A Sermon for the 4th Sunday after Pentecost
Year B – Proper 7 – 24 June 2012
John Edward Miller, Rector
Then the LORD answered Job out of the whirlwind:
“Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements– surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy? Or who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb? – when I made the clouds its garment, and thick darkness its swaddling band, and prescribed bounds for it, and set bars and doors, and said, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’?”
– Job 38:1-11
When evening had come, Jesus said to his disciples, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”
– Mark 4:35-41
O Lord, make us have perpetual love and reverence for your holy Name, for you never fail to help and govern those whom you have set upon the sure foundation of your lovingkindness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”
That’s what Jesus’ very own disciples yelled at him over the roar of wind and pounding waves. Their outcry reflected their fear and frustration. The boat was sinking despite their efforts to ride out the gale. And so, the disciples were desperate. In these dire conditions, they weren’t curbing their tongue. Faith wasn’t hanging in the balance; it was being blown away. Jesus’ teachings suddenly lost their appeal. The twelve now had one thing only on their mind: they wanted to survive, to be safe and sound, to be standing on terra firma again. As their wooden craft pitched and rolled with the swells, they were clinging to anything they could grab. They just wanted to avoid drowning.
Moreover, the disciples had turned to Jesus for help, and to their horror, they found him asleep. They couldn’t believe their eyes. All hell was breaking loose. The sea was about to swallow them whole. But their teacher was out like a light! All they could see was that Jesus had checked-out; it was as if he were no use to them in the crunch. Hopelessness covered them like a shroud. They were convinced that they were on their own to deal with their fate. And they were angry and afraid. That’s the context of the disciples’ outburst at the sleeping Jesus.
Their words strike us as harsh even 2000 years after they were shouted. But I suggest that we hold our judgment in abeyance, and consider that we’re in the same boat with the disciples. We’re human, and for us “to be or not to be” is always the question. Some degree of anxiety always accompanies us on life’s voyage. For we know that sudden storms arise, boats overturn, precious cargo spills out, and people are lost. These things happen, we are vulnerable, and life is fragile. This awareness strikes home from time to time. Rough conditions bring out basic emotions, and it is natural to express them. This is true for everyone; but the believer – the one who counts on God – feels even sharper pangs of confusion and loss than those who have nothing to believe in. We who rely on goodness and mercy may find the need to shake our fist at life’s unfairness, or at God, whom we expect to have a steady hand on the helm.
Have you ever felt that kind of fear, or been that frantic? I certainly have. I remember writing a sermon based on today’s lesson during the summer of 1997. I entitled it, “Don’t You Care?” For me it wasn’t a rhetorical question expecting a positive answer. It was an existential one – a deeply personal question that I was directing to God. And I was expecting an answer from God, just as the disciples did, and just as Job did long before us all. But the answer I was longing for was some clarity, an explanation of what was going on.
You see, life and death were on the line that summer. My wife was being treated for an aggressive cancerous tumor. Her situation struck me as so grossly unfair that I became paralyzed by thoughts and fears that I tried not to entertain. It wasn’t that I questioned God’s goodness, or God’s intentions; and it wasn’t that I doubted the power of compassion – God’s suffering with us. Those things were rock solid. My beliefs were not shaken. Rather, it was the feeling of profound disappointment that rolled over me like a tidal wave. I was disappointed that life couldn’t have been better designed, and better managed, so that the innocent would not suffer such pain.
Silence replaced words; I couldn’t find my voice – the voice I’ve counted on in my professional life. My intuition told me I was not alone, but the facts of my existence told me otherwise. I needed to relocate the love that I feared I’d lost.
That’s when the crucifix took on a whole new meaning for me. Throughout my life, I have been more attracted to Bethlehem than to Golgatha. The manger of the Christ child connects easily and directly to me. Of course, the cross of Christ affects me deeply too. But I find a steady diet of Good Friday is hard to digest. Babies are God’s language; they are fresh starts for the human race, brand new incarnations of hope. Christ crucified is about suffering and death – God’s, and ours. The crucifix makes that statement starkly. It is the icon of a brutal execution – a roughly cut wooden cross bearing the body of Christ, which hangs lifeless after enduring excruciating pain. Our Lord’s head, flopped forward onto his chest, is crowned with the thorns of mockery, his hands and feet are pierced by handmade nails, and his torso shows the insult of a Roman soldier’s spear. This is a powerful image. To gaze upon it is to have his suffering seared on one’s consciousness. So most of us take it in measured doses.
And yet the manger and the cross of Christ belong together. They proclaim the same message: God is with us. But when our vision is obscured, when our understanding is stunned by shock and fear, it is hard to take in that message of comfort.
Nevertheless, God with us is the way; God is the truth; and God is and the life. Jesus reveals that to us, and calls us to pay attention. From the beginning to end, his presence among us was meant to save us.
To order chaos in human life, God has to transform it. And to do that, God becomes one of us, and shares our lot. He endures what we endure, and suffers as we suffer, dying our death, — offering us his steady presence in the midst of what we can hardly understand. The thing about God’s love is that it reshapes what is flying apart into something whole, something good. In Christ there is a new creation. The old passes away; and look, the new has come.
So how does that happen, we might ask. Does the Lord ride to the rescue like the cavalry arriving in the nick of time to save fort Apache? Does Jesus don a cape and mask, is he faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and is he able to leap tall buildings in a single bound? Is God the super-hero always there to catch us when we fall?
In ancient Greek drama, there was a literary (and mechanical) device called the deus ex machina. By means of it the playwright lowers a god by boom and crane onto the stage, saving the drama from collapse. When all seems lost, this is the way to safety and resolution. Many a modern Christian prays that God has just such a plan in mind. You might call it a theological “on demand” feature. If we have the right plastic, and the right pass code, we can treat God like an ATM and draw out just the right amount of saving grace when and where we need it.
We believe that “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” The question is what form does his help take? Here is what the Psalmist said about God’s help:
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult.
– Psalm 46:2-3
But what did the poet mean? Did he assume that God would come charging in with “Rescue 911” heroics? That is the desired popular expectation. Apparently, that is exactly what the disciples thought, despite what Jesus had been teaching them about God’s ways.
From this episode in Mark’s Gospel, it is obvious that the disciples regarded their relationship with Jesus as a kind of insurance. Our brothers in the boat were turning to Jesus for protection. They thought that being close to him was a guarantee of security. And that’s how many of us regard the purpose of being “sealed by the Holy Spirit, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” The great temptation of religion is to think that faith should be doing something practical for us – like insulating us from hurt and pain, and providing life preservers on demand.
“Don’t you care that we are perishing?” is a question that dominates the Book of Job. Its very presence in biblical literature tells us that people of faith have been trying to figure out the relationship of God to the issue of suffering and loss for millennia. Job doesn’t doubt God’s lordship over creation. What he does question, however, is God’s fairness. Religious dogma taught that tragedy is the just consequence for sin. But Job protests that he has led a decent and reputable life. So, he demands an explanation for the suffering he has endured.
In 1978, a prominent Boston rabbi named Harold Kushner picked up where Job left off. He wrote about his own struggle with unfairness in a little book entitled, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. It struck a responsive chord among people of faith, and I still recommend it when people ask for help with their own pain. Rabbi Kushner’s book is about how he coped with the suffering of his son, Aaron, who died of progeria (rapid aging disease) at age 14. It remained on all the best-seller lists for months. Readers bought the book because they wanted to know where God is when we need him the most. In anguish and pain, people want to know the whereabouts of their protector.
The disciples found Jesus asleep, and not at the helm. They voiced their disappointment, and he responded. Jesus awoke and stilled the storm, helping his companions likewise to “remain calm and carry on.” He asked them the key questions – the ones that we need to consider in any crisis. He said, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
If these questions perplex us, it’s because they run counter to our deep desires. It may be that are still banking on the notion that God is the divine magician, the one who can interrupt the natural order and force it to do anything he pleases. We presuppose that God’s power can coerce nature to do our bidding, to quell our storms, to calm our rough seas. Wistfully, we still ask God to bridge the gaps of life, to deflect its hazards, and to make us immune to its perils. When we are in desperate straits, we look for protection. If it is not forthcoming, we are tempted to complain, “Don’t you care?”
The question is basic; it comes from deep inside us. And it is good that we ask it out loud, because it’s a prayer, something that our heart longs to say to God. We are God’s children; we are precious in his sight; and we know that God will come to us, and be with us, even and especially when we are in trouble. Jesus reminds us of that. He is our Immanuel, our God with us. His response to our question is, “Don’t be afraid; trust in the goodness of God.” He takes our hand, puts it back on the helm, and guides us back to the right course. Serenity fills our sails, and all matter of things will be well.
Episcopalians have a basic resource in matters affecting our life. It is The Book of Common Prayer, the repository of our tradition’s grasp of God’s Word and our experience of God’s presence. The prayer book contains liturgies for a variety of times and seasons. Every liturgy is a guide. My parson Holt Souder taught me that. He said that our liturgies are like an old horse that knows the path. Holt said, “We may be close to falling out of the saddle, but the old horse keeps on trotting until we get home safely.”
This morning, our guide is the liturgy of Holy Baptism. Moments ago, the celebrant asked the candidate a number of crucial questions. They are reminders that, in Christ, God is with us. He is with us in the manger; he is with us at Golgatha; and he is with us at the empty tomb. His Spirit enables us to give voice to all our questions, and to hear God’s reply.
The celebrant’s three initial questions call for the renunciation of evil. These are clear enough. Before we pledge allegiance to Christ, we must renounce our ties to anything that rivals or challenges God’s realm of love. It is essential that we do this, because we need to have this storm stilled in order to continue our journey homeward.
Next there are three questions that describe the goal of our liturgy:
Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your savior?
Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
These queries offer us an indispensable view of God’s role in everyday life. They tell us what God expects of us and what we should expect of God. This is especially true of the second question. It does not ask: “Do you put your whole trust in his protective power?” Rather, it asks to trust totally God’s grace and love. Baptism is our immersion in life, not protection from it.
The Gospel tells us that if we trust his grace and love, we put our final confidence in God’s ability to create order out of our chaos. God’s power is the power to transform evil into good. He does not do so from afar, pulling strings like Giappetto. On the contrary, the Good News is that we are never left to face the rigors of life alone. God is with us; he rides with us in the same boat.
In Christ, God renders himself vulnerable to every fear, every loss, every pain that we experience. He goes the distance with us, even to the point of death. But commiseration is not his final word. It is his power to redeem even the worst, to transform our pain and fear, to bring life out of death. Our Lord asks us not to fear him, but to trust him. We are not alone; God’s love will never let us go. That is the truth, and that is enough to cling to and rely upon in the fiercest of storms. Amen.