Who are You?
Job 38:1-11; Mark 4:35-41
The Book of Job is known by everyone but read by very few. It is a dangerous poem that exists on the edge of Old Testament theology, challenging time honored tradition of Israel’s faith while giving no easy answers to the questions raised. Discussions of this book too often begin and end with the simplistic question, “What happens when bad things happen to good people?” But the deeper, darker message of the poet is that neither Job nor his friends understand the mystery and wisdom of God. Having experienced the suffering that arises when property or a family member is lost, we side with Job. But this poem rises above our tragedies, daring us to look beyond our own pain. In an incredibly sarcastic response God asked Job, “Who are you? Were you around when I laid the foundations of the world? Job, it is not just about you.”
Job defined righteousness within the parameters of the Deuteronomic code which declared if you do what is right, good things will happen. We have a similar code. Each morning the shadow of Monticello falls upon our county. We have been raised to believe we have the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. When we are denied those revered privileges we raise our Job-like complaints to the Almighty. But what happens when laws evolving from the gospel according to Jefferson are not harmonious with the gospel of Jesus? What happens when our rights appear to be threatened by the existence of sojourners who are also part of God’s holy creation? We have created laws which protect our constitutional rights. But does legality replace morality when those laws are used against the widow and the orphan? If we claim Christ, I believe these are questions we have to raise.
It was late in the afternoon when Jesus said to the disciples, “Let’s jump in the boat and travel to the other side of the lake.” The disciples saw this as a terrible idea. Why on earth would Jesus want to go to a foreign place where no Jewish laws were observed? Where would they eat? Who would give them a place to stay? Had Jesus lost his mind?
We understand the fear of the disciples. Jesus is always asking us to leave the satisfaction of tested shores and undertake a journey toward the unknown. But who wants to encounter bumpy waters? Life is hard enough without the Godly tug to deepen our humanity and care for folks we really would rather not think about.
My last Presbytery had a covenant relationship with Presbyterians in Villahermosa, the capital of the Mexican state of Tabasco. I twice had the privilege of traveling and staying in the homes of Mexican Presbyterians who are working to build a hospital to insure better health care for their woman and children. The trips were exhausting yet spiritually enlightening as I witnessed folks living out their faith for the sake of those who were invisible. On returning home I would often be asked where Tabasco was located. When I mentioned Villahermosa was on the Gulf of Mexico more than once the reply was, “That’s nice, but when we vacation in Mexico we prefer Acapulco to Cancun.”
Jesus wasn’t taking the disciples on a vacation. He was going to the other side of the lake where marginalized, often demonized folks lived. The disciples knew what they would find in Gerasene and they had no desire to go.
During the night a storm arose on the lake which threatened the lives of everyone on board. You know the story. Jesus awakened; spoke; and the wind and waves became calm. The disciples respond, “Who ARE you?”
I believe the storm was a metaphor for the chaos that was exploding within the heart of each disciple. What happened to the people on the other side of the lake was not their concern. Those folks were Gentiles. They raised pigs. They were unclean. By making this trip the disciples would once again bring down the wrath of the Pharisees. So why did Jesus choose to step into this mess? These unnecessary side trips threatened the life, liberty, and happiness of each of the 12 disciples. Why couldn’t Jesus understand this was the last place they desired to be? I think it was beyond their imagination that Jesus wanted the disciples to look the face of a stranger and recognizing her as a child of God.
We are no different. How often are people, especially children, invisible. How often do statistics replace names? The captured, the outcast, becomes a pawn in debates over what is legal or illegal. Then God muddies the water by asking what is moral and immoral. God drags us into the chaos and we desperately look to Jesus for help. But that calm we so frantically desire comes with a price. Once the storm ended, Jesus asks disciples of every age to continue rowing toward the distant shore.
In moments of chaos, our nation has a history of listening to Godly voices. In 1944 Richard Niebuhr wrote, “Our capacity toward righteousness makes democracy possible. But our inclination toward injustice makes democracy necessary.”
From the inauguration of Washington until today, we as a nation we have tried and failed, tried and failed, but we always try again. In the midst of our chaos our leaders have found the courage to call on a higher power. In 1863 Abraham Lincoln was asked if God was on the side of the Union. Lincoln responded, “What matters is that we try to be on the side of justice and righteousness.” When asked to justify his reasons for supporting the Marshall plan Harry Truman responded, “God will judge us on how we respond to those who are weak.” On September 12th 2001, George Bush preached, “The world God created is of a moral design. Grief and tragedy and hatred are only for a moment. Goodness, remembrance, and love have no end.” In Charleston S.C., after the murder of nine members of the Mother Emmanuel Church, Barak Obama paraphrased a beloved hymn when he practically sang, “Grace is not merited. It is the free, benevolent favor of God upon sinners. God has visited grace upon us as a nation for God has allowed us to see where we have been blind. Then God has allowed us to find our better selves.”
Perhaps the most beautiful expression of our dependency upon God’s favor was written in 1893 after Katherine Lee Bates visited Pikes Peak. Fifteen years later, Samuel Ward added music to the poem and retitled it America the Beautiful. We all love the song. I wish we would sing the second verse more.
O beautiful for heroes proved in liberating strife,
Who more than self their country loved,
And mercy more than life.
America, America, God mend our every flaw.
Confirm thy soul, in self control,
Thy liberty in law.
Historically, there are never simplistic answers to complicated problems. Historically, we will often find ourselves at odds with each other when trying to discover creative solutions. The book of Job suggests no matter how good we think we are, holy answers are found when we have the courage to look beyond our own plight. The Gospel of Mark assures us Jesus can always be found in the midst of our chaos. But Mark also reminds us if we turn to Jesus, there is always a catch. Jesus will encourage us to keep rowing our boat toward the orphaned, the widow and the forgotten.
I pray that our nation will never lose the yearning to turn to God in our times of chaos.
I pray equally hard that we will have the courage to listen, and hopefully, find our better selves.To God be the glory. Amen.