6/24/18 Terminal? I Samuel 15:10-11, 13-19, 24-28, 34-25; Mark 4:35-41
I’ve been preaching about God’s healing. This led me to think about the most tragic epidemic in my lifetime. How many here remember the aids epidemic of the 1980’s and the fear it spawned as the United States saw so many young adults perish? I wonder if we really remember it.
For to recall that time of ignorance, prejudice, and public panic is to invite us all to recall shame. The shame of asking someone with HIV to be the last patient of the day at their physician’s office, so that no one else would have to sit on the exam table after them. The shame of refusing to serve people with obvious lesions on their skin. The shame of family members disowning dying children. The shame of men passing along HIV to their female companions, and the tragedy of mothers giving birth to infants who contract the disease in utero. The shame that we recall, remembering the fear and ignorance that too easily combined with homophobia to explain that “gay people were to blame.” The hurtful lies people told themselves: “our kind” don’t get this disease.
Thank God we know more about HIV/AIDS today, and that we no longer treat people with this syndrome as pariahs. Thank God that effective drug therapies have been found to … mostly…. Keep the spread of the virus in check.
But of course, the shame lives on. Here in the United States we receive good treatment for HIV/AIDS, but the epidemic continues to kill in parts of the world where effective anti-viral medicines are not readily available or affordable to the common person. The shame lives on when villages continue to shun young children orphaned by aids. The shame lives on we hear of people in the United States who can’t afford their HIV medicines, even today.
Where is God in all of this? There is no one, always correct answer, and I hesitate to make pronouncements that trivialize someone’s suffering.
So I will wonder in faith with you as we ponder the scriptures, remembering as we read the hundreds of thousands who have died of aids, the millions who live with infection and fear.
The Old Testament lesson tells the story of god’s rejection of Saul as king over the tribes of Israel. This rejection is announced to Saul through the prophet Samuel, who previously had been Saul’s champion. Apparently, Saul disobeyed god’s direct command and spared some of the sheep and cattle owned by the Amalekite tribe. Going against god’s instructions, he brought the choicest sheep and cattle back to sacrifice to Yahweh, the god of Israel. Samuel the prophet announces with a broken heart that because of this disobedience, “the Lord has torn the kingdom of Israel from you this very day, and has given it to a neighbor of yours, who is better than you.”
Years pass by, Saul remains king, and then David is brought to the court. Saul sees the writing on the wall. Saul sends David out to fight Goliath, and then off to fight the legions of the Philistines, thinking he would surely die. But David is charmed and grows in popularity. Saul slowly descends into a kind of madness, knowing his destiny is sealed. Knowing that God is against him.
Why exactly God rejects Saul as king isn’t explained adequately, at least to our minds. But I want us to ponder the experience of Saul, feeling that god has rejected him, feeling that his fate has been determined. He is living with a death sentence, not completely understanding why. It weighs on him until in the later stages of the story with David he does appear to become mentally unstable.
Some of us, also, will be asked to live with terminal diagnoses … incurable diseases that will eventually overcome our immune systems, cancers that will grow and crowd out our organs, hearts that will sputter and beat and beat and sputter again. An Aids virus that multiplies, and even with medication, leaves one living with low-lying dread. How do we ourselves not go mad? Where is god when we feel rejected by God, rejected and condemned to die? Please, let’s try not to look at Saul with judgmental eyes. He’s a lot like us.
Ah, but then there is Jesus. The answer to the oft-asked question, “where is God in all of this?” Is to point to Jesus on the cross. God in Christ Jesus is present in our suffering because god experienced suffering first hand. But in mark’s telling of the story, there’s even a bigger claim.
The waves beat and splash and push the little vessel around till all looks lost to the fearful disciples. They awaken him with hurt in their voices, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” Isn’t that exactly the same question we ask when we feel god-forsaken: God, where are you in all of this? We’re in the same boat as the disciples.
It helps to know that there are mythic elements in this story that everyone hearing it in Mark’s church would have recognized. In the Hebrew scriptures the forces of evil and chaos are personified by the sea monster and the deep dark threat of the sea roiling uncontrollably. No one can ride the leviathan, no one can tame the storm. But time after time in the psalms, God tames the storm. For example listen to:
“You rule the raging of the sea, when its waves rise, you still them.” Ps. 89:9
“He reached down from on high, he took me; he drew me out of mighty waters.” Ps. 18:16 and many other places.
Those early followers of Jesus were people like you and me, drawn to the gathering of people of faith. They knew that when they listened to a story about the waves rising up to swamp the boat and drown the disciples, they were hearing about the forces of evil at work. And they knew, too, that Jesus wasn’t asleep on the job. The one who trusts in God’s power to save is typically depicted in the Hebrew scriptures as calm and confident when others panic. And so, as the early church told this story over and over and asked the question that we ask still today, “God where are you in all of this?” … they thought they knew the answer. When the final sentence in mark’s story asks “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him,” they wanted to shout out the answer, all together.
Does this shout out about Jesus help you when the boat begins to rock in your life?? I hope and pray it does. It helped the people in Mark’s time. It helps people throughout the world today who struggle with injustice, persecution, and above all with disease. Believing that in Jesus God stills the waves helps many persons cope. “Who is this that even the wind and the sea obey him?” In faith I can tell you that with time, eventually, the Aids virus will too.
But please note, we shouldn’t end with this affirmation of faith, comforting and true as I believe it is. The Aids epidemic wasn’t only about human suffering amidst the evil of a deadly virus. Aids also tells the story of ostracism. Getting infected with HIV is a tragedy. Ostracizing people with Aids is a sin.
Recall that touching song "Will I?" from the early 1990's’s musical Rent: a young man with a full-blown aids infection attends a support group. Over a few months he sees member after member disappear. All that’s left are their empty seats. Finally, desperate, recognizing that he will disappear soon, too, he sings, “Will I lose my dignity… will someone care? Will I wake tomorrow from this nightmare?” What do we say to that person?
A friend shared this story with me. She knew a truck driver, Jimmy, a pretty rough guy who had lived a wild life in the 1970’s. Suddenly twenty years later he develops symptoms… goes for diagnoses… can’t believe his ears when he’s told he now has Aids. Apparently the only thing he can think of that could explain his infection is shared needle use back when he was a druggie. So he goes for treatment, it doesn’t help much, he gets weaker, in shame he hides his sickness from family and friends. In fear the hospital sticks him in a treatment room in the basement, out of sight, a room filled with reclining chairs for those receiving the slow drip. The only people around him are gay. He shrinks back in horror: “Get me out of this place!” He whispers to his friend. “I don’t want to be around homosexuals.”
A few weeks passed and he grows weaker. He was admitted to the hospital and again, stuck in a room out of sight. His two roommates are gay men. His friend visited the first day and he ignored his roommates, despite their overtures of friendliness. She came back three days later. He was much sicker. But now he and his roommates have become fast friends, sharing jokes, reminiscences, some songs. They shared life. No one else visited him but his one friend. And his new friends, who knew. Who knew what it was to walk in his shoes.
Where is God in all this suffering? Where was God in Jimmy’s death? There, I think. There in the room with him, in the person of his roommates, who were dying too. There with a man who needed comfort and who needed to grow in understanding. There with a man suffering as they suffered, with a man who slowly learned how not to ostracize.
Let’s learn how to be there in the room, too. Amen.
4/29/2018 Aloneness PS. 4; John 21:1-14
In 2014 then episcopal bishop Heather Cook killed bicyclist Thomas Palermo while driving drunk. It later came out that her diocese had been aware of her previous arrest for driving drunk, and that she’d been drinking heavily at a dinner before she was consecrated as a bishop. It was clear to those present that she didn’t have her alcohol problem under control. The church made her a bishop anyway. Her church enabled her. Why?
Why are we so afraid to ask probing questions? Why do we fear rocking the boat there’s a down side to living in the post resurrection time period of Jesus Christ? After the glow of hope fades, everything else seemingly hurts more. Jesus being raised from the grave doesn’t take away all my problems. We should feel wonderful, we should act bravely, we should all love and support one another, but… we must face our fears, not cover them up.
The disciples had to face their fears, too. “Come and have breakfast,” he told them; “come and have brunch” he might say to us this morning. In galilee by the sea Jesus re-established community among those he loves. It’s a mistake to think that the disciples are frolicking like frisky puppies in the gentle light of a spring fishing trip. Resurrection faith sometimes makes us feel that all is new, all is well. But not always. If you read this passage carefully you’ll see that the disciples are feeling lost, and I think, depressed. It’s fine to know that Jesus is risen, but after a while he’s not there anymore. They don’t know what to do with themselves. They feel an absence, a big hole in their lives. In short, they are still grieving. They feel… alone.
Deep in their hearts they are feeling alone, abandoned, afraid.. This is where I find my deepest connection to this scripture. Even though I know and believe that Jesus my lord is risen from the grave and waits for me to join him in his kingdom, I still feel a bit … alone. I suspect you sometimes do, too.
Grief for the absence of a friend or significant loved one, as I suspect the disciples were feeling, is one kind of aloneness. There are many others. We can be living together with a spouse and still feel lonely. Happy or unhappy, no marriage, no one beloved person can meet all our needs.
Sometimes we are lonely for a friend, a true blue companion, a soul-mate. The older we get the harder it becomes to make such a friendship. Will we find a soulmate? Maybe yes, maybe no. The old adage that if you want a friend then be a friend rings true. But there are no guarantees in life.
Many, many people live alone and they have done so for years. Never married, divorced and not-remarried, widowed, even married but essentially living separate lives. Living alone comes in many forms.
This isn’t the main point of my sermon, but it’s important to stop and think about the implications. When people who live alone come to join us at worship, when they come to see if there is a word from the lord and a spark of god’s spirit among us, what do they experience? So often churches are focused on families that are child-centered. So often churches are marriage-centered. Do we unconsciously make single people feel de-valued?
I heard a pastor who prayed after conducting a baptism in the midst of the worship service:
“And as we pray for all the families of the church, we also pray for those who live alone and for those who are family to them. We pray for parents and their children and for all who, having none to call their own, are welcomed and needed for what and who they can be in the lives of many children around them.”
Hearing this prayer, one woman reflected:
“I have been divorced since it was determined that my former husband and I could not have any children of our won. No one in the congregation knows that I was ever married. Can you imagine what that prayer meant to me?”
Do we forget so quickly that our lord Jesus in his earthly life was a single person living on his own, probably apart from his family? There must have been times when even Jesus felt “alone.” But he found purpose through the depth of his prayerful connection to his father in heaven and his welcoming openness to the others he encountered along his journey. He asks us simply to welcome everyone, and value everyone, and know that we all struggle with feeling “alone.”
Being alone is a huge part of life. In fact, being alone epitomizes the human condition. Increasingly most of us spend more time alone than coupled. And we all die alone. Like the disciples we may trust in our risen lord. But we still fear being left to our own resources to face life’s travails.
So… going back to the beginning of my sermon….why is it that church congregations frequently enable bad behavior?
We’re scared! Congregations fall apart, fight and divide until there’s nothing left. And if that happens then where will we be? How will we talk to one another on Sundays? Who will call us to see if we are still alive? Who will soothe our heart-aching loneliness? I think we know how fragile our life together really is, and we are afraid to do anything that would rock the boat! Who wants to feel even more alone?
Yet this is the human condition, even for disciples of the risen Christ.
“Lads,” he said to them. “You haven’t caught anything to eat, have you?” “Cast your nets over there, to the right, and you’ll find something.” Living with our aloneness is a lot like fishing all night long and not catching a thing. It hurts.
They were hurting. We can place ourselves into this story. We, too, can be sitting in the boat. We too can hear the strangely familiar man call to us from the shore. We can cast our nets and we can catch a haul and we can cook and eat, all the while staring at the one who can’t be there, but is. And we too can eat together, each of us aware of our aloneness, yet each of us strangely comforted. As we eat together, he blesses us, too. Wouldn’t we like to hold onto this feeling forever? But instead he tells us to go spread the gospel, and then he disappears.
Perhaps there’s a part of being a human being that will just be lonely, even a bit fearful. Perhaps loneliness is even woven into the way we were created, placed there to make us know that this world, for all its splendor and goodness, is not our final home. Perhaps our aloneness is even a part of god’s grace. Saint Augustine wrote in his confessions, “you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you,” o god. The disciples, briefly, rested their aching hearts beside the risen Christ by that campfire on the shore.
That is why we gather for worship, too. To find a way to rest our hearts in god. It happens, sometimes, but briefly. The truth is, you aren’t going to solve my feelings of loneliness and neither I nor anyone else here will solve yours. Only god can do that. So don’t mistake the vessel for the living water. Don’t protect your church at any cost! Always hold us up to a high standard!
Rather let us be spurred on in those moments when we do find true rest in god… spurred on to do the right thing.
Welcome the stranger. Care for god’s world and speak up for those trampled by injustice. Encourage one another. And remember…
Above all remember and remind one other… of the fish we caught that dawn after the long lonely night. And how he fed us. Taste that roasted fish. Savor it. That’s what keeps us going. That’s what keeps us faithful. Amen.