Questions propel our faith journey, 4 Pentecost, Proper 7 (B) – 2012

June 24, 2012

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

Patrick Overton reflects in his poem “Faith”:

“When you come to the edge of all the light you have
And take the first step into the darkness of the unknown,
You must believe one of two things will happen:
There will be something solid for you to stand upon,
or you will be taught how to fly.”

Many times in our lives we face the unknown, the uncertainty of a future, an outcome, we cannot see.

And what we have to hold onto in those moments is our faith that God is with us: that God will be our solid rock to stand on, or that we will be taught to fly.

Today’s Old Testament lesson shows us what this looks like, with the steadfast faithfulness and absolute conviction of Job in the face of excruciating darkness. We see this, too, in the gospel lesson, with the new understanding of the disciples as Jesus calms the wind and sea.

Both stories illustrate faith. Neither story is that simple. Each story incudes a crucial question.

“Who do you think you are?” God asks Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me! Who determined its measurements? Surely you know!” God demands of Job: “Who do you think you are?!”

“Who is this?” the disciples ask each other as the waves roll, the winds roar, and their boat pitches in the sea. “Who is this,” they ask about Jesus when he calms the storm, “that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

We have two stories of faith, two questions. God asks Job: Who are you? The disciples ask of Jesus: Who is he?

If we can answer these two questions, we can describe our faith and equip ourselves for those times that will come: when we will be required to step off into the darkness of the unknown.

Who are you? Who is God for you?

Lots of people would be happy to answer your questions for you, but what they will give you are their answers. As much as we might not like others telling us what we must believe and who we are as Christians, it is the churches that are doing this that are experiencing booming success. The mega-churches, which are thriving, offer answers as bait. “We will tell you what to believe, how to live. There is no need to bother with seeking and searching, with the messiness of doubt. We have the truth and we will give it to you.”

Does this sound familiar? In an ever-changing world fraught with uncertainty and stress, this can be very seductive. It’s a rare security, a comforting assurance. Tidy.

But is it faith? Can answers given to you by someone else stand on that brink of darkness, looking into the unknown?

The author Frederick Beuchner once observed that doubt is – and perhaps it is also fair to say questions are – “the ants in the pants of faith.”

Get a visual on that: ants in the pants. There is no way you can sit still, relax, remain calm. The adventure of faith requires energy and courage. It requires movement. If you have all the answers, you may as well go to sleep, because your work is done. But if you have questions – “ants in your pants” – then the journey continues. You must seek, you must search, you must move.

People often look to the Bible for answers, and many claim to find them there. “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it.” Have you seen that bumper sticker? But the Bible is not a proof-text document, a finished, static idea. God is not dead, or asleep.

We can look to the Bible, instead, for questions.

God asks, in the Garden of Eden: Adam, Eve, where are you?

Cain asks: What? Am I my brother’s keeper?

The psalms lament: How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?

John the Baptist asks: Are you the one who is to come?

Jesus asks Peter: Who do you say I am?

Pilate asks Jesus: What is truth?

The apostle Paul asks: What can separate us from the love of God?

It is the questions that are alive, the questions that describe what we believe, the questions that continue the conversation with God.

Consider one of our more popular television game shows, “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” It is the answers that win the prize. The right answer, chosen from four possibilities. You can even get help in narrowing it down to two possible answers, or involving a friend, to get just the right one.

There is something in us that likes the adventure of questions, yet clings to the security of answers when we are facing a frightening unknown. But we are often faced with questions that demand our response without really having clear answers. Medical technology, for example, forces us into questions no one should have to address. And while we’re grateful for the advances in healthcare, it’s tough being caught in the dilemma of a difficult decision with little guidance but our faith in God. Do you have the treatment in a limited hope of prolonging life? Or do you live the life you’re given, let nature take its course? When do you pull the plug on someone? What about organ donation? Questions like these are now commonplace, as so many of us have learned.

Such questions challenge us to think big, to think beyond, to examine our innermost selves, to involve God. Such questions require us to ask, “Who am I?” and “Who is God?”

Such questions are life- and faith-changing. Look at Job. Look at the disciples. They were each and all forever changed, forever clarified, by the questions.

Think of a time in your life when you faced a question, the answer to which changed the direction of your life forever. “Will you marry me?” “What shall we tell her?” “How shall we break the news?” “Do we continue treatment?” “Where do you want to live?” “What do you want to study?”

The way we answer these questions forever influences our knowledge of ourselves and our understanding of God.

We are not a particularly noble people. Our faith is no more spectacular than anyone else’s. But in an instance of grappling with an unanswerable question in an imperfect world, perhaps some of us might choose a continuing question over a definitive answer – to live in the unknown, trusting God, instead of settling the issue then and there.

Living with the questions is often difficult. There can be much ambiguity, lots of loose ends. But as difficult as it can be to live in the ambiguity of questions, trusting that God will be with us at that edge between light and darkness, we may find that standing in the unknown with God brings more blessing than the imagination can dream of.

The apostle Paul wrote to the Corinthian church that, in Jesus, every one of God’s promises is a yes. Gospel musicians, taking inspiration from this scripture passage, sing: “Find your YES in him.” Whatever questions confront us, may we trust God to be our answer.

Remember Overton’s poem:

“When you come to the edge of all the light you have
And take the first step into the darkness of the unknown,
You must believe one of two things will happen:
There will be something solid for you to stand upon,
or you will be taught how to fly.”

Every journey brings blessings. Journeys don’t begin with answers, only with questions, whether it’s a journey to the next state or a journey of faith.

Who do you think you are? Who is this who calms the wind and sea?

Blessings to you on your journey.

 

— The Rev. Machrina Blasdell currently teaches religious studies for Park University, Parkville, Mo., following 12 years as executive director of an interfaith council in the San Francisco area. She enjoys her family life, growing roses, and making anything chocolate.

 

Human life is lived under the sign of the question mark, Third Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 7 (B) – June 21, 2009

(RCL) 1 Samuel 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23), 32-49 and Psalm 9:9-20; or 1 Samuel 17:57-18:5, 10-16 and Psalm 133; or Job 38:1-11 and Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41

“Have you considered my servant Job?” God asked the Adversary in the first chapter of Job. And that was the fateful question, the catalyst, the push that set in motion a chain of events that would leave Job near despair.

Job had seven sons and three daughters, and his livestock numbered in the hundreds. He was not only prosperous, he was good, or to use the more appropriate and specific Biblical word, he was “righteous.” In defending himself before God, Job declared, “I delivered the poor who cried, and the orphan who had no helper. … I caused the widow’s heart to sing for joy. I put on righteousness, and it clothed me.” And we have no reason to believe that Job was not telling the truth.

But disaster overcame this man of righteousness and prosperity. The livestock were killed by marauders and natural disaster, and his children were all killed when a tornado struck the house in which they were having a party. Finally, Job himself was afflicted with a chronic, painful, debilitating illness.

However, Job still had his wife and his friends, although he may have wished more than once that they, too, had been in the house with his children. “Curse God and die,” his wife urged. And his friends were no better. “Who that was innocent ever perished?” they asked. And “Happy is the one whom God reproves; therefore do not despise the discipline of the Almighty.” In short, these friends insisted that Job was in the wrong and God was in the right.

When Job could take it no longer, he burst out, “God has torn me in his wrath, and hated me; he has gnashed his teeth at me. … God gives me up to the ungodly, and casts me into the hands of the wicked. I was at ease, and he broke me in two; he seized me by the neck and dashed me to pieces … though there is no violence in my hands, and my prayer is pure.” What kind of God is this, Job asked, who allows the wicked to “live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? … How often is it that the lamp of the wicked is put out?”

The story of Job, of course, is the human story. His misfortunes were more dramatic than the misfortunes most of us will encounter, but they were different from ours only in degree, not in kind. Life is tragic, and to fail to appreciate the tragedy of human life is to fail to be fully human.

But what makes Job most like us are his questions. Job’s questions went on and on and on until he was worn out, and his friends were worn out, and God was just about worn out.

To be human and to be thoughtful at all is to question much. Job’s questions are our questions: “Why do the wicked prosper and the innocent suffer?”

Other questions, less momentous but no less persistent, linger at the corner of our awareness: Does the one I love also love me? What can I do with my life that will give me happiness and fulfillment? Will I have enough resources to live on in old age?

And above all we wonder: Why must I suffer and die? Why must those I love suffer and die?

At times these questions spin about us like a whirlwind. Job’s questions were like that, too, until finally, one day, Someone spoke to Job from the whirlwind: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

Job’s questions got answered with more questions. In asking Job these questions, God seemed to be saying that there is no answer to Job’s questions, or at least, there is no answer that Job can understand. The point of the Book of Job appears to be that there are some questions to which there are no answers, or no answers that the human mind can wrap itself around. That’s can be frustrating, especially to those of us who like to believe that any question can be answered, any problem solved, if we apply reason to it and study it and do research.

So, is Job merely a rebuke to human reason, to the quest to make sense of life and answer unanswerable questions? Or does Job offer us some comfort in those sleepless nights when our mind just won’t stop asking questions?

The answer of Job is more, much more, than the mere assertion that life’s big questions are unanswerable.

Job got more than just a rebuke; he got God. And so do we. In the midst of the questions, in the midst of the whirlwind and turmoil, there is God. Just as surely as God came to Job, God comes to us.

Furthermore, this God who came to Job and comes to us is a God who hears our questions and speaks to us. God doesn’t always answer our questions, for perhaps we do not even know enough to ask the right questions, much less to understand the answer. But this God who speaks in the midst of the whirlwind is a God who chooses to be in relationship to us.

Consider another Biblical tale that we heard this morning. Jesus and the disciples boarded a fifteen-foot fishing boat to cross from west to east across the Sea of Galilee. It should have been a short, uneventful journey, but instead they encountered a fierce storm. The comparison to human life is irresistible.

Job, too, had every reason to think that his journey across life’s sea would be uneventful, that he would grow old and die in prosperity, with the comfort of his wife and family around him. What more can any of us wish for?

But storms arise. Like Job, the disciples asked, “Do you not care that we are perishing?” It is a question that we are bound to ask time and time again on life’s journey.

Human life is lived under the sign of the question mark, and if that were the only sign over human life, we might well despair.

However, the Christian faith asserts that there is another sign over human life: the Cross. For we have not only to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind and replied to Job’s unanswerable questions with more unanswerable questions. We have also to do with the God who spoke out of a whirlwind on the Sea of Galilee: “Peace! Be still!”

In the tempest of questions that fly about us, God comes to speak peace. And when we ask the question that the disciples asked, “Who is this, that even wind and sea obey him?” there is an answer: He is the Crucifed and Risen Lord who is with us in the storm and the calm, on sea and on land, when we have all the answers and when we have nothing but questions.

 

— The Rev. J. Barry Vaughn, Ph.D., has led congregations in Alabama, California, and Pennsylvania. He has preached at Harvard, Oxford, and the Chautauqua Institution, and more than fifty of his sermons have been published. He is a member of the history faculty at the University of Alabama and is rector of St. Alban’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham, Alabama.

Because we are human, Third Sunday After Pentecost, Proper 7 (B) – June 25, 2006

 (RCL) Psalm 9:9-20 or 133 or 107:1-3, 23-32; 1 Sam 17: (1a, 4-11, 19-23),32-49 or 17:57-18:5, 10-16 or Job 38:1-11; 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41 

The Sea of Galilee, or more accurately, the lake of Galilee, is situated on an ancient trade route that linked Egypt with Syria and Mesopotamia. Towns founded by Greeks, Romans, and many others flourished in the region, and there was a thriving fishing industry on the lake. Although the lake continues to provide an abundance of fish, most of the ancient towns have long since been abandoned. But in Jesus’ time, people from all over the Roman world would have passed through the area on their way to other parts of the known world. It figures prominently in the stories of Jesus that have been handed down to us in the gospels. By its shores he recruited his first disciples, gave the Sermon on the Mount, and fed the five thousand. He and his disciples crossed its waters many times as they traveled through the region, and on it was while on those waters that the story we heard today took place.

At thirteen miles long and eight miles wide, the lake appears rather small to experience a storm as violent as the one Mark tells us about. However, because of its unique geography — a low-lying area surrounded by hills — it is prone to sudden and sometimes violent storms. According to Wikpedia encyclopedia Web site, the only constant on the lake is its changing weather. As local fishermen, Peter, James, John, and Andrew were intimately familiar with the unpredictable weather, including violent storms, and how to handle it. That they panic and wake Jesus up from what was probably a much-needed nap shows that this particular storm was extraordinarily severe.

The storm has pushed the disciples to their limit. In spite of their knowledge of boats and the Galilean weather, their boat is sinking. In desperation, they wake Jesus, not simply to warn him that his own life is in danger, but because they had nowhere else to turn. “Don’t you care that we’re drowning?” isn’t so much a question as a desperate cry for help. They wanted to be out of the situation, which seemed hopeless, and did the only thing left for them to do. They called out to Jesus.

His response is not what they expected, or they would not have reacted the way they did. They saw Jesus perform miracles of healing and casting out demons, yet this act of control over the elements of sea and sky stunned them. In an instant they are removed from the life-threatening situation and brought to a new place — not just of safety, but also of understanding, even if they can not yet fully comprehend the circumstances or the place itself.

How often throughout the gospels does Jesus do the unexpected? When faced with a hungry crowd and almost no food on hand, he sits the people down and feeds them. When teaching his followers who their neighbor is, the hero of his story is a despised Samaritan. When the disciples are faced with another dangerous storm on the lake, Jesus walks to them on the water.

To the modern Christian, these stories, passed down over the generations, have become part of the familiar fabric of our lives. We may question the mechanics of the miracles, or even the thinking of the observers, but more often than not, we are not startled by Jesus’ actions in the way his disciples and the others in these stories are. No matter how cynical one may be, or how little one believes that miracles like those in the Gospels can happen, deep down we expect Jesus to do something.

How many times in life do we find ourselves in a “storm” beyond our ability to handle? When we reach our limits trying to handle the situation, we simply want out of it. And when it becomes desperate enough, we often find ourselves crying out to Jesus, “Don’t you care that we’re perishing?”

Jesus’ response can, and does, still take us by surprise.

In one young family, the husband lost his job, and they were barely surviving on the wife’s income from a low-paying church job. The husband’s job search stretched from months to a year, and then two. They prayed that the right job would come along and hoped that the seemingly endless string of rejections meant that he just hadn’t looked in the right place yet, or maybe the time wasn’t right. Then one day the husband had a sudden thought. He turned to his wife and said, “We’ve been praying for the right job to come along, but maybe it’s the right job for you and not me.” It was a something neither of them had considered before, and the inspiration shed new light on their situation and brought them to an unexpected place.

There was a man who found himself in financial trouble after some poor planning and decision-making. He was on the verge of losing what little he had left and prayed desperately for help in finding his way through the mess. He was on the verge of giving up a job he loved for a more lucrative job that he knew he would hate in order to pay the bills. Just as it seemed all was lost, a former employer called and asked if he could possibly come and work through some critical projects for his former company. The former employer was willing to work around the unpredictable travel schedule of his current job. Although it has taken some adjustments to work two jobs, he is clearing up his debts. He, too, has come to an unexpected place.

Neither of these stories is as dramatic as the calming of the storm on the lake of Galilee. They are not what we would consider “miracles.” Yet these people cried out in their time trouble, and they came to that unexpected place where Jesus can bring us.

“Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” Jesus asks. Because we are human, we struggle with our fears and our limits just as the disciples did. Yet, if we remain open to the unexpected, Jesus will see us through, in spite of our doubts, fears, and lack of faith.

 

— Jeffri Harre is the Program Assistant for Children’s Ministries and Christian Education at the Episcopal Church Center in New York. He attends St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Fairfield, Connecticut, where he is also an EFM mentor.