Faith and Anguish Will Meet

19th Sunday Ordinary time, 8-13-17; 1 Kings 19:9a-13a; Ps 85; Rom 9:1-5; Matt 14:22-33.

As I read these scriptures this week, a single word stood out: “Anguish.” This week is a counterpoint to last week’s glorious Transfiguration.  Paul uses the word “Anguish” in our reading from his Letter to the Romans.  As you probably know, Paul was a Jewish Pharisee before he converted to “The Way” of Jesus and became an evangelist of the Good News.  Paul is thinking about “the great sorrow and constant anguish” in his heart for the Jews, his people.  Their rejection of Jesus as Messiah and Savior was tragic.  It was the Jews who had watchfully awaited the Messiah, who had passed the expectation from generation to generation.  It was the Jews who had been given the law and commandments; the Jews who had made the covenant with God, and it was from the line of David that Jesus was born.  While Paul offers praise to God for this marvelous gift of the Messiah, he does it with a heavy heart.

Elijah’s heart was more anguished than Paul’s. Elijah had the kind of stress that can kill people.  When Ahab had become King of Israel, “he did more to anger God than any of the other kings of Israel before him” (1Kings 16:33).  He worshiped idols and he built altars to them. His wife, Jezebel, focused killing all the prophets of God, particularly Elijah.  Finally, Elijah went to King Ahab and demanded a showdown.  It was Elijah for God vs. 450 prophets for the idols.  Each side built an altar and called for fire to come down and consume a sacrifice.  The prophets of the idols called out, danced, and cut themselves with knifes for hours to no effect.  Elijah flooded his altar with water, said a short prayer, and fire came down and consumed the sacrifice, the water, the wood, even the stones.  Then he ran.

For a full day, Elijah fled from Jezebel’s wrath, until he collapsed in fear, exhaustion, and anguish over the entire situation. He prayed for death to take him.  Instead, an angel provided food for him until he was able to continue to the mountains.  God asked him why he was in hiding.  Elijah responded, “I have given everything I had, and more, for you, God.  But the people have turned away from you, your places of worship have been destroyed, and all your prophets are dead.  I am alone and there is nothing else I can do.”  That is the voice of anguish.  God arrives with a “tiny whispering sound”, the gentleness we need when we are in such emotional pain.  God protects Elijah, has him anoint a new king and a new prophet, and then brings Elijah up to heaven in a whirlwind on a flaming chariot.

Even our Psalm today is a lament. The people are in anguish, feeling abandoned by God and afraid God will be angry with them forever.  They want God’s love and glory to return.  They imagine kindness and truth meeting.  When someone asks if their new clothes make them look fat, we find that kindness and truth do not always meet.  Truth does not always spring from us on earth, and we would often prefer mercy rather than justice from heaven.  Being holy people is difficult.

So, we move to the Gospel, and things aren’t going very well there, either.   Jesus has just heard the news that his dear cousin John the Baptist has been beheaded by Herod as part of an obscene power-play at an outlandish party!  It was just too revolting and horrendous, and Jesus withdrew to a quiet place by himself in grief.  But people continued to seek him out, and a crowd of some 5,000 people gathered, begging for healing and needing food.  Setting aside his own anguish over John, he attended to their needs.  Afterward, still needing time to himself, he sends the disciples ahead in the boat, and Jesus goes up the mountain to pray.

Jesus walking on water is one of the beloved stories of the faith, and I’m sure you know it. A heavy storm broke over the lake.  Jesus, knowing, that the disciples’ faith was still as little as a new-born baby, goes to them.  They are so panicked, so anguished, that they react even to Jesus with fear and doubt.  There it is again, “Do not be afraid.”  If I ever get a tattoo, that’s what it should be.  As Jesus calmed the storm and got into the boat, the disciples worship him as The Divine One he is.

What did we learn?

1. We all have to rely on God, especially when it seems that evil or tragedy has the upper hand. Elijah shows us that trust is not just a sheer act of the will, not simply a blind decision, but a quiet emergence of God’s faithful love. Faith works best when we don’t confuse it with our own powers or efforts.

2. Like Paul, every Christian experiences anguish because our failures and our experiences can seem so hard to reconcile with the promises of God. Yet those promises are eternal. Our faith has its ups and downs and it is often very difficult to see our life in the big picture.

3. “Lord, let us see your kindness”, our Psalmist said. Let us see God’s kindness in all the people who follow God, carrying their crosses of daily sacrifice and suffering.

4. Knowing that Jesus experienced loss and grief, we know he will not abandon us. We too can be healed by time spent with God in prayer and meditation. After getting back into the boat, Peter would have told us that sometimes Jesus will calm the storm, and sometimes Jesus will calm you in the storm. But we are never beyond God’s reach and never have too little faith to call out to him, for God is with us.

 

Riding the Roller Coaster

2nd Sunday Easter 4-23-17 Acts 2:42-47; Ps: 118:2-4, 13-15, 22-24; 1 Peter 1:3-9; John 20:19-3

I have never been on a roller coaster. I am more than willing to die having never ridden on a roller coaster.   I have ridden some emotional roller coasters though, and the period of time from Palm Sunday thru Ascension would certainly be a fine way to illustrate one of those!  Just our readings today are good examples of the valleys and peaks of the emotional roller coaster the disciples experienced.

We read from the Book of Acts, of people devoting themselves to the teaching of the apostles in the Jewish Temple, living in community, praying and practicing their Jewish faith together, seeing miracles and healings, everyone sharing their wealth and possessions, eating their meals with “exultation and sincerity of hearts, praising God.” New people were daily proclaiming their faith in the Risen Christ. This was a period of time when they had the approval of the people of Jerusalem.   Clearly this was a peak emotional time.

We get confused with the language, though. Was it a social commune or the beginning of communism?  Maybe they were a community that had Communion every day.  Maybe we unthinkingly forget that they lived in reality.  All the apostles had gathered in Jerusalem.  Many other followers, referred to as “the disciples,” had joined them.  They had brought their families with them for the Passover celebration.  They were fisherman, carpenters, potters & weavers from villages throughout Judea, but there were no Bargain/ Red Roof Inns in Jerusalem.  No Red Line to make the commute home easy.

Culturally, the Judean Jews lived in a much closer community than we do.  They were accustomed to open doors and open lives. So they were taken in, room was made for them in local homes. They were living together out of necessity.  What was happening to these believers was alternately too scary, too exciting, too amazing and too powerful to just… leave.  Their shared experience of Jesus’ death and resurrection made it easier to share their lives. Was it the end of time?  They were riding a roller coaster, waiting for the world to change.

We would like to think that time was perfect and maybe even something we could re-create, but Thomas and Peter both understood this was a bubble in time. We recognize bubbles in time.  Ask anyone who deals in “retro” or “antiques” or  even politics.

In the 1st letter of St. Peter we read,  “Blessed be God… who…gave us a new birth to a living hope through the resurrection…an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading…Even though you do not see him now -yet believe in him, rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy…” That is certainly peak material, befitting the Peter we recognize.  But right in the middle of that he inserts a valley.  “…although now for a little while you may have to suffer through various trials, so that the genuineness of your faith, more precious than gold…may prove to be for praise, glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ.” Peter knew a lot about faith and failure, belief and betrayal, triumph and testing.  That’s how Peter learned to be The Rock.

Thomas was the holdout among the Twelve; he was a wise man and I have come to respect him. He was more than happy to be subjected to ridicule or rejection by the others.  He told them he didn’t believe everything people said; he wasn’t interested in the newest religious rumors or fads.  He needed proof, he needed to see and touch.  He was willing to risk being wrong, just as he was quick to believe when Jesus came to him.  He went from valley to peak in seconds! As I read some of the newest books out about Jesus and watch some of the more sensational “documentary re-creations” of the Crucifixion on Television these past weeks, I hear some strange mis-information – how Jesus had political motivations and so on, that directly contradict the Gospels.  We need more fact-checkers like Thomas.

Thomas reached possibly more people with the Good News than Paul did. Thomas traveled east, to the sub-continent of India, witnessing to his faith and establishing churches.  It wasn’t all good- he was martyred there, in 72 AD; he poured out his life for Jesus.  Records from the 16th century describe him as beloved by the Muslims, the Christians, and the Hindus.  In fact, at that time, a Muslim maintained his tomb.  If only we could live the faith like Thomas!  This Sunday is celebrated as the “Sunday of Thomas” by the Orthodox Catholics brothers and sisters.

Even our Psalm is a roller coaster reading, the lectionary just conveniently omits the valley part: “All the nations surrounded me on every side.  They surrounded me like bees; they blazed like fire among thorns.  I was hard pressed and falling, but the Lord came to me.”  It is a Psalm of Eucharist (thanksgiving) sung as the people processed to the temple, but it does not fail to acknowledge that life can be very hard; bee stings and thorns/ hard times and pain are part of life.  At the same time, we are reminded that God is with us always.

So today we remember that our heroes, those super-faithful followers of Jesus, were locked in a room out of fear. Thomas had serious doubts about the resurrection.  Even after a glorious Easter, our heroes were beaten and jailed and killed for their faith.  But the “inexpressible joy” is also a real part of our Faith.  We learn that goodness and love and faith are more complex than the emotion of success or fulfillment that accompanies them.  By bearing pain and sorrow, we find faith, too.  Our flaws and our wounds are refined and purified, like precious gold, in our resurrection faith.

 

Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure & Finality

Easter Sunday 4-16-17, Acts 10:34,37-43, Psalm 118, Colossians 3:1-4, John 20: 1-9

Ending the Fear of Futility, Failure and Finality

He is risen! He is risen indeed!  This is it -the highpoint- indeed the reason for the Christian faith.  After all, those who opposed Jesus’ message long ago saw the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a way to stop the growth of this strange renewal of the Jewish faith.  But his death was followed by resurrection, and everything changed.  It is a day of celebration, amazement, of remembering and claiming promises of life after death and a close, personal unity with God.

American Christians today struggle not against an oppressive Roman Empire, but against the promises and the amazement growing stale and feeling irrelevant; and this struggle occurs against a background of a chicks-and-bunnies-focused society – symbols of fertility borrowed, interestingly enough, from that same oppressive Roman Empire.

So, we must ask, “How do these readings apply to the world that awaits us as we leave here today? “How can our faith be faithfully and accurately interpreted into a hip-hop world?  It’s not always easy.  But for today, we can find 3 points of the Easter story that truly do make direct contact with our lives:  the fight against Futility, Failure, and Finality.

Futility is a widespread problem today. Research says close to 40% of Americans say they don’t think there is a God.  Instead people put their “faith” into clothes and cars and jobs and houses and social status – and substance abuse.  This approach to life is pretty futile.  According to the Center for Disease Control, the US suicide rate increased 24% during the last 15 years, with the rate of yearly increase doubling since 2006. Suicide is now the leading cause of death in teens and young adults. Heroin overdose deaths have increased 45% in 4 years.  It is called, “Death by Despair”- lives based in futility.

The Easter story is about a risen Jesus, who lives. But it is also about the personal decisions of people like Mary Magdalene and the disciples of Jesus who saw the truth of God, who witnessed healing and resurrection, who chose to believe, who learned their efforts were not futile, and who found value in their lives and their actions – beyond stuff & society.  They created a new cultural importance in the actions of individuals. This has opened a way of life that is filled with joy and certainty, even in the midst of hardship and suffering.  Life has become victorious over death.  We must live and share this truth!  Easter people show their joy, the goodness of life shines thru them. Even in difficult times, they can show love to the unlovable.

Then there is Failure. We, for the most part, live in a world where people don’t just fail, but they crash and burn, drowning in a sea of negativity on Facebook; they are crushed in the media.

Forgiveness and new beginnings are what the Easter story brings; Peter is not only reinstated as a disciple but in the Book of Acts he becomes a fearless and powerful preacher of the Word. The women at the tomb were broken and grieving; they had put their money, their reputation, and their lives into supporting Jesus, and thought it was all a failure.  Jesus and angels came to tell them otherwise. Jesus came to the scene of the disciples’ lackluster attempt to return to fishing and put the Spirit’s fire back into their hearts. Jesus picks them up, dusts them off and, by his presence, gives them new certainty and determination.

Easter people go way beyond the lukewarm, “Don’t worry about it,” and offer real forgiveness. They see pureness in the jumbled brokenness in people. The Easter church needs to be the place where failure can be embraced with forgiveness and love, where doubt and fear can accept truth, where our presence and support are available for those oppressed by failure.

Then there is finality. Jesus always left the door open for people.  He offered choices.  He did not reject people, but probed their motivations and offered alternatives.  Even after his resurrection and Ascension, he said he would return.  He did not leave us without the Holy Spirit to guide and comfort.  There is no end to God’s love.

Finality is one of the main reasons I am in ministry. To know that our lives are important to the One who created us – makes a difference.  Knowing that the transience of the material world is not to be feared, frees me to put my time and effort into people, not product.  I can find value in how life really is, without the glitter.  I find significance in the ritual of a holy, shared meal because time and finality do not exist in the realm of an Easter faith.  I don’t need my name engraved on a brass plaque, for my eternity will be found in union with God and in the love of God I share with God’s people.

The Easter church thinks in terms of eternity, so personality differences and petty disagreements shrink in importance. When we can keep in touch with Jesus’ humility, it becomes natural to treat others as more important than ourselves.  When we can operate out of that humility, our lives move people to want the faith we have and we get to share our joy with them.

In the weeks ahead, each of us will have opportunities to silence the fears of futility, failure and finality. May the Spirit of the Risen Christ lead you to bring hope, joy and love to all you meet.