Sermon: “Haven’t You Heard?”

“Have You Not Heard?”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
February 4, 2018

Isaiah 40:28-31
Have you not known? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. God does not faint or grow weary; God’s understanding is unsearchable.
God gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.
Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
but those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.

Mark 1:29-34
As soon as they left the synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was in bed with a fever, and they told him about her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them.

That evening, at sunset, they brought to him all who were sick or possessed with demons. And the whole city was gathered around the door. And he cured many who were sick with various diseases, and cast out many demons.

I was visiting Peg Kyle this week (whose permission I have to share this). We started off talking about what my daughter Davie is up to and whether living on a cruise ship is a good retirement plan, but eventually we wandered over to some of the bigger questions in life. Why do good people – people we know and love, people who would never hurt a fly, let alone another human being – end up with dementia? Or struggle with addiction? Or die young? “I know we’re not supposed to,” she said, “but it makes you question, it makes you ask why.”

I have to say, if we’re not supposed to question, then both Peg and I are in big trouble. Because it’s a question I’ve been asking all my adult life. And it’s a question I’ve been thinking about this week as I’ve met and prayed with PACC folks facing various difficulties – from health issues to family situations to work dilemmas.

Luckily for Peg and me, questioning God is actually a favorite pastime of faithful people – Job famously asks what he’s done to deserve his fate, while Moses challenges God as to why cities full of people should be destroyed. Martha and Mary want to know why Jesus didn’t come just a few days earlier to save their brother Lazarus. Even Jesus asks God a question – a rather loaded one, on the cross: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

As far as I, and many theologians and saints more qualified than I, am concerned, questioning God is a-okay – it shows we care enough to bring the big stuff to God instead of boxing it up or shoving it out of sight. So let’s talk about those questions. Why doesn’t God stop the car crash from happening? Why didn’t God keep your parents from divorcing or our own marriage from falling apart?  Why isn’t God showing up when we need it, in the way we need?

What we want when we ask these questions is an interventionist God. A God who intervenes, who shows up and fixes stuff. That’s the God we get in this morning’s Gospel passage, actually – Jesus comes into Simon and Andrew’s house and heals Simon’s mother-in-law from her fever. Bang. (In ancient times a fever could easily be a symptom of something that could kill you, but even today they are pretty miserable. I bet some of us here have had particularly bad, bone-shattering fever shakes and prayed to God to just make it go away, already.) After Jesus takes care of Simon’s mother-in-law, a bunch of people arrive – “the whole city was gathered at the door,” it says – and Jesus cures many of them from their sicknesses and their demon possessions (the ancient way of understanding mental health issues like schizophrenia).

This is the kind of stuff we pray for – when we are chronically ill or suffering from mental illness or our friend has just fallen into a coma or our loved one has just died, we want Jesus to show up and heal us, to make that friend well, to bring that person back.

I remember a particular moment from my year-long residency as a pediatric chaplain. That year was filled with a lot of fun – when you’re a chaplain at a children’s hospital you get to do stuff like paint toenails and take selfies with stormtroopers – but it was also filled with a lot of heartache. On this occasion one of my patients had died – it was a child who had been hit by a car as they were getting dropped off by the bus on the way home from school. It was one of those gut-wrenching, makes-no-sense, entirely preventable deaths that cures you from ever again getting upset about being stuck behind a school bus waiting for kids to safely cross the street. And I was SO mad. I was SO upset with God. I went across the street to a little prayer chapel tucked away in the basement of my seminary, where I knew no one would find me, and I flipped open the chapel Bible to the passage where Jesus stops the funeral of a young man, his mother’s only son, and brings him back to life. And through angry tears I raged at God: “Why didn’t you stop this funeral? WHY?”

I still don’t have the answer to that question. I’m not sure there is one.

The funny thing, though, about my question, about our question, is that an interventionist God who sometimes appears and fixes things – and sometimes doesn’t – well, where is this God the rest of the time? Up in heaven, far and distant? Pastor and author Rob Bell had a conversation about this with Oprah on the Super Soul podcast where they talked about their childhood images of God. They both pictured a robed, bearded old guy sitting on a throne up in the sky, the kind of God who “drop[s] in every now and then,” as Oprah put it, who might occasionally deign to notice us mere mortals here on earth.

As Bell puts it, this kind of God ends up seeming optional – because “this world can go on, just fine,” apparently, with God simply “dropping in every now and then.” It relegates God to the realm of miracles and not much else.

An interventionist model makes for a God who is at best random and at worst, cruel. As Bell wonders, what about when “my friend just died of cancer and what about the Holocaust? ‘Cause it would have been really nice [for God] to show up then.”

And an interventionist God encourages us to accept a God on our terms, or not at all. What happens if we pray for something and it doesn’t happen – do we lose our faith in God? Do we decide we’re being punished for something? What happens if we pray for a specific outcome and it does happen – but our friend’s prayers for a similar solution don’t pan out? Does God love us more than God loves our friend?

I wonder whether our faith might hang together a little better, might be more robust, more useful to us, if we had a different idea of who God is and how God works.

What if, instead of – or in addition to – being the kind of God who shows up when we need it most, we think of God as the God described in Isaiah – the God whose strength and love and mercy outlast all of us, who is defined not primarily by the capacity to get us out of jams, but the capacity to be with us through them? Immanuel, after all, means “God with us,” not “God who shows up from time to time.”

Jesus’ life here on earth ran the gamut from joy to frustration to fatigue to laughter to anger to sorrow to deep suffering on the cross. Because Jesus has been through it all, we know that God is with us in it all – even, strangely, in the feeling of being abandoned by God. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

At first blush this “with us” God does not seem as satisfying, I’ll admit, as the “fix it” God. I, along with the majority of people, would rather have the cancer miraculously lifted away or the layoff inexplicably canceled. Saying that suffering is all part of God’s plan for us to grow and learn works for some of us, some of the time – but then what about truly awful stuff that kills the human spirit? Saying that God doesn’t want to quash our free will, even when we do terrible things to each other works for some of us, some of the time – but then what about natural disasters or freak accidents that no one caused?

Saying that God just doesn’t operate that way – that God’s power is far subtler – means God isn’t cruel but also feels like a kind of a cop out. But in a life where we simply are not always rescued from difficult and heinous situations, for whatever reason, it seems to me a far bolder – and perhaps more helpful – claim to say that God is with us through it all rather than to say that God could show up and rescue us but chooses, for some reason, not to. It’s a different understanding of God’s power – not the power to magic our way out but the power to hold us up long after we’ve fainted and grown weary, the power to go through something with us – particularly when no one else can or will – and to bring us out on the other side.

If we pray to the Jesus depicted in this morning’s Gospel, we very well may pray for rescue – for healing, for miracles, tangible improvements that resolve the hardest parts of our existence. If we pray to the kind of God that Isaiah depicts, we will pray not necessarily for rescue but for hope, strength, endurance, compassion, forgiveness – intangibles without which we cannot survive the hardest parts of life.

We may sometimes be disappointed in the former; but I believe we will never be disappointed in the latter.

For the record, though, as someone who often prays for things to be fixed, I think both are okay. I wrestle with whether – and how – they can coexist, but of course I pray both for what I want to have happen and for what I need to get through, regardless of what happens. I’m human.

Do you know the story of Imaculée Ilibagiza?  During the Rwandan genocide she spent three months hiding from the Hutu militias with seven other Tutsi women in a 12-square-foot bathroom of a local Hutu pastor. You better believe that as she and the other women huddled in that bathroom for 91 days, Imaculée was praying to the God who fixes things for rescue, for a way out.

Yet as she listened, in suffocating fear, to the menacing voices just on the other side of the wall of those hunting her and her companions, she felt a soul-scorching hatred consuming her – a hatred that prevented her from finding peace or trusting God. For days Imaculée wrestled with the fear and hatred roiling inside, with her desire to exterminate the Hutus just as they had wiped out her people.

Then she heard Jesus speak into her void: “Trust in me, and know that I will never leave you. Trust in me, and have no more fear.”

In that moment, Imaculée lost her fear of dying, and slowly, slowly, she began to imagine how God might be calling her to something beyond hatred. Though she still prayed for rescue, Imaculée also started praying a different kind of prayer: “Please, Lord…I’m not strong enough to squash my hatred – [the Hutus] wronged us all so much – my hatred is so heavy that it could crush me. Touch my heart, Lord, and show me how to forgive.”

When the killing spree that murdered over 1 million Tutsis was over, the women and girls in the bathroom had escaped. Imaculée’s prayers for rescue had been answered. Yet not long after they had found refuge in a French military camp, she learned that despite her desperate prayers otherwise two of her brothers and both of her parents had been brutally murdered by one of their neighbors.

It was then that she returned to her prayers for something beyond physical deliverance. She had been rescued – but could she survive being a survivor? Was there life beyond the bitterness she was tempted to succumb to? When feelings of hatred and anger surfaced, she resolved to “always turn immediately” to the God who is with us, “to the source of true power: I would turn to God and let God’s love and forgiveness protect and save me.” And it worked. She found work with the UN and discovered a vocation for peace-making and helping fellow refugees. She married and had two children. She became an American citizen. And she eventually faced the killer of her family and offered him forgiveness – which was, she said, “all I had to offer.” Her life was still marked by pain and loss, but now it was also marked by love and by healing.

Imaculée’s story reminds us that both kinds of prayer – to the God who fixes and the God who is with us through the unfixable – are valid. And her experience reminds us that if the first kind of prayer fails – whether because God can’t step in or won’t, who among us knows? – the second kind of prayer will get us through. “Haven’t you heard?” In the absence of a perfect life where nothing ever goes wrong, the God who walks with us, who holds us up when we grow faint, who heals us emotionally and spiritually despite the pain and brokenness we experience, is indeed the source of all true power.

Why doesn’t God step in? Why doesn’t God fix things? It’s a mystery I may never solve. In the meantime, I plan on praying to the God who is with me through the unfixed things – praying as if my life depends on it. Because it does.