Sunday, June 21, 2009

Oh Hear Us When We Cry To Thee . . .

Third Sunday of Pentecost (Proper 7) – Year B (RCL)
Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
Sunday, June 21, 2009 –
Trinity, Redlands

What a depressing bunch of readings! All the scripture lessons appointed for today are filled with images of struggle and chaos. We start off with Job, that poster boy for a life filled with calamity. The portion of the Book of Job that we have today is in the aftermath of all the struggles Job has been forced to endure. Despite being a righteous and faithful man, Job has had to suffer unspeakable traumas – the loss of his property and wealth, the death of his servants, the death of his children, and finally he is beset with terrible health problems. He’s managed to survive all of this, and now, in today’s lesson, Job is engaged in an argument with God. And as if to add insult to injury, God gets downright sarcastic with Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know!”

Then there’s Paul, writing in his second letter to the church in Corinth. He goes on and on about the traumas he has had to endure during the time that he has been traveling around the Mediterranean, establishing churches and proclaiming the Gospel. “Through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labors, sleepless nights, hunger,” just to name a few of his complaints.

And then there’s the gospel lesson from Mark, recounting the story of the disciples in a boat on the Sea of Galilee, when “A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.” And even when the disciples turn for help to Jesus, who happened to be sleeping in the stern of the boat during all this chaos, the response they get is not what one would necessarily expect from the Messiah, the Son of God. Not unlike God’s response to Job, Jesus’ response is a bit on the sarcastic side. “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

Even the Psalm contains images of doom and gloom. In amongst beautiful language extolling the Lord’s goodness and ever-enduring mercy, what starts off as a song of praise is interrupted with images of stormy winds stirring up high waves of the sea.

We might as well be reading the front page of the San Bernardino Sun or the Redlands Daily Facts. Where’s the Gospel, where’s the Good News, in amongst all this chaos and struggle, all this doom and gloom?

In all fairness, the scriptures are meant to reflect the human condition. They are the stories of ordinary human beings who are attempting to live their lives, to eke out an existence, while also attempting to be faithful to God. But the reality of our human condition is that life is not a bed of roses. Stuff happens. Sometimes, bad stuff happens. Even for people of faith, no matter how faithful we may be, bad stuff can happen. In fact, odds are, at some point in our lives, something bad will happen to us. We’re human. We get sick. We grow old. Accidents happen. We live in a human society. Our lives are intertwined with those of others. And some of those people will unintentionally, or sometimes even intentionally, hurt us. We live on a planet that can be sometimes harsh and unleash destructive forces like storms and earthquakes. And no matter how faithful we are, no matter how often we go to church, no matter how many prayers we say, none of this going to change. Bad stuff will still happen.

In the midst of such struggles, who of us has not cried out to God, “why?” Perhaps one of the most frustrating things is the fact that that question is never answered to our satisfaction. God does not seem to answer. Even the church is at a loss to provide an adequate answer.

Does that mean God doesn’t listen to us? Of course He does. Does that mean that God doesn’t care? Of course not. God does care for His creation. Despite today’s scripture lessons with all the chaos and struggle, doom and gloom, that reflect our human condition, they also reflect the fact that we are not alone. Even though, at times, we may have to deal with some sort of struggle or suffering in our lives, we do not have to face it by ourselves. We do not have to go it alone.

Growing up in a military family – I am fond of saying that I spent the first 16 years of my life in the Marine Corps – we generally attended church at the chapel on the base that served as home. The Marine Corps does not have chaplains of its own, so relies on Navy chaplains to staff Marine Corps base chapels. Just as in our Anglican tradition, you can go anywhere in the world and feel comfortable with the liturgy because it is always based on the Book of Common Prayer, so too, in Navy and Marine Corps chapels, there are certain things that are always the same. While the actual structure of the liturgy would vary depending on the denomination of the chaplain, there were common elements to all worship services. The most notable, the one thing that was always the same, was the closing hymn. It was always “Eternal Father, strong to save,” also known as the Navy Hymn, the sequence hymn we just sang. For old time’s sake, I was tempted to ask Jeff to use it as our closing hymn today, but it actually made more sense to use it as the sequence.

Now, the version of the hymn we usually sang in Navy chapels was a little different, but the message was the same, and is summarized in the repeated phrase: “O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.” As a child, I always felt such comfort singing the words of the Navy Hymn, and particularly those words “O hear us when we cry to thee, for those in peril on the sea.” As I have reflected on that time in my life, I realize that the sense of comfort was on multiple levels. One level, one shared with every other person in the chapel, was the sense of God caring for and keeping safe our military personnel – those who were in the chapel, but also, and perhaps more importantly, those who were away, often in troubled areas of the world. It was a comfort to know that God was looking out for the likes of my father and my uncle, of my friends’ parents, of the numerous people I encountered on a daily basis.

But I now realize that the words of this hymn provided a sense of comfort, even assurance, at an even deeper, more personal level. These words provided me with a sense that no matter what might happen to me, God would be there to take care of me. It was some of the earliest feelings I had of an abiding trust in God, of an assurance that regardless of whether we are faithful to God or not, God is always faithful to us.

This is born out in all of today’s lessons. In fact, “Eternal Father, strong to save” was inspired in part by some of the imagery of today’s Psalm, Psalm 107, and by today’s gospel lesson from Mark, among other portions of scripture.

Now, of course, even with such comfort and assurance, it does not mean that times of struggle or chaos will be a cake walk. As we’ve established, we are but human. And that brings with it all sorts of emotional stuff in response to what goes on in our lives, no matter how much we may try to be rational about our circumstances. While all of the readings are about life in struggle, addressing life in the midst of chaos of one form or another, they are also about the human emotions that accompany the times of struggle and chaos. Probably the greatest of these are fear and anger. And even these are reflected in today’s scripture lessons. Job is certainly angry at God for the injustices perpetrated upon him. And while the story does not say so, he was also probably even a little fearful. Who wouldn’t be with all that he had to endure? And the disciples in the boat with Jesus were, in no uncertain terms, filled with fear.

Each of today’s lessons provide us with particular insight into how to deal with our fear and anger, how to deal with the uncertainty that is present in those times of struggle and chaos that inevitably confront us.

The encounter between Job and God is a rather interesting one. The part we have in today’s reading is the beginning of a very lengthy discourse by God in response to Job’s questions as to why all these terrible things have beset him. It is interesting because, one, as I’ve already noted, God uses a rather sarcastic tone with Job. It’s as if God is saying “you’re putting yourself in the place of God when in actuality, the whys and wherefores are really none of your concern.” And two, despite the lengthy response, spanning four chapters, God never directly answers Job. Instead, he recounts all the details and wonders of creation. But yet, even in this, God does provide an answer of sorts, if we read between the lines. In his response, God is essentially providing assurance that all creation is a gift from God to humanity. Creation is the way in which God has revealed Himself to humanity. In all that is, God is present. Even in the chaos and suffering that we experience, God is there, ever present, not something apart from our suffering.

The challenge for us is to enter into the experience and to find God in the midst of our suffering. As one commentator so aptly put it, “The deepest places of our knowledge of God are often those places that we cannot explain: [such as] experiences of tranquility in the presence of pain.” This is one of the great mysteries of our relationship with God, of our existence as the people of God. That being the case, “Perhaps the church's vocation has less to do with explaining the root of that mystery and more to do with making space for that kind of mystery to be known and shared” (Connors, 150).

The experience of Paul is more of a direct application of this principal of having faith that God is in the midst of all life, including our struggles and our suffering. In our reading from 2 Corinthians, while he does not specifically state it, the tone of Paul’s words convey the fact that he has unwavering faith in the greater purpose to which God has called him. Despite all the suffering he has endured for the sake of the Gospel, faith in God and in what he was called to do kept Paul going in the midst of his various struggles.

And I believe that the key to understanding this whole concept of having faith in the midst of life’s chaos can be found in Jesus’ response to the disciples as they sit fearfully in the boat in the midst of a violent storm. What are Jesus’ words? The first thing he says to them is “why are you afraid?” Well, in some respects, this is one of those “duh” moments. But then again, in asking “why are you afraid?” Jesus is acknowledging the fear experienced by the disciples. He does not say, “don’t be afraid,” which in the midst of a terrible storm could be interpreted as being patronizing or dismissive. No, the feelings are real, even if, from Jesus’ perspective, a little unfounded. But they are not he, and Jesus recognizes this. He recognizes that the disciples still have some work to do in the area of faith. So, he attempts to meet them where they are, attempts to understand the reason for their fear, and to help them understand and to begin top come to grips with it. Only then can he begin to address it. And that he does. He then goes on to the heart of the matter: “Have you still no faith?” Faith in him, faith in God, is what is ultimately needed to weather the storms that life throws at us.

The bottom line in all of today’s scripture lessons is the same. In every case, the protagonists – Job, Paul, the disciples – do not have to face the ordeals, the chaos, alone. In all cases, God, in some form or fashion, is there in the midst of it with them. He was there all along. The only thing was, they all, Job, Paul, the disciples, had to work through the very natural, but very limiting emotions, that kept them from seeing that God was always there, protecting them, giving them strength to carry on.

Only when we have articulated the feelings of fear, and even of anger toward God, only when we have come to terms with those very human feelings that can get in the way of seeing that God has not abandoned us, that God will never abandon us, that He is always with us, can we then be in a position to be still and listen for God – for the God who is always in our midst, saying “Peace! Be still!” In the midst of storms, we are challenged to listen to and to rediscover our faith in God’s word, the word that proves God is ever-present, no matter what may happen to us or around us.

I believe Emily Bronte, the daughter of an Anglican priest, summed it up most eloquently in her poem, “No Coward Soul is Mine.” She writes:

No coward soul is mine,
No trembler in the world's storm-troubled sphere:
I see Heaven's glories shine,
And faith shines equal, arming me from fear.

This is the faith of another nineteenth century Anglican who was able to write, “O hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea.” This is the faith that will see us through whatever struggles and chaos life may throw our way.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Connors, Andrew Foster. “Job 38:1-11, Pastoral Perspective.” In Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, Volume 3, Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16). Edited by David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.

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