Sunday, April 21, 2013

Where is God?

The following is inadequate, as are all words when disaster (natural or the result of human intention) strikes. I think, though, that we need to remind ourselves, and one another, that God is alive and acting and loving at all times.

John 10:22-30
At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly." Jesus answered, "I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father's hand. The Father and I are one."

This is the Word of the Lord.

It isn’t hard, after the events of the past week, to identify with the desperation in the voices of the people surrounding Jesus in the portico of Solomon. After all, the Jewish people had been suffering under the boot of Roman oppression for years: if it wasn’t a Roman legion quelling an uprising in a bloody, decisive way, it was the constant taxation, the idolatrous images here and there, and the temptation to give in to Greek habits and customs.

But whether they were Pharisee or Sadducee, Herodian or one of the majority who didn’t identify with one faction or another, the one common thread that held them together, the common hope that gave them all strength to face the day despite living under the yoke of the Roman eagle, was the Scriptural promise of a Messiah, a Christ, as Savior that would redeem Israel, and the world.

They could be forgiven for expecting this Messiah to be an earthly King, one who would merely overthrow the Roman Empire, re-establish the throne of David, and make Israel an eternal Kingdom to which all other nations would bow. They’d been the underdog long enough, and they had, as far as they were concerned, kept their end of the bargain with God: keeping the Law, making the sacrifices, singing the Psalms, and even that snake Herod was building a beautiful Temple befitting the one true and living God.

In the face of all they felt they had done, the oppression continued. So they could be forgiven for asking “where is God?”

And here was this man Jesus, who people were whispering about in the synagogues, talking about in the marketplaces, and rushing to see and hear in every town he and his band of disciples traveled through. He preached, he performed miracles, when he was questioned by the best Jewish minds, he was never at a loss for words. He spoke of the Kingdom of God, He was even said to have healed a man born blind.

Could he be the Promised One? Could the end of years of oppression and servitude at last be over?

Some were certain of it – look at what he can do listen to the powerful words he says! Others outright rejected the idea: Someone from Nazareth, a Messiah? Someone who didn’t adhere to the rigid code of ethics of the Pharisees, a Messiah? Never!

We aren’t told why Jesus was in the portico of Solomon that day. Historically, this was the porch where that King of Israel had come to make his judgments and exercise justice for those who were brought before him. We are told that it was winter, and that appears to have been the rainy season, so perhaps it was as simple as Jesus taking shelter from a chilling shower. In any case it is no accident, I am sure, that Jesus, whose life and teachings embodied the true justice of God – forgiveness and reconciliation – would be in this area in the east side of the Temple.

I can imagine a group of people arguing about who Jesus was, there in the Court of the Women when he walked past, but they were so engrossed in their discussion that Jesus had already left the area by the time someone said, “hey, isn’t that him?” In an instant they had rushed to that porch, in a section of the Temple Herod had elected not to restore, and surrounded Jesus. It seems they weren’t going to let him leave until, once and for all, he had answered the question: Are you, Jesus, the Messiah?

This past Monday, two explosions ripped through the crowd of spectators at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people, including an eight-year-old boy, and injuring nearly two hundred. On Wednesday, a fertilizer plant in the tiny community of West, in Texas, caught fire and exploded, killing fifteen, injuring many more, and causing major damage to homes and businesses in the community.

We now know who placed the crude bombs in the crowd in Boston. We don’t know why they did it, and if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev doesn’t survive his wounds, we may never know. Investigators are combing through the rubble of the fertilizer plant this very morning, looking for answers to why the plant caught fire and exploded.

We could be forgiven, in the face of all of this death, uncertainty and destruction, for asking, where is God in all of this?

In today’s reading, when the Judeans ask Jesus to make who he is clear, once and for all, he doesn’t just point to what he has said, he points to the things he has done: the healings, the miracles. “The works that I do in my Father's name testify to me…”

And the reason they don’t see that his words and actions prove he is the Christ? Because they don’t believe. It’s the opposite of what we’ve always heard – you know, “seeing is believing.” Jesus says “believing is seeing.”

Very often, in the face of disaster, whether natural or man-made, words fail us. We struggle to understand, and to articulate to one another, where God is. And too often, when we find words, they are inadequate.

The Jewish rabbi and author Irving Greenberg put it best when he said, “No statement, theological or otherwise, should be made that would not be credible in the presence of burning children.”

So where do we find God in all of this?

I’ve quoted a Jewish theologian, now let me share the words of a Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Fred Rogers… Most of us know him from the children’s television show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Following the deaths of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F Kennedy, Mr. Rogers felt he had to he had to tell parents about the importance of including children in the ways they, as adults, dealt with their own grief. Here’s what he said:

"When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, "Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping." To this day, especially in times of "disaster," I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."

Where is God in all of this?

There are a lot of videos of that first explosion at the Boston Marathon. People with cell phones recording friends and loved ones crossing the finish line, news crews getting b-roll footage, and of course it is hard to stomach. The bomb goes off, there is smoke, falling people and debris, and of course people run. But do you know what? Some of those people – sure, the police, paramedics, but also some of the runners and civilian bystanders too, run away just a few steps, then they stop, and turn around, and though no one knows what has happened, if there is another bomb, before the smoke even clears, they are running back to where that bomb went off… running to help. I heard someone interviewed on NPR who said that when the second bomb went off at the end of the block, no one even flinched, no one stopped what they were doing – moving debris out of the way, tearing their shirts to make tourniquets and pressure bandages, being helpers.

There is where we see God. That is where we see the hands of Christ working, where we hear the voice of God speaking peace and healing and hope… yes, there is evil in this world, and perhaps it is a good thing that we cannot understand why: why people fly planes into buildings, or make vans into ammonium nitrate bombs, or stuff pressure cookers with gunpowder and nails. There is evil in the world, but there is good.

“My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus says. “I know them, and they follow me.”

Sometimes, the voice of Christ is spoken: a prayer at just the right time, a word of peace and hope.

And sometimes, the voice of Christ we hear is silent, because it is carried in the hands and feet of those who run back into the smoke and debris…

Here is where we find hope. We must believe, and see, and thus help others to see, that God is alive and active in this world, and is especially present in these times, in the actions of the helpers.

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