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June 24, 2012
Psalm 107: 1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
“Where were you?” How many times have people in pain or grief asked this question of God? The expectation is that if God were “there,” the loss, whatever it was, would not have happened. God’s presence means God’s intervention; the bad thing would have been prevented. In the abstract, we know this isn’t so. Bad things happen all the time, and as Rabbi Kushner famously stated, to good people. But we lose that perspective when it’s personal, when the pain is ours. Paradoxically, even atheists can have this expectation. “It’s a good thing,” they say, “that I don’t believe in God, because what kind of God would have allowed [fill in the blank] to happen?” The question reveals a presupposition about the nature of God, even if they claim to have no belief.
If anyone should have the right to ask this question of God, it’s Job. The depth of his loss is beyond the power of even the most empathic among us to comprehend. And the narrative context we’re given is a wager—a wager!—between God and Satan. And yet here the question is raised not by Job, but by God. “Where were you . . . when I laid the foundation of the Earth?” In the lines that follow, God sounds mocking, angry at being challenged, overstating the case by citing example after example of God’s power. How dare Job question God? What temerity! Sniveling creature.
And yet, and yet . . . it goes on, and on, and the grandeur mounts, and the poetry fairly sings in the awakened heart. Then one is reminded, from all the commentaries on this passage, of Elie Wiesel—who knew a thing or two about suffering—who concluded this: ultimately, Job’s experience of God was greater than Job’s experience of suffering. And that is the key, preachable approach to this text.
The process theologian reads this not as an encomium on the omnipotence of God, but as an awe-filled evocation of the omnipresence of God. The details of God’s intimacy with creation begin with a few notes and crescendo in the following verses—chapter upon chapter—into a symphony (or wall of sound; choose your metaphor) of God’s presence in the tiniest moments of creation. And if creation is ongoing—as progressive Christians believe—then God is enduringly present in every moment of creation’s unfolding. This is true of the Earth, of the clouds, of the seas, and in passages to come, of snowflakes and raindrops, of lightening and seeds of grain, of all the animals of the Earth, even to the moment of their giving birth. If the power of God’s presence is so great that it encompasses all of these, then why or even how could God be absent from us?
The power of God is in God’s presence. This is what Job experiences, and this is how Job survives. In the immortal words of Gilda Radner, it’s always something. In this narrative, it’s a wager. In our context it’s our historical era, the economy; impersonal factors like bacteria and viruses; personal factors such as relationships, our work situations, or our own choices. It doesn’t matter. Because bad things do happen to good people. But in the end this truth is enduring: God is with us. To trust in that presence and open ourselves to it will get us through the present calamity and whatever is to come.
Psalm 107: 1-3, 23-32
This psalm emphasizes the omnipresence of God and how awareness of it brings us out of our distress. Echoing several other texts in the Bible (Deut. 30; Ps. 139, Rom. 8), these verses assure us that there is no place where God is not. The language of the depth of the sea evokes the furthest reaches of the human psyche and the chaos that literally puts us, sometimes, at our wit’s end. Yet even here, by opening ourselves to the steadfast love of God, our inner storms can be stilled, the waves of our turmoil hushed.
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
There is a famous quotation from process philosopher Alfred North Whitehead that declares in any philosophy of experience:
Nothing can be omitted, experience drunk and experience sober, experience sleeping and experience waking, experience drowsy and experience wide-awake, experience self-conscious and experience self-forgetful, experience intellectual and experience physical, experience religious and experience skeptical, experience anxious and experience care-free, experience anticipatory and experience retrospective, experience happy and experience grieving, experience dominated by emotion and experience under self-restraint, experience in the light and experience in the dark, experience normal and experience abnormal. (Adventures of Ideas, 226)
Paul’s letter contains its own list, and it is also inclusive of the full range of experience, in this case of “servants of God.” It does not shy away from affliction, but fully acknowledges that Godly service is not an exemption from human suffering. Bad things happen to good people. But Paul and his cohorts also have had an experience of Christ and the great reversal it brings, of “having nothing, and yet possessing everything.” This salvation—this transformation—is available now, today, in this moment, if we open wide our hearts to the ever-present God. Our past doesn’t change, but the meaning we make from it does, and because of that, new choices are available to us in the present that will transform our future. Now is an acceptable time, because now is always the present moment in which we choose.
At the beginning of this chapter, Jesus is teaching by the sea, and the crowds are so great that he gets into a boat. From there he speaks to the people on the shore, using parables to explain the Kingdom of God. By evening—still in the boat—he suggests that they cross to the other shore. It is during this crossing that the storm arises. Although the storm is presented as an actual event, it can be interpreted as a performative parable that continues the teaching.
Try this: the Kingdom of God is like a man crossing the sea in a boat with his companions. A storm erupts that threatens to swamp the boat, and though his companions are afraid, the man sleeps. They awaken him and accuse him of not caring about them, but letting them perish. He commands the sea and the wind to be still and all is again calm. He chides them, suggesting that with faith they would not fear. They are filled with wonder at his authority.
“Crossing over” is not only a metaphor for death; in dreams it also signifies a change in self-understanding or life experience. These crossings are often stormy; memories and images erupt in the psyche; events overtake us; we feel like we’re being swamped. If we think we’re alone in our little boats, we succumb to fear. We echo Job’s cry: “Why?” “Where are you?” We are unaware of God’s presence, so we project that lack of awareness onto God. Like the disciples with Jesus, who is asleep, we assume that God is off somewhere else and doesn’t care. To wake Jesus in this parable is to wake up to our awareness of God’s presence. God is not off somewhere else; God is in the boat with us, making the crossing with us, experiencing the wind and waves with us, and it is our awareness of that, that brings us peace.
Within the etymology of “authority” are the ideas of “permission” and “influence.” When we recognize God’s authority in our lives, it is not in a domineering sense, but in the sense of giving ourselves over to the influence of God. We open ourselves to God’s presence and permit—invite—God to guide us.