A bishop in Hell

A bishop in Hell

A sermon by The Rev. Jan Nunley, ErdeNunley@AOL.COM

© 1998 by The Rev. Jan Nunley. All rights reserved

November 8, 1998
23 Pentecost C
Job 19:23-27a

In the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. Amen.

They are calling it "Maldita Mitch"--Damned Mitch--in what used to be communities in Honduras and Guatemala and Nicaragua. Now, they are not communities but literally islands, cut off from the rest of the world by water: no electricity, no telecommunications, no roads, no bridges, no water supplies except the muddy, stinking, toxic brown swirl dumped by a week of unrelenting, torrential rain, destructive winds, and catastrophic mudslides. As if that weren't enough, as if the survivors of these elemental forces hadn't suffered too much already--their homes destroyed, possessions swept away, children and parents and lovers and friends buried alive in thick, impenetrable mud--now comes the next horseman of this apocalypse: disease, in the form of cholera, and dengue fever, and starvation, as food supplies sit on docks and in warehouses until the waters subside.

The Episcopal Bishop of Honduras, the Rt. Rev. Leo Frade, has been able to connect to the Internet through the last remaining phone line in his diocesan offices. Bishop Frade writes:

The news is so horrible that even Stephen King couldn't scare us so much. . . . The losses are over 1 billion dollars. 60% of the nation is destroyed. Honduras is no more. . . I now know what Hell is like, because I am the bishop there.

As I've read Bishop Frade's messages this week, I haven't been able to get the book of Job out of my mind. Most of you probably know the story. Job is that rare commodity in the Bible, a man wealthy and prosperous but also "blameless and upright" before God. When God points this out to ha-Shaytan, the Satan, this "accuser" challenges Job's motives. Would Job worship God if his life were different--if he were penniless, homeless, childless, plagued by illness--like the victims of Hurricane Mitch? And God agrees to the Satan's test.

Over the next forty-two chapters we have a ringside seat for Job's ever- worsening misery. We listen as his three best buddies--Eliphaz the Temanite, Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite--show up to console him, but botch the job. You've heard of "Stupid Pet Tricks"? This is what is known in the trade as "Stupid Pastoral Tricks." These guys get everything wrong. Bad things just don't happen to good people, they tell Job. If he is suffering, it must be because he isn't nearly as "blameless and upright" as he appears. Suffering is God's way of telling us we're on the wrong track. The downright wicked receive God's judgment, the ethically-challenged get off with a warning, the immature are disciplined into better behavior. As for the occasional righteous person who gets into a tough spot, well, that's just a way to test your faith. The friends draw on an arsenal of conventional wisdom, rational principles, anecdotes, and private revelations, but most of all they hold up the authority of tradition: that's what our people have always believed about God, so it must be true.

But Job isn't buying this. Obsessively he goes over his life and finds nothing that he's done to deserve this fate--or, for that matter, these "friends." What the lectionary doesn't give us this morning is the first 22 verses of chapter 19, in which Job accuses God and not the Satan of causing his troubles. "Know then that God has put me in the wrong, /and closed his net around me," Job cries bitterly. He has walled up my way so that I cannot pass, and he has set darkness upon my paths. He has stripped my glory from me, and taken the crown from my head. He breaks me down on every side, and I am gone, he has uprooted my hope like a tree. . . . Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!

In that light, verses 23 through 27 look very, very far from the sweetly pious way they are sung in Handel's Messiah. Here they are not a declaration of deep and unshakable faith, but a cry of anguish. O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!

But Job, like some ancient Woody Allen, believes that while "some people want to achieve immortality through their work, I prefer to achieve immortality through not dying." For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth . . . after my skin has been thus destroyed,

. . . says Job, but that's not enough. Conditioned by 2,000 years of Christianity, we tend to read this word "redeemer" as though it equaled "Jesus"--as though Job was miraculously gifted with a vision of the Cross, the Tomb, and the Resurrection. But in ancient Hebrew culture, the go'el or redeemer is the nearest male relative responsible for protecting your interests when you are unable to do so. The closest thing we have in our culture is to invest a friend or partner with durable power of attorney, the right to make decisions about our business affairs or health care if we are incapacitated. In the Hebrew Scriptures God is sometimes called the go'el or redeemer of the orphan, the widow, the helpless, who have no human redeemer. But here Job is asking for a go'el to serve him against God's assaults on his interests. In fact, he wants a crack at defending himself before the very face of God. then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side [of the grave], and my eyes shall behold, and not another. Is there anyone here so pious--or so untouched by grief--that she or he can't find their own reflection in Job? Late Friday night, I received an email from Bishop Frade's assistant, Mayra Arguelles, detailing the help they need in the Diocese of Honduras. Her English is not perfect, but the message is crystal clear:

Our death toll are over 7,150 and 13,000 people missing. They have founded around 200 bodies floating at the hydroelectrical dam of El Cajon. Just about one hour from my home. Our priests and deacons are literally digging themselves from the mud and coming back from trees. The stories of destruction are heart rendering. One of our members spent two days in a tall tree fighting the snakes that kept trying to crawl up for safety. Today there are many deaths due to the snake bites. Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras looks like it was bombed in a war. Most of the bridges are down, havoc all over, no food and water. Sickness all around and no medicine. People digging for their relatives.

There are many Jobs in Central America this morning--people crying out for a go'el, a redeemer--for a reason, a cause, an answer, a meaning, a purpose to random disaster. "I now know what Hell is like," says +Leo Frade, "because I am the bishop there." A bishop in Hell? To do what? Lead where?

At the end of the book of Job, God answers Job "out of the whirlwind." Job seeks justice, the righting of a wrong against him. But God's purposes are deeper, stranger: the weaving of order out of chaos and randomness. Millennia after the time of Job, in a time and place Job could not foresee, God-become- human would cry out in anguish to God: "Why have you forsaken me?" and suffer the fate that was spared even Job: to be rent asunder by evil itself, as God turned God's face away from God.

But that was not the end of Jesus' story. And it is not the end of ours. We who are believers in Christ are the "first fruits" of God's resurrection triumph over chaos and death and hell and the grave. That is how Bishop Leo Frade can function as a bishop in Hell. That is how the Church in Honduras and Guatemala and Nicaragua is still the Church--battered and frightened and grieving her many losses, but still helping and healing and caring and sharing because she participates in the very nature of God in Christ: to bring order out of chaos, wholeness out of brokenness, health out of dis-ease, holiness out of sin, life out of death.

"The Episcopal Church . . . is down but not defeated," Bishop Frade writes. "We are wet, in rags, full of mud and maybe . . . we don't smell so good. So be it! But one thing we know is that God has not abandoned us and that God still reigns every time we bury our dead, or get food and water to our people that have not had any for days." For a Bishop in hell, and for us in whatever hells we may know, God in Christ has not abandoned us. And God still reigns.

Amen. (c) 1998 The Rev. Janet Worth Nunley At the Peace: In your bulletins this morning is a flyer from the Presiding Bishop's Fund for World Relief. Please take a moment to fill out the coupon and return it with a donation for Central American relief--for Honduras, for Guatemala, for Nicaragua. Or if you prefer, direct your donations to the Central American Relief Fund, or to some other charitable organization of your choice. This week, volunteer to sort supplies. Talk to your friends in business--see what they can donate in bulk: food, medicine, clothing, supplies. We have lists of the most pressing needs available in the Parish Hall. We who are here can do no less than our sisters and brothers to be the Church for Central America.


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