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Sermon – “Restored Fortunes” – October 28, 2012

Sermon for October 28, 2012 The First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Restored Fortunes Job 42: 1-6, 10-17; Psalm 34: 1-8; Mark 10: 46-52

Every three years around Valentine’s Day we read the story of the Aramean military commander Naaman, and his going to the land of Israel to be cured of his leprosy. It’s from the fifth chapter of the book of 2 Kings. For my purpose today I want to read two verses– when the possibility of Naaman’s being cured by Elisha the prophet is raised. Reading from chapter 5, verse 2: ‘”Now the Arameans on one of their raids had taken a young girl captive from the land of Israel, and she served Naaman’s wife. She said to her mistress, “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.”‘

How often do we notice the girl who has become a servant in Naaman’s household? Her having been carried off in a raid must have been traumatic. It may not be that she was the daughter in a family in which some were killed, or the others sold into slavery elsewhere. She may even had had few close to her in her former life, but it was her life, whatever it was. We don’t know if it were a great loss or a little one, but it was scary, disruptive, lonely. She was taken away by force, at an age at least grown-up enough to have heard about and retained information about the healing power of a holy man.

Something has happened to her since. The scars from being part of the plunder of a raid have healed over, and she has become a person who identifies with the life she has now. She is a loyal servant, and sympathetic enough to her mistress and master to do what she can to save him from his disease.

Was the little maiden from the land of Israel, as she’s called in older translations, exhibiting the so-called “Stockholm Syndrome?” That’s a psychological disposition on the part of hostages to develop positive feelings toward their captors, named after a bank robbery in the Swedish capitol in 1973 in which that dynamic was noticed. It is considered a kind of confusion on the part of the captives, and is theorized to occur because it offered an evolutionary advantage to human survival in times when tribal warfare was common.

We’re not told how quickly the girl from Israel attached herself emotionally to her new lord and lady. Perhaps it resulted from a long time of coming to grips with pain and loss and learning to be open to new realities. She may have been more like those soldiers from past conflicts who somehow encapsulated the horror of their experience in war and got on with civilian life, marriage and family and work, the many who returned to normal life successfully, living out the wisdom of the book of Ecclesiastes that everything has its time, that leaving things behind and moving on is part of it.

There are two judgments commonly made about people moving through painful, life-altering experiences toward acceptance of their new reality. One is that they are doing it too quickly, and in an unhealthy, false way. That’s the idea behind “Stockholm Syndrome,” that a person unrealistically emphasizes the common humanity of his or her criminal captor and comes to see the hostage-taker as deserving understanding and protection. The other reaction people have to other people’s progress toward a new emotional equilibrium and acceptance of life after going through something awful is that people aren’t getting beyond it quickly enough, that they are not permitting themselves to return to health. By the time we are middle-aged we’ve all heard people described as wallowing, or refusing to get over something, or not trying hard enough to get back to life as normal.

As with most things in this world, the situation of surviving significant loss challenges you in both directions. You will be blamed if people think you don’t grieve enough, if you don’t struggle enough before returning to the expectations of everyday, and you will be blamed if people think you grieve too much, and too slowly move toward resuming the routine appetites and enjoyments of life.

It’s not just that other people judge us about these things. We judge ourselves. We wonder if we’ll ever feel okay again, and then feel guilty for being impatient with our pain, when it’s the kind of pain we get from losing people we love and who have loved us. There are many ways that people don’t feel right about their reactions, their emotions, their decisions after enduring something and getting through it. If one person lives and another dies, even if the two weren’t close, the survivor may feel burdened by the notion that it could have gone the other way, and wonder if he or she needs to justify living on? That can freight ordinary human life with a responsibility which may not be real.

I’m trying to speak about this matter carefully, because I think this has to be looked at on a case-by-case basis. There’s no one rule of thumb which fits all cases, and I’m not sure how we would develop a rule. In our time the therapeutic community likes to measure everything by function. Is the person’s rapid moving past their significant life event dysfunctional? Is the person’s slow progress in letting go of grief and sorrow dysfunctional? It’s not a bad way to think about it, because it has to do with particular individuals and their network of relationships and responsibilities, so it has the merit of acknowledging the individuality of persons and the unique nature of events. Still, it isn’t clear that the only way to decide if something is good is to see how well it works. There are spiritual concerns for the inner person in this matter of suffering appropriately and healing appropriately, and the Bible ought to be useful in this.

There’s a general sense in which enjoying new life and putting behind a life of error or deprivation is every Christian’s story. Some of us understand ourselves that way by believing in the theology of the New Testament, conceiving the world as somehow having gone wrong and us along with it, and God’s having through Christ made it right, and us along with it. Others of us have a practical, firsthand experience of having had a worse life which God has made better by becoming part of who we are.

Does that ever happen too quickly or too slowly? Jesus suggests it can happen too quickly in his parable of the sower and the seeds, because one of the kinds of seeds which fail are those planted where there is heat and moisture and no depth of soil, which prompts a sudden flourishing but no sufficient roots. Enthusiasm in religion always needs to be channeled into enduring in religion if possible. Can a person leave behind the old person and claim the new person in Christ too slowly? Well, all of us are doing to too slowly. All of us are still too enamored of the life we now regard with a combination of regret and reliance–it continues to be a lot of who we are, and we haven’t learned how more fully to become the new person we are in Christ.

The story of Bartimaeus has symbolic impact in the gospel, because he receives his sight and begins to follow Jesus just in time to see the whole drama of Holy Week. The fact that he is recalled by name suggests that he may have been a member of the early Christian community, and there is no hint that anyone thinks that he came to his faith too precipitously or too slowly. He fits into today’s theme because he exemplifies the great thing it is to leave an old, limited reality behind.

The psalm tells the story of someone who came through something painful and now exults. The psalmist remembers being a poor soul who cried and was heard by a rescuing God, and tells us “happy are those who take refuge in him.” This highlights, again, how good it is to get to a better place than one has been.

The conclusion of the book of Job bothers people. Here’s a story of a man who starts out with a large family and many advantages and has his family stripped away from him by mishap and his property taken by malice, and loses his health, and then chapters three through forty-one are spent wondering how that can happen to a faithful person, and then chapter forty-three is Job being restored to health and a new family and new wealth. Many readers react to this with the question, “Is this supposed to make everything all right?” “What about the children crushed by the house? How can having new daughters who are beautiful make his ending better than his beginning after what he’s gone through?”

The way I read the book I don’t think that God’s returning to favoring Job and restoring his fortunes is supposed to make it all better. I don’t think it bears on the argument the book makes about the nature of life, faith, and God, except for the bit we didn’t read today, in which Job intercedes for the friends whose trying to justify Job’s suffering has made God very angry with them.

I do think it continues a meditation on the nature of life, and isn’t what some scholars have tried to make it, a later addition to soften the story. I think the end of Job is the same thing that so many experience in life, the fact that changes of fortune don’t only go from better to worse, but also from worse to better. Our resistance to feeling good about Job’s being restored to happiness after he’s been a victim is understandable, because we would like life to be fair all the way through. If we look at Job instead of at God, though, we can ask whether his sitting on the ash heap and wrestling with what’s happened to him through four human dialogues and one big encounter with God, if he hasn’t worked enough on what had happened to be able, at the end, to live again with comforts and contentment.

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