Ordinary 12B — June 21, 2015

Who’s In Charge Here?

NOTE: Sermons are aural events; they are meant to be heard, not read. The text below — which was not delivered exactly as written — may include errors not limited to spelling, grammar and punctuation of which the listener might be unaware and with which the preacher is unconcerned. There is no audio this week, and the sermon as delivered contained more than the usual ad libs.

Job 38:1-11
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’?

Mark 4:35-41
On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “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?”

In the book of Job, we hear about the man who tried to do everything right only to be repaid by having everything go horribly wrong.  And according to the text, all of the misfortune that falls upon Job is not even his fault.  All of the terrible things that happen to Job are a direct result of God and Satan making a bit of a heavenly wager.  Satan bets God that this wonderful, faithful, upright man named Job only behaves as well as he does because his life is so awesome.  Job is rich, happily married with an adoring family, and every material and physical comfort he could possibly want.  “Why wouldn’t Job be a good man?” Satan says. “When you have it good, it’s easy to be good. Take all of his blessings away, God, and then let us see how blameless and upright Job really is. 

Well, you know the story about what happens next. In short order, Job loses it all.  He lose everything he cherishes most – children, animals, home.  But Job continues to bless God.  Job says, “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”

Satan still isn’t impressed.  In fact, the next time Satan meets with God, he decides to double down on his wager.  Satan says, “Let’s see what happens when Job has to put a little of his own skin in the game.”  So God allows Satan to give Job unbearable physical pain.

The quiet “patience of Job” doesn’t last long after sores begin to cover Job’s body and he finds himself sitting in an ash heap.  When Job has nothing left to lose, when you get the sense that he has hit rock bottom, he finally cries out from the dung heap, “God, I have done everything you asked me to!  Why is this happening to me?  Answer me!”

And finally, God answers Job out of the whirlwind.  God speaks to Job for four whole chapters, but God never does answer Job’s questions because Job’s questions are about human justice.  And God’s answer is about divine omnipotence. The only answer we really have about why things happen the way they do is that God is God.  Only God knows why things happen and God knows everything.  And none of us is God.

For many, many people, this is the place where their faith hits a brick wall. God’s forceful response to Job seems to discourage our daring to question why there is persistent injustice in the world and why God so often seems silent in the face of great suffering.  Since none of us were there when God laid the foundation of the earth, it seems we not going to get the answer.  All we know is that God is God, the world is filled with horrible things, and even a man as faithful as Job will not escape suffering.

The church often muddles its way through terrible situations by falling back on cherished truisms.  We might say, “God is good all the time.”  Could you blame the mother of a dead child if she said to us, “Really? Is God really good all the time? Because I dare you to find something good in this situation.“ Or, we might say to a friend who has lost a job, “God will not give us more than we can handle.” They may not say it, but could you blame them for thinking, “Maybe God can handle this nightmare of overdue bills, damaged self-esteem, and depression so bad I can’t get out of bed in the morning.  Because I can’t handle it.” 

How about the families of the victims in Charleston on Wednesday night? How about the members of the Emanuel AME Church who lost a beloved pastor?  Would you like to explain to those people where God was the shooting began? What do you have to say to a 5 year old child who played dead to escape being shot at point blank range by a man who hated him simply because of skin color?

Where was God in Charleston, S.C. on Wednesday night?

Perhaps the church should spend less time trying to defend God when bad things happen and spend more time being Christ to one another.  We often never do receive an answer about why good people suffer.  We cannot explain why racism still exists.  We cannot explain why hatred insists on imposing itself as violence committed against innocent people. Our hearts continue to break when we see injustice and violence.

The disciples in the little boat being swamped by a wild raging sea ask a question of Jesus that resonates with Job’s plea.  The terrified disciples scream at Jesus, “Show us your power!  Don’t you care?”  And Jesus says to them, “Where is your faith?”  

The disciples’ lack of faith is a failure of their imagination.  They are too frightened by the wind and the waves to imagine that even a life threatening storm can be ridden out with the one on whom they have staked their very lives. 

Jesus wakes up and sees the panicky, frightened men in the boat with him.  They are on their way to the “other side,” the other side representing the territory of the Gentiles, a foreign place, maybe even a dangerous or inappropriate place for a Jewish person to go.  But this is what happens when you decide to follow Jesus.  Jesus crosses many social and spiritual boundaries. He eats with unsuitable people, breaks Sabbath laws, associates with the unclean and heals them at the wrong times, and communicates with unclean spirits. Crossing to the other side with Jesus is a risky, unpredictable proposition, and in this passage, the wind and the sea create demonstrate the dangers of being in the boat with him.

It is the middle of the night.  There is nothing but darkness all around.  The wind and waves are rocking the boat, and the disciples can barely see Jesus with eyes stinging from seawater mixed with frightened tears.  The disciples are in a terrifying place on their way to a terrifying place.

When we are certain all is lost, when we are certain we are so lost we might never be found, when we cry out to God and listen for a word from God, one word is always spoken.  “Peace.  Be still.” The howling wind begins to die down.  Soon there is utter silence.  All that is left is the sound of your own heart pounding as you begin to catch your breath and realize that you have been deeply touched by something far more powerful than the storm that threatened to swallow you whole. 

One little word.  Peace.  A little word and an all-powerful word spoken amidst the noise and chaos of our lives.  A word of peace spoken over a raging storm.  One little word can undo whatever darkness threatens to undo us.  One little word of peace can utterly change the world if enough of us believe in its power to undo all the messes we make, all the hatred we sow, all the injustice we create as frightened human beings.

I cannot promise you that there’s nothing to be afraid of.  Some of the situations that frighten us are real as real can be, as real as Job’s grief and pain, and as real as the wind and waves that threatened to drown those disciples on a terrible night at sea. Over the past four years in conversations with many of you, I have heard you talk about fears that run deeply – fear of illness, pain, loss.  Fears about money and fears of growing older.  Fears that everything you hold dear and familiar may be slipping away.  Fears about aging parents and broken relationships. These are all real fears.  They are the truth of your lives and my life.  And when we dismiss the realness of our fears, or cover them up, we are lying to ourselves and to one another. 

But fear is not the whole truth and our fears become dangerous when they become so powerful that we cannot move into the deeper truth. Our fears don’t have to paralyze us.  Our fears do not have to dominate us. Our fears do not have to own us.  Our fears do not have to lead us to hate and mistrust and violence.

The one in the boat with us desires that we acknowledge our complete dependence upon him and him alone.  The one in the boat wants us to risk everything.  The one in the boat invites us to focus on the awesome reality of God who still speaks out of whirlwinds and storms. 

You are cared about; you are known and loved just as you are.  It is this affirmation of Christ’s peace for you that will make it possible to navigate even the roughest seas.

When the racist shooter was apprehended this week, he appeared in a Charleston courtroom. The surviving family members were given the opportunity to address the young man who had repeatedly shot and killed their sons and daughters, sisters and brothers. A New York Times reporter said, “It was as if the Bible study had never ended as one after another, victims’ family members offered lessons in forgiveness, testaments to a faith that is not compromised by violence or grief. They urged him to repent, confess his sins and turn to God.”

“You took something very precious away from me,” said Nadine Collier, daughter of 70-year-old Ethel Lance, her voice rising in anguish. “I will never talk to her ever again. I will never be able to hold her again. But I forgive you. And have mercy on your soul.”
“We welcomed you Wednesday night in our Bible study with open arms,” said Felicia Sanders, the mother of 26-year old Tywanza Sanders, a poet who died after trying to save his aunt, who was also killed.

“You have killed some of the most beautifulest people that I know,” she said in a quavering voice. “Every fiber in my body hurts, and I will never be the same. Tywanza Sanders is my son, but Tywanza was my hero. Tywanza was my hero. But as we say in Bible study, we enjoyed you. But may God have mercy on you.”[1]

In the end, the man named Job who had been to hell and back and somehow lived to tell the tale, speaks this prayer to the Lord: “I know you can do all things, and nothing you wish is impossible…I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite…I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes have seen you.  Therefore I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (Job 42:1-6)

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] http://nyti.ms/1dNX0BQ