Sermon: Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

June 28, 2015

Today I really wish I could preach karma–the philosophy that if you do good things, good things will happen to you, and if you do bad things, bad things will happen to you.  I wish I could say that the story of Jesus stilling the storm is meant to assure us that nothing terrible will ever happen to us as long as we are trusting Jesus. Or if something bad should happen, that God will deliver us in the nick of time, just before the crisis turns fatal.  I want to say when terrible events befall someone it’s because they did not have enough faith.  But I am called to speak the truth in love to you, and we all know that’s not the truth.

We know that the truth is that this past week a young white man (who was, I feel we must acknowledge, a member of an ELCA Lutheran congregation) went into Mother Emanuel AME Church in South Carolina and killed 9 people who had gathered there to study God’s Word.  The truth is that he said he “just wanted to shoot some black people.”  The truth is that too many black lives have been disrespected and even snuffed out recently for no reason at all except for the color of their skin.  The truth is that sometimes terrible things happen to faithful, decent, God-fearing people.

Furthermore, the truth is that we all have stories of horrible heartbreaking things happening to people who have done nothing to deserve suffering.  Though perhaps not as dramatic in scale as the massacre in Charleston this week, we can all speak about the absolute randomness of who suffers and who does not.  That’s why the story of Job is such a timeless one.

Job, you might remember, was an example of an upright, solid citizen, a bright star in God’s eyes.  Satan scoffs at him, saying that he is faithful because he has everything going for him—a great house, great family, perfect health.  Who wouldn’t trust such an overtly benevolent Lord?  So Satan visits a variety of trials on Job.  Please note, it is not God who sends these problems (though it’s troubling that God appears to consent to this plan).  Job’s home is destroyed, his children die, and Job himself becomes very sick.  Several of his friends come to him, urging him to confess his sins, so that God can forgive whatever he did to bring such punishment upon himself.  In some ways this is happening today, as some of Job’s friends (maybe the white culture) assume our sisters and brothers of color (maybe Job) are somehow responsible for the awful situation in which they are struggling.

Still, even as he descends into despair, Job refuses to believe that these atrocities happened to him because he deserved them in some way.  He wrestles with doubt and cries out to God, begging God to show him why he has been sent such trouble, why he has not been spared this agony.  I imagine his quoting Psalm 22, my favorite psalm: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”  Or maybe he used the words Mark has the disciples yelling at Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson: “Do you not care that we are perishing?”

If trusting in God could spare people from catastrophe, Job would have been rescued promptly.  If trusting in God could spare people from catastrophe, surely the Bible study at Mother Emanuel Church would not have been killed by someone they welcomed warmly into their midst.

Conversely, if trusting in God preserved people from catastrophe, then the disciples on the boat in Mark’s Gospel would surely NOT have been saved from the storm.  Although they were eyewitnesses to Jesus’ extraordinary, powerful actions–saw him healing the sick, casting out demons, feeding the multitudes on a daily basis—when the waves rose in the darkness they were certain they were headed for destruction–even though Jesus was RIGHT THERE!  In their panic, the disciples woke their exhausted teacher asking, “Don’t you care that we are perishing?”

It doesn’t sound like they expected Jesus to save them.  It doesn’t even sound like they are sure he would want to. “Don’t you care about us?” they want to know.  Instead of trusting in Jesus, they “feared a great fear,” (as verse 41 is more accurately translated).  So if Job, who was a righteous man, and the disciples, decidedly unrighteous, do not get what they deserve, what can we expect for ourselves?  If the universe does not spin on an axis of karma, how does God determine who gets spared from suffering, and who has to endure it?  Why did God let those believers in SC die and spare their murderer?

I’m sure it’s unsatisfying to hear (it’s certainly unsatisfying to say!) that God’s ways are mysterious, but that’s the closest I can get to the truth right now.  It seems unfair to me that Job, or the congregation of Emanuel AME, or any of you experience painful tragedies.  Job’s friends and maybe the disciples–and definitely lots of people we meet every day—assume that suffering is a sign of God’s judgment and disapproval. That people reap what they sow.  I can say for sure–and with great satisfaction!–is that this view is NOT validated by Scripture.

In the Bible, good people are often in trouble, while wicked people are seen to flourish.  If you have any doubt about this, I invite you to consider Jesus, the purest, most holy person who ever breathed, suffering cruel torture and execution, while Pilate and King Herod continued to rule from their palaces.  Why?  Generations of people who have been unjustly persecuted have reached out to hold onto the Biblical truth that sometimes awful things happen to people who have done nothing to merit their pain.

I don’t know if it helps or not, but I feel I should point out that God never answers Job’s question, “Why me?”  Today’s reading from Job, beginning with, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” is the only answer Job ever gets about his trials.  Nor, in Mark’s Gospel, does Jesus ever tell the disciples why the storm came when they were out at sea.  Neither Job nor the disciples hear that the storms they’ve weathered were meant to test their faith or anything like that.  Jesus simply asks, “Why were you afraid?”  In other words, “Don’t you trust me?”

There is no satisfactory Biblical answer to the question, “Why?” when people suffer.  What Christian people can say, concerning the problems facing Job, the disciples, the people of Charleston, and, I feel confident in adding—YOU—is that God never leaves us alone in our peril.  Despite his agony, Job keeps hearing God’s voice in dreams and visions.  He keeps seeing God in the daily works of nature (check out chapter 33 of Job!).  And the disciples in Mark’s story, though they felt alone in the dark, were never far from other boats in the water, nor far from one another.  Best of all, they had Jesus in the boat with them.   We may not be spared difficulties, but we are spared the agony of having to go through them alone.

This could be how the family members of the victims in Charleston could have the grace to say repeatedly that they forgive the man who shot their loved ones.  They recognize that they are not on the perilous, dark journey alone.  Surely they are angry and sad and confused and scared and hurt.  But Jesus says to them, to the disciples, to all of us in our trepidation, “Peace; be still.”  Jesus isn’t promising that we won’t encounter terrifying things in the world, or that we won’t find ourselves in the midst of storms—he’s only reminding us that the scary things don’t own us, don’t control us.  He is with us.  We are not alone in the boat.

The disciples may have been nervous even before the storm came up, because Jesus was taking them into Gentile territory, across the sea (which, in Biblical times, represented the unknown).  He was on a mission to introduce them to people they considered “other.”  I am convinced that Jesus is asking us, a mostly white congregation in a mostly white denomination, to go on a similar mission.  I believe Jesus wants us to cross the lake, to seek out ways of listening to and honoring our sisters and brothers of color.  It is way past time for us to initiate some healing for the rifts that racism has caused.  Jesus weeps for his children of color who have been systemically and repeatedly treated as “less than” by a culture that benefits those of us who are white, whether or not we wish it or are even conscious of it.  Jesus is taking us along on his mission, bringing hope and compassion to  those who feel “far off.”  We are sent to bear the burdens of grief-stricken parents, lonely children, frustrated caregivers, and all who have lost their way.

Yes, heading to “the other side” might make some people nervous, because it includes leaving behind some of what is comfortable and familiar to us.  It means seeing and hearing and speaking about God in ways we have not grown up doing.  But we can rest assured that the God who is strong enough to command the seas—“Who is this that even the waves obey him?”–is strong enough to sustain us all in the challenge of facing our nation’s shameful history of racism.

We live in a stormy time on this tempestuous sea, yet we are blessed with the knowledge that God is not only powerful enough to calm a storm, but also gentle enough to embrace little children.  We know that God is both strong and good, tender enough to draw our attention to little seeds and birds and flowers in a field, mighty enough to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of hate.  We have experienced God’s grace in our lives–a kind word or touch when we needed it most, a generous gift when we felt bankrupt, a second chance when we did not even have the courage to ask for it.  We have felt the power of forgiveness and the rush of belonging at the family table in God’s house, no matter what is in our past.  This we share with Christians of every color.  This is our entrance point into what might be a challenging transformation.

Because we know that God is with us and for us, we can sit next to the Jobs of this world, those who are grieving and suffering.  We don’t accompany them to point out their sinfulness, but to assure them that God is graciously with them, even in the dark times.  At the same time, we can invite our friends to sit with us when we cannot understand God, clear that though we don’t know what’s going on or why, ultimately God holds back nothing from the world God made and loves. United by God’s lifeblood of tenderness, mercy, and peace, we can point toward God’s dream of renewal, truth and beauty for all, including our own small but immeasurably precious lives. We do not go to sea alone.

Thanks be to God.

~Pastor Susan Schneider

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