Sunday, June 21, 2009

Only the Love of Christ

Sermon for the 3rd Sunday after Pentecost

RCL Year B, Proper 7: Job 38:1-11; Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32;
2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41


Listen to the sermon here.

Many of you know that I had the privilege this past October of traveling to the Holy Land. In the company of 20 other priests and pastors, I spent one week in Galilee and one week in Jerusalem. It was an amazing experience. Being in the places where Jesus walked and taught, healed the sick, fed the hungry, and proclaimed the Good News of the Kingdom of God – even 8 months later I’m still processing what it all means.

I’ll never forget the first night in Israel. We had flown from Atlanta to Frankfurt, Germany where we caught a connecting flight to Tel Aviv. And then, after so many bone-wearying hours of travel, we got on a bus for the two hour drive to our hotel in Tiberias. The sun was sinking fast as we made our way, and in between times of nodding off from jet lag, I remember feeling disappointed that I would have to wait until the next morning to see the Sea of Galilee.

After a couple of hours, as we began winding our way down into the sprawling city of Tiberias, I just happened to look out the window on the other side of the bus. And there it was. Illumined by a full moon, I could see the water of the Sea of Galilee off in the distance, lit up and sparkling like diamonds. From that moment until a week later when we left for Jerusalem, the Sea of Galilee was my spiritual touchstone. I found my eyes drawn again and again to its tranquil presence. Every day at dusk, I looked over the water, watching birds flying across the horizon as the sunlight shifted to soft hues of red and gold and then faded into darkness And as I gazed at this beautiful body of water, it brought to my mind the Gospel stories of how Jesus’ ministry began on these very shores. Memories of looking at and walking beside the Sea of Galilee and sailing in a boat on a Sunday morning over its calm surface still speak to me of the peace of God which passes all understanding.

But appearances can be deceiving. While it didn’t happen when we were there, the beauty and tranquility of the Sea of Galilee can suddenly transform into tumultuous upheaval. One source describes it like this: “Winds funnel through the east-west aligned Galilee hill country and stir up the waters quickly. More violent are the winds that come off the hills of the Golan Heights to the east. Trapped in the basin, the winds can be deadly to fishermen. A storm in March 1992 sent waves 10 feet high crashing into downtown Tiberias and causing significant damage.”

“Waves 10 feet high …” Perhaps that gives us an inkling of what it might have been like to be on that boat with Jesus that we hear about in today’s Gospel reading. One minute, it’s business as usual on the calm waters. Then, without warning, all hell breaks loose. Gentle breezes turn into gale force winds causing waves to come crashing into the boat, filling it with water and threatening to sink it. Little wonder that the terror-stricken disciples wake Jesus up, saying: “Don’t you care about what’s happening to us, Lord? Help!” And in an act that fills the disciples with awe and reveals him as more than merely human, Jesus rebukes the storm with a few words and it subsides into “a dead calm” (Mk 4:39 NRSV).

In spite of Jesus’ rebuke for their lack of faith, it’s easy to feel sympathy for the disciples. After all, the waves could have tipped the boat over. It could have been sunk into the depths. They could have all drowned. Staring in the face of imminent death, who in their right minds wouldn’t be afraid?

Perhaps we can also feel sympathy for the disciples because this story connects with the all-too-common experience of the changes and chances of this life, especially times when life suddenly turns difficult or even tragic. Consider a few examples.

A man is nearing retirement age and looking forward to traveling with his wife and spending time with his grandchildren. But then, in an economic downturn, he loses his retirement savings.

Miscalculating the depth, a woman dives into shallow water, breaking her neck and then spending the rest of her life paralyzed.

After just one year of marriage, a young couple without children find themselves responsible for the care of a family member who’s in his 50s but whose mental age is about 4 years old.

Walking into his house one mid-morning, a man discovers that his 29-year-old son is still in bed because he died during the night in his sleep.

In each of these and in many other examples that I’m sure come to your mind, life is going along great, the daily routine is in full, predictable swing, and then, all of a sudden, completely out of the blue and in the twinkling of an eye, everything changes.

I accent this not to preach gloom and doom, but to acknowledge that the faith we share in Jesus Christ is not pie-in-the-sky escapism. Biblical faith is rooted in reality. And a sad, tragic part of reality is that sometimes, like the wind whipping up the waters of the Sea of Galilee, life can throw things at us and take us in directions we never dreamed of and certainly never asked for. It can sometimes feel overwhelming, like we’re going under, like we might not make it. What do we have to hang on to that can help us weather the storm without sinking or getting thrown overboard?

There are no easy answers to this question. For nothing in this life is unchanging, absolutely certain, and utterly trustworthy. There are no guarantees. We only have this moment of this day. We don’t know what this afternoon, much less tomorrow, will bring.

There’s much wisdom and truth in looking at things that way. But in reality, that’s not the whole story. For if the Good News the Church has proclaimed for almost 2,000 years is true – if Jesus Christ has really been raised from the dead, rising victorious over the forces of evil and death as the first fruit of God’s intention to make all things new – then there is, in fact, one thing in this life that is unchanging, absolutely certain, and utterly trustworthy. And it’s that one thing that makes all the difference.

I like the way Brennan Manning, author of the book Ruthless Trust, puts it:

If someone were to ask you, “What is the one thing in life that is certain?” you would have to answer, “The love of Christ.” Not parents, not family, not friends. Not art or science or philosophy or any of the products of human wisdom. Only the love of Christ.

“Only the love of Christ.” That’s what we have to hang on to.

The love of Christ is a costly love. Indeed, it cost our Lord his very life. And in our Lord’s willingness to suffer and die so that we may live, we have proof of the authenticity of his love for us. It’s not a show. It’s the real deal. We can trust the love of Christ and count on it always.

The love of Christ is also gentle and kind. “Come to me, all who are weary and whose load is heavy,” Jesus invites us, and “I will give you rest … for I am gentle and humble-hearted; and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt 11:28, 29 REV). The love of Christ is our refuge, a safe and nurturing place, the calm center in the midst of life’s frenzy and uncertainty.

And in a throwaway, consumer culture, the love of Christ runs against the grain by being unconditional and eternal. “Anyone who comes to me,” Jesus reassures us, “I will never drive away” (Jn 6:37 NRSV). The love that binds us to Christ in our baptisms will never be broken. No matter how faithful or faithless we are – and no matter what happens to us – God in Christ remains faithful to us.

Everything else in our lives can and will change. But the love of Christ remains steadfast and sure. It’s an anchor that keeps the boat from getting blown away or sucked under by the storm. And it’s the safe harbor towards which our life journeys find their fulfillment.

So even though we will have trouble and suffering in this world, we who are so deeply loved by God that He sent His only Son to suffer and die as one of us have reason to take heart. For the costly, kind, unconditional and eternal love of Christ has overcome the world. And my friends, even now, in whatever it is we’re going through or facing, we share in that victory.

1 comment:

John Bassett said...

Wonderful sermon, father.