Sunday, July 25, 2010

In God's Hands

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

Our gospel lesson [Matthew 14:22-34] today tells the story of one of the more unusual events in Jesus’ life and ministry: His walk across the raging sea of Galilee to bring salvation and comfort to His disciples in their battered boat.

Matthew tells us that while the weather was still calm, Jesus made His disciples get into the boat and go without Him to the other side of the sea. The Greek verb used here suggests that Jesus made more than a simple request. He constrained His disciples to get into the boat and leave without Him. With great reluctance the fishermen parted company with Jesus, while He Himself went up to a mountain alone to pray. When evening came, a sudden storm blew up, the wind and the waves arose against the boat, and the men struggled greatly to keep from sinking.

Let us pause at this point to ask a very important question. Was this just an amazing coincidence? Did it just happen that the one time in three years that Jesus decided to take a night off and leave His disciples on their own would turn out to be the very night that they were all nearly killed? Was that just dumb, rotten luck? Hopefully we realize that luck had nothing to do with it, and that God’s will governs all. Was it therefore the will of God that the disciples would have to face this terror seemingly alone until Jesus saved them by the miracle of walking on the water and calming the sea? Absolutely it was, and we even have scriptural evidence to support this.

From Psalm 107, beginning with verse 23 we read, “Those who go down to the sea in ships, who do business on great waters, they see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep. For He commands and raises the stormy wind, which lifts up the waves of the sea.They mount up to the heavens, they go down again to the depths, their soul melts because of trouble. They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wits’ end. Then they cry out to the Lord in their trouble, and He brings them out of their distresses. He calms the storm, to that its waves are still. Then they are glad because they are quiet; so He guides them to their desired haven”. [Vss. 23-30]

I cannot imagine a more clear and exact prophetic foretelling of this event. Not only does it describe what happened perfectly, but the imagery here of the boat rising up to the heavens and plunging down again to the depths, with the terrified sailors aboard staggering to and fro like drunken men is vivid enough to almost make us feel--gulp!--a little green ourselves! It certainly helps us understand a bit better what the disciples went through when this frightening incident befell them.

But there’s one verse in this psalm that might disturb some people. Did you catch it? It’s the one which said that the Lord “commands and raises up the stormy wind, which lifts the waves of the sea”. These words might seem to suggest that Jesus stayed behind to cause the storm that He would later rescue His disciples from. If that’s the case, it sounds a bit like the stories we sometimes hear of a demented firefighter who commits arson on a building just so he can later be seen as a hero for rescuing the tenants. That’s certainly not right or laudable. Is this what Jesus did?

I don’t think so. We always need to be very careful in our interpretation of any prophecy, and certainly very careful in any judgment we might attempt to make concerning the inscrutable will and purpose of God. The truth is we don’t really know what Jesus was praying for on that mountain. Perhaps in His divine wisdom He already knew that this storm would arise and be far more terrible and deadly, and thus prayed for it to be lessened that His disciples would not perish in the sea before His arrival. Perhaps He prayed that they would be protected from the devil during this perilous time. It is likely He also prayed that they might have the strength and courage to endure this hour and to benefit from it spiritually, rather than to simply lose their minds in terror. In my opinion, our Lord was not up on that mountain plotting mischief against His own disciples, but was praying that they might be preserved through this trail they were about to face, and that they would gain from it.

From our perspective we can easily see that the disciples did benefit greatly from this event. Matthew tells us that those who were in the boat fell down and worshiped Jesus, finally understanding through this miracle that He is the Son of God incarnate. Their gain is also our gain, for while the world often mocks the story of Jesus walking on the water as a kind of fairy tale, we understand it as further proof of His divinity which helps us to also trust in Him during our trials in life.

Trials and sufferings and sorrows are the terrible consequences of the sins that we humans have brought into our world. They are a fact of life in this fallen cosmos, and will not cease until the cosmos itself is renewed. Sometimes when we find ourselves in the midst of our own most terrible and frightening moments, it can seem as if the Lord is nowhere to be found and that we are left alone. Perhaps the disciples thought this, too. Thankfully, this is not the truth.

A major point of this gospel lesson is that we are never alone, never forgotten by Jesus, and that He is well aware of all that befalls us in life. The disciples mistakenly thought they were alone, but they were not. Jesus was aware of them and was praying for them, and at the right moment He came to them, bringing salvation and a greater faith than they had ever known before. He came to them even though it was not humanly possible to do so. What man cannot do, the Son of God can do and will do, because He holds us all in the palm of His divine hand.

So let me pause again to ask a few more very important questions. When the storms of life strike you, is that just dumb, rotten luck? Are you tempted at such times to feel that God has left you alone to be tossed about in the turbulent seas while He must be off on some heavenly mountain somewhere doing...well, God knows what? Is it hard for you to see that your suffering can possibly be allowed by a merciful God? Do you at times feel forgotten, neglected, or perhaps even punished by God?

In whatever sufferings we are called to face, we must understand that the good and perfect will of God governs them all. This does not mean that God is the cause of our sufferings. He is not the arson who sets the fire in order to look like the hero when He saves us. We are the ones who have set fire to our world; the fire of sin and rebellion and death. Though God is never the cause of our sufferings, He will at various times permit them to come into our lives. But His redemptive power is such that He can use even our sufferings to accomplish that which is necessary for our salvation.

God also mercifully reduces our sufferings to a level we can endure. The fishermen might well have been killed in the sea, but our Lord did not allow that to happen. This world is a very dangerous place, filled with enough wars and disasters to potentially extinguish all nations a hundred times over. But God does not allow this to happen. I believe that God also intervenes with the same mercy in our personal lives as well, to lessen the harsh sufferings that we might otherwise encounter. People often question how a good God can allow bad things to happen. Can we possibly imagine how much worse such things might actually be if God did not care for each of us and reduce our trials to a level that do not destroy us, but lead us rather to faith and eternal life?

The reality is that we cannot avoid trials and suffering for long in this world, but God is always right there with us to accomplish an infinitely greater good in our lives. Sometimes He delivers us from all suffering; sometimes He delivers us through our sufferings. But in the end, His purpose is always to accomplish what is the absolute, eternal best for us. We must each come to a personal acceptance of this, lest God’s merciful and redemptive work be utterly lost upon us and we remain broken and angry like those who reject God. Our Lord is with us in the midst of every storm in life, and if we keep the remembrance of His goodness always before us, He will bring us in the end to His quiet and peaceful haven.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Good Friends

+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, One God. Amen.

From today’s gospel lesson [Matthew 9:1-8] we heard the story of a paralytic who was brought to Christ by his very good friends. Carrying the paralyzed man on a pallet, they arrived only to find that their effort seemed wasted. The crowd that had gathered to hear Jesus speak was so immense it spilled out of the house to fill the whole surrounding area, making it impossible to draw near to the Merciful Healer of souls and bodies.

Most people would have felt defeated at this point and given up any hope of bringing their friend to Jesus that day. Perhaps they even heard a little voice in their heads that told them, “Come back tomorrow, or some other time. There will always be another day to bring your friend to Christ”. Sadly, we know that voice very well, for it whispers suggestions in our heads daily: “Are you really going to pray right now? Don’t you have other things to do first? You can come back later to pray. Are you seriously driving to vespers tonight through all that traffic? Wouldn’t your time be better spent if you stayed home to catch up on your work? There will always be another vespers.” Yes, that little voice in our heads assures us there will always be another time to pray, another service to attend, another opportunity to come to Christ some day. It is of course a demonic voice, but one we are so accustomed to hearing that we follow it almost before it speaks, making the demons’ job at times too easy.

Fortunately for the paralytic, these men were long on determination and short on discouragement. Forgetting the obstacles to focus on the goal, they soon hit upon the solution of making their way, perhaps from housetop to housetop from somewhere down the street, to the roof of the very house where Jesus was. Upon reaching that roof, they tore a gaping hole in it to gently lower their friend on his pallet to a spot right beside the Lord.

Now if that wasn’t unusual enough, what happened next was the kicker. Normally Jesus would engage in a bit of conversation with those who came to Him for healing, but that didn’t happen here at all. Without a single word from anyone, Jesus immediately turned to the paralytic and said to him, “My son, your sins are forgiven”. The scribes who saw this thought Jesus was blaspheming, since no one can forgive sins but God alone. No one can heal paralytics but God alone either, and so Jesus raised the man up as a testimony to all. But let’s not miss the point of why Jesus healed the man so quickly.

What two things always moved Jesus to quick action? One is good faith, and especially good faith on behalf of others. Remember how Jesus praised the Roman centurion who asked Jesus to heal his servant? Remember how He celebrated the faith of the Canaanite woman who sought the healing of her demon-possessed daughter? Jesus was always moved by strong and persistent faith on behalf of others. The other thing that always moved Him was human helplessness. Though He is the King of Glory, Jesus identifies with the weak and the helpless of this world and always sees Himself in them. He looked down at the paralytic and saw His own image reflected back in a mirror, not of polished metal, but of broken flesh.

Perhaps more than anything, Jesus wants us to gain this same mindset. He wants us to see ourselves and indeed Himself in one another and in all men. This mindset can transform all of our actions in life from being essentially self-centered to being Christ-centered and humanity-centered.

What does it really matter if you are too busy to pray most days? Do you have an idea that it only affects you; that maybe you won’t be as “spiritual” as some others but you’re OK with that? What about the people that you’re not praying for in that case? What about the sick who are lying alone and troubled in their beds? Who will pray for their recovery or that they might not be overcome by fear? What about those who are struggling with temptation and whose very souls may be in the clutches of the devil? Who will deliver them in their hour of need? What about your neighbors’ or co-workers’ well-being or salvation? Who prays for them? What about each other and the families and faithful in this holy community? Shouldn’t we all be committed to praying for one another and for our mutual growth in love, faith, and spiritual understanding?

There are so many people both living and departed who could benefit from our faithful prayers and who indeed do benefit when we remember to pray for them. My point here is not to make us feel guilty, but to raise our understanding concerning our spiritual efforts. These efforts are never just for us, or for our individual, private benefit alone. Whenever we pray for someone else, even with whatever weak and miserable little prayers we offer, we are bringing that person before the throne of the living God, whose power and mercy is infinite. Through our prayers we are literally carrying people to Christ like the good friends carried the paralytic.

This pattern of serving others through our own spiritual efforts is also manifested when we make a habit of being good church-goers. Do you think that coming to church or not only affects yourself? What about the faith and hope you impart to others when they see that being a faithful and supportive member of this holy community and coming together to worship God is important to you? Should you decide to sleep in on Sunday and come to liturgy at your convenience, you’re doing that for yourself. If we skip the weeknight services, don’t support parish activities, and leave financial stewardship to others, we’re acting as if there was not another person in the world who mattered. But when you make the effort to arise early and come to matins like it was important, attend all the services faithfully, and engage yourself in supporting this parish at every level, you’re not just doing this for yourself, but for the faith and encouragement of your brothers and sisters as well.

This is exactly what the scriptures repeatedly command us to do, to be faithful and build one another up in the parish family. And remember that those were written at a time when coming to church ran the risk of arrest and martyrdom. In an age in which heavy traffic or busy schedules or a good ballgame can be enough to keep many Christians from church, a different level of martyrdom is required. In this case, not a martyrdom of blood--which we would never have the faith or courage to offer anyway--but a martyrdom of simply putting the needs of others ahead of our own, of loving people more than we love ourselves.

The next time you hear that little voice suggest to you that you’re too busy to pray, ask yourself, “Does that mean I am too busy to love those who need my prayers?” When you once again hit that snooze alarm on Sunday morning, ask, “Shall I not arise and support my brethren who are faithfully making their way to church right now?” From little self-sacrifices like these--which really don’t cost us all that much though they often are difficult to do because of our self-love--we can grow steadily toward the Christian mindset found in Jesus of identifying with all men and serving all men.

This is what makes all the difference in our spiritual efforts: seeing that we must do them not just for ourselves alone, but for others. Guided by this, even our simplest efforts can become a means of bringing others to Christ. We must never do things only for ourselves, but always with others in mind. This is what can make us good friends to one another and to all mankind, like the good men in our gospel lesson today.

+To the glory of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.