Making Our Case

Rev. Stephanie Paulsell

Sermon by the Rev. Dr. Stephanie Paulsell, Affiliated Minister in the Memorial Church; Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of the Practice of Christian Studies, Harvard Divinity School, sermon on Sunday, October 14, 2018 in the Memorial Church.



My mother was a runner before the days of fancy running shoes and weekend road races.  When I was a kid, she would lace up a pair of thin-soled Keds and run around our neighborhood after supper in the evenings. None of my friends’ moms did this.  It was the late 60s, early 70s, and jogging was just beginning to become popular in the United States.  My mother was an unusual sight running around our neighborhood, graceful and fleet.  She has always delighted in the strength of her body—always the first one into the waves when we went to the ocean, always the one to accumulate the most laps when we went to the pool.  Even now, in her 80s, she is limber and active, although she walks now, instead of running. I imagine she ran during my childhood because it made her feel good. I expect it was also a relief to get away from family life for a bit, to enjoy a little solitude.

I don’t remember her talking with me about why she ran, but I do remember my mother telling me that when she ran through our neighborhood, she always had an escape plan in mind.  She would think about which houses she could run to, who might answer the door, who might be sitting out in their back yard and hear her call for help if anyone threatened her, or followed her, or pulled up alongside her in a car.  My mother ran to enjoy a little peace and quiet.  But the cost of that peace and quiet was a certain vulnerability, and a mind that couldn’t afford to be anything but alert and watchful.  

It’s not that our neighborhood was particularly dangerous.  The truth is, there is no neighborhood where women don’t have to make calculations about our vulnerability as we run, or walk, or push a baby stroller.  Depending on our own experiences, and the experiences of people we know, the threat of sexual violence might vibrate at the front of our minds, or lie dormant in the back, nearly indiscernible.  But it doesn’t take much to bring it forward, because awareness of that threat is, to some degree, always there for women.  Of course, it’s not only girls and women who experience sexual violence.  People of all genders do.  But we do seem to be expected to understand vulnerability to sexual violence as a normal part of being female and to arrange our lives accordingly.  Even now, in the #metoo era, sexual harassment and abuse remain part of growing up, part of being in school, part of going to church, part of dating, part of going to parties, part of working, part of walking alone, part of jogging alone, part of life. 

Indeed, the threat of sexual violence is so much a part of life for women that it often goes unspoken.  We do pass on from mother to daughter, sister to sister, friend to friend the kind of information my mom passed to me:  have an escape plan when you’re out by yourself.  Yell “fire” instead of “help.”  Bring a canister of mace with you or a really loud whistle.  Make sure your car is in good working order.  Lock your doors.  Don’t speed when you’re driving alone so you won’t get pulled over. Women share such practical wisdom all the time.  What we don’t talk about so much is how sexual violence shapes our lives, our careers, our relationships, our engagement with the world.  We don’t talk about what we didn’t do, where we didn’t go, what we didn’t achieve because of sexual violence, or the risk of it.  We just fold those absences into our lives. 

The #metoo movement, the Kavanaugh hearings and all that has flowed from them have begun to unfold those absences, and spread them out on the table of our society for all to see.  Like Professor Anita Hill before her, Professor Christine Blasey Ford—with nothing to gain, and a lot to lose-- spoke with great dignity about how sexual aggression and violence had impacted her life.   An academically gifted fifteen-year-old girl began to struggle with school.  An outgoing athlete began to experience anxiety and depression.  Decades later, Professor Ford was still trying to come to terms with her experience in therapy.  Thirty-six years later she can still recall the laughter of her assailants, can still feel the panic and the pain.  The sheer unfairness of this, the injustice of it, makes me tremble.  To say nothing of the fact that Brett Kavanaugh was, only days later, seated on the Supreme Court.  Or that Professor Ford has had to live in hiding, apart from her children.  Or that she was mocked by the president of the United States at a political rally.  The laughter of the crowd in response is now indelible on my hippocampus.

So when I read the lessons for this morning, Job’s words stood out to me.  “Today,” Job says “my complaint is bitter.”  Having endured loss after loss, Job wants justice and longs to argue his case before God.  “If I knew where I could find God,” Job says, “I would lay my case before him, and fill my mouth with arguments.”  Job wants to be heard and heeded.  He believes his case is reasonable, and if he could only lay it out God would respond, and “I should be acquitted for ever,” Job says, “by my judge.”

We all know what this feels like.  To long for things to be put right.  To make our case so clearly that others cannot help but be convinced.  But in spite of eloquent advocates in every age, the same injustices keep getting passed down, from generation to generation.  Sexual violence derails lives and shatters communities.  That’s why in every violent conflict that has ever been, it has been used as a weapon of war. The racism that Martin Luther King, Jr. once warned could someday plow our civilization under continues to inflict trauma and undermine human dignity.  Even though God has raised up prophets in our midst to make a case for our shared humanity, our society cannot even say with one voice that black lives matter.  And looming over all our ills is the galloping catastrophe of climate change.  The possibility that we might rouse ourselves to respond to it with the seriousness it demands seems so remote, even as entire communities disappear into the maw of violent storms and uncontrollable fires, even though our best scientists have made their case, over and over and over again.  I hear my students, and my daughter, wonder out loud if they should even think of bringing children into this world.  Like Job, we have filled our mouths with arguments.  And we are choking on them. 

“If I could only find God,” Job says, “I would make my case before him.”  Job looks all around him, forward and backward, to the left and to the right — but God remains hidden, unknowable, silent.  Eventually though, God does speak to Job — from a whirlwind, the text says.  And from that whirlwind, God addresses Job in a speech that is famously harsh.  “I will ask the questions here,” God says.  “You gird up your loins and answer.  Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?  Where were you when I put down boundaries for the sea, wrapped the earth in clouds, and made the sun come up every morning of your life?  Do you know where I keep the snow and the hail or where the mountain goats give birth or where the gates of deep darkness are?  Who put wisdom in your inward parts, God asks.  Who gave understanding to your mind?”

One commentator on this passage describes God’s response to Job as “barely bearable consolation.”  And you can see why.  God’s words are not reassuring.  God doesn’t address the case Job has painstakingly made or offer a solution to the problem of evil.  Instead, a hidden God speaks from a whirlwind and overwhelms Job with the mystery and grandeur of creation.  God’s speech is beautiful, some of the most beautiful poetry in the Bible.  But if you think God missed the point, you are not alone among readers of the Book of Job.  “What kind of God is this,” one scholar writes, “who has nothing to say about Job’s torture?”  “The brunt of [God’s] testy intervention,” the literary critic Terry Eagleton has said, is “Who the hell do you think you are?”

Over the past week, I’ve been wondering if there’s a way to hear something different in Job’s encounter with God.  Job has so much trouble finding God — he looks in front of him and behind him, on his left and on his right, and God is nowhere to be found.  What difference would it make if we imagined the whirlwind from which God speaks as being Job’s whirlwind, the whirlwind of his inner life.  Maybe God has been inside of Job all along, hidden among the most secret parts of his pain.  And when God speaks from that chaotic whirlwind, God unleashes a cascade of questions that draws Job deeper and deeper into the grandeur of the world — especially the parts of the world that are inaccessible to Job, like the empty deserts where God sends rain, or the dens of lions, or the floor of the silent ocean.  Why does God do this?  Maybe God does this to open up a channel between Job, isolated in his suffering, and the world all around him, which holds more possibilities than Job can even begin to imagine. 

In his speech from the whirlwind, God looks out at the world God made and called good.  Job follows God’s gaze and they look together until Job realizes that he is looking not only with God but also at God.  “I had heard of you,” Job says, “by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”  In the mysteries of creation—including the mystery of his own humanity--Job finds God.  God is not before him or behind him.  God is all around him and within him.   There is more to the world than Job knows.  It is not just the place where he suffers.  It is a living creation, continually changing and bringing forth new life.  And there is also more to Job.  He does not have to be stuck in a changeless loop of suffering.  There’s a whirlwind inside him that could blow it all down.

In the story we heard read from Mark’s gospel this morning, Jesus turns our eyes, not to the grandeur of the crags where eagles build their nests or to the teeth of the sea monsters but rather to the grandeur of our shared humanity.  A young man comes to him and respectfully asks what he must do to inherit eternal life.  Jesus tells him to obey God’s commandments:  don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t bear false witness.  The young man tells Jesus that he has kept these commandments all his life.  And then Mark tells us that Jesus looked at this young man and loved him.    This is the only place in Mark’s entire gospel where Jesus is describing as loving someone.  Jesus looks at this young man the way that the God of the Book of Job looks at the world:  with awe, in wonder at the possibilities he contains.  Loving him, Jesus says to the young man, then “sell what you own, and give the money to the poor…then come, follow me.”

The young man doesn’t, of course.  He has a lot of possessions, and this invitation is too difficult for him to accept.  I say this without judgment.  I have not sold all that I have and given it away either.  But Jesus presents this possibility to the young man as if he could do it, as if it’s well within his capacity to give up what he has for the good of others.  That capacity remains hidden in that particular young man, visible, perhaps, only to Jesus.  It’s hard, he tells his disciples, for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  Hard, but not impossible.  For with God, he says, all things are possible.  Things do not have to be as they are.  The world can change; we can change.  And indeed, Jesus imagines a day when the way we do things now will be turned upside down:  many who are first, he says, will be last, and the last will be first.  Jesus is living as if that were true, and he is urging others—the rich young man, the disciples, us—to do the same.   

It hurt to watch Christine Blasey Ford testify.  She was terrified, she said.  She said she feared her testimony wouldn’t make a difference to an already-done deal but that she would be annihilated in the process.  Her memories triggered our memories.  Her stories evoked our stories.  The telephone lines of rape crisis centers across the nation lit up with an unprecedented barrage of calls from people from every walk of life.  Stories poured out onto social media, into the halls of congress, into the elevators the senators use.  It was a whirlwind of pain. 

But out of that whirlwind, the dignity and grandeur of human existence shone.  It shone in the courage of Dr. Ford and many others.  It shone in the sacrifice she and many others made for the common good.  It shone in the willingness of so many not to fall silent, not to give up, not to despair when it seemed that nothing had changed since Anita Hill gave her own courageous, sacrificial testimony so many years ago.  The mystery and grandeur of creation itself pulses through the vision so many people are working for of a world in which every single body is honored, and every person’s dignity cherished and protected.  A world in which we are courageous enough to change the way we live for the good of all.  A world in which a woman can lace up her sneakers on a summer evening and run without fear or anxiety, with room in her mind for the most creative, the most expansive thoughts to move.