Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
Dorothy Parker was a journalist and famous witty member of the Algonquin Round Table in the 1920s. It’s reported that whenever she heard her doorbell ring, she moaned, “What fresh hell is this?” I confess, this week I’ve awakened many days asking the same thing.
I know I’m not the only one who is exhausted, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically, after a week of struggling to address the horrific separation of families done in our name and with our tax dollars at this country’s southern border. I know many of you have been making phone calls, writing letters, praying, crying, and advocating in a variety of ways for sanity and compassion to prevail in our nation’s flawed immigration and refugee procedures. Although we can be grateful that steps are being taken to halt the separating of families, thousands of children and parents continue to be affected by this recent policy. And sadly, no clear plan has been suggested for creating a more humane process for addressing frightened people seeking safety and hospitality at our door.
I wish I could say that the story of Jesus stilling the storm in today’s Gospel reading is meant to assure us that if only we trust in Jesus, everything will turn out just fine and nothing terrible will ever happen again. Or if something bad should happen, I wish I could say that God will deliver us in the nick of time, just before the crisis turns fatal. I know that many people believe that when terrible events befall someone it’s because they did not pray hard enough or have enough faith. But I am called to speak the truth in love to you, and we all know that’s not the truth.
The truth is that sometimes terrible things happen to faithful, decent, God-fearing people. That’s why the story of Job is a timeless one. I imagine Job hearing news of his children’s death, his home’s destruction, and his own poor health and asking over and over with each calamity, “What fresh hell is this?” Or maybe he used words similar to those Mark has the disciples yelling at Jesus in today’s Gospel lesson: “Do you not care that we are perishing?”
I am hear to tell you, God does care. God cares for all the Jobs in this room and all the Jobs in this world. God cares for parents who are distraught because they do not know where their children are. God cares for children locked in cages far from their parents. God cared for those disciples who were afraid, and God cares for you and me no matter what we have done or left undone, no matter how weak or fierce our faith might be. There is no correlation between tragedy and our faithfulness. If you ever find yourself doubting that, recall the story of Jesus who was the very embodiment of love, being arrested, tortured and executed. And because God knows our deepest pain from the inside out, knows the agony of betrayal and feeling abandoned and hopeless, God understands exactly what you are going through when you feel lost in the sea of your struggles.
Which takes us back to Jesus and disciples in that boat, headed across the sea at night when a storm comes up. And you know it’s a bad storm if even these fishermen, who spent their whole lives on this water, were afraid. Didn’t Jesus realize how dangerous this journey might be, with darkness coming on and the weather turning?
But Jesus had spent the entire day talking about the kingdom of God, and now is eager to take his friends to “the other side”—Gentile territory. They left quickly because Jesus was in a hurry to get there. Why? Jesus was on a mission, determined to bring hope and healing to places where both were in short supply. He longed to shower grace on those who weren’t expecting it, to open minds and hearts to new possibilities, and to set people free from fear. He CARED.
Jesus wanted his disciples to be part of this mission, this criss-crossing over artificial barriers. He wanted them to understand that blessings are free gifts from God, not given only to those who measure up alongside punishments handed out to those who don’t. The reign of God, as embodied by Jesus, extends divine holiness and a commitment to human well-being among people and places some might imagine were beyond the limits. To Jesus, there are no limits.
In crossing over to the other side, Jesus was taking his disciples out of their comfort zone, so they were already afraid, even before the storm came up. And I, for one, understand that well. When we hear challenges to our embedded theologies, our loyalties or creeds, our understanding of how the world works and what our place is in it, what is our response? Are our ears open, eager to learn something fresh about God? Do we pray fervently that God would reveal something new? Or, do we retreat into entrenchment, grasp at what is familiar and comfortable, all the while muttering under our breath, “What fresh hell is this?”
Heading to the other side is scary, but the Good News is that no matter where we end up, and no matter how violent the storms are on the way, God is there. We can rest assured that 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. Also, we can trust that the reign of God will head straight into the darkness, directly to the places where it’s rumored demons dwell, bringing along the possibility of new life, of joy, and of justice, where none of that seems plausible.
We live in a stormy time, 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. God is both strong and good, tender enough to draw our attention to little seeds and birds and flowers in a field, and mighty enough to rise like a phoenix from the ashes of hate.
Since we know that God is with us and for us, we can sit next to the Jobs of this world, assuring them that they are not alone. We can march and shout and pray alongside families who are suffering, even if we speak a different languages. We can assure all who feel defeated that our crucified and risen God is with them, even in the bleakest moments. United by God’s lifeblood, we can transcend borders to stand together. We can face the unknown not with fear of a fresh hell, but with one’s another’s help, try to glimpse God’s hand at work, even in the dark.
~Pastor Susan Schneider