Sermon: The Humility of Rest

This is the third sermon in an our Advent series entitled “Rhythms of Rest.”

As the book of Job begins, the title character is living the ancient Hebrew equivalent of the American Dream. He has a big family; he’s got health and wealth; he’s got the respect of his peers; he’s highly regarded as a morally righteous, spiritually pious person. He’s ticking all the boxes. 

And then, Satan enters the picture. (I can’t help but think of the church lady character played by Dana Carvey on SNL whenever I say the word “Satan” out loud.) Don’t think of Satan here as the guy with horns. Satan in Scripture is more like the prosecuting attorney of heaven, who is supposed to keep tabs on humans and then report back to God on them. Satan says to God, “Yeah, this guy Job is righteous, but only because you’ve given him all the goodies — family, wealth, respect. Take all that away, and he will curse you.” So God agrees to let Satan prosecute his case against Job. And everything is taken from Job — his family, his wealth, his health, the respect of his peers. Thus, setting up the perennial question: Why do bad things happen to good people?

Job’s so-called friends gather around him, as he sits in sackcloth and ashes, and try to explain to him that Job must have done something wrong, because otherwise God wouldn’t be punishing him in this way. Conventional wisdom of that time said that if you live a virtuous life, God will reward you, and, if not, you’ll suffer.  Job continuously asserts that he is blameless. He becomes increasingly desperate as the chapters roll on, wondering if there’s meaning in the created universe, or if it’s just chaos and disorder. Look at the injustice that is all around. Why isn’t God doing anything about that? Job is playing by the rules, but apparently God isn’t. Are there even rules? Job challenges God to answer these questions. He doesn’t exactly curse God, but he does demand an answer. And who can not identify with Job at this point?  He deserves an answer, right? 

Finally, after 37 chapters, God answers Job out of the whirlwind (Aaron and Jennifer read)

Wow. That just happened. God just Noam Chomsky-ed Job. Noam Chomsky is a brilliant linguist, social critic and political activist. I used to go to his talks when I worked at MIT. His worldview and politics were outside the mainstream — outside what he sometimes called “the bounds of thinkable thought” within the dominant culture. So, often he would get questions based in conventional wisdom — for example, the conventional wisdom that the U.S.’s foreign policy was based on wanting to benevolently bring democracy to the rest of the world. When he got a question like that, Chomsky would start his answer by saying, “I reject the premises of the question.” And then he would proceed to dismantle the assumptions behind the question. 

God rejects the premises of Job’s question. His questions assume a human-centric view of the world. Job and his friends view the world through the prism of their own success or misery. If they are successful, the world is a just place. If they are miserable, the world is an unjust place. God’s dissection of this premises goes sort like this (I owe much of this dissection to theologian Norman Wirzba): “Hey, Job. You need to know your place. It’s not all about you. There’s this whole wild world, this whole wild creation that has a life of its own that exists outside of your vision or interests. Its got its own life, its own order, its own meaning independent of you and other humans. I have carefully and meticulously fashioned and sustained the natural processes that support life, and I take delight in the abundance of this life, in the wild donkeys that refuse to be harnessed, in the eagles and ostriches, and none of this is for your benefit. I make rain fall on deserts where no humans live. This creation is so much bigger than you. What a cramped and narrow view you have. It is far more than you can understand; it’s far more than you can imagine; and it’s far more than you can control. Yeah, it’s true that my creation is exceptionally well suited for satisfying your needs and desires, but the vastness of my cosmos far exceeds any human measure of right or wrong, fairness or unfairness, usefulness or uselessness.”

So, what does God Noam Chomsky-ing Job have to do with us taking a rest? 

God is basically telling Job that you are the created, not the Creator. Most of what’s happening in the universe is happening on another, bigger stage. You think the world you’re in is the main stage, the only stage — but in fact, you’re one little stage in a theater that’s as big as the cosmos.  It’s not all about you. And: It’s not all on you.

I think we can be socialized to believe that it is all about us and it is all on us. Everything rests on human ingenuity and effort; it all rests on us being smart and industrious and making things happen. We can’t take a rest! We’re too important! As Jonathan said, when our planning group was talking about this, “This seems so relevant for the culture of the Bay Area. The message you get here is you always need to be going going going and doing doing doing. Solving problems. Always in action. And trusting that we will come up with the tech, the program, the invention to solve all our problems.” 

Sometimes, we need to widen the frame. Sometimes, we need to challenge the premises of our cramped, limited, humancentric worldviews. Sometimes, we need to know our place. Because, when we do, not only will we be properly humble — which the theologian Joan Chittister defines as “thinking neither more nor less of ourselves than we should.” When we do, we will realize that can take a rest sometimes. The world will not rise nor fall if we do. We are, blessedly, just not that important. 

Today, if God were going to speak to us from the whirlwind, I think She might tell us the story of our universe. A story that can help us know our rightful place. I want to give credit to eco-theologian Michael Dowd for much of this story I’m going to share. 

If the 15 billion year history of the Universe were compressed into 100 years, with the “Big Bang” being the birthday, then the hundreds of billions of galaxies that exist began forming when the Universe was 7 or 8 years old.  Our solar system formed from the “elemental stardust of a previously exploded supernova” when the Universe was 70.Our Universe was already an elder when our solar system appeared! The first life on earth, bacteria, appeared in the oceans when the Universe was about 73. As Dowd put it: “Bacteria are the most important expression of planetary life. (Notice, not us.) All other forms of life are totally dependent upon them. Bacteria would do just fine without us; we would not last a day without them.”  

Slight detour here: 56% of the cells in our body are bacteria. Not included in that 56% total are the mitochondria that most of our cells rely on to convert glucose into energy. These mitochondria began as bacteria before they began their symbiotic relationship with us. They are actually independent organisms with their own DNA. We’re basically hosts for bacteria. 

Back to our story: Photosynthesis got going on this planet’s 74th birthday. Multicellular plants appeared in March of 91. The innovation of sexual reproduction happened two years later, in March of 93.  “With sexuality, however, death also came into existence,” Dowd says. “For the early bacterium, death was not an inevitability. Some of the earliest bacteria may still be with us today. (That’s mind boggling. Bacteria millions of years old!) For life forms that are sexual, however, death is an integral part of their existence.” Living beings came ashore for the first time in February of 97 — plants first, and then insects. The dinosaurs lasted for a year, between May of 98 and May of 99. The earliest ape/human mix walked upright less than 2 weeks ago, on Dec. 20. “The first species to get classified as fully human, Homo habilis, appeared in Africa on December 26th. Our species, homo sapiens, are newbies — we arrived on the scene 24 hours ago.  The Industrial Revolution happened 40 seconds ago. (Pause)

So, I invite you — us — to sacred rest, knowing that the world still turns even if we do. We are really cool — we are “fearfully and wonderfully made,” as the Psalmist says. We have been created in the image of the Creator! But, darling, it’s not all about us. And — deep breath — it’s not all on us. Amen.