I would suspect that everyone here knows the terror of the sea, whether or not you’ve even ever been out in a boat or at the beach. I think that the words of the psalmist have a haunting familiarity for most of us: “The breakers of death rolled over me, and the torrents of oblivion made me afraid.” [i] Somewhere, from the deep memory of the soul, come countless expressions and metaphors that reveal the terror of being at sea in a storm, of knowing what it is to have a “sinking feeling,” of having waves of anxiety or overwhelming fear, of drowning in either tears or cares, of being thrashed by the waves of doubt, of feeling adrift, or windstruck, or rudderless, or lost in a fog. In recent years there have been more than a few news accounts and Hollywood features about sinking boats – luxury liners, fishing boats, passenger ferries, oil barges, submarines – that have captured the attention of the multitudes. Because when you’re out to sea and the prospect of staying afloat and arriving at safe port is at peril, there’s simply no where else to go. You can’t walk on the water, after all. You simply go down with the boat, and with it your hopes, your future, your life. We have an innate need to be buoyed by safety and harbored by shelter and anchored by hope, and finally to be standing on firm ground. And when this is not the case, you could literally drown in your tears as your sense of security and hope… and God (!) are washed away in a fog of confusion and despair.
In the gospel lesson appointed for today, when Peter in his terror begins to sink into the sea of despair, he cries out to Jesus, “Save me!” Jesus immediately reaches out his hand and catches Peter, and then Jesus asks Peter a question. I think it’s supposed to be a rhetorical question: “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” But it actually isn’t a rhetorical question. I suspect you know why one might doubt. You know why you doubt. If you could find the courage, you might answer Jesus by saying, “…Could I speak with you privately…?” because you have your reasons. Sometimes, probably for most all of us, the lines from the psalm appointed for this evening ring true to us: “Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord…” [ii] The play of light and dance of movement on the waters is beautiful… when it is, but when it’s not, it’s really not.
Why did an earthquake and the tsunamis occur in southeast Asia a week ago? I’m not asking a question about geology or about the physics of motion; I’m asking a theological question? Why, if there is a God – God the Creator and God the Savior who is known before to have quelled the turbulent waters – why (or how) did this terrible thing happen? There are theological explanations among a good many Christians. Some would look to the very end of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, and find a kind of symbolic roadmap for these “end times,” a kind of nightmarish prophecy of what is forthcoming to the earth, and therefore an explanation for a great many tragic things that are happening in our world. And rather than seeing these terrible things that are happening to individuals and nations and the environment as being simply terrible things, they are in actuality confirming things because such terrible things have been prophesied for this earth in the “end times,” and especially for those who are not true believers in Jesus Christ. You may know that there is a “method” to this kind of theologizing that leaves little mystery and no doubt in explaining such things as earthquakes and tsunamis.
In the most extreme of the Protestant-Calvinist traditions, there is something called “s ublapsarian predestination.” S ublapsarian predestination: God has created all of humankind, and yet only a certain portion of people who populate the earth – past, present, future – are predestined by God to be “saved.” God permits everyone else to “fall,” to die in tragedy or in guilt, certainly in sin, and to go to the eternal punishment of hell. If you are predestined by God to be “in,” you’re in; if you’re not your not. There’s nothing you can do about it, what God has in mind for you eternally. And in the meantime, these terrible things that are happening are a prolepsis to a kind of Armageddon that is both horrific and necessary to bring Christ back to the earth, his “second coming.” That is very good news, indeed, if you are “in,” and very bad news if you’re not.
I don’t believe it.
You will know there is a great diversity of opinion amongst Christians and on many topics, and this is one of them, where the water divides us. If you were to ask me, “Why did God make these horrific tsunamis happen?” I would say that I don’t think “God made them happen.” And then if you asked, “So why did God allow them to happen?” I would say that I don’t know. And if you were to ask me, “So, are you still saying your prayers?” I would answer, “Oh, yes, very much so.” And this is why.
During Christmastide we are especially reminded of how Jesus comes to us as God Emmanuel, God with us. Who is “us”? Rather than to say, “thems like me,” I want to say that in Jesus, we see how it is that God loves the whole world. We learn something of the nature of that love. We learn something of the cost of God’s love when we survey the cross on which Jesus dies. The archetypal image for Christians, is the cross – not a temple or totem or rainbow or mountaintop or the song of muses, but the cross, the hard wood of the cross, on which all of our theology hangs. God does not spare us of suffering, that seems clear. God Emmanuel does not promise us an escape from suffering or death, quite to the contrary. Judging from the vantage point of the cross, we see that sometimes the suffering in this life and the dying is horrific, and in it, God is with us, God Emmanuel And I would say that in these unimaginably horrific tsunamis, God was with those who perished. God was with them.
Does God spare all the people in southeast Asia or Kabul or Jerusalem or Boston from suffering? It seems not. Nor from death. So then, do we ever pray for people’s protection, provision, deliverance from danger? I would say, “Yes!” I certainly do. I always do. I couldn’t imagine not doing that. And you might ask, “Does it work?” Well, it certainly doesn’t “work” like rubbing a 12-year old’s luck charm. But I do think there is something going on when we pray with passion and compassion for the needs of others. Our interceding to God on someone’s behalf, or God’s interceding to us on someone’s behalf, is somehow encircling us all with the love of God… which (obviously) does not preclude suffering and death but does stretch beyond this world..
In my lifetime, I have thus far been spared of much of the suffering that befalls so many, many people on the face of the earth today. What little I do know about suffering, and what I have witnessed in the suffering of others as they writhe in pain or grieve in loss, I can say that I have never said to a sufferer, “You should pray now.” Not necessary. Quite to the contrary, those who are inclined to pray in moments of great duress do not need to be prompted. They pray. They simply pray out their hearts, as if their life depended on their connecting with God at that very moment. Which it does. And this is one of the great paradoxes of life, it seems to me: the potential for God’s presence, God’s light, God’s love, God’s consolation to be absolutely consummating when, at the same time, we are being absolutely consumed by suffering. I think it has something to do with the paradox of the cross, which is the way and the truth and the life of Jesus. So many of the saints – our older sisters and brothers in the church – poignantly witness to this reality. Among them is Catherine of Siena who, at a time of enormous suffering of body and torment of soul, felt also that God had abandoned her. Her heart was broken. It was only later, when the immediate darkness had passed, that she cried out to Jesus in a prayer of anger and anguish, “ Where were you when my heart was so tormented?” And Catherine heard Jesus respond, “I was in your heart.”
Jesus does not spare this world from suffering. To the contrary, the suffering seems to be shared, and quite generously. With the suffering there is also the promise and the paradox that God Emmanuel is with us in it all, even to the end: unexplainable and yet undeniable, if this, too, if your experience.
[i] Psalm 18: 4.
[ii] Psalm 98:8.
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