United Church of Christ, Yarmouth Maine
Rev. Kate Dalton
July 28, 2019
Scripture: Tobit 1:3; 2:1-14; 3:1-6, 11-17; Job 3:1-11
Imagine what it must have been like to be Tobit. Here’s a guy who is doing everything right. He’s following God’s commandments. He is known for his righteousness and his charity. And then it all goes bad. Picture the scene. Tobit is sitting at home waiting to share the feast of Pentecost with others. He has sent his son Tobias out to gather guests. I can imagine Tobit being quite pleased with himself. He has the resources to offer a feast meal (it is the Jewish festival of the weeks) and he is kind and generous enough to share with others who are less fortunate than himself. He’s prepared everything and now he is just waiting for the guests. He’s waiting for a chance to serve, a chance to be generous, a chance to honor God.
The door opens. Tobit is anxious to welcome his guests and realizes Tobias has returned – alone. Not only has Tobias returned alone – he has some bad news. There is a Jew laying murdered in the street. I can imagine Tobit springing into action – without really thinking. Tobit goes, recovers the body, and respectfully buries it the next day. And then Tobit goes blind, loses his patience, and pleads to God to end his misery.
Here’s the part of the story you didn’t hear. The book of Tobit begins by explaining that Tobit made a practice of burying Israelites who had been killed by reigning King, Sennacherib. Tobit’s actions made the king angry; Tobit’s property is confiscated and Tobit flees Ninevah so he wouldn’t be killed. Eventually Sennacherib is assassinated by his sons and Tobit is safe to return to Ninevah. This morning’s story happens after Tobit has returned.
So, I wonder why burying the dead this time is so different from when he buried the dead under King Sennacherib. Clearly, he suffers for burying the dead killed by Sennacherib. He loses all of his property. Tobit fears for his life and flees his home – but there is no mention of despair.
This time, however, Tobit touches the dead on a feast day and there is the suggestion that God is punishing him, he has broken the ritual rules and he seemingly spirals into despair. Tobit says,
“For it is better for me to die than to live, because I have had to listen to undeserved insults, and great is the sorrow within me. “
Here’s what I wonder after reading this morning’s scripture:
If Tobit had the chance for a do-over – would he make the same decision? It’s a bit frustrating to me that the scripture doesn’t have Tobit consider the value of his actions while he is trying to combat his despair.
What are the ritual rules of our world today?” In the United Church of Christ, we don’t assert a list of ritual rules that people must obey – but all of us live in a culture that essentially has ritual rules. Rules that, if we break them, can result in crippling insults. What are those rules?
And do you decide to break the rules? How? What compels you to be strong enough to act according to your internal compass rather than the culture’s rulebook?
And then how do you cope? How do you cope with the aftermath? Tobias was clearly having a difficult time. So difficult that he prayed that God would kill him. Breaking the rules is not easy. Even when we act from a place centered on God – suffering is entirely possible. So, then what. How do we find our way through the fear and insults? How do we guard ourselves from the pit of despair? How do we keep the purpose of our actions at the forefront of our thoughts as a way to help balance out the backlash?
One thing I love about this story and the story of Job is the reality of lament. The Bible is not just stuffed full of feel good stories where the good guys get what they deserve, and the bad guys suffer. Job and Tobias are good guys. They are suffering. In fact, they are suffering partly because they are good guys. Suffering is part of real life. Lament and sadness are part of real life. We do not need to hide it. We do not need to dull it. These stories remind us that it’s ok to cry out to God in despair. It’s ok to cry out to God and ask for help. It’s ok to cry out to God in anger.
And, we have to realize that we were not created to live lives free of lament. We were created to enact God’s kingdom here, in this place, and at this time. That means that sometimes we will be compelled to break society’s rules. That means that sometimes we will face ridicule and maybe even punishment. That means that sometimes we will cry to God to put us out of our misery and sometimes we will shake our fist at God in righteous anger. But it also means we are journeying with God whose steadfast love will always endure. May we comfort one another, lament together, and remember our purpose as we journey so that we can have the courage to break the rules for God’s sake. Amen.