A Sermon About Storms and When It Feels Like God Is Asleep on the Job


Cleveland Clinic / Louis Stokes VA Medical Center
21 June 2015 / 24 June 2015
Pentecost 4B
Mark 4.35-41; Job 38.1-11; Psalm 107.1-3, 23-32

“It was a dark and stormy night.” So begins the novel Paul Clifford by nineteenth-century English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton. It’s perhaps the most well-known first line of any novel and has been called “the literary poster child for bad story starters.” It’s even given birth to a writing competition for the best worst first line.

Literary criticism aside, I have always been fascinated by storms. It’s a pastime I share with my mom, who got it from my grandfather—who, despite my grandmother’s warnings, insisted on storm-watching on the back patio, even under threat of tornadoes.

But storms can also be harrowing and life-shattering experiences, as the people of Texas know all too well these days. I imagine the threat of rising floodwaters our sisters and brothers in the South have experienced is not unlike the fear that seized the disciples in our gospel reading today. “On that day, when evening had come,” Mark begins, Jesus and his disciples go out for a boat ride. Then two verses later, “a great windstorm”—we might say hurricane—arises. The boat is taking on water. The disciples are afraid they’re going to drown. And remember that at least four of them were professional fishermen. Surely they had dealt with inclement weather before. But this—this was bad. So bad that they woke Jesus up: “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” A dark and stormy night indeed.

But let’s back up a minute. They had to wake Jesus up? In the midst of possibly the worst storm the disciples had ever experienced, their teacher was asleep on the job. Now I don’t know about you, but there have certainly been times when I’ve thought Jesus has been asleep on the job—times when, despite everything I know and believe, God just doesn’t feel all that present. Maybe it’s when a loved one is taken from us too soon, or maybe it’s in the aftermath of a new and unsettling diagnosis.

For many of us this past week, it’s been the senseless and tragic shooting of nine beloved children of God in a church in Charleston, South Carolina. “Sanctuary lost,” as one biblical scholar calls it. Even in the places where we thought we were safe, where God is supposed to be with us, we find a storm of senseless, hate-filled violence that tears down any illusion of safety and security. Nowhere, it seems, is safe.

Like the disciples, we feel utterly abandoned and lost at sea. “Teacher, do you not care that your children are perishing?” When a young man with a gun opens fire in the middle of Bible study, it’s easy to think that God doesn’t care. When we feel helpless in the aftermath of tragedy, it’s easy to think that God is asleep on the job. It’s the age-old theodicy question all over again: How can a supposedly loving God allow such suffering and evil?

It’s an interesting paradox though. Back in our gospel text, it’s clear that the disciples are struggling with whether or not Jesus is actually with them. And yet he’s been in the boat with them the whole time. Sometimes when we go to God looking for answers, what we get is God’s presence. It’s easy to point the finger at God when bad things happen, but in so doing, we forget that, instead of being seemingly detached and above it all, God is actually in the midst of our suffering.

“Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” The disciples’ cry is not unlike the psalmist’s “How long, O Lord?” Surely we’re no stranger to laments like these. But the interesting thing about lament is that, instead of denying God’s presence, it actually holds on to it, despite all evidence to the contrary. Psalm 22, the quintessential lament psalm, begins, “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” But only a few verses later, the psalmist praises God: “For God did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; God did not hide God’s face from me, but heard when I cried to God.”

We cry out because sometimes it’s the only thing we can do. But we also cry out because in the end we know we’re not alone. Jesus is in the boat, with his disciples, in the midst of the storm. They cry out because they know what he can do. Just as God speaks to the long-suffering Job out of the whirlwind, the gospel story reminds us that God is found in the storm, in spite of all our doubt and uncertainty.

And what is Jesus’s response to the storm? He wakes up and rebukes it. He rebukes the storm like he rebuked the unclean spirit in the synagogue at Capernaum just a few chapters before. He rebukes the storm and declares, “Peace! (Be silent!) Be still!” And he rebukes evil and suffering even from the vulnerability of the cross. God, who has conquered all evil, shows up in the midst of suffering and says to the crashing waters, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped.”

In the calm after the storm, Jesus asked his disciples, “Why are you afraid?” One commentary paraphrases it this way: “Don’t let any terror take away your faith.” But Jesus never promised this faith thing would be easy. And he certainly never claimed to have all the answers. Quite the opposite. Jesus was adamant that discipleship would cost many of his followers their possessions, their families, their occupations, their lives. In other words, there will be storms. But Jesus was also adamant about giving us peace, not as the world gives, but as only God can give.

“Peace! Be still!” God’s peace doesn’t give us all the answers, but God’s peace is the overwhelming sense of the assurance of God’s presence. God’s peace breaks into those spaces wherewe thought we were safe but are no longer and reminds us that it is so. God’s peace is that peace which passes all understanding.

It’s impossible for us to know why bad things happen, but it’s not impossible for God to fill the cracks when they do. When bad things happen, when storms rage, when water overtakes the boat, God’s peace binds up the brokenhearted, brings good news to the oppressed, and comforts those who mourn.

What the disciples got on that dark and stormy night was not a meteorological explanation for why the storm happened in the first place. What they got was an assurance of God’s presence. So it is with us. Despite all our worry and doubt and uncertainty and distrust, God still meets us where we are. When we cry out to God in trouble, we can expect God to hear us and to be there, in the thick of it, with us. Peace, be still.



Some Thoughts on Charleston


I haven’t really said anything about Charleston because, really, what more can I say that hasn’t already been said? I first heard the story on NPR on my way to CPE Thursday morning. To say I was horrified, like so many others, would be an understatement.

The next thought that came to my mind was that not one year ago I was on vacation in Charleston and fell in love with the city. I looked up the church on Google maps and saw that it’s only a few blocks away from the hotel I stayed at. Suddenly I realized it’s very possible that I may have unknowingly walked by one of Mother Emanuel’s members during my week-long stay.

Now, Charleston’s a big city, and the likelihood of that possibility is slim–but it exists. And it serves to underscore the reality that those killed Wednesday night are not just crime statistics but actual flesh-and-blood human beings. The age range of the victims goes from 26 to 87. These are people’s children, siblings, parents, grandparents, friends. I may have never met any of them, but those who did know them will live with irreplaceable loss for the rest of their lives.

I also read that two of the pastors killed were graduates of Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary, a sister institution of my own seminary in Chicago. The beloved community of Emanuel AME lost their spiritual leaders this week–the very people that they should be able to turn to when tragedies like this happen.

But this runs deeper than personal and institutional loss. This is about a problem in our country that just won’t go away. Ferguson. Staten Island. Cleveland. Baltimore. Charleston. It’s a litany of incidents of violence and disregard done to black bodies in this country, and it goes back to the very beginning. Slavery. Jim Crow. Lynchings. Mass incarceration. This is a systemic problem.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Charleston case as a federal hate crime, and I applaud that decision. But this case seems to be more the exception than the rule. Not to mention that, as painful as it is to utter, Charleston will happen again. The only question is where and when.

So what do we do?

Rev. Elizabeth Eaton, Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, urges us to get to work:

Each of us and all of us need to examine ourselves, our church and our communities. We need to be honest about the reality of racism within us and around us. We need to talk and we need to listen, but we also need to act. No stereotype or racial slur is justified. Speak out against inequity. Look with newly opened eyes at the many subtle and overt ways that we and our communities see people of color as being of less worth. Above all pray – for insight, for forgiveness, for courage. [1]

But how? Among those of us who have been in the trenches doing this work for a while, I can’t imagine I’m the only one who asks, “What more can we do?” Or to echo the psalmist, “How long, O Lord?”  How many more Fergusons and Charlestons do we have to go through?

This week, my Facebook feed has been filled with posts about Charleston. I read a few articles and watched a couple videos, but I couldn’t bring myself to say anything. Not because I didn’t want to or because I didn’t care. I just don’t know what to say anymore. And frankly, I’m tired of all this crap.

But I do know that we the church need to keep showing up. We need to keep showing up where the pain is, where the suffering is, where the brokenness is. And we need to keep witnessing to the radically inclusive Gospel that declares Black Lives Matter. We need to be the ones to declare to the evil of racism, no matter how many times it takes, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped!” (Job 38.11)

When the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, Emanuel’s senior pastor and one of those killed on Wednesday night, was elected state senator, he was asked how he could reconcile being involved in politics with being a religious leader. He said, “Our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation, but we are part of the life and community in which our condition resides.” [2]

I don’t know if Rev. Pinckney knew how prophetic his words would be, but I think the best way to honor his memory and the memory of the other eight beloved children of God is to never forget those words. For indeed, whether we like it or not, our community is bound up in an inescapable network of mutuality. I only pray that all people might come to recognize that.

[1] http://www.elca.org/News-and-Events/7753

[2] http://www.npr.org/2015/06/18/415537203/when-charleston-s-c-pastor-spoke-people-listened

A Sermon About Darkness and God’s Presence


+ Preached at the interfaith service at the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio, on Tuesday, June 16, 2015 +

When I was growing up, I used to watch a television show called Are You Afraid of the Dark? Each episode opened up with a group of middle school-aged kids who called themselves “The Midnight Society” and gathered around a bonfire in the woods after dark. Every week, an appointed narrator would regale the group with a scary story.

Now, I haven’t seen that show for many years, so whether or not those stories would be nearly as terrifying for me today is unlikely. But the premise of that show underscores the fact that our culture consistently equates the absence of light with fear. In other words, only bad things happen in the dark.

As a matter of fact, we do everything we possibly can to avoid darkness, and this aversion is conditioned into us from the time we are young. Children are told to come into the house as soon as it gets dark, and parents plug in nightlights to keep scary monsters away. As soon as the sun sets, streetlights and porch lights go on, and TV screens flicker in brightly lit houses. Even in bed, the glow of our phones, tablets, and laptops keeps darkness at bay for just one more text message, Facebook post, or email.

I wonder if our avoidance of literal darkness is indicative of an avoidance of something else, something deeper. After all, when we grow up and realize there’s no monster in the closet, that doesn’t necessarily mean we turn off the nightlight. When we grow up, rather, we discover the real monsters. Maybe it’s the threat of war or terrorism, or maybe it’s a new cancer diagnosis or impending surgery, or maybe it’s an addiction, or divorce, or prolonged unemployment, or… the list could go on.

We live in a society that so much values and exalts independence and success that any symptom of dependence or failure or a reminder of our mortality is muted and shunned. We’re conditioned to avoid weakness, sadness, anger, depression, and illness, just as we’re conditioned to reach for a light switch as soon as it gets dark. We’re conditioned to avoid these things so much so that it seems there’s a “fix” for everything. Perhaps, then, what scares us most about the dark places of our lives is that we’ll find something we can’t fix.

And so we don’t celebrate darkness. We celebrate light. Religion is perhaps the biggest perpetuator of this glorification of light at the expense of darkness. The Jewish people celebrate Hanukkah to commemorate the rededication of the Temple when there was only enough oil to burn the menorah flame for one night and it miraculously lasted for eight. Hinduism also has its own festival of lights, Diwali, one of the most significant festivals of the year that celebrates the victory of light over darkness. And while Christians all over the world traditionally gather for the Great Vigil of Easter in the dark of the night, it’s ultimately a celebration of Christ’s defeat of death and darkness.

Contrary to what we might think, literal darkness is actually beneficial for us. The addition of the artificial light we use to dispel darkness can actually be harmful to our physical health because it impedes our natural sleep cycles. Journalist Paul Bogard, author of the book The End of Night, puts it this way: “One of the most interesting discoveries of the last few years is of cells in our retinas that aren’t particularly related to sight, but are sensitive to changes in daylight and seasonal light. The wavelengths to which these are most responsive are the blue wavelengths—which makes sense, because the sky is blue, and blue light means waking up. And more and more light in our society is of these wavelengths”—including all our gadgets and modern LED light bulbs. In other words, our attempts to flee from the darkness actually end up doing more harm than good.

I think spiritual darkness can be beneficial to us too. In her most recent book Learning to Walk in the Dark, writer and former Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor faces off against the notion of a feel-good spirituality that over-celebrates light and downplays or outright ignores darkness. Darkness, she insists, has much more to teach us, and drawing from ancient Christian mysticism, she believes that darkness holds divine mystery. “I have learned things in the dark,” she writes, “that I could never have learned in the light, things that have saved my life over and over again, so that there is really only one logical conclusion. I need darkness as much as I need light.”

Taylor goes on to point out that, in the biblical tradition shared by Jews and Christians, darkness has often been the setting for some of the most profound encounters between humanity and the divine. It was at night that God appeared to and made a covenant with Abraham and Sarah. It was at night that Jacob wrestled with God and received God’s blessing. It was at night that God led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. And it was in the shadows of Mount Sinai that God gave Moses the Ten Commandments. These sacred moments in the dark actually brought God closer to God’s people.

If darkness brings us into a more intimate relationship with the divine, it also brings us closer to one another. Martin Luther King, Jr., once famously said, “Only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.” Now I go to seminary in Chicago, and it’s pretty much impossible to see the stars at night because of all our light pollution. But seeing the sky reminds us that there’s something bigger than us. “When we can’t see the sky,” Bogard says, “it’s tempting to think we’re the most important thing, that there isn’t a universe out there that dwarfs us. When you have that firsthand, it can make you feel small, but it can make you grateful for what we have here, too.”

Perhaps this is what the poet Mary Oliver means in her poem “The Uses of Sorrow” when she calls darkness a gift. And I think Bogard is on to something when he suggests that our relative smallness makes us grateful for what we have here. Like our spiritual ancestors who found intimacy with God or the divine in the darkness, the dark nights of our lives can also remind us of the interconnectedness of humanity.

The Indigo Girls song “Perfect World” has a line that goes like this:

You can’t see beyond the myth of isolation
And the miracle of daybreak doesn’t move you anymore
Connect the points and see the constellations
As the night comes down on the reservoir

As the night comes down, the stars become visible. Only then can we see the constellations and connect the points between us and those by whom we are surrounded, those whose burdens we are mutually entrusted to carry. In darkness, isolation can cease to exist.

night forest stars

What we need is to reclaim the value of darkness. I’m not suggesting we need to do away with light, but we do need to make room for darkness too. When we make room for darkness and savor those moments that remind us of our mortality, our humanness, we become more fully attuned to life. The cycle of the seasons attests to this. Every winter must, sooner or later, make way for spring’s new life.

The hymn writer William Gay puts it this way:

Yet I believe beyond believing
that life can spring from death,
that growth can flower from our grieving,
that we can catch our breath
and turn transfixed by faith.

The profound nature of the unrelenting love of God is such that it is found even and especially in the dark places. That love, made tangible in those who surround us every day, is with us even when we don’t feel it. So embrace the darkness, look for the stars, and remember that in it all, you and I are deeply loved.