Welcome to a Scraping Faith
A sermon on Mark 10:2-16, and Job 1:1, 2:1-10
[Photo by Ashkan Forouzani on Unsplash]
The last section of today’s gospel reading is just the kind of story we like to hear on a baptism Sunday, isn’t it?
We can picture the scene in Precious Moments pastels: Jesus in a white robe fondly holding a smiling child on his knee with one arm while the other extends to welcome more.
We can hear the gentle rebuke in his voice as he instructs his disciples to “let the little children come to me… for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs.”
It’s a sentimental scene that matches our emotional tone on a day that we welcome a sweet new sibling into the family of God.
It reminds us of the warmth of Jesus’s love and care for the littlest and the least.
It even coaches us to make sure our welcome is just as warm. Even if our younger members sometimes squirm or make noise in worship, we can embrace the knowledge that – by the unreserved honesty and presence in the now with which they enter this space – they are teaching us how to receive the kingdom of God.
What better text could we have for such a Sunday?
Well… maybe one that exactly matches the scene I just described, rather than the one we actually read…
You know, the one where Jesus is less gentle and more angry (and even a little threatening) in his reprimand of the disciples,
and where the disciples are giving us an uncomfortably familiar object lesson of the way that the modern church, too, sometimes struggles to offer genuine welcome to those who don’t match our expectations of the people who should be allowed to touch Jesus.
And we would certainly choose a reading that leaves off verses 2-12, with all that legalistic and patriarchal talk about divorce and adultery. What are we supposed to do with that on a day that we want to celebrate the faith of a blended family that is growing love and faith together in their children?
And then there’s the book of Job….
For those who are not familiar with this rather odd book of the Bible, Job is pretty much as far away as you can get from “warm and fuzzy.”
It presents as a story of the personal tragedy of a man named Job.
Job is a “blameless and upright man,” (1:1), and yet, the narrator tells us that God – apparently just to prove a point – allows him to suffer practically every devastation a person can experience.
He goes from wealth to poverty overnight,
At exactly the same time, all of his children are killed in a house collapse,
And then – because that’s not enough to break him – his body is assaulted with painful and disfiguring sores from head to foot.
His wife survives, but she offers him no comfort. She advises his to “curse God and die.” (2:9)
Nice! But, honestly, she makes a point.
Who would stay faithful to a God who allowed such tragedy to overtake them, and all in order to win a bet?
Who would want to baptize their child into such a faith?
Of course, there’s more to the story.
Over the next four weeks, we are going to explore the book of Job carefully, moving beyond the “plot points” of the story to discern its deeper challenges and lessons – challenges and lessons that apply in surprisingly relevant ways to our own stories of struggle.
But in order to do that, we need to understand one fundamental thing about this book: It is a story, but it’s not history. It’s not about real people who actually lived.
In the classification of scriptural genres, Job is classed as Wisdom Literature – meaning that its purpose is to guide readers into the way of wisdom (as opposed to laying down law, expounding prophecy, or telling the salvation history).
Or, perhaps a more familiar classification is that of parables. In many ways, the Book of Job is the longest, most elaborate parable we find in scripture: presenting us with a clearly exaggerated and hypothetical scenario in order to engage our creative, truth-seeking interrogation.
It’s a story designed to engage our minds, our emotions, and our spirit.
It invites us to push and prod the story for answers that we personally care about.
It intentionally throws our deepest questions about God and about the human condition under a microscope and dares us to look closely.
A biblical dare is probably NOT the kind of text we expect – or want – for a sweet little child’s baptism sermon, but… perhaps… it’s appropriate.
Perhaps Mia, and all of us, need a faith that can grapple with realities not painted in pastel colors.
Perhaps the life of faith that we are baptizing her into today matters because she will need it to face the realities of a broken world where sometimes things go wrong, and at times she will suffer.
Perhaps we need the story of Job in order to hear Jesus’ welcome of the children through non-sentimental ears.
Because it’s easy to hear Jesus’ exhortation to “receive the kingdom of God as a little child” and to assume this means that we are called to perfect, innocent trust that never asks questions and simply believes.
That is, it’s easy to assume such a meaning, if we DON’T actually spend any time with young children… Who. Ask. Questions. All. The. Time!
And that’s OK.
It’s OK for children whose job is to learn, and grow – they need to ask questions to do that.
And it’s OK for Christians, whose job is also to learn, and grow in faith – we need to be able to ask questions, even hard, uncomfortable questions to mature in our faith, and to be able to witness to the love that welcomes us in the waters of baptism and every day after.
There’s one strange little detail in today’s reading of Job that emphasizes this point.
It’s… kind of gross, so I’ve always just sort of skipped over it before. But a commentary reflection from biblical scholar Jesper Svartvik drew my attention to it this week.
It’s the description in verse 8 that, after being afflicted by painful sores, Job takes a shard of pottery and scrapes at his skin.
I don’t know if this relates to an approved medical practice of the time, or if it was supposed to be a way to partially relieve painful itching, but the point isn’t really why Job would do this, because Job is not a real person. Job is a character in a parable.
The question is, why would the narrator choose to describe this action? I think it is because scraping the wound is a powerful metaphor for what happens in the Book of Job.
What happens when we scrape something? We dig past the surface to whatever is underneath.
The Book of Job scrapes away all the ways that human beings try to cover up the problem of human suffering to face its reality. In Svartvik’s words, “Job thoroughly scrapes his skin and soul-searchingly scrutinizes destructive theologies of evil.”
He scrapes away all the excuses people try to make for God because those only get in the way of finding where God meets us in our pain.
It is this kind of “scraping faith” to which we will welcome Mia today.
A faith that goes a lot deeper than white robes and words of welcome – wholesome and comforting as those things are.
Job welcomes Mia, and all of us, to a faith that asks questions because we know that questions are how we grow and learn.
And questions are also how we find God not just in the perfect pastoral scenes but also in the mess of real life.
It’s not as pretty of a picture, but it is what Jesus’ welcome to the little children and to all of us really means. It means that even on an ash heap, scraping our wounds with a jagged piece of pottery, we need never give up. We can face pain honestly, and ask all the hard questions, knowing that Jesus will never abandon us.
Thanks be to God.