Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Storms of Life

June 21, 2015 –– 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Job 38:1, 8–11 / Psalm 107 / 2 Corinthians 5:14–17 / Mark 4:35–41
The Storms of Life

This is classic Bible story. As a child I sang a song about Jesus commanding the storm to stop. Long before the day of video we had “flannel graph” illustrations to visualize each stage of the story. There are eyewitness details to establish the setting: other boats, the exact time, how the boat was filling with water, how Jesus was asleep in the stern on a cushion, the honesty of the disciples' terror…. But this is not mere Bible story for children; this story is given to encourage faith in Jesus.

It starts with a common occurrence for Jesus and his disciples. Getting into a boat on this lake was, for them, like me getting in my car to drive from E-town to Mechanicsburg––not without possible danger, but still something that is done routinely. This time, though, a storm hit. It was a sudden and furious squall, and so bad that even these experienced fishermen were afraid. We know the story: Jesus was asleep, they awakened him, he told the storm to be still, and it did.

Now if life for Christians always followed this paradigm, we wouldn't have any problems. But life is not always like this, even for people who believe. "Storms" still come into ours lives––cancer, miscarriage, violent deaths, traffic accidents, the loss of income, natural disasters…. It is threatening even to watch the daily news. There is plenty in our world to cause fear, and there is not always immediate deliverance when we cry out. So what does this story really mean?

We read this story of Jesus and the storm and wonder why, if God loves us, the power of Jesus doesn't intervene every time. We want God to fix the here and now instead of, what seems to us, playing a game of hide-and-seek. Is he with us in the storm or not? How does the world of Bible stories intersect with the realities of life in our world?

This takes us to the heart of faith. Faith is not merely believing in the miraculous. Faith is easy when there is an unmistakable miracle. Faith calls us to trust in the presence of Jesus when it seems nothing is going right. Jesus wanted the disciples to understand that even the storm did not matter if he was with them. He chose, on that occasion, to still the storm to prove his point, but obviously he did not keep the storm from coming.

Still, we want know: If Jesus can still the storm, then why doesn't he do it every time? It's the age old question: if God is all powerful and all loving, then how can such awful things continue to exist in the world? How can we be expected not to be afraid when it's so easy for us to be hurt?

We know only what God has revealed to us. We know that we have been given an ability to choose. We know that choosing disobedience to God has opened the whole universe to chaos (Romans 8:20). Hard and horrible things happen. This is the nature of our present world.

Yet God has also revealed himself as coming into this hard world to be with us. Think about this: If God were to stop all bad things, it would change the nature of our response to him. It would not be faith directing our responses but rather his intervening (and dominating) presence. We would not choose to love God, but rather be overwhelmed by him. If God acts to prevent the consequences of choice, the true gift of choice is withdrawn. The very Passion of Christ would not exist in a world where God always delivers from fear and suffering.

God does not give temporal deliverance every time. When God became one of us in Christ, he never promised us an easy time or said that Christians would be always be spared the horrifying things. In the life of the early church, when persecution threatened to overwhelm its very existence, the disciples had to learn a different way that Jesus was with them in the “storm”. In early Christian art the Church was depicted as a boat on a perilous sea. In fact, when Mark was writing this Gospel, the lions in Rome were already looking forward to their first taste of raw Christian. The Jesus who stopped the storm that day for his disciples also said: Take up your cross and follow me. Mark's point in this story is that when Jesus is with us, we do not have to be ultimately afraid.

This is the true nature of Christian Faith. What Jesus affirmed to the disciples that day on the boat was that he was with them. In times of fear, Jesus invites us to have faith and to believe that storms do not last forever and they do not have the last word. Jesus is bigger than our “storms”, and when we invite him into our lives he is with us.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Suffering Love

Tuesday: 16 June, 2015 –– 11th Week in Ordinary Time
Matthew 5:43–48
Suffering Love

Christian Faith is full of hard things. Some things, like the Trinity, are hard to understand. Other things, like today’s Gospel, are hard to do.

The essence of Christian practice is loving like Jesus. That is enough to keep us perpetually on our knees, at least figuratively. Loving like Jesus is not just some lofty idea. Christian love is not mere sentiment and its effect is not the “warm fuzzies”.  In this broken world, love hurts.

Jesus both teaches and models what real love is. That is one way to get a practical handle on the Gospel readings yesterday (Matthew 5:38–42) and today. In yesterday’s reading, Jesus tells us what love does not do: love does not resist an evil person…. love does not hit back. In today’s reading Jesus tells us what love does: love even loves enemies…. love prays for those who persecute.

It is hard to get around this when Jesus modeled it so fully. Peter is explicit in his first letter: 

For what credit is it, if when you do wrong and are beaten for it you take it patiently? But if when you do right and suffer for it you take it patiently, you have God's approval. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten; but he trusted to him who judges justly. (1Peter 2:20–23)

One way to express the essence of God’s character––and again, Jesus models this totally––is suffering love. This is how followers of Jesus are to find basic orientation as we journey through this world.

I cannot begin to deal with the many implications of this in a daily homily. Perhaps that is good. Maybe we all need to spend time reflecting on the general orientation before we pursue the side-trail implications. Yet I do need to acknowledge the big “what if” question that is always asked when any focus is given to the nonresistant love of Jesus. To do this, I’m reminded of a day when I was in seminary listening to a NT lecture about “Jesus and Ethics of the Kingdom”.  I’ve never gotten over what I heard that day…. and I hope I never do.

The prof––my most incredible teacher, ever––had taken us to what is, at the same time, this most exhilarating and most awful climax of what it means to follow Jesus in suffering love. He did so with humble honesty. Even as he exalted our Lord who humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross (Phlp 2:8), he confessed his––and our––weakness in contemplating such a thing. Then he told of a time when he gave the same lecture while on sabbatical in Africa. One of the students responded, asking the what if question: “But what would you do if a man had killed your son and violated your wife or daughter?”

My prof said that in that moment the Holy Spirit gave him an answer: “I don’t know what I’d do…. but let me tell you what I wish I could do…. I wish I would be able to love that man the way that God loved me when I killed his Son.”

That is suffering love. That is how we need to hear Jesus in these Gospel readings. And if we do, we’ll know that every moment of every day we need to be on our knees…. at least in our hearts. That’s the only way we can totally follow Jesus in suffering love.

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