-off, and the failure of mid-level managers at NASA, who had serious and recurrent issues with the safety of the O-rings, to speak up for fear of rocking the boat or being seen as complainers.

Speaking up is not everyone’s thing. But if you can’t speak up, you can still make the phone calls, send the letters, write the checks, say the prayers and make very sure that you are, in every possible way, supporting those who can and do speak up. Because speaking up, as some of you know, can be incredibly lonely.

On his program the night of the Charleston shootings, comedian John Stewart, confessed he had no heart left to make jokes or funny comment about the days’ news, and said, “Now people will peer into the abyss for a while and then go and do what we always do. Which is nothing.”

Job demands that his suffering has meaning. So many who suffer tragedy insist on this, too. Patty Wetterling devotes her life to rescuing abducted children. A leukemia survivor raises money for a cure. And in Charleston last week, the victims’ families tell the shooter they forgive him. They gave meaning to this tragedy by putting it in the context of their faith.

What are the things that most give your life meaning? Family? Friends? Nature? Art? Pets?

Whatever they are, here is the hard truth: The context in which these things exist, these things that you love and give your live meaning, is a world that is increasingly angry, violent, and polluted. Even the most protective of fathers, the wealthiest of mothers, the most careful of driver, the most informed of academics may not be able to keep those they love safe. Hatred has become too random; deadly weapons too available; the pain people feel too intense. Of course, we feel vulnerable.

They were us, studying the Bible in church

And those of us who love nature and beauty? Last week, Pope Francis said that our impact on God’s creation is a moral challenge and that our time to change our behavior is running out. In the book of Job, we learn how much God loves and takes pleasure at his creation: the great whales that rule the waves; the twinkling stars in the heavens; the storehouse where the snows are kept… Do we have this much love and respect for creation or do we compromise it again and again?

In my opinion, to say the Church shouldn’t be talking about any of these things is naiveté of the highest order and completely unsupported in Scripture. What, then, should we be talking about instead?

We can learn from Job about persistence. He keeps his outrage going, keeps talking, until finally God engages—God has been listening! 

And God gives Job a response, but it is not the response Job wanted.

Job wants justice and fairness; he wants reasons. God responds with omnipotence: I’m God and you’re not. And as far as we know, that’s the only answer that anyone has ever gotten directly from God. Adam and Eve were told the same thing. And then Jesus shows up, claiming to be speaking for God and…. But that’s another story.

Where is God when good people suffer? Perhaps God is in their resilience, their insistence on meaning, the compassion their suffering arouses in others, their refusal to give up and die in bitterness.

When in pain, we are allowed to yell as loudly as we can –on behalf of other people, the world, and ourselves. God seems to prefer Job’s outrage to the piety of his friends. Job didn’t get what he wanted but he got what he needed and more.

The Muslims have a story about a woman sitting outside a mosque, shocked at the suffering she sees around her. Like Job, she asks God a question: Why don’t you do something about this?

“I did do something,” God said. “I made you. ”


Reference: Barbara Brown Taylor, “Out of the Whirlwind,” in “Home by Another Way,” 1999.

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