Scriptures: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13; Mark 4:35-41
It’s becoming increasingly clear to me that I’ve begun a new phase of life. I’ve recently noticed that when I get together with certain friends, we’ll talk about our body aches, compare our medications, and report on our most recent trip to the doctor. The fact is, I’m no longer just an active listener to these tales of woe (which, as a pastor, I’ve been for years), but an active participant!
But here’s what I’m learning: sharing one another burdens makes bearing them a lot easier. Going it alone can be a recipe for disaster, as the saying goes. I’m pretty sure God didn’t design us to bear the weight of life’s challenges all by ourselves. Instead, he designed us to bear our challenges within the context of community. Even us introverts are designed to be in relationship with others. The bottom line is faith is strengthened through life in community with other people. What constitutes community isn’t the same for everyone. But what is the same is that we all need to be in relationship with others if we’re going to thrive and not just survive.
Those of you whose spouses or parents were secluded within the confines of a residential home throughout this pandemic have experienced first-hand how difficult—maybe even damaging—it was to not be able to be face-to-face with your dearly loved one. Looking at each other through a window while talking on the phone just isn’t the same as being with them and touch them.
Likewise, as much as live stream worship is far superior to no worship option, it comes with its own challenges. It’s true that being able to see the sanctuary and the worship leaders can lend itself to feeling somewhat connected to the faith community. But for many of you, it’s just not the same as being together in community in a common physical space.
And it goes without saying that as helpful as remote learning was in that it provided a way for students to continue going to school, this past year has made it very clear to us that in-person classrooms lend themselves to much better learning and connecting.
Each of these pandemic-forced situations—connecting with a loved one through a window, live stream worship, and Zoom classrooms—have highlighted the importance and necessity of being a part of a community of people. How do we know that’s important? Because to a certain degree, it was taken away from us for a year, and when that happened, many of us reeled in response.
For months, there’s been a developing story in the news about a trusted doctor at The University of Michigan who sexually assaulted many male athletes over the course of many years. And even though at the time there was knowledge of this happening on the part of some in positions of leadership, it was swept under the rug and allowed it to continue. Well, only now, many years later, is it finally being brought out into the open. Unfortunately, this is not a unique situation. At least two other Big 10 universities are dealing with this very issue. And, of course, the same issue has come to a head within the Church as well.
Something they all have in common is the manner in which the assaults began to come into the light. It started with one person coming forward and telling others what had happened to them. And then another would come forward. And then another. And another. And another, until there’s literally a community of survivors. And what they’ll tell you is that they suffered for years and years thinking they were all alone in their experience. Or that they’d misinterpreted what had happened to them and were afraid to talk to others about it for fear that they might be ridiculed or dismissed. However, when it became clear that they weren’t alone, and decided to speak up and join their voice to those of the community of those who had the same experience, only then did healing begin.
Why do you think we have relays for life? And telethons? And community fund raisers for families without medical insurance? And annual public readings of names? Why do we celebrate All Saint’s every year, remembering those from our church family who’ve passed away in the previous twelve months? No doubt, we do some of these events for the purpose of raising money and awareness, but I’d suggest that the real reason is because these kinds of events and observations bring us together and unite us. For example, in a relay for life, people in a community literally come together and walk around a track in teams. They walk next to other teams of people. On All Saints Sunday, we gather as a community of faith to not only remember and honor those who have died and gone to be with Jesus, but to show our love and support to their family and friends who are still here, and to let them know they’re not alone.
The truth is, life is glorious and beautiful and wonderful. But at the same time, it’s messy and complicated and challenging. Jesus understood this reality. Therefore, he made sure we would not each be left on our own to muddle through life’s greatest challenges. So, he promised to send the Holy Spirit to us.
It’s important to note, however, that wasn’t only for the sake of helping individual persons that he sent his Spirit, but also for the sake of the church as well. The Holy Spirit empowers the church to continue doing the work that he did as a person. When the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, he ushered in a change in focus. Easter is all about Jesus; it’s about who he is and what he did. Pentecost shifted the focus from Jesus to us. That is, from the person Jesus to the body of Christ. And so, at this point in our liturgical season(the 4th Sunday after Pentecost), the focus switches from the story of Jesus to the story of the church. Not that we leave Jesus behind, of course, but Jesus is now working through the body of Christ, the church, to continue his ministry and invitation in the world. Today, we are the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. And as such, ministry is our purpose. Being God’s chosen agent of healing and reconciliation is our mutual call.
Mark tells a story about Jesus the person calming the fears of his disciples when a storm suddenly came out of nowhere while they were sailing across a lake. Isn’t that how it often happens for us, that the storms of life seem to catch us off guard? Even when we’re not feeling well and know something’s not medically right within us, are we ever prepared for a diagnosis of cancer? Or when the doc says we have to have a quadruple bypass surgery right now, today? Are we ever prepared to be robbed? Or accused of something we didn’t do? Or to be laid off from work? It’s hard enough preparing for things we know are coming, such as retirement, let alone preparing for the unforeseeable.
So, anyway, the disciples wake him up and accuse him of not caring about their well-being, to which he responds by telling the wind and waves, “Silence! Be still!” And all becomes very calm—the wind, the waves, and their anxieties. One commentator says that Jesus issued a similarly worded command in a different setting, when he ordered a demon out of someone. To the waves and wind, he said, “Peace! Be still!” To the demon he said, “Quiet! Come out!” Nearly the same words in Greek translated slightly differently into English. But the point is, both situations called for the same intervention. It’s even been suggested that his use of similar word might imply that from Mark’s perspective, the windstorm is demonic, evil, needing the hand of a Savior. Needing the hand of a Savior.
Isn’t that what we are—the hands of Jesus? Filled and empowered by his Holy Spirit, are we not the very hands of Jesus Christ in this sin-broken world? And don’t we have a word of hope to offer it?
We’ve all been visited by evil in our world. We can name it in our own life settings. We see it in our nation and in the wider world. The storm of evil is all too evident. That evil exists is beyond debate.
So, how are we called to respond to the evil that inundates us? How did Jesus respond to the disciples? He called down calm and peace and stillness. Quieting the waves we understand. But what in the disciples needed quieting? Their fear? Certainly. But he did more than make them less fearful; he strengthened their faith. For them, it was a faith issue. After stopping the wind, he accused them of lacking faith. Why? Because faith is often the first thing to take a hike when a storm suddenly overwhelms us. We’re distracted when we’re afraid. We lose hope. Like the disciples, we earnestly wonder if God really cares about us. Otherwise, why would he let this happen to me?
The Apostle Paul could have gone down this emotional road if he’d wanted to. In today’s reading from his second letter to the church in Corinth, he lists off his own life struggles he had to endure during his ministry. He writes, “We went through beatings, imprisonments, and riots. We experienced hard work, sleepless nights, and hunger. We were treated with dishonor and with verbal abuse. We were seen as both fakes and nobodies. That was Paul’s storm.
It’s easy to forget in the middle of a storm, isn’t it? This is exactly why we need one another. This is why being a part of a community of believers is so important. When my faith wanes, I need your faith to lift me up. And when your faith wanes and you doubt, you need me to come beside you and lift you up with my faith.
Psalm 77 was written by a person who was having a crisis of faith, as evidenced by verses 7-10: Has the Lord rejected me forever? Will he never again be kind to me? Is his unfailing love gone forever? Have his promises permanently failed? Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he slammed the door on his compassion? And I said, “The Most High has turned his hand against me.” Sounds like someone who’s in the middle of storm, right?
But note how he responds to his own lack of faith the very next verse: But then I recall all you have done, O Lord; I remember your wonderful deeds of long ago. They are constantly in my thoughts. I cannot stop thinking about your mighty works. And for the remainder of the psalm, he briefly recounts the story of God miraculously leading his ancestors across the Red Sea and out of their Egyptian slavery. In his moment of uncertainty, when he couldn’t see if God was at work in whatever situation he was dealing with, the psalmist retold the story of his people. And retelling that story began to restore his faith and trust in God, even when he couldn’t see God at work.
Paul did a similar thing about halfway through his list of hardships, where names the hardship but then immediately tacks on the truer reality of the situation.The hardship he names is real in the sense that he wasn’t making it up, but it wasn’t the ultimate reality of his life.Sobeginning in verse 9 he says, “We were seen as dying—but look, we are alive! We were seen as punished but [we were] not killed, as going through pain but always happy, as poor but making many rich, and as having nothing but owning everything.
Life’s challenges are real. But there’s a greater, deeper reality at work as well. And when we focus our attention on that reality—what God’s doing—then we find that it’s easier to deal with those challenges.
As community of faith, that’s what we do for each other. We hold before ourselves and one another the stories of THE FAITH and we recount the stories of our faith as a way of undergirding ourselves when we’re having trouble seeing where God’s at work. We remind one another of the truth of God’s Word during those periods of time when God’s seems distant or silent. And for those outside of our faith, God designed us to be a people willing to speak a word of hope and love into their life situation, trusting that God will use that word to begin to heal and make them whole. And if and when some of them respond to that word of love by becoming a part of this community of faith, then they get to be a part of being the hand of God reaching out our hurting world.
The organist of my church in Millington lost her husband to a sudden cardiac arrest in which he was with Jesus before his body slumped to the floor. To say that was a sudden storm out of nowhere would be a great understatement. Months later she said to me, “Drew, I don’t know how people who don’t have a church family to lean on in order to get through these kinds of traumas.”
Quite frankly, neither do I. I thank God for the church, and I thank God for you, my church family. And my guess is, you’re grateful for each other, for no doubt, many of you have experienced what it’s like to be lifted up and held by your brothers and sisters in Christ during the most painful times of your life journey. Thanks be to God. Let’s pray.