Jul 012010

Herewith a sermon by VCFA graduate Hilary Mullins, not a former student of mine, though she was in a novel workshop with me once, just a friend, but an old and good friend who comes up to the campus every residency to visit and sits in for a lecture or two or a reading. I has fond memories of long evenings spent in Francois Camoins’ room in Noble with Hilary and Ralph Angel and any number of students and faculty rotating in and out. Good friends, good conversation.

I offer this sermon in the Numéro Cinq spirit of subversiveness and outlawry. Once upon a time, the sermon was a hot nonfiction form. Books of sermons were routinely published and became best sellers. Nowadays, creative nonfiction is pretty narrowly defined and almost all literary prose has turned secular. I offer this sermon to remind you of a form, now too often ignored, a vibrant form that by definition looks to the deepest places of the human heart. Also to remind you to look to the side, to avoid defining yourselves, your reading and your writing too narrowly.


Hilary Mullins, Author’s Note:

Sermons are a great form, and–as a writer addressing other writers–I am here to tell you it’s a form you do not have to be ordained to practice. You should be informed  of course, but that is not the same as being ordained. In my case, I’ve taken a couple of seminary classes plus a three-year lay training program in Vermont where I live. I have also studied a fair amount on my own. But that is all. And yet it’s enough.

Naturally, since I also run the services I preach at, my sense of the sermon’s  potential exceeds the parameters of theHilary Mullins-background changed sermon itself. For me the form is the whole service: from the prelude and call of worship, to the first hymn and prayer, to the sustained silence that comes next, and on and on, each element flowing along in the larger structure of the liturgy, creating an ongoing rhythm that, if you do it right, wakes people up—to themselves, to each other, to the deeper  river running through all things.

But as for the sermon itself, it has its own dynamics as well. Even more obviously than a short story or an essay, the sermon is a wonderfully flexible form that you can shape shift in just about any direction that will serve, mixing facts and figures with quotations or poetry, alternating straight-up exegesis with story. And in the liberal denominations I work in, which are Unitarian Universalist and Congregationalist, I have the freedom to work with texts beyond the Bible. For instance, when it comes to picking scripture for a Sunday, I have often paired a Biblical passage with a poem, using works by Rumi, Mary Oliver, Sharon Olds, and Gerard Manley Hopkins. Some denominations won’t allow this, it’s true. But the limitations are not in the form itself.

Then there are effects that, though they don’t play in a reprinted sermon, work well in person with a congregation before you. Smile when you stand up, and they’ll smile back. Then as you get going, talk quiet or talk loud, slow up, slow down, use your body. Speak as if you were a channel for something good and something good can happen. And maybe best of all, the thing that other writers so rarely get to do: look in their eyes. Worlds are there. And they will come forth as they look back at you.

“Hear My Call”

By Hilary Mullins

Bethany Church
United Church of Christ
Randolph, Vermont
November 11, 2007


O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead
They were engraved on a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives,
And that at the last
He will stand upon the earth;
And after my skin has been thus destroyed,
Then in my flesh I shall see God,
Whom I shall see on my side,
And my eyes shall behold,
And not another.
Job 19: 23-27 (NRSV)

“Villainy,” as the writer John Cheever once wrote in his journals, “is essential to the dynamics of narrative.”

Villainy essential to the dynamics of a story?

What did Cheever mean by that?

Back to high school English: A story must have a plot and a plot requires conflict: man against man, man against society, man against nature. And when it’s “man” against “man,” typically what you have is a hero and a villain, and it’s the villain’s role to stand between the hero and what she or he wants.

Job, you’ll note is a story. And more than anything, the Bible is a collection of stories—not sermons or essays. Stories.

Let me for a moment refresh your memory of the story of Job.

Job, as my study bible puts it, is a righteous sheik. He is, in Old Testament terminology, blameless & upright, fearing God and turning away from evil.

He is also prosperous. He has 7000 sheep, 3000 camels, 500 yoke of oxen, 500 donkeys, and “very many servants.”

Last but not least, Job and his wife have been fertile: they have seven sons & three daughters, a whole big pile of young ones who, though they don’t appear to be as righteous as their poppa, are a happy bunch, seeming to spend their whole time at parties with each other.

So. On one particular court day in Heaven, the Old Testament Satan reports he has been walking around on Earth. God says, “Have you considered my servant Job? There is no one like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.”

Satan in this story has not yet been turned into God’s arch enemy  the way he is by later tradition—but he is not the best fellow at this point either. He’s cynical and jaded and suggests to God that the only reason Job is so God-fearing and virtuous is because of his good fortune. What if, Satan asks, if Job’s life were blighted? Then he will curse you God whom now he praises.

And hence begins the series of tests all remember, though it’s easy to forget how bad it really gets for Job.

First to go are the 500 yoke of oxen and the 500 donkeys, taken by raiders who also kill the servants.

Then go the 7000 sheep, fallen on by a fire from the sky that also burns more servants; then more raiders!

And look, there go the camels and the rest of the servants.

But now comes the worst of all: a great wind slams across the desert, striking the four corners of the house where Job’s seven sons and three daughters are taking their pleasure, eating and drinking—the house collapses; the children are killed.

Hearing the news all in one fell swoop, Job tears his robe, shaves his head, falls on the ground—and worships God. He refuses to see God as the villain.

So Satan ups the ante, winning permission from God to afflict Job’s body—which he does by lacerating his flesh with sores—with open, oozing, itching, burning-all-over-his-body sores.

Job goes out to sit in the ashes. I imagine him squatting there in the soft and soggy grey mound,  moaning quietly in pain.

His wife comes out, sees him sitting scabby and soot-streaked, says, “Do you still persist in your integrity? Curse God and die!”

(Of course, given its time and place, this story does not tell us how she feels—she’s lost everything too, but the story never departs from the premise that the loss is Job’s alone.)

In any case, Job does not curse anyone—that is, till his “friends” arrive. There are three of them—Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar—his good friends. But we all know that there are times when friends do more harm than good.

In this case, they start out right: “When they saw him from a distance, they did not recognize him, and they raised their voices and wept aloud: they tore their robes and threw dust in the air upon their heads. They sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great.”

Can you see it? The man has lost everything, is seizured by constant bodily pain. Hunkered there in the ashes, he is dumbstruck.

Then he breaks his 7-day silence: not by cursing God but by cursing the day of his birth. He makes that day the villain. “Let the day perish in which I was born, and the night that said, ‘a man-child is conceived.’ Let that day be darkness! May God above not seek it, or light shine on it.”

He goes on in this vein: “Why is light given to one in misery, and life given to the bitter in soul who long for death but it does not come…”

His speech, which I will not read all of here, is one long eloquent howl.

“I have no rest,” he says, “but trouble comes.’

So what do his friends do then? Do they nod and tell him to talk on some more if he needs to? Do they set a sympathetic hand on his back? Or what about offer him a glass of wine?

No—at this point they stop sympathizing. Once they finally open their mouths, his friends react to Job’s curse by announcing that Job must somehow deserve his misfortunes:  they argue that divine wisdom and justice are infallible and that somehow, some way, even if he doesn’t know it, Job must have done something wrong to bring all this disaster on himself.

That is, they blame him! They make him the villain. After all, as John Cheever knew, somebody’s got to be the bad guy, and since Job’s friends’ theology doesn’t allow them to consider the possibility that God is the villain, quite logically the bad guy must be Job himself.

It goes back and forth like this for a while. I won’t bore you with the details. But even when Job protests his righteousness—which we readers of the story know is true, given the prologue of the story–his friends persist in blaming him.

Job’s intense pain at this insult on top of injury is evident: it’s almost as if the pain of his friends’ refusal to continue to simply grieve with him makes the rest of his pain all the more intolerable.

He asks, “How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words?”

And then he says:

“Have pity on me, have pity on me, O you my friends, for the hand of God has touched me!
Why do you, like God, pursue me, never satisfied with my flesh?
O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!
O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on  a rock forever!
For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last, he will stand upon the earth,
and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,
whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!

Job is not the first to wish for this. And we have of course great works written out of great suffering—the book of Job I bet being one of them. For how could anyone write a book like this and not know suffering himself? How could the man who wrote this book make Job cry out like that if he hadn’t likewise cried out himself, silently or otherwise?

Because I can tell you from my own experience as a writer that sometimes—not always, but sometimes– the cry of a writer’s character is her very own cry. And if it’s true that Job’s wail came from deep within the chest of this ancient writer, then how wonderful  it is that this now anonymous author’s wish came true: his words, having become part of a book perennially loved around the world, are as if engraved on a rock forever.

But what a price to pay to get great books! Let great books write themselves if the price of their creation is the pig-headed, hard-heartedness of friends. Because we all know a Job. I mean, let the hyperbole go—the 7000 sheep and the 3000 camels, the very very many servants—we all have friends in greater or lesser pain, people who call to us out of the depths, and rather than hear their cry—what do we often do? Do we sit with them in their pain?

Well, maybe sometimes. But there’s something else that happens too, happens all too frequently: we blame them. We may do it more subtly than Job’s friends, but we do it all the same.

For instance, as soon as someone begins to describe a condition they suffer from, let’s say a medical condition– how often do we immediately begin suggesting doctors, medicines, studies, cures?

Likewise if someone is suffering from a situation that is emotionally painful—how often we begin with our solutions! The single person who complains of loneliness for instance, is repeatedly , brightly, told, ‘The minute you stop looking is when you’ll find someone!’  –Regardless of whatever that single person’s own experience might be of looking or not looking.

But the fact is our proffered solutions are not always right. And too often we say them for the wrong reasons anyway. I have noticed myself that when I hear of someone else’s misfortune—an accident or disease—that what I want to know right away are the facts. And though I may be genuinely concerned about the people  involved, that’s not the only motivation I have for wanting those facts: immediately my head of its own accord is running a risk calculus.

I’m not proud of this, but it is I think a profoundly human response. Motivated by my own fear of illness or accident, I find myself automatically trying to figure out what that other person did wrong—so I can avoid their mistake and stay safe.

But it’s not just that our own fear limits our ability to respond compassionately to others’ misfortune. It’s also that we find it so hard to see—to really see and feel– another human being in so much pain.

And why?

Simply because it IS hard.

James Baldwin, another writer and a great soul of a man, put it this way: the pain of another person, he wrote, “is infinitely more real and unbearable than one’s own.” And sometimes it really is more than we can bear, to sit with someone when there are no answers. No solutions. No cures. In cases like that, we’re prone to twist like spiders over a close fire, turning and turning on a fraying thread, desperate to climb away from that scalding heat, to talk instead of action and hope.

Steven Levine, a wise Buddhist who has worked with dying people for years, tells the story of a woman who was suffering in the hospital from a cancer that would eventually kill her. She said she had two kinds of visitors. The first were those who came in and could not sit, who had to be adjusting her shade or her sheets,  who had to pat her hand, who had to be doing something, because they could not stand it—the terrible physical pain she was in. Ironically, this just made things harder for her because of the strain she felt from their sheer discomfort.

But there was a second kind of visitor: people who came and sat with her who did not have to DO anything. They could just sit and be with her in the pain she was in without trying to change it. And those visitors were the ones who actually gave her the support she needed.

But how do we do it? Loving is no easy business, and the discomfort we feel when we are confronted by Job makes us squirm, either because we’re stricken with anxiety that the same will happen to us, or because God knows we love the man so much we would, it seems, nearly cut off our own arm just to stop his pain. God, we pray, please please make it stop.

Steven Levine has one suggestion: he says we must first learn to make room in our hearts for our own pain. He tell us that those people who have thoroughly plumbed the depths of their own pain—turned and faced it and found that though the flames burned the fire did not destroy them—that those people have more of the wherewithal they need to sit with others in their pain without trying to change it by offering solutions or blaming the person—subtly or otherwise.

But the Christian tradition has another element to offer us in our efforts as well, and that is the Redeemer. But lest I be misunderstood, let me make it clear I don’t mean to conflate the Christian redeemer with the redeemer Job speaks of—his is after all, an Old Testament story, and I think we should refrain from imposing later Christian meaning back onto ancient Hebrew texts. But what Job IS asking for is someone on his side—someone who knows the truth of his heart and will redeem him out of his pain, making him new again.

And as Christians who believe in God, that’s what we have too, whether we think of Christ or of the abiding spirit Jesus called Abba –father—daddy. For God is with us: we do not have to bear another’s pain alone. God is there; God is here. And the more we cultivate our awareness of this in our daily lives—through prayer and practice and fellowship and service—the more we are aware of it, of God, in the presence of another person’s pain.

With these two things together—the practice of living with our own pain, the practice of knowing God here and now–we may be able to give the Jobs of the world what they actually need: our presence as we walk a ways with them through the fire—whatever that fire is.

Think how different the story of Job would be if his friends, rather than arguing that he must be to blame, had done something like that, continuing to sit quietly with him after he had begun to speak,  bringing God’s love into that circle.

And I don’t mean that phrase— bringing God’s love into that circle—figuratively. I mean it for real.

All I can say is this: I haven’t worked as the minister of a church or as a chaplain in a hospital, but during those times when I have been able to just sit with someone—a student or a friend or a lover– someone in the depths of their struggle, –when I’ve managed to be there with no resistance, just being present, I have been amazed—not by the pain—but by the sheer love I feel, love for the person I’m with, whether I know them well or not.

And why? Because their deeper spirit is revealed, and I see the child of God in them they are. I don’t know how else to put it. And this always amazes and arouses in me a fierce and piercing love.

But more than my love, there’s something bigger in it: I feel a love beyond us both that I can only identify as God’s love. And this is the gift that can sometimes come with suffering: when at last we let go of our need for a villain, for a reason, for something we can solve–then the love of God is revealed. And whether we always get it right or not, that’s the gift we must try to share: the love of God.

For as the banner here on the wall of our church says, “Together we make visible the face of God.”  And we do. Look around you! Now, here, all around you, in this moment, in these pews–her face, his face, the face of that little child, your very own face too as others look at you—the face of God.

Together we make visible the face of God.

That is our practice, that is our faith. And this morning I pray we will always continue to make it so.

Amen and blessed be.

  7 Responses to “Hear My Call: Sermon — Hilary Mullins”

  1. Thank you Hilary, this was lovely.

  2. Moving and intelligent, Hilary, and thank you. All of a sudden writing sermons seems like a good idea.

    Have you read Marilynne Robinson on religion? Her essay “Onward Christian Liberals” (Best American Essays 2007, ed. D. F. Wallace) got me thinking about religion again as well. She also has a book out, The Death of Adam.

  3. Thanks Natasha and thanks Gary.

    I’ve read Marilyn Robinson’s fiction–“Housekeeping” was a revelation to me in college–but not her theological stuff, tho I’ve thought I’d probably like it. I’ll try to get my hands on that “Onward” essay!

  4. Hilary,

    Robinson really made me stop and think. I give “Onward” brief summary in my essay somewhere in this blog. But read the whole thing!

    But this is the thought that struck me most and made me rethink Presbyterianism in particular and religion in general: “Calvinism encourages a robust sense of human fallibility, in particular forbidding the idea that human beings can set any limits to God’s grace.” Because of our fallibility and because of this distance that cannot be closed, none of us—and no institution, religious or other—can claim a mandate from God we can pass on to others. Our history is filled with too many examples where our institutions have gone horribly astray. But our existence is based on His love of us, all of us, a condition just as unassailable. It is this love that gives us hope and encourages us to keep trying, keep finding ways to better our lives and the lives of those around us, and keep testing and refining our institutions. It is when this love is forgotten that heads begin to roll. We have every reason to doubt what we say and do, but our salvation, here on earth and later, depends on constant love and application of our faith. Still we doubt, but doubt encourages tolerance, allowing us to accept each other and “live together in peace and mutual respect.” Uncertainty is not a detraction from faith but one of its terms.

    • Thanks Gary. The quotation you give shows a side of Calvinism that does not get airtime in UU circles, as both sides of our denomination arose as responses against Calvinism back in the 18th and 19th centuries. For instance, here’s one of my favorite old sages fulminating about Calvinism:

      “Why should we be told that there is an everlasting (state of burning, in order to induce us to love our Father in heaven? O! Incongruous doctrine! Let it be banished from the world, and let the angel of the covenant proclaim the love of God to mankind; and may the world be converted.”

      That’s Hosea Ballou, who was not only a great Universalist preacher of the 19th century but a man who like other great religious geniuses before and after him) had an acutely present sense of that love of God you mention here….

  5. remarkable that you sent me this a few days before my visiting a family with horrific pain. it would have helped to have read it before. it would have reminded me, to stop, as i usually do when i feel strong emotions, and ask for help, to breathe with the word compassion, to repeat the mantra a buddhist taught me, i will acknowledge and accept suffering and meet it with courage and caring and kindness.

    yes wonderful stuff hillary

    • Peter, your mantra is something I think I should begin to use myself. Too often when I’m with someone and their pain becomes nakedly and vividly apparent, my first response can still sometimes be be a kind of muted, inchoate panic. But your mantra has all the pieces I need to remind me of what I actually need to do in those moments.

      Thank you!

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