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The Rev. Matthew Gaventa The Rev. Matthew Gaventa

The Rev. Matthew Gaventa is Senior Pastor of University Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX. He was the 2012 recipient of the David H. C. Read Preacher/Scholar award given by Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York, NY.

Member of:

Presbyterian Church (USA)

Representative of:

Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, New York, NY


Matt Gaventa: Home Repair 101

Job 42:1-6, 10-17

23rd Sunday after Pentecost - Year B

October 28, 2018

 

I used to live in a slowly collapsing farmhouse. Just a few years back, in a small town in rural Virginia, my family and I were renting an old two-by-two that at some point in its long and undocumented history had clearly suffered either the slow withering of the foundation or perhaps it had been partially washed away by floods but the result regardless was that the house was slowly sinking in on itself. This had a variety of ill effects - no toy cars would stay put when you set them on the floor. Furniture along the outer walls of the house had to be carefully selected so that it wouldn't fall on top of us. Hanging pictures so they look level - which was never my specialty in the first place - became nearly impossible. But mostly, after a while, you just got used to it. A few extra hooks would align the pictures. A few extra bolts would secure the furniture. And for the rest of it, like the time during one particularly cold winter that the heating duct just snapped off from the vent underneath the living room, for the rest of it, we just relied on that most elemental repair tool. We just used duct tape. Thank God for duct tape. It couldn't fix the foundation but at least it could make the heat work. Without duct tape I don't think that place would have ever felt quite like home.

Of course, duct tape's reputation precedes it. You don't need me to tell you this. These days duct tape has a bit of a magical reputation - for household repairs, sure, but also for construction on a grander scale. A quick glance online will unearth dozens upon hundreds of uses I'm sure quite unimagined by the folks who first put duct tape into the world: we've got duct tape as a fabric, with which folks have made everything from everyday wallets to prom dresses; we've got something called Duct Tape Occlusion Therapy, in which duct tape gets applied to warts and left on the skin for an extended period of time, though the results of this treatment are somewhat in dispute. Not to mention of course the many, many ways in which duct tape has become a repair tool for projects far beyond its original imagination: like, as a tarp that covers storm damage or as a patchwork fix holding up a streetlight. As a cradle for a car bumper as it cruises down the interstate. Even a quick fix wrapped around the wing of an airplane as it streaks through the skies. You don't need me to preach this Gospel. It's pretty well attested. The world breaks all the time. Our old house wasn't the only place with a crack running through the foundation. Good thing we have duct tape to patch it all back together.

If we're honest, I think that's what this story feels like, here at the end of the long, hard work of the book of Job. It feels like a patch job. The Book of Job is a curious thing. It starts with two meager chapters of exposition - God makes a bet that Job will stay faithful if God takes everything away, and so, God takes everything away. Job's estate disappears; Job's children die; Job's body fails; Job is left with nothing - and then we have thirty-nine chapters in between, thirty-nine chapters  of poetry, thirty-nine chapters of lament, thirty-nine chapters of argument, thirty-nine chapters of Job and Job's friends and God going round after round after round over who gets to be angry and who gets to be in charge and who gets to complain and who does God think God is to make us suffer in this way and who does Job think he is to question or wonder or struggle and why of course, why do bad things happen to good people and why does the world have this crack running through it? And then, in chapter 42 - that's our chapter, that's the last one - in chapter 42 the story comes back and puts a little duct tape over the crack and calls it a day.

Job relents and bends the knee to the God who had destroyed his life in the first place. "I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore, I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes." It's an ending, but not a very satisfying one, like Job has been on hold with customer support for hours and hours and finally they pick up and tell him that actually the fire that erupted inside his computer and burned down his house really is his fault and eventually he just says, "Well, thanks for listening," and hangs up the phone. And then of course God does restore Job's fortunes. His wealth comes back. His estate comes back. He has a bunch of new children, which curiously I think is meant to paper over the demise of his old children, and he lives to see them all grow into prosperity and long life, the end. And somehow in these eight verses, we're supposed to forget the open wound that has been carved through the heart of the story. Somehow in these eight verses, we're supposed to just let go of all the needless suffering that preceded it. Something in these eight verses feels deeply unequal to the task at hand. Because we know that in Job's story, something in the world has cracked open and all we have at the end is somebody trying to duct tape it back together.

It's not the ending we want. Nobody wants to look out the plane window and see a line of duct tape running around the wing. In some ways the history of interpretation of Job is one long wrestling match with the abruptness of this ending, like even after thirty-nine chapters of back and forth, somehow, we still haven't gotten the answers we were looking for. In 1945, the poet Robert Frost published a short play called "A Masque of Reason" which he bills as nothing less than the 43rd chapter of the Book of Job, the additional ending we never quite got to read. Frost's play jumps to years later, at which point Job and Job's wife and God and Satan all reconnect and try to hash out all the unresolved stuff. Job gets to finally ask God the questions we're all asking: "I tried to think," Job says, "The reason might have been some other person's, but there is nothing You are not behind. I did not ask then, but it seems as if now after all these years, You might indulge me. Why did you hurt me so?" God even gives him half an answer - "I was just showing off to the Devil, Job," but even Frost can't put all the pieces back together. There's something unresolved in this story. Something fundamentally unresolved. Something fundamentally un-resolvable.

It's not the ending we want, but maybe it's the ending we need. Even in its abruptness, there's something refreshingly honest about these verses, something honest about what it is to have faith. Job doesn't quite get the answers he needs but at some point, he decides that he's heard enough. Job never quite gets the conversation he was hoping for, but at some point, he decides that at least he's had enough. After all, something has changed: God has appeared, God has listened, God has spoken into the gap. God has not answered all the questions. God has not repaired the breach. God has not undone the damage. And yet, Job has faith. Here at the end, I think Job chooses to have faith. Faith despite all of it. Faith born in this middling mess. Faith regardless of the outcome. Faith to move on. Faith to keep going. Faith to carry forward. It doesn't repair the cracks. Faith isn't something that repairs the cracks. It doesn't end the questions. It doesn't provide the answers. It doesn't make for happy endings. Faith doesn't put the world back together. At best, it's a patch job. But still, maybe it's just exactly what we need.

The most famous duct tape hack in history is without a doubt the one that saved the lives of three astronauts aboard the Apollo 13 spacecraft in 1970. Maybe you've seen the movie. As the craft was approaching lunar orbit, an oxygen tank exploded, which aborted the mission and sent the crew scrambling into the lunar module for the long trip home. One of the problems they had to solve - with the help of a crew of engineers back on earth - was how to attach a square carbon dioxide filter to the round opening of the lunar module's filtration system. The solution eventually, of course, involved the duct tape that the crew already had onboard, alongside some cardboard and a few plastic bags. So, perhaps it's unsurprising that for generations duct tape became standard issue equipment on every space flight. Just a few weeks ago, in fact, astronauts discovered a leak in the International Space Station - a hole a mere two millimeters thick, caused probably by a micrometeorite, but big enough to drain the air out of the place over the course of a couple of weeks. Instead, they fixed it right up. First, an astronaut stuck his finger over the hole to block it for a few minutes, and then, they went in with the duct tape.

I would love to ask an astronaut how it feels to look around the station and see a pile of duct tape in one of the storage bins. I mean, on one hand, you are piloting multiple millions of dollars' worth of technology put together by some of the smartest people on the planet. The International Space Station is literally the most ambitious assembly of global knowledge and production ever created. It is a little unsettling, or at least I might find it a little unsettling, to look back in the corner and see a bunch of duct tape, as if a project of this substance and of this deliberation might ever come to the point where we are using everyday household adhesives to put it back together. And yet, it has gotten them home before. So, I wonder instead if the astronaut looking at the duct tape thinks something else entirely. It's not just a sign of the cracks in the foundation, it's also a sign of the resolve of the mission. It doesn't just say look at everything that can go wrong. It also says we are going to get home. It says we are going to get home no matter what. It says we are going to get home no matter what befalls us. It says we are going to get home no matter the miles and no matter the damage and no matter the cracks and no matter the cost. It says we've come this far by faith and we are going to get home, even if we have to duct tape the wing on the side of the fuselage. But we are going to get home together.

This is the power of the faith in which we stand, in which Job stands, the power of faith to carry us into all the broken places, the power of faith to bring us home again. It is not the domain of easy answers. It is not the stuff of quick resolutions. It cannot repair the foundation. But it does come with courage. It comes with the courage of the children of God that says we will get home again and why therefore should we be afraid. No matter where we go. It may not be that the week ahead finds you hurtling between the stars. More likely, the week ahead finds you in the more routine excavations of the cracks that runs through everything. It may find you in the fire. It may find you in the dark. It may find you in the cold. But the Gospel is this. There is nowhere this week may find you that does not also come with the faithfulness of God who has been there since the beginning and who will outlast even the end. There is nowhere this week you may go where you will not also be met by the God who created all things and sustains all things and redeems all things, even the fire and even the dark and even the cold. So, have a little faith. It doesn't fix the foundation, but it can still bring us home together.

Let us pray.

Gracious God. So many of us pray to you today from hard places. So many of us are walking through fire, or suffering in the cold, or stranded in the dark. Give us the faith to believe in your promises, that in believing we might encounter the world with courage, and that in courage we might serve you with compassion, from now and until the end. In your mercy we pray, Amen.

 


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