Summit Presbyterian Church
March 20, 2011
Psalm 46; Mark 4: 31-45
Do You Not Care That We Are Perishing?
For most of us, this has been an ordinary week. Not for the Knowles family, who lost their beloved Cora. Not for others of us, perhaps, who have faced unusual sorrows or joys in recent days. But for most of us, it's been an ordinary week with ordinary challenges and anxieties; and with those ordinary joys and pleasures we so often take for granted. But most of us have also been following the extraordinary and unfolding tragedy in northeast Japan. The earthquake that toppled buildings but whose epicenter was in the sea; the tsunami that followed, flattening everything in its path; and the fires and meltdown at the nuclear plant, with the release of its silent and invisible poison. And, as always, when we see natural and human-made disasters like these, we ask: where is God? How could God allow - or inflict - so much suffering? It's hard to defend God after such calamities: if the creator of the universe couldn't prevent the earth from shaking or hold back the sea, why do we say God is powerful and mighty? And if God created and ordered the world to include such terrible pain and loss how can we claim that God is love?
I don't know of any passage in scripture or of any theologian who gives a logical, fully satisfactory answer to those questions; we don't understand all the ways of God or evil in this world. But our psalm today gives another kind of answer. It's not a theological treatise or an apologetic defense of God. It's a confession of faith. Where is God, when the earth changes and the mountains shake in the heart of the sea? Where is God when the waters roar and foam, and the mountains tremble with the tumult? Where is God, when the nations are in an uproar and the kingdoms totter? The psalmist answers: with us. The Lord of hosts is with us, the God of Jacob is our refuge. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. God is in the midst of the city, which shall not be moved; and God will help it when the morning dawns. The psalmist may have been thinking of Israel and Jerusalem when he spoke of "us" -- but we can see that a God who makes wars cease to the ends of the earth is a God who is with all peoples.
In the letter of the Hebrews it says that faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. That's why this psalm is a confession of faith, for it's not an observation of the world in front of our eyes. In the world we see and measure, cities were moved, literally: houses and boats and ships were transplanted, and pulverzied, by the waters. The New York Times reported that some parts of Japan moved 13 feet eastward, and the earth tilted ever so slightly on its axis. God did not protect from death those who perished in the tsunami, and it's hard to detect God's present help in the worsening situation at the nuclear reactors, or in the blizzard that covered the region, or in the mounting number of dead and missing, leaving so many to grieve. The world we see is much like the world of the psalmist: a world of disasters and hardships, shaking mountains and devastated cities. But that didn't deter him or her; he is so confident of God's present help and future victory that he speaks of it as though it's already happened. God utters God's voice and the earth melts. Come behold the works of the Lord; see what desolations God has brought on the earth, God makes wars to cease . . . . Chaos and destruction may seem to have the upper hand; but God is exalted among the nations and in the earth. The assurance of things hoped for; the conviction of things not seen. A confession of faith.
Such faith is a leap and ultimately a gift from God. But God gives us signs to help bring us to that faith. We see the signs in our own life. A sense of God's presence in a time of difficulty; healing from physical illness, or in finding peace or love after a period of grief or loneliness. We see signs in the world when justice is done or damaged places restored; things do get better. And of course we see a sign of God's ever present help and exaltation in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our gospel reading today Jesus gave such a sign to his disciples. They are crossing to the other side of the sea of Galilee, when a windstorm threatens to sink their boat, and presumably the other boats with them. Jesus is asleep on a cushion, so the disciples wake him and ask, "Teacher do you not care that we are perishing?" He awakens and assures them that that yes, he does care: he rebukes the wind, and says to the sea, Peace! Be still!" The wind and the sea obey him; a sign to not only calm their fears, but to strengthen them in faith. A sign that not only their teacher but God cares, for it is God alone who calms the sea. A sign that one day God will still all the waters and bring peace to earth. A sign for them -- and for us.
But those signs may not be enough, or always enough, to bring us to faith, so we also have prayer. Prayer for faith, for trust in God. God knows such faith does not come easily - it certainly didn't for the disciples. So we have psalms such as this one to help us.
Out of that faith grows more prayer: prayer for all in trouble. For all who have lost loved ones an homes in Japan; for those crowded in shelters, grieving and hungry; for the heroic workers at the nuclear plants. We pray for the the people of Libya, of Haiti -- still struggling from their even deadlier earthquake. We pray for our country, that the day may come soon when our wars have ceased.
Out of that faith also comes generosity: for when we trust that God is with us, we don't need to hoard our money, depending only on ourselves for safety and security. We can give freely to those in need.
Out of faith also comes the courage and hope to come together with peoples around the world. To prepare for coming disasters and to try and prevent them, since disasters are also brought on by climate change, war and other acts of people. If we trust that God is exalted in the earth we might be tempted to sit back and let God take care of things -- but that's not what we've been told to do. Jesus, Moses and the prophets all commanded us to love our neighbor, to take the side of the poor, the widow and the orphan; to help the person on the side of the road. Faith allows us to do that work without feeling discouraged, knowing that it's not in vain.
Pray, give, act. That is our call in the face of tragedy; our call anchored in the faith that God is and will be there. It's the faith of the psalmist. A faith that also claims, at a time and in a way we cannot know, all creation will be redeemed: including those tectonic plates and roaring oceans. On that day, all wars will cease and all waters will make glad the cities of God. May that day come speedily!