Sunday, June 21, 2009

Lectionary 12
Job 38:1-11
Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32
2 Corinthians 6:1-13
Mark 4:35-41

He maketh the storm a calm, So that the waves thereof are still.

ELCA and Oromo Churches commemorate the life of a missionary, translator and evangelist from Ethiopia on June 21st. According to my research, Onesimos Nesib was an early evangelist in what would eventually become a number of Protestant churches in Ethiopia, including the Lutheran church. When he was young, he was captured by slave traders, bought and sold several times until he was finally freed and educated by Swedish missionaries. His birth name was Hika, but he was given the name Nesib by his captors and then took on the name Onesimos when he became a Christian. It was an appropriate name for a slave set free by the Gospel, since the book of Philemon tells a similar story about a man name Onesimos. His original name, Hika, was appropriate also because it meant “translator” in his native language. We remember him on June 21st because that is the day he died in 1931, at about age 75.

After he was educated and trained to be a missionary, Onesimos wanted to return to his native land to share the Gospel with the people. It was a difficult journey; it took many years and several tries before he could get through the politics of both secular and religious authorities. It didn’t help that travel was difficult, with poor weather, poor roads and conflict. He was often given misinformation and his company of missionaries suffered from illness. They experienced so many roadblocks that Onesimos fell into deep despair at least once, giving up the mission. He pulled through each obstacle, finding other ways to share the Gospel in other places until he was finally able to make back to his home. With the help of a native Oromo (or Galla) speaker, he was able to translate the Bible into the native language. As we remember Onesimos on this day of commemoration, we see how he lived out the life described in our passages. God brought him through; by faith he continued despite the obstacles. During those times when he faced despair, he was reminded of God’s presence and of the fact that God knows what humans can never know. He always went back to work, no matter what he suffered.

Sunday is also a special day in America to celebrate fathers. Like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day is not a church holiday, but unlike Mother’s Day, kids do not necessarily make church attendance a way of honoring father. Though churches will probably make mention of the day for those fathers in the pews, and prayers will be lifted for all fathers, it is hard to incorporate the idea of Father’s Day into the liturgy and lectionary of the day.

But as I was doing research about Onesimos Nesib, I found an interesting story about his life that brings it all together. Translating the Bible into his native language was important to Onesimos because he wanted his people be able to read and hear the Word of God in their own voice. When the translation was complete, he personally oversaw the publication of the book, attending to the printing himself. During that time, he received word that his youngest child died and his other children were sick. He wanted to drop everything to return to his family, but he didn’t want to leave his work. His wife wrote to him to encourage him to stay with the printing, that all would be well with the family. She felt his work was very important and that she could handle things at home. He was torn. What do you do in a case like this?

Haven’t we all been torn between our families and our work? This is, perhaps, even more true for fathers who often put in so many hours at the office that they do not have time to spend with their families. We all know that men are sadly missing from our pews, but in many cases their absence is justifiable. After working a seventy hour week, who couldn’t use a day to sleep in, relax and watch football? Sunday is sometimes the only day they have to do the yard work or pursue hobbies. It isn’t necessarily the right or best thing for fathers to do, since a strong male spiritual presence is important in a child’s life, but it is understandable.

I often put in seventy or more hours a week when I was working in retail. For a brief period, I was doing two full time jobs—one as a manager of a store, the other on the refurbishment team of another store. I worked seven days a week, sometimes 7 a.m. until 11 p.m. or later. It was one of the most exciting times in my life. I enjoyed my job. I liked the people with whom I worked. I really loved being on the refurbishment team. There’s something therapeutic about putting up shelves and putting out merchandise according to the plan-o-gram. Add to my work time the hours I spent commuting and you’ll find that I spent very little time at home. I didn’t have time to do anything else. There was no time for dating, movies, visits to my folks. There was no time for Church. And really, there wasn’t much time for God.

At that point in my life, I have to admit that while I was a firm believer and committed Christian, God didn’t play a huge role in my life. Perhaps that sounds like a lot of people, but I imagine if you asked, a majority of those who miss Sunday worship can give excellent reasons why they aren’t there. And I imagine they’ll tell you how committed they are to God. It is, perhaps, a misunderstanding of what faith in Christ is supposed to mean in our lives. God can be worshipped anywhere, so they say. Though I was never perfect, I tried to live a life that would make God happy. Though I always knew God was with me, I didn’t pay very much attention. I didn’t pray regularly. I didn’t spend much time reading my bible. The faith I lived during that time was enough for me. I barely ever made it to church. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that God is, and should be, visible in my every day life. Was it enough? I know now that it wasn’t. But we all have to learn those lessons.

In today’s Psalm we hear about someone who probably had a sense of the divine with every working hour. The sailors and shippers spent so much of their time on the sea, where so much was still mysterious. They didn’t know what was under the surface of the water, except for those few glimpses of those odd creatures of the sea. They were certainly familiar with some of the animals, but not in the way we have studied them. What must a blue whale have looked like to a sailor on a boat not much larger than some of today’s modern vehicles or pleasure boats? It is no wonder that many myths and legends come out of the sea. Mermaids were probably nothing more than seals seen in odd light by tired sailors. Though they were at work, those sailors couldn’t help but see the majesty of God in His creation, in the wind and the waves and the night sky, and His fury in the storms.

It is harder to see the majesty of God when hanging cards of pens on racks in a retail store. It is hard to see God when customers complain and when employees are less than committed to their work. It is hard to remember that God is present when we are exhausted by long hours and heavy burdens of responsibility. We see God in our worship, in the sacraments, in our study of the scriptures. We sense His presence in our prayer and life of service. But we tend to forget He’s around in our every day life. We forget that He is with us at our jobs. So, we are reminded to give thanks to God in all our circumstances, even when we are having a bad day at work or our co-workers are less than compassionate. He’s there. His love endures and we make His love manifest in our own lives of praise. Whether our circumstances are happy or sad, good or bad, it is good to ask ourselves the question, “Where is God in all this?” and we will see Him. He’ll calm our storms and bring us home.

It doesn’t matter what work we do, whether we are translators, missionaries, retail clerks, garbage men, office workers, nurses, teachers, businessmen, skilled or unskilled laborers: whatever we do, we are called to do it well and to do it to the glory of God. But fathers, who are often the main or sole breadwinner in a family, are also called to be a good father and husband. This is probably the toughest part of being a Dad: where to draw the line between responsibilities at home and at work. But through it all, our fathers can be reminded on this Sunday that God is with them through their storms. He stands with them as they try to figure out how to do it all in a world that demands so much from them. And when times are especially tough, they can face the storms with peace.

Have you ever known anyone that seems to be content no matter the circumstances of their life? They seem happy even when times are rough. They can find the silver lining in every cloud. They have the strength and courage to do whatever needs to be done when trouble surrounds them. I don’t know about you, but I look at these folks with wonder. I don’t know how they do it. I can’t help but worry and when someone isn’t worried about something that I would be worried about, I wonder how they can do it.

We often read today’s Gospel passage as a cry from the disciples for Jesus to help. It makes sense, after all, they were caught in a terrible storm and the boat was rocking in the waves. I imagine that the bottom of the boat was being flooded with water, threatening the stability of the vessel. The disciples, many of whom were trained fishermen, knew the dangers they faced. The boat could capsize or sink at any moment. Every hand was probably necessary to protect their lives. Even the best swimmers would have difficulty surviving those waves. But Jesus slept, and His disciples asked, “Teacher, carest thou not that we perish?” This is a cry for help. “Help us or we will die.” And Jesus helped.

What has always bothered me about this passage is that Jesus slept. I have trouble sleeping when I’m in a safe, warm house during a thunderstorm. I’m often wakened by the flashes of lightning and booming thunder, and I end up pacing around the house checking to be sure everything is alright. Sometimes I turn on the television, to make sure there is no chance for tornadoes, ready to wake my family and move them to a safer place in the house if necessary. If I can’t sleep in the house during a storm, I’m sure I’d never be able to sleep in a boat. But Jesus slept. He wasn’t worried. How did He do that?

The disciples may have wondered, also. While they may have been seeking His help to keep the boat afloat, it is just as possible that they didn’t know how He could sleep when there was a chance they would die. How could He be so content in the midst of such a difficult storm? He was not worried like the others; He had a peace that gave Him the freedom to rest in the midst of the storm without fear or worry.

Jesus answered their question with help. He rebuked the storm and caused the wind to cease. He did something that put them at ease, but in the process He caused them another sort of fear, an awe-inspired fear of something far more powerful than themselves. He didn’t help them by bailing out the water. He helped by rebuking the storm. Then, He rebuked them for being afraid. He rebuked them for not having faith. It is no wonder that they pondered who He was.

How do we look at our own troubles: through worry or the eyes of faith? How many fathers worry about the future of their families, particularly at times like this? It is no wonder that they are working seventy hour weeks. Could the family survive if he lost his job? Could they pay the bills and have enough left to eat? Many men, and women, work just to keep their head above water. Add to the stress the responsibility of taking care of the kids, and there’s no time to remember that God is with us.

It is easy for us to assume that this lesson tells us that Jesus will stop all our storms. But we all know that people of faith do not necessarily have the perfect life. Water pours into our boats sometimes. There is plenty in our world about which we can worry and be afraid. We can certainly pray to Jesus, “Why don’t you care about how we are floundering here?” and hope that He will tell the wind and the rain to stop. But we know that the wind and the rain won’t always stop just because we’ve prayed for it to do so. Sometimes the storm is the very way that God helps us to grow and learn and mature. No, this isn’t a story about God doing our bidding. Quite frankly our response to that kind of miraculous salvation is often the same as the disciples. We wonder with awestruck fear about who this is that can calm the storm.

This story is also about being like Jesus in the midst of those storms. He asked the disciples, “Where is your faith?” He was right there. He was not going to let them die. As we face our storms, it might seem to us that Jesus is sleeping on a cushion at the end of the boat, but He knows what’s happening. He is with us. We might have to suffer, as we bail out the boat or hang on for dear life, but He won’t let go of us. The lesson is to have faith in the midst of those storms, to know that He is with us, to be content even when it seems like the world around us is falling apart.

But when our world is falling apart, especially when we aren’t acutely aware of God’s presence in our lives, we tend to cry out like the disciples. Or like Job. “Why aren’t you helping? Why aren’t you making things better? Why are you sleeping as my world is falling apart?” God answers our questions with one of His own. He asked it of Job. “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?”

Every generation has a “Where were you” question. Where were you when Pearl Harbor was bombed? Where were you when JFK was shot? Where were you when the astronauts walked on the moon? Where were you when the Challenger exploded? Where were you on 9/11? People can generally remember where they were when these history changing moments happened, or at least where they were when they heard about it. The stories about more recent events usually end up with families gathered around the television watching the events unfold.

We can ask the question about more personal events in people’s lives. Where were you when you met your spouse? Where were you when you proposed? Where were you married? Where were you when you decided what you wanted to be when you grew up? Where were you when you became a Christian?

For those of us in the military, and other transient communities, knowing where we were helps us to remember when something happened. Where were we when Zack broke his finger? Where we were when the kids got that shot? Where were we when we bought that piece of furniture? Where were we when the song or movie or television show was popular?

The question is also used in the courtroom. The lawyer will ask the defendant, “Where were you on the night this crime happened?” The question is meant to establish an alibi for the accused. Other questions might be asked to establish the whereabouts on other important moments, like when a gun was purchased. The lawyer is trying to prove that the defendant could not be guilty because he or she was not there. The questions might be asked by the prosecutor, too, as he or she tries to put the defendant in the right place at the right time, thus proving them guilty.

God asks this question of Job in today’s passage. “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” In this case, the question is meant to establish that Job has no right to question the will and purpose of God. Job was not even a glimmer in his mother’s eye when God spoke the creation into existence. God has been from before the beginning and after the end. Human beings are simply unable to know or understand everything about the God we worship. He wouldn’t be worthy of worship if we could. It is especially hard when God allows terrible things to happen in our lives. We want to be angry. We want to go to court with God, to question Him, to insist on answers to our questions. But God reminds us that we weren’t there when He established the foundation of the earth and we’ll never fully understand Him. What seems to be bad from our point of view may lead to something beyond our imagination. We know that God is faithful. We can rest in God’s promises even when it seems like things are falling apart. Where were we when God laid the foundations of the earth? We did not yet exist in the flesh, but we were loved. Of this we can be sure.

In today’s epistle lesson, Paul tells us that today is the day of salvation. This is marvelous news, perhaps this is the day that God will stop the storm and save us from the raging waters. But we have to understand what this means. Salvation is a present reality although it doesn’t always seem that way? We know that as saved children of God, we have been adopted into His family, made heirs to His kingdom. It sure doesn’t seem like we are princes and princesses sometimes. We suffer. We fail. We are persecuted. Onesimos Nesib had a terribly difficult life. It seemed like he could never accomplish the things he set out to do, blocked constantly by nature, politics, health and ever other obstacle. In Paul’s letters, we hear that he was imprisoned, beaten, and faced hardship. He suffered sleepless nights and hunger. But by the power of the Holy Spirit, he endured these things and lived a life that did not take God’s grace in vain. “Through glory and dishonor, bad report and good report, genuine but regarded as imposters,” says Paul.

When we suffer in our faith, we are also regarded as imposters, because it seems to the world that God’s children should benefit from His power and resources, just as princes and princesses benefit from being a child of the king. What the world thinks of us does not matter. What matters is that today is the day of salvation and we are called to live in the grace of God through the bad times in hope for what is to come. In doing so, God will be glorified, if not today but in His time and way. It won’t be easy. The tasks are sometimes impossible. The burdens are too heavy to carry. But God is with us. He has saved us, but that salvation will never guarantee an easy life. We are called to work in this world whatever the circumstances so that God’s grace is not in vain.

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