A Place at the Table

(sermon 10/11/21)

Photo by Anna Shvets at pexels.com

Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Then Job answered: “Today also my complaint is bitter; his hand is heavy despite my groaning. Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling! I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments. I would learn what he would answer me, and understand what he would say to me. Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power? No; but he would give heed to me. There an upright person could reason with him, and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

“If I go forward, he is not there; or backward, I cannot perceive him; on the left he hides, and I cannot behold him; I turn to the right, but I cannot see him. God has made my heart faint; the Almighty has terrified me; If only I could vanish in darkness, and thick darkness would cover my face!

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Hebrews 4:12-16  

Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow; it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And before him no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

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How many of you have heard of Eliphaz the Temanite? Does anyone here know who he was? Anyone? How about a quick show of hands; who here has ever heard of Eliphaz the Temanite?… Right, (almost) no one. Well, Eliphaz was one of the so-called friends of Job, who came to him in his time of intense distress and suffering, and who give Job pretty much universally bad advice and incorrectly tell Job that his suffering is his own fault; that it’s God’s response to something wrong that Job is doing in his own life. For his part, Eliphaz accuses Job of some apparently hidden “great wickedness” in his life, and that he needs to “return” to God by getting his life right.

The passage from Job that we heard today is part of Job’s reply to Eliphaz. Later in his answer, Job points out that the specific accusations that Eliphaz made are untrue. But first, Job offers what we heard today – that yes, he definitely feels estranged from God, and that he would certainly turn to God, but he can’t actually find God. No matter where Job turns, God doesn’t seem anywhere to be found. God seems to have completely abandoned Job, and Job can’t understand why.

The Book of Job is one of the most fascinating, complex, thought-provoking books in the Bible. The issues, the emotions, and the theological questions it raises are things that we’ve all wrestled with in our own lives. As we develop our own personal theologies regarding theodicy – why there’s pain and suffering in a world created and sustained by an all-loving God. About whether God inflicts suffering on us in order to teach us something. Even whether God is the kind of God who would actually be willing to destroy our lives as a game, over a bet with Satan, a bet just as callous and meaningless as the one made by the horrible Duke brothers in the movie “Trading Places.” Beyond those deep theological questions, Job’s suffering, his emotions, simply resonate with us. We feel them in our bones as fellow children of suffering in the universe. We all hear and understand and connect with Job in our own particular ways.

One of those ways is particularly significant today. With National Coming Out Day being tomorrow, I think it can be helpful to consider how Job’s words might be heard by a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer person in our society today. Centuries of anti-gay bigotry and hatred, and most of it being directly and indirectly instilled in people’s minds through the teachings of the Church, have caused damage, suffering, and death to literally millions of people over the last two thousand years, on an overall scale that makes Job’s suffering look like hardly more than a hangnail by comparison.

In 1960, the year that I was born, gay men were considered sinful by the church, criminals by the courts, and mentally ill by the medical profession. We were thrown out of our jobs, out of our homes, out of our churches. We were thrown into jails and mental institutions. We were subjected to high-strength electroshock torture that was euphemistically called therapy, we were lobotomized, and chemically and physically castrated for being gay. A person could murder a gay man and be judged not guilty based on the “gay panic” defense that the gay man had asked his killer out on a date, and it so enraged the man that it made him temporarily insane and not accountable for his actions. Now, in 2021, we know that things are better than they were in 1960, but we also know that there’s still a lot of anti-gay hatred and violence in our society, in our churches, in our neighborhoods and in our families.

That’s why coming out as LGBTQ is still possibly the scariest, and riskiest, of things a person may ever have to do in their lives. Coming out can still cost someone their job, their family, their church; virtually every aspect of their life is suddenly, unpredictably at risk as a result of coming out. And in the midst of it, because of harmful anti-gay teachings from the church, the person often feels as rejected and punished and abandoned by God as Job did in this passage as they wrestle with the emotions surrounding their sexuality and coming out. Make no mistake: even now, with all of our social advances, coming out is still white-knuckle terrifying for most people. And in analyzing the potential losses that could happen, many LGBTQ+ people wait until a later, safer date to come out. Some never do. While that in itself is a tragedy, it’s also sometimes a necessity, and as part of recognizing National Coming Out Day, we need to respect and honor, and commit to protect any person who decides that coming out just isn’t possible for them, at least not right now.

Obviously though, many LGBTQ+ people do still come out, despite the risks, in order to live their true, authentic lives as God created them. And the more that happens, the better it will be for them, and for our society, too. Every year, more and more people discover that they know and love someone who is LGBTQ+, and who has had to go through the agonizing, terrifying process of coming out. It’s a fear that’s been faced by two of your pastors in recent years. At least one of your pastor’s children, and children of staffers. Several of your seminary interns. In fact, let’s have another show of hands: who here today has an LGBTQ+ friend? A child or other family member of a friend?… A member of your own extended family?…. A member of your own immediate family?…. Is there anyone else here today who has come out themselves? Yes, virtually all of us here today are connected, in relationship with, someone who has come out as LGBTQ+.

This morning, as the Church – as one of the primary sources that helped make coming out so difficult and so dangerous, we need to do two things:

First, we need to acknowledge our own role, our complicity in causing harm, often irreparable harm, to so many people, even people close to us. We need to acknowledge that our own past actions have driven people away from God, away from Christ, away from the Church, away from the faith. We’ve acted as the obstacle, the stumbling block that Jesus spoke so harshly about. We need to acknowledge this reality, and apologize for it, and truly repent for it.

That repentance is the second thing that we, the Church, need to do. Repentance means turning away from one thing, and turning toward something else. We need to commit ourselves to work for full LGBTQ+ equality and for equal protection under the law in our society; and to create a church that honors and celebrates sexual and gender diversity as a blessed and good and beautiful part of God’s creation. We need to continually affirm theologies, and doctrines, and scriptural interpretations that affirm that reality, and to strongly, unambiguously reject the ones that don’t.

We need to hear the good news – the gospel – found in today’s reading from Hebrews. That to God, no one is hidden. No one is in the closet. That through Christ, we have someone who understands our fears, our suffering, our temptations, our weaknesses – and who understands that our sexuality isn’t one of those weaknesses, but rather, is one of our greatest gifts.

So to anyone who is LGBTQ+ who might not be out and who might be considering coming out; and who might be struggling with where God, and the Church, and faith, is in the midst of all that, and who may even be feeling abandoned by God, I just say this:

Dear child of God, even in the midst of all that you’re going through – all your fears, all your questions, all the risks and all the possible feelings that God has abandoned you, I promise you – God has never abandoned you, and God never will. God has never left your side. You are known by name and are precious in God’s sight. God does not condemn you or judge you based on your sexuality or gender, and neither will we. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made by God, created in love, to love who you choose, and to be loved by one who chooses you. You have been created in God’s very image, and that includes your sexuality.

And so if it’s time for you, beloved, to come out, then come out. God loves you, we love you, I love you. You have a place in the reign of God, a place in this church, a place at this font and a place at this Table. And if you decide that this isn’t the time to come out, then don’t come out. Stay in the closet. God will be with you there in the closet and will even guard the door. God loves you, we love you, I love you. Because really, truly, all of this – the faith, the church, the universe, humanity, life, God – what it all boils down to is that it’s all about love. And if anyone tells you differently, they’re as wrong as Eliphaz the Temanite.

Thanks be to God.

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