Sermon Given June 20, 2021
Our readings from Job and Mark today come out of moments, where anguish and despair have set in, where everything is not okay and could potentially never be okay again. The world has crumbled around them. They are face to face with mortality and aren’t sure what to do. Where is God in all that? What if what you are experiencing is indeed more than you can handle, despite what the folk saying promises?
Job is a book that explores the nature of God in the times of deepest tragedy. All his children are gone. All his land is gone. And while the last chapter seems to say, “And Job was okay because he got it all back and more”, nothing can replace Job’s children. Nothing can bring him back to who he once was. That Job is gone. The middle chapters, those in between that narrative of God’s wager with Satan, are what grab me and make me hold on. In those chapters Job sits in sackcloth and ashes, conversing with his friends about the nature of God and why Job is suffering so much. They keep telling him that if he just repents, surely everything will get better, but he insists that his sins didn’t cause his suffering, and he was right. Job had done nothing but be honorable, and yet here he is. Where was God? Didn’t God care?
In our Gospel, Jesus gets into one boat that is part of a crew of boats going across the Sea of Galilee, heading to the other side of that big lake. He falls asleep and is not woken up by the gale-force winds or the waves that are practically swamping the boat. The disciples are in an absolute panic. Not only are their lives on the line, but dozens of other people’s lives. And where was Jesus? Didn’t he care?
Where is God when tragedies occur in our own lives? Is God asleep? Did God make a bet and here we are? There’s a righteous injustice, an indignation. How could God allow this?
It’s also not just single tragic events that lead to this kind of questioning. For example, there are racial and ethnic traumas that have lasted for centuries. I was in an online conference this week listening to The Very Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, the dean of The Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary, and resident theologian at the Washington National Cathedral, who has written extensively on Christianity and the Black experience. She spoke about asking these questions as the racial trauma of her ancestors hit her with full force in a new way this past year, as she dealt with the co-realities of the pandemic of racial injustice alongside the pandemic of Covid. She described how she began to avoid everything. She didn’t want to know the news. She didn’t want to interact with others. The movies that she used to gravitate towards, ones focused on the Black experience, no longer were remotely appealing. She found it hard to read, to do much of anything. She wanted to crawl into herself. She wanted to shrink away. She felt so much grief she wasn’t sure what to do. She had to stop, to reflect and to truly ask herself, “Does God care as much about me as God does about white people?” She lived into her doubts and shared her fears that maybe this whole Christian thing, her life’s work, was a lie. She sat in the metaphorical ashes for a bit, working it all out.
If we’re honest, It’s the doubt that makes these kinds of experiences so hard to talk about in the Church, especially when many Christians in the United States grow up with the idea that our doubts are sinful, that we can’t question God’s existence or God’s goodness, we just have to try harder and do more to believe. But often, these life shattering moments just leave us with questions, with doubts, and with despair. How do we process it when we aren’t supposed to ask the questions? We can’t.
God doesn’t expect us to avoid the questions either. That’s why I love Job. He battles with these questions and doubts. He and his friends sit down together and hash it out. Why did this happen to Job? Didn’t God care? Was this an act of retribution on God’s part? Job sits in the ash heap and he calls out for God to explain. He knows that his redeemer lives and he’s going to yell and cry and ask questions and share his doubts until God reveals God’s self. And God does it! God comes to Job in a whirlwind.
We just have the beginning piece of their conversation for our reading today, but God’s conversation with Job goes on for chapters. God doesn’t explain why Job is suffering, instead God asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?” Then God speaks to the vastness of creation, of all the interconnecting and complex ecosystems, all the variables that make life thrive on the planet. God makes Job look beyond himself to something bigger. God grounds Job in nature. Job doesn’t get the “Why” he was looking for. I don’t think we often do. But he does get the assurance that God has not forgotten him and indeed God cares about this world deeply. God reminds Job that he is not alone.
In our Gospel, the disciples are quite open with their questioning. “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?” There is both the hope and the doubt of Jesus’ abilities in that question. It wouldn’t have mattered so much to them that Jesus was asleep unless they felt he could do something. But they also doubted at that moment that he cared enough to help. After all, he was just laying there. They shook him and shook him to get him up and moving. But they did so because they had seen him work miracles. They knew he had power greater than them. They both doubted and yet hoped that he could provide for them at that moment.
And Jesus does it! He stands up in the wind that is blowing everyone around, he holds up his hand and he declares, “Peace! Be still!” As the immediate calm sweeps over them, the disciples are flabbergasted. They even brush aside Jesus’ chide for not having faith. They are lost in the awe that Jesus could do so much, could help so much. Even in the darkest moments when doubts abound and they are far from okay, Jesus is able to provide. Jesus grounded them in his nature. He shares with them his power over ecosystems and life on this planet.
It was never the doubts that Job or the disciples had to fear. They were destabilized, but not destroyed. And The Very Reverend Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas? She’s still a woman of great faith today, though the weariness and the exhaustion of racial trauma remain.
The doubts that arise from tragedy and despair don’t have to break our faith. They have their place in our growing and expanding relationship with God. We don’t get all the answers. We don’t know why some things happen. Sometimes I’m not even sure there’s anything God could say in explanation that would help with the pain. Natural disasters kill beautiful souls every year. Nine people went to Bible study and never came home. What good are reasonings in the midst of such intense pain?
Think about the Covid-19 pandemic. We have all the facts. We know where it started, methods to avoid contracting it, we even have a vaccine that reduces its power. But the whys we ask are, “Why did we have to go through this? Why did so many people die and why are so many still dying? Why did my friend, my loved one, get it?” Sometimes over the past year, I’ve wondered too if God does indeed care. Is Jesus asleep? What is going on?
But in the midst of that questioning, I’ve found myself like Job demanding answers, unable to rest on the insufficient answers being thrown my way. I’ve found myself shaking Jesus, trying to get him to wake up, and I’ve found myself asking bigger questions, leaning into doubt, and being brought into a deeper relationship with God.
My friends, there is so little we can control. The list of things under my power seems to grow smaller every day. The list of tragedies increases. We move through a world with great afflictions and hardships. We experience sleepless nights and deep grief. Yet, in the midst of the struggle, in the midst of the storm, maybe even at the moment where faith seems most foolish, Jesus comes. He stands firm. He declares, “Peace! Be still!” God comes alongside us and grounds us again in the vastness, beauty and complexity of creation, telling us we still have a part in this big world, that even in the midst of death, God is the God of life.
St. Paul reminds us that even in the midst of great pain and suffering, even when the world looks like it’s going to hell in a handbasket, today is the day of salvation.We know in Christ what happens to death.All the brokenness, all the tragedy of this life need not have the final say. If we lament, if we cry out, if we give our primal cries of despair over to God, if we share our doubts, God shows up. Jesus awakens. And we may never understand why something happens, but we can be rooted in who God is, the God who weeps alongside us, who shows up in the storm, who gives us a place of grounding, of stability, amid all the unrest.
Today, we share in the feast of God’s great victory over sin and death, over all the trauma of this life. Today we declare that Christ has died, Christ is risen, and Christ will come again. We invite the real presence of our Savior into our midst, and Christ shows up! Christ comes again among us. Even amidst our times of deepest sorrow and pain, of feeling wounded and alone, Christ comes again to us, holding out his arms of embrace, saying, “Peace! Be still!”