Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost — June 21, 2015
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise. Amen.
I learned a lot about religion from running. Running strips bare any illusions I have about myself and forces me to face my Maker honestly and directly. Running can be painful, and it can be harsh, but it’s also an experience that brings me closer to the One I can never truly hide from. I started running in earnest in seventh grade when, compelled by my school to do some sort of athletic activity and having been rejected from the soccer team for my dismally poor coordination, I joined the middle school track team. We were led by the intimidating Coach Williams, who had played football as well as run track in his day and ran practices as if they were military drill sessions.
Every year, Coach Williams waited until what he thought would be the worst day of the whole season to give us our toughest workout: endless, repeated sprints up a long hill. He intentionally picked days when it was pouring down rain and when we were already tired from lots of other running. The combination of hard uphill running and bad weather would often bring us to our breaking point, but that was precisely Coach Williams’ goal. He called the annual occasion See Jesus Day.
Coach Williams didn’t save all the challenges for See Jesus Day, however. He routinely pushed us, especially on days when the weather was horrible. We practiced on a dirt track that disintegrated into a collection of muddy puddles when it rained. On a really bad day, the dirty water would splash on our legs and our arms and all over our clothes, causing quite a mess when we entered our parents’ cars for the drive home. But Coach Williams was relentless. If any boy tried to skirt a puddle, running to the side of it, he would scream and chase after him. “We don’t run around the puddles,” he would tell us, over and over again, “we run through them.”
In his entire approach, Coach Williams at least claimed he was not being sadistic for the sake of doing so. His theory was that training in adverse circumstances would assist us in dealing with whatever would come our way on race day itself. “We have to train the same way we race,” he would declare, asking us if we would slow down to go around puddles during a race. Though he seemed a bit ridiculous at the time, I have to admit that in retrospect I can recognize that Coach Williams was very wise. It was partly through applying his instructions to my athletic activities that I transformed from an awkward, chubby seventh grader to a captain and one of the fastest runners of my high school cross-country team. And a few weeks ago I finished the Stockholm marathon with my best time yet—in pouring down rain. The storm didn’t faze me. I ran through every puddle.
Storms are not necessarily bad places for a Christian to be because God often shows up in them. Today’s readings both depict God manifesting himself right in the middle of storms. Job’s whole life had become a storm after Satan decided to ruin him. Job lost his possessions, his family, his own health—everything except his life—leading Job to wonder where God was. After much suffering on Job’s part and much debate and discussion between Job and his friends, God finally appeared, out of the whirlwind, in a more literal storm. Though God initially seemed absent, God was there—amidst all of the terror and destruction. Then, in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus had fallen asleep on the boat he was traveling with his disciples on, as the wind increased and water came into the boat, threatening the disciples’ lives. Dozing, Jesus seemed distant and unresponsive at first, like he didn’t care they were perishing, but he was there all along, and once the disciples woke him up, he moved to calm the volatile conditions.
To a certain extent, these stories are reassuring. In both, God eventually appears and takes care of everything: Job receives double everything he lost; the disciples sail on smooth, undisturbed seas. And when God returns, God exhibits an attitude of confident control. He tells Job that he laid the foundations of the earth and limits the domain of the waters. Jesus restrains the wind and the water with one stern command and asks the disciples why they were even afraid, as if that were the most unreasonable emotion to have. These stories seem to want us to believe that whatever storm we are enduring, God will be there, it will all be OK.
Yet there are times, we know all too well, when God doesn’t appear to be in control, when it is hard to believe that Jesus will ever wake up on the boat or that God will ever answer our cries from below. God implies to Job that he has a great plan for the world, but that plan, if it is truly in effect, too often seems like it has forgotten or ignored many of the precious human beings that God created. For rather understandable reasons, we suppose that God is either a failure, not adequately protecting those in his care, or a tyrant, wishing violence on those who do not deserve it. The world as it is is not fair. How could God let a young man enter a house of worship in Charleston and kill nine innocent people? Why has God allowed the brutal sin of racism to pervade in this country for hundreds of years? Can’t God do something to end the epidemic of people killing other people with guns—or, for that matter, bombs or drones? Sadly, I have to remain agnostic on those questions. I simply don’t know.
One thing I do know, however, is this: the puddles of life—they’re meant for running through. Judiciously and cautiously, perhaps, but they’re meant for running through nonetheless. We have to face the problems, the disparities, the injustices that we encounter in the world head-on, without apology. We can’t afford to run around them to avoid them. The poet Dylan Thomas tells us to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” and if it is rage that is the thing that is necessary to push against the many deaths that press upon us, then rage is what we must do. God is in the storm, for sure, but sometimes we need to get God’s attention so he can see how much we are suffering. If the rain and wind continue to batter the boat that you travel in, and Jesus seems asleep, unable or unwilling to hear your constant calls, keep yelling. You just might wake Him up. If you feel like everything in your life has gone wrong and God has abandoned you for good, never once responding to your pleas for help, keep complaining, keep pleading. You just might get God to answer. Don’t give up. Don’t stay silent. You can fix something. You can make a difference. Who knows? You might even see Jesus.