Sunday, February 14, 2016

Do You Not Care? (2.14.16)

A Meditation for Lent:
Mark 4:35 - 5:13.

Separation Wall, Palestine

Friday morning I opened my email inbox to find the usual two dozen, maybe three dozen, and among them, an unsettling note from a friend who lives half-way across the country.  We go back a good ways, the two of us, and my friend follows the church website pretty closely.  He’s a Jewish man, and devout, so he’s especially interested in what we’re doing here in Santa Cruz in relationship to the Israel-Palestine conflict.  And this week, he was disturbed, he was rattled, he was angry, to find that we’re hosting a dozen Palestinian and Israeli peace activists in April, with maybe two or three hundred others, for a working conference on nonviolence and resistance.  It was just a couple of lines, his email; and he was pretty clear about it. 

You see, my friend’s proudly protective of the State of Israel, as he has every right and reason to be.  We’ve talked at length, of course, about our different experiences in the Middle East and what we do with them, how we interpret them.  And he’s been especially critical of last summer’s UCC resolution, a resolution many of us supported, adopting economic strategies like selective divestment and targeted boycotts and international sanctions.  He sees a double-standard where Israel’s concerned; and he worries that Israel gets singled out for darker, malevolent reasons.

So to be honest, we don’t agree on much.  Not where Israel and Palestine are concerned.  And I think that’s why he checks up on our website every now and then.  Just to check in.  But he’s a good man, a really good man, and a generous friend.  So it hurt this week, it really stung this week, when he said my support for the April conference amounts to a betrayal of our friendship.  And that’s the word he used, in the email, “betrayal.”

Now it’s not a word, frankly, that I use (or most of my friends use) in casual conversation or email correspondence.  “Betrayal.”  Maybe it’s meant, in this case, to shock and provoke.  And maybe, maybe he’s justified in using it.  So there I was, Friday morning, slack-jawed before a desktop monitor.  Accused with betrayal.  And not knowing, to be honest, whether I could even defend myself.

Because maybe I have betrayed him.  Maybe our friendship has reached a point of no return.  Maybe these things happen when you care about the world as he and I do.  Maybe they happen in the course of hungering and thirsting for justice, doing the best we can, practicing peace in a strange and heartbreaking world.  Maybe betrayal is a risk we run.  I’m not saying I like this realization; but it crosses my mind.  It somehow seems sadly possible.  When you care as we do.


So that’s a little bit about the storm surge in my world, in my ministry this week.  And it brings me face to face, heart to heart, with the storm surge, the great gale, in Mark’s story.  Because I think Mark’s story—the two-part tale we’ve read this morning—is about the conflicts we engage when we take Jesus seriously.  I think it’s about the trouble we get into.  I think it’s about the rains that soak us and the waves that toss us when we set off with Jesus to confront violence and heal people and be the church.  It turns out that discipleship inevitably leads us to hop in a boat and push off for deeper waters.  And it turns out that the deeper waters are rough and disturbing; and there’s a great gale out there.
So a couple thoughts about that great gale.

First, it has something to do with tested and contested relationships, and the conflicts that pursue us on the gospel path.  When you set out with Jesus to love the poor, you find yourself testing the boundaries, the edges of all kinds of other relationships.  Personal relationships.  Political relationships.  And when you set out with Jesus to challenge militarism and violence, you find yourself questioning deeply held traditions and American institutions.  Do you pay war taxes?  Do you stand for the Star Spangled Banner?  And when you set out with Jesus to topple homophobia and racism, you find yourself reevaluating family dinners and water-cooler banter and maybe even church loyalty for some of us.  And the storm is on.  You know this is true: the storm is on.  When you take the gospel to heart, winds blow hard, relationships get slammed, and waves beat into the boat.


The great gale in Mark’s story has something to do with disorientation in our own hearts and spirits.  In the give and take of discipleship, in the push and pull of peacemaking, you and I are easily and understandably rattled.  Am I right to be on this path at all?  Maybe I’m somehow off track?  Maybe my ‘betrayed’ friend is totally justified?  Christian discipleship is vulnerable discipleship, even disoriented discipleship.  Jesus doesn’t invite us along to be bull-headed and certain.  He doesn’t call us to impenetrable confidence or snarky bravado.  (By the way, did you catch any of that debate last night?  Ugh.)

In my case, the storm surge means questioning everything.  It means questioning my assumptions and the strategies they lead me to pursue.  It means questioning my values and any kind of bias or naiveté embedded in my values.  And it means, in my spiritual life, questioning Jesus himself and what he really means, what he’s really about, what he needs me to be about in the world.  All of that’s up for grabs.  As the waves beat into the boat.  As the great gale rises on the sea.


All of which leads us back to the stern, where Jesus is…what?  Reading his annotated Bible?  No.  Making notes for his autobiography?  No.  Praying over a coming confrontation?  No.  In the midst of all that wind and rain, in the chaos of human motivation and spiritual ambivalence, in the unsettling tension of the moment—Jesus is asleep.  On a cushion.  Seriously, the waves are beating into the boat, the story says.  The boat’s about to topple over for all the wind, for all the rain, for all the wild unknowns of this particular journey.  And Jesus is asleep in the stern.  On a cushion.

I think the fun of biblical faith—and believe me, it should be fun, it has to be fun—I think the fun of it is we get to play with an image like this.  We get to wonder aloud, and explore our varied ideas and interpretations.  Why in the world is Jesus asleep, in the stern, on a cushion?  I mean, it’s the kind of detail that kind of begs for playfulness.  Jesus asleep?  In a storm like this?  On a journey like this?  Why?

For what it’s worth, here’s what I’ve got.

There’s really no doubt in my mind that discipleship gets dicey.  That’s my experience of it, anyway.  Discipleship gets dicey.  Our little boats get tossed around.  They take on water.  The church itself is a strangely built vessel for the kingdom of God.  You know what I mean?  Discipleship gets dicey.  And sometimes my own little ego takes quite a beating.    Sometimes I go to bed unclear whether I believe anything at all.  Sometimes I go to bed thinking I might have betrayed my friends.

But here’s the thing.  Here’s what I get out of Jesus’ sleeping on a cushion in this storm.

I can be vulnerable, disoriented, even frightened; AND at the same time I can be confident, centered and cherished.  Let me say all that again.  I can be vulnerable, disoriented, even frightened (because life does all that to me); AND I can be confident, centered and cherished.  At one and the same time.

This seems to be a story about peace in the very heart of the conflict.  It seems to be a story about confidence in the very eye of the storm.  It seems to be a story for you and me.  A story about Jesus’ love—constant and unwavering—beating like a steady heart in an anxious body.  We are frightened sometimes, yes.  We are frightened quite often, yes.  But always, always, always, Jesus dwells in the deepest parts of our lives.  Always, always, always, God offers stillness and love and courage in the teeth of the storm.  It’s what God does.  So I can be frightened AND confident.  And you can be disoriented AND centered.  Strange, but true.

So maybe you’re like me and you’re organizing something kind of controversial, something like a campaign to shake up powers on Wall Street and in the Middle East.  And maybe you’re sailing into the teeth of a storm and the rain is cold and your heart’s not sure you can go any farther.  The good news this morning is this: God offers stillness and love and courage.  God is the steady heart in your anxious soul.  You are not and never will be alone.  This doesn’t mean you’ll always be right.   You’ll make mistakes.  You may even betray your friends.  You won’t always be right, but you’ll always be loved.

Or maybe love’s drawn you out into other waters.  Maybe you find yourself caring for a partner with Alzheimer’s or AIDS or even terminal cancer; and your life’s been flipped, hard and fast, on its ear.  Maybe your future seems impossibly complicated and sadly rearranged.  The winds are fierce and your little boat may go down.  Well, the good news this morning is yours as well: God offers stillness and love and courage.  God is the steady heart in your anxious soul.  This doesn’t mean the bad news stops coming.  And it doesn’t mean the future makes perfect sense either.  But it does mean you’ll always be loved.  You can find that love.  It’s yours.

Or maybe.  Maybe you’re fifteen and you’re getting bullied at school.  Maybe you read different books and you wear different clothes and you dream different dreams; and the bullies taunt you and push you around and they make Mondays hurt like hell.  The storms are real.  The pain is real pain.  And the good news this morning is yours too: God offers you stillness and love and courage.  God is the steady heart in your anxious, perfect soul.  This doesn’t mean the bullies top bullying or the jerks stop jerking; but it does mean you can stand up tall.  It does mean you can ask for help.  It does mean you will always, always, always be loved.  That love is your birthright.  And you’ve got friends here who will move heaven and earth to help you claim it.

Once those rattled, anxious disciples wake Jesus up, once they get his undivided attention, they ask him the question we all have to ask from time to time.  The question at the stormy center of this morning’s reading: "Do you not care, Jesus?  Do you not care?”  And strange as it is, riddled with doubt as it is, it has to be asked, this question.  When love breaks us open and pierces our hearts: it has to be asked.  When faith takes us to dark places, even to the valley of the shadow of death: it has to be asked.  "Do you not care, Jesus?  Do you not care?"

And even in the howling wind, even in the surging seas, even against the cacaphony of shrill voices all around us--Jesus answers.  "O yes, I care for you."  "O yes, I believe in you."  "O yes, I am here for you."

And this, my friends, is the gospel for you and me.  This is the gospel for disciples struggling through storms and loving in tempests and serving in a broken world.  "O yes, I care for you.  O yes, I care for the project of peace.  O yes, I care for the good work ahead."  And this is the gospel, the good news that carries us through.  Jesus is Love.  God is Love.  And the universe is founded on the quiet, unshakable love of a quiet, unshakable Lover.  It always was.  And always will be.

“O yes!” says Jesus.  I will be your peace.  Not because I can release you from the hard work and sacrifice ahead.  Not because I have some silly notion of a perfect faith that knows no worry, no discomfort, no conflict.  Not because life is meant to be easy.  I will be your peace, because I am peace.  And because I love you.  In this storm and every storm.  Amen.