Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Always in the Last Place You Look

The sermon I preached on Sunday, March 4, 2012 from Mark 8:31-38

Back in December right before Christmas as I was planning and directing a lot of different church events, and also planning for time to travel and see my family, I remember sending my sister and my mom a text message.  "I'm ready for my vacation, I just found my phone in the refrigerator." 

You see I had been packing my car for a short weekend overnight with my aunt in Jackson, MS, but had also gone to lunch with a friend that day.  I came home from lunch and frantically started packing so that I could make my own personal deadline of leaving by 1:00pm.  After packing my own belongings and also gathering all the toys and food for my dog Sally who was also going with me it was 12:55pm.  So I gathered the last of my things and started my car just as I realized that my phone was missing.  I turned off the car, left Sally inside the car and ran back in the house to grab my phone.  But, after a good 15 minutes of searching I came back out to the car to let Sally out into the yard and also to search the car.  I unpacked my bags, moved the seats around in my car, looked in my purse, my computer bag and even my laundry hamper, turned my bedroom inside out and still couldn’t fine my phone.  At this point I was nearly an hour behind schedule, but had no way of telling my aunt, because the only phone I had is my cell phone. 

Over an hour after I was supposed to leave I started replaying my day in my mind.  When was the last time I saw my phone?  Who was the last person I called?  I know I had it on my way home from lunch, but what happened right when I got home?  Was I on the phone when I came in the house?  What else did I bring in the house with me?  I started to retrace my steps, walking from my car, into the house, unlocking the door, talking to my roommate, and heading to THE REFRIGERATOR to put away the leftovers from lunch.

Sure enough, I opened the refrigerator door and sitting on top of my white Styrofoam to-go box was my phone, with a couple missed calls and a little condensation on the screen.   I had set my phone on top of the Styrofoam box so I had my other hand free to unlock the door and left it on there when I put my food away.

Why in the world would I look for my phone in the refrigerator?  Sure, when you’ve lost something it’s always helpful to retrace your steps and look in those places you last had the thing you’ve lost.  But in general, why in the world would you look in your refrigerator for your phone?  You would look in a drawer, a table next to your bed, close to an outlet where it might be charging, in your purse or in your briefcase, in the couch cushions after it fell out of your pocket, in the laundry hamper in a pocket you wore earlier that day, but never in the refrigerator.  Because why would anyone put their phone, an electronic, digital phone, in the refrigerator?

In the passage from Mark this morning, Jesus scolds Peter for not looking for God in the unexpected places, namely the ugly places of life, like his crucifixion and death.

Up until this point in Mark, Jesus’ ministry has been characterized by healing diseased, disabled, and troubled people; telling parables; feeding thousands of people with a few scraps of food; walking on water; reaching out to the Gentiles and those on the outside of society, and standing up to the criticism of religious leaders.  The disciples have been following an attractive messiah who changes society, and lives outside the norm.  They have been following a caring helper, a wise teacher, a miracle healer and one who welcomes all.

But now Jesus wants to teach the disciples about a different aspect of the messiah; still the one who comes to change society and live outside the norm, but the messiah who lives and dies on the cross.  Jesus tries to teach the disciples about his betrayal, his trial, his crucifixion and his death but Peter tries to stop him.  And seeing his disciples confused and wondering what to believe Jesus confronts Peter in return and tells him, “Peter, get out of my way!  Satan, get lost!  You have no idea how God is working here!”

It’s easy for us to skip over Peter’s shock and aversion to the idea of a suffering and dying messiah because we know the real end to the story.  It’s easy for us to skip over Peter’s horror at the thought of Jesus being tried and found guilty by the elders, high priests and religious scholars, only to be killed because we know that after three days He is risen.  Even during Lent we often prefer to look backward at the compassionate and welcoming Jesus and also forward to the triumphant Christ, but we refuse to pause and reflect on the agonizing, gory death that is the focus of the Gospels.  Even during a time when we are to reflect on what it means to follow Christ and what it really means to be his disciple we shy away from the scary part that involves weakness, suffering and death.  It is easy for us to skip over Peter's shock and aversion to the idea of a suffering and dying messiah because we would much rather focus on the triumphant messiah who brings healing and wholeness.

Let’s be honest, we’d much rather focus on the times in our lives when we can vividly see God working, and when we feel like we can say we’ve seen miracles.  We’d much rather focus on weddings, baby dedications and baptisms where we can see new life than go to a funeral where we are reminded of death.  We much rather hear a sermon about things with which we agree than have to wrestle with the idea of a messiah who suffers in agony as if God isn’t even there.  Even the worst of the worst, we’d rather go to a funeral of a man who has lived a long, full life than have to face the inexplicable death of a little girl.  We would much rather talk about the places where God is visible in our lives, in the blessings of family, a sense of purpose and long, full life than have to answer questions about the places where God seems to be hiding.  It’s easy to skip over Peter’s reaction to Jesus teaching about his suffering and death because we don’t have to focus on that.  We know the end of the story and death does not have the end.  Life and glory have the end of this story, so we’ll just focus on that for now. 

In 1966, Time Magazine ran this cover on the front of their magazine.  This cover has since been listed by the Los Angeles Times as one of the “Ten Covers that Shook the World,” and probably for good reason. 

I would say this cover shook the world in the same way Jesus’ statements to his disciples about his suffering and death shook them, and especially Peter.

How dare someone ask “Is God Dead?” 
How dare Jesus speak of God in this way! 
How dare Jesus say that the messiah will be weak and suffer on a cross!
How dare someone suggest that God’s own Son could die on a cross!

William Hamilton, a theologian with one of the most prominent voices in the “Death of God” movement, died this week at age 87.  Some of you may vividly remember this movement, while others have only read about it, but still I’m sure there are others who are just hearing about this movement for the first time.

So I will explain briefly.  You see, William Hamilton, the leading voice of this Death of God movement, started to question his faith when he was a teenager and three of his friends were making a homemade pipe bomb.  Two of his friends – an Episcopalian and a Catholic – died while they were making the bomb and a third friend – an atheist – escaped without injury.  These results caused Hamilton to question why the innocent suffer, and whether or not God actually intervenes in people’s lives.

And after many years of schooling at seminaries and in his Baptist church, his answer was that God was dead.

The “God is dead” movement rarely includes an actual death of the Divine creator, but included thoughts from Friedrich Nietzsche who claimed that self-centered human beings had created no need for God, and in as much, had killed God.  Thoughts from William Hamilton and others claimed that an increasingly secularized world had killed God off.  And still a Jewish theologian, Richard Rubenstein, argued that the death of God occurred in Auschwitz when in the face of such tragedy and horror human beings could simply no longer believe in a loving and just God.

In our passage in Mark, Jesus is there to shake Peter out of this nonsense, and to shake us out of it as well.  “Get back Satan!”  You may not want to look for God in this suffering, but you are missing out on how God is working IN the weakness and IN suffering on the cross.  “Get out of the way of God!”  You may only want to see God in “the way things should be,” but ‘the way things should be’ is not the Way of God.

We know this.  God’s mercy is given to sinners, not the righteous, the way it should be.  God’s strength is exposed in weakness, not displayed in power the way we think it might be.  God’s wisdom is veiled parable and paradox, not set out in self-help type sayings like we want to think.  We may want only want to see God in “the way things should be,” but ‘the way things should be’ is not the Way of God.

Martin Luther, the father of the protestant reformation says that to know God truly is to know God in Christ, which means to know God hidden suffering.

Jesus is there to shake us out of this idea that God is only in the triumph on Easter morning. 
Jesus is there to shake us out of this idea that “the way things should be,” is the way of God.
Jesus is there to shake us out of this idea that God is only in the miraculous healing, the feeding of the thousands and in the standing up to religious leaders.
Jesus is there to shake us out of this idea that God is only found in certainty, optimism and painlessness.
Jesus is there to shake us out of the idea that God is not there.

Jesus is there to tell us that God is not here to prevent suffering, rather God is here IN our suffering.
Jesus is there to tell us that God is not here to take away our doubts, rather God sits with us IN our doubting and questions.
Jesus is there to tell us that God is not here to prevent pain, rather God is with us IN our pain.
Jesus is there to tell us that God is not ONLY in all those places where we would typically think to look for God, in baptisms and births, in miraculous healings and in making the world, “the way it should be.”  Rather, to know God fully is to also search for God in all those places where we would never think to look for God.
Jesus is there to tell us that God is in all of it, even unto, through and beyond the suffering and death of the cross.

A few weeks ago we prayed for a little boy Tripp and his mother Courtney who lives near Ponchatoula.  Courtney is about my age and just over two years ago gave birth to her baby boy, Tripp who was born with a rare genetic skin disease called “EB.”  Basically the proteins, or the “glue” that hold his skin together is missing, so any sort of friction on his skin or mucous membranes caused blisters all over his body, and he was not expected to live past his first year.  But Tripp beat the odds and lived past his second birthday!  However, on January 14 of this year, due to complications caused by all the blistering and an eventual inability to eat, Tripp Roth lost his battle with EB.  Like the rest of their journey his mom Courtney blogged about that fateful day and shared these words just days after her two year old son died in her arms.

“The homily and readings in mass today were about suffering and why God would allow bad things to happen to good people.  And the bottom line is… that we don’t know WHY God allows these things to happen.  We can speculate, but in the end we don’t know.  But what we can know is that God has never left our side.  God has never left my side.  In the dark times, and in the happiest times… God was there through my family, friends and the relationships I made.  God was there through all of you guys, blog readers who have been and still are the best support system I could have had.  God was there in my little angel – who’s smile gave me more peace and happiness than I could have ever asked for.”

God IS here.  God was here with Tripp in that terrible disease, and God was there with Courtney in her own anguish and pain at seeing her child suffer. God is in those places we are sure God’s light cannot shine, sitting with us, holding us, comforting us.

God is here in all those places we don’t think to look.  God is in those places we don’t think to look, like suffering, uncertainty, doubt, pain, disease and even death.  We don’t have to only look to those places of triumph on a bright Easter morning.  Instead, Lent reminds us to reconnect to God that is here all the time.  Lent reminds us to reconnect to God in the places we may not think to look.  It may not be in a miraculous recovery, in the feeding of thousands, or in turning society to the way it should be, but God is here.  In Jesus’ suffering, humiliation, pain, anguish and agony, God is here with us, suffering together, no matter what, even in that very last place you would ever think to look.  And that is Good News.

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