A sermon preached on selections from the book of Job.

The world is full of seemingly unanswerable questions:
How can you tell when sour cream goes bad?
How much sin can I get away with and still go to heaven?
Why is the time of day with the slowest traffic called rush hour?
Why does it seem that matter can neither be created nor destroyed?
Is light a particle or a wave?
Is the universe finite or infinite?
If God is omnipotent, Why does God allow suffering to happen?
If God is omniscient… Why Charleston

Unanswerable questions serve an important purpose. Whether they happen in jokes or in science or real life, their function is not only to open up new possibilities but also to create some boundaries around what is meant to be discovered by a particular question.

So the question “How can you tell when sour cream goes bad?” isn’t a question about the nature of sour cream, how much it costs, what it weighs. But since sourness is the way we tell if dairy products have gone over, what has to be discovered in order to determine whether sour cream is still useable?

In truth, these kinds of questions aren’t all useful for gathering information. They really are meant to give voice to the internal struggle of the ones asking. This is what we forget when we think about suffering and in particular, when we think about suffering using the story of Job as template for understanding.

If Job were asking the kinds of questions intended to gather empirical data to prove a theory, or if he were asking the questions necessary to prove a legal case in court, he would be fighting a losing battle, almost right from the get-go. God doesn’t have to work very hard to show Job that the way of the cosmos is beyond his understanding. All God has to do is ask: “Were you there when I laid the foundations of the earth? Have you commanded the morning since your days began,
Have you said to the sea: ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? Do you know the way to the place where the light is distributed, or where the east wind is scattered upon the earth?”

Ummm. No.

So what if Job isn’t asking research questions. What if Job is standing alone, launching a protest movement before God – not seeking the answer to the question: “Why do you allow this?” but rather insisting that God remember – remember what is righteous… remember why God created humanity and the cosmos in the first place? What if we begin to see Job in a new way: not someone drowning in grief, not lost in self-pity, but standing with a fist shaken toward heaven: “You’re better than this, God! I know it! And you do too!”

Though he has every right to, Job never turns away from God with hatred and disgust. He never denies God’s existence. He never says: “If God can’t bring an end to suffering, then God must not be God at all.” Instead of giving up, and walking away from what he could rightly interpret as an unjust God, he turns to dissent. He confronts his dogmatic understanding of a dogmatic God and turns his suffering into an act of defiant protest.

Job launches a full frontal assault by accusing God: You denied me justice. You seem to delight in tormenting, harrassing, hunting and mauling. I see you as sadistic and devious.

Job’s words are the keening wail of lament are more than just a cry before God. They are meant to engage his friends and neighbors too. The people around him have the opportunity to become not just witnesses to the pain he feels but collaborators and co-workers in the struggle to work for righteousness.

Unfortunately for Job, his friends don’t get it. These people of status and power, Job’s equals, have come to commiserate with their comrade. They, like Job had been given more than most – and they, like him had so much to lose. Out of their fears, rather than joining him in his moment of crisis, they move into default mode: trying to answer the unanswerable question – Why is God allowing this to happen?

Their responses are predictable and familiar to us: God has a plan. God’s ways are invisible to us. We’ll understand it by and by. And worst of all: Since God is good and can only do good things, maybe you HAVE done something wrong and you just didn’t realize it.

Job’s friends spent all their energy trying to figure out why these terrible things were happening. And as a result, they were of absolutely no help to Job. So what should his friends be doing?

But we’ve all heard these words before. Maybe a well-meaning friend said them to us. Maybe we’ve even said them when we struggled to find something to say to a friend or loved one whose suffering was too much for us to bear. We all look for answers in these times. And the only way to change the answers is to ask a different question. What if, the question isn’t: “Why does God allow suffering?” and “What have they done to deserve this?” What if we begin to ask the question that emerges out of Job’s protest to God.

O God! What is to be done about this suffering!?

If Job’s lament is really a call for help, and if his friends are listening too, they, with God, must hear: “Why are you standing there and listening. How can you tolerate my suffering?”

Though Job’s lament may begin with an accusation of God, in the end, we need to wrestle with why Job’s friends, who are made in Gods image, allow Job’s suffering to continue? Why we, who see so much suffering around us keep asking why God allows it instead of asking: how has God gifted/called us to bring comfort, to end suffering in whatever form we see it?

What if to be like Job is to live into the image of a loving and creative God that is in each one of us and resist suffering with all our might? What if being like Job means we show our grief and lament the pain and suffering we see and then stand in solidarity with those who are in pain?

Imagine what would happen if we heard the laments of the chronically ill, the lonely, those suffering from mental illness and joined the work of being a gracious companion who visits and accompanies those who are hurting. Imagine what it would be like if we not only showed our outrage in the face of injustice but got to work to right the wrongs we see!

Imagine what it would look like if when we heard about the shootings in Mother Emanuel church in Charleston or arson in black churches, we joined hearts, minds and strength not just to weep and mourn, but to confront the systems and behaviors that foster racial injustice in our own community as a way to be part of the larger effort to bring an end to racism in all its manifestations!

This might seem like a super-human task… Overwhelming in its scope, considering the resistance we are likely to encounter. Impossible even, given our capacity to make enormous mistakes and to fall short of the goals we set. But it seems that if we are to live as children of God, with that image imprinted on our souls, then we are called to do God’s work. It’s time to change the question.

Sermon preached on Sunday, September 13, 2015
Based on Revelation 22:1-6

When we think about the book of Revelation, we might want to have our Bibles handy.  To tell the truth, it’s probably a good thing it comes at the end of the Bible, because we really do need the whole collection of books to help us make sense of this one. 


  • without the understanding of God’s covenant with all of creation we find in in the story of the Great Flood;
  • without an understanding of the covenant God has with God’s people – the promise that they will never be forsaken – that we hear in Abraham’s family story and in the Exodus;
  • without the poetry of the prophets who proclaimed that streams would burst forth in the desert, flowers would bloom where nothing could grow, and vineyards and fields would produce more than enough food for everyone to eat and be satisfied;
  • without the intentional focus of Jesus on the immediate and urgent presence of the kingdom of heaven;
  • without all of this, John’s vision of violence and upheaval and healing in Revelation is simply a nightmarishly bizarre and incomprehensible collection of images with little or no relevance to us. 

In the passage before us today, for example:  the story of Creation helps us remember that God made everything in a complete and beautiful way. Each part of creation is meant complement and sustain the other parts of creation.  Without that, and without the connection to the two trees in the Garden – the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, this healing tree at the end of John’s vision wouldn’t make any sense.

These beautiful words: “The leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” wouldn’t make any sense

When John’s people heard those words, they would have been thinking of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden – and all the promises of God through the ages to bring shalom – wholeness and abundance – for all of creation.  In the midst of the chaos and oppression and death that characterized the Roman Empire – this Tree of Life was an essential shining sign of hope and life.

Fast forward 1000 years and find Hildegard of Bingen – one of my favorite saints.  One of her greatest gifts was a deep understanding that the power of God is the life force at work in all of creation.  This sustained her soul and her work.  She connected to the exile and the wandering through the desert, and saw Isaiah’s prophecy as the key to our hope for the future: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.” (35:1-2).  Wherever she saw the creative life-giving blossoming, the green vitality of spring, the rich loamy soil, she recognized that creation set the pattern for living a life that is fruitful and green and overflowing with abundance.  For Hildegard, even in the midst of barrenness of winter or the emptiness of suffering, there was always the potential for God’s greening to break forth in fruitful ways. 

One thousand years later, we are still trying to learn the lessons of the interdependence and abundance that Hildegard embraced and which God intends for creation. And we struggle with our role in bringing this green and healing kingdom vision forward.


Palm Kernel, Palm Kernel Oil, Palm Fruit Oil, Palmate, Palmitate, Palmolein, Glyceryl, Stearate, Stearic Acid, Elaeis Guineensis, Palmitic Acid, Palm Stearine, Palmitoyl Oxostearamide, Palmitoyl Tetrapeptide-3, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Sodium Lauryl Sulfate, Sodium Kernelate, Sodium Palm Kernelate, Sodium Lauryl Lactylate/Sulphate, Hyrated Palm Glycerides, Etyl Palmitate, Octyl Palmitate, Palmityl Alcohol.  These ingredients are the product of the African Palm and are found in laundry detergent, chocolate, lipstick, biodiesel, instant ramen, margarine, soap, ice cream, pizza, cookies, or shampoo (among other things).

Then there’s sorbitol, high fructose corn syrup, marital, cornstarch, caramel coloring, mitrocellulose glue, microcrystilline cellulose.  These corn products are found in toothpaste, yogurt, chewing gum Coca Cola, diapers, envelope glue, and perfume.

And then there are Bananas – that amazing, yummy, yellow fruit we love to eat, blend, bake and fry.

Palm oil, corn and bananas are three products which are grown by mono-cropping – an environmentally devastating agricultural method that humans developed as a way to force abundance on the land. As we traveled through Honduras and Guatemala, we saw with our own eyes the effects of growing only one crop in a large area of land – from the devastation to the soil itself, to the displacement of small family farms.  This is also true of grain farming in Iowa, where I grew up.  It’s important for us to pay attention because bananas and African palm are produced in enormous quantities all around the world and shipped largely to serve market demands in North America. 

Now, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to grow and share a bountiful harvest – it is biblical, too! But the kind of factory farming we witnessed in Honduras included techniques and methods such as intensive application of commercial fertilizers and heavy use of pesticides, the kinds of chemicals that make our bananas grow in the beautiful shape and color we prefer.  Tragically, the material used to make our food more luscious, to make the products we demand, also runs off in the rains, damaging fresh water which campesino families use as their source of drinking water.

Surprisingly, there is significant use of irrigation systems in a region that used to flow with living water. Now droughts and specially-grown target crops require water in every season further depleting the sources of fresh drinking water as more and more is directed toward crop cultivation and away from small farmers and villages.

In order to produce these crops, factory farms have converted to heavily mechanized farming methods – including heavy equipment used to break down hillsides for terrace farming and for processing the crops prior to shipping.  Not only is it economically impossible for small farmers to participate in this kind of farming, they have been forced off their land as the government claims land and privatizes it for multinational processing plants and corporate farms. So these families, many of whom have lived on little plots of beautiful green land for generations, begin to move within their homeland and beyond even looking northward for a better life.

Lest we think our country is doing a better job of this, consider the Monarch butterfly. Corn production in this country requires chemicals that kill the milkweed plant.  The leaves of the milkweed may not heal the nations, but they are essential for the lifecycle of the Monarch.  Since 1990, there has been a nearly 80% reduction in the Monarch population due to this loss of habitat.

In so many ways, the green and fruitful potential of creation is being damaged by our consumption.  Humans, created as partners in caring for creation, are now exercising the dominion God provided for us in the form of domination and even destruction.

Here’s where scripture can help us.  As God’s people, living the covenanted life, we can learn from scripture about God’s intentions for creation and begin to see our place in it. And if we’re going to survive this, it’s important that we accept our place as just one part of the larger picture in which and through which God works.

When we wander in the direction of hyper industrialized production, we need to listen to the prophets call us to return to God’s ways, to the calling of living rightly with each other and the land. This means we need to begin noticing and perhaps even changing our habits, behaviors and preferences, like yellow bananas and convenience foods.  We need to recognize that our consumption contributes to oppression and poverty AND to the destruction of the delicately balanced ecosystems God has provided for the good of ALL.  It is clear that human beings and other creatures are meant to be connected.  And we must realize that either we will flourish together or suffer together.  Having dominion, subduing the earth, and being “fruitful and multiplying” cannot take place at the expense of other creatures including other humans.  Nowhere in scripture so we see even a hint that we are supposed to expand the “garden” for our own sake.

If we want to remain true to the vision John has of a river of life flowing and the trees with healing in their leaves, we need to remember the green and growing things were here first.  And that God calls us to be caretakers of creation and of each other, so that goodness and abundance can truly flow for all.

Today I gave testimony at the Alameda County Board of Supervisors Public Safety Committee regarding their consideration of the proposed Priority Enforcement Program (PEP), a federal program which calls for collaboration between local law enforcement and ICE.  You can read about this program here: http://www.ilrc.org/files/documents/pep_fact_sheet_final_ilrc.pdf

Here’s what I said:

My name is Debra Avery. I’m the Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Oakland at 27th and Broadway. I’m here to urge you not to support PEP which is a reformulated collaborative program putting Alameda County law enforcement not just in communication with but in collaboration with ICE.

I have just returned from traveling with a delegation of faith leaders. We went to Honduras and Guatemala to learn about root causes of migration. While in Honduras, we met Pastor Max Villatoro who was deported in March when ICE agents determined that he was a priority for deportation due to his criminal record. Here is his record: He was convicted in 1998 of drunken driving and pled guilty in 1999 to record tampering, because he purchased a Social Security number to obtain a driver’s license so he could work.

On March 3, Pastor Max was picked up in a sweep of immigrants that ICE had determined to be a threat to public safety. Though his “criminal” cases were closed appropriately, it I didn’t matter. Though he has lived in Iowa for 20 years, though he went to college and seminary, though he became a licensed Mennonite pastor, though he got married and has four United States citizen children in Iowa, none of this mattered. With no explanation, no due process, he was deported and his four children are now left without a father – not only an important source of love and care but also the primary contributor to the family’s finances.

People like Pastor Max and his family are the ones who are affected by programs like PEP. It will be pastors, gardeners, child care providers – our neighbors – who will be targeted, apprehended, and put on the deportation path. As a pastor, I grieve with the family of Kate Steinle and understand that the isolated incident of her tragic and unjust death is forming the foundation for this renewed effort. But I ask you not to use her tragedy to introduce a program which will serve to perpetuate even more injustice on the whole community of immigrants who are our friends, family members, and neighbors.