A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on October 17, 2021 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: Job 38: 1-7, 34-41
When I was growing up, there was only one purpose in my parents inviting relatives or friends round for dinner. I wasn’t a great conversationalist, and I quickly realised the adults were allowed to ask the children questions like ‘What are you taking for your exams?’ or ‘What do you think you’d like to be when you grow up?’, but children were not allowed to ask adults questions back, like ‘When do you think you’re ever going to get a pay rise?’, ‘Isn’t it about time you faced the fact you drink too much?’ or ‘How long do you seriously think that obviously fragile marriage of yours is going to last?’ I’d realised as a child that a lot of socialising is actually a game, but when you’re a child you haven’t been completely let into what the rules are. So I regarded the food part of the evening as a prologue to the time when my father would say, ‘I wonder if we might play a game.’ Looking back, I suspect my father was the same as me, and preferred a game that called itself a game to a game that didn’t.
We mostly used to play acting games, like Adverbs and Charades. There was always a lot of sending people out of the room, which was really an excuse for a covert second helping of dessert. But one game we never played, more difficult than any of those acting games, which in fact I only discovered later in life, is called Questions. I came across Questions in Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, which follows the exploits of two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In Stoppard’s play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern pass the time by playing Questions. Their dialogue is a dazzling to-and-fro of catching each other out. It’s like verbal tennis, except every utterance must be a question. If you hesitate, change the subject, or say something that isn’t a question, you lose a point – and there’s an elaborate scoring system in which three points make a game and three games make a match. You also can’t ask an existential question, like ‘What is life?’ or a rhetorical question, like ‘How long must I endure this tiresome game?’, or a question that largely repeats a previous question.
When it’s played well, as by Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the play, it’s amazing to watch, because you both need to suspend your desire to say something that isn’t a question, and try to keep up with the rapid-fire interchange of counter questions. So
Why did you come to church today?
What would you have me do instead?
What are your favourite things to do on Sundays?
What would you recommend?
What did you do like doing when you were a child?
What does childhood have to do with adult life?
Why don’t you like to think about difficult things?
Would you like me only to enjoy the things you enjoy?
Then the interchange might stop because the last question could be accused of being existential, rhetorical, or changing the subject, or all three. But keeping going for eight questions is pretty rare.
The serious issue behind the apparently trivial game of Questions is this. Is answering a question with another question simply an evasion of any genuine dialogue, even to the point of hostility and exasperation – or could it instead be the joint entry of two conversation partners into a deep mystery? Imagine you took away the penalty for hesitation, and gave each other all the time you needed. Then keep the playfulness, but take away the element of competition. Then take away the cleverness, and turn it into a project of each player asking a deeper question on the same trajectory as the previous one. Now you’ve turned an idle party game into a conversation you may remember for the rest of your life.
You’ve also gone to the heart of the book of Job. Job loses everything, and what he doesn’t know is that the reader is waiting to see if he will curse God. Job’s friends assume the issue is a moral one, and Job’s losses are a result of him having done something wrong. But eventually Job dismisses them, and realises his dispute is with God alone. Job rails against God, and reels off a list of quite reasonable questions that he demands that God answer. In chapter 38 and 39, of which we heard two parts this morning, God begins to respond. But God’s response is not what we’re anticipating. There isn’t a big reveal that explains why things have turned out so badly for Job. Instead, God unfurls an overwhelming list of questions.
God’s long speech covers 20 areas of the natural world, and in each case, God asks whether Job is capable of comprehending or conceiving of the ways of each of these creatures or phenomena. The speech covers earth, sea, morning, the underworld, light, snow, storm, rain, stars, clouds, the lion, raven, ibex, wild ass, ox, ostrich, horse, hawk, and falcon. The effect is twofold. Job finds himself no longer furious but awestruck, humbled by his tiny place in a colossal universe of immense complexity and deft design. Meanwhile his situation is transformed from a problem into a mystery. A problem is a straightforward deficit like a breakage or a malfunction that you can simply fix and can return to how it should be; a mystery is something unique and wondrous, which absorbs the whole of your intellect, emotion, aptitude and experience, and you can only enter, after which your heart and soul will never be the same again. Before God’s speech in chapters 38 and 39, Job is saying ‘Why won’t you fix this problem?’ After this speech, Job is saying, ‘Take me with you into this mystery.’
Over the last 24 hours, our community has been hosting the annual conference on Theology and Disability, with the theme ‘(Still) Calling from the Edge.’ It’s the tenth conference, and the second to be held online. Participants in the ten conferences, several hundred people in total, come from extraordinarily diverse backgrounds, and have lived experience of a wide range of disability. But as far as I’ve discovered, through conversations with many involved, participants have two things in common. They have experience and gifts that church and society have seldom understood, rarely honoured, and frequently suppressed. And they have questions that challenge the location from which theology has often been done and the subjects that theology conventionally addresses. In other words, they’re looking for receptivity and belonging in church and society, and they’re drawing us all into deeper relationship with God.
I want to pause for a moment and reflect on three possible meanings of the phrase, ‘Calling from the edge.’ One is to say, ‘Hello, look over here will you, there’s some of us on the edge, neglected, sometimes scorned, and invariably forgotten by everyone else.’ One weekend a year in our community we turn everyone’s attention to a group of people who have a lot to say and whose wisdom and perspective is too often excluded. That’s the first meaning, and it’s not untrue, but it’s far from the whole truth of what’s going on in this phrase.
A second meaning is to say, ‘Anyone who sings the Magnificat, which speaks of God in Christ exalting the humble and meek, anyone who reads Matthew 25, which talks of meeting Christ in those experiencing disadvantage, anyone who reads the Beatitudes, which say “Blessed are you who mourn,” and anyone who knows the story of St Martin, who gave his cloak to a man in desperate trouble who was later revealed to him to be Christ, knows that the edge, rather than the centre, is where the kingdom of God is to be found. So calling from the edge is calling for a renewal of church and society to be reshaped along kingdom lines, a call to turn the world upside-down – and those who are on the edge already are calling others to join them.’
That’s getting closer to the truth. But a third meaning is to realise calling is another word for vocation. What calling from the edge means above all is the discovery that those who live with disability have a particular vocation, and only when they get together, and only when the questions they are asking take centre stage, and only when they are seen for once for what they uniquely are, precious, honoured and loved in God’s sight, and not for what they are judged to be not, can that true vocation, by which God is renewing the earth and inaugurating the kingdom, truly be discovered and embodied and lived out as a blessing to everyone. For each of us discovers our vocation when, often with the help of others, we reflect on who we uniquely are, what we alone have experienced, and how wondrously we’re made, and discover what we can be and do and say that only we can be and do and say. And the catch is that God has chosen not to bring the kingdom without us but through us – so if the kingdom is to be all God calls it to be, we must respond to our calling and play our role in realising it on earth as in heaven.
Perhaps every disabled person has experienced others regarding them as ‘that annoying person who keeps asking us to change things or keeps needing us to adapt so they can participate or belong.’ In other words, almost every person with a disability is accustomed to being seen as one who asks questions that invite others to live in a bigger, more complex, but more wonderful world. Which brings us back to chapters 38 and 39 of the book of Job. What we discover in the book of Job is that the one who asks questions that invite others to live in a bigger, more complex, but more wonderful world is called God. God is so annoying. God keeps calling from the edge, to say, ‘Is your world, is your church, big enough and complex enough to accommodate me? Only if you listen to my questions and allow yourself to be humbled and inspired by the universe my questions point to will your life be as wondrous as I made it to be.’
And that brings us back, finally, to the game of Questions we explored earlier, and the transformation in the way we play it. This is a challenge for everyone, those with named disabilities and those with hidden, unnamed ones. Are the questions disability asks about God going to be like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern questions, combative, annoying, impossible to stay with because someone always loses patience or can’t respond? Or are we all going to allow ourselves to be drawn into a rather slower, less abrasive, more
absorbing shared pondering, where each contribution invites a further question, more profound, far-reaching and awe-inspiring than the one before? Job had a sequence of quite legitimate, entirely appropriate, and very urgent questions. Yet in return, God gave him not answers, not solutions, but a torrent of further questions. Those questions were not defensive, not evasive, not hesitant. They were expansive, humbling, and inspiring. They led Job to transformation, wonder, and worship. They do the same to us.