Sunday, August 07, 2005

Suffering and Faith

St. Paul's Church in Bergen, Jersey City NJ
August 7, 2005

Year A: Pentecost 12
Jonah 2: 1-9
Psalm 29
Romans 9: 1-5
Matthew 14: 22-33

Suffering and faith. Working as a chaplain at Christ Hospital this summer I’ve thought a lot about these two big issues - suffering and faith – which are also at the heart of today’s readings. This may sound strange but of the two, suffering and faith, I really think suffering is the easier one for us to deal with.

Suffering is certainly pretty easy to identify in today’s readings. We begin with the wonderful, bizarre story of Jonah stuck for three days in the belly of the big fish. In the news these past couple of days we’ve heard about some modern-day Jonahs haven’t we, Russian sailors trapped in their submarine, finally rescued this morning. Anyway, Jonah is probably the crankiest, most difficult prophet in the entire Bible. When God tells him to go east, Jonah goes west. It’s that stubbornness that leads Jonah to the unappealing position we find him in today – trapped inside a fish’s belly. Jonah is suffering.

Then we have Paul, the faithful Jew, so hurt and so disappointed that most of his Jewish brothers and sisters have not recognized Jesus as the Messiah. Paul is so upset about this that he even considers having himself cut off from Christ for the sake of his people. Paul is suffering.

And finally we have Peter – the eager apostle trying to do the best he can – trying to faithfully follow the Lord. So he goes charging out of the boat onto the lake heading toward Jesus. I love the image of what happens next – when Peter gets afraid and begins to sink. I always think of those old cartoons when someone like Wile E. Coyote races off a cliff and stays up in the air - until he recognizes the danger of his situation. You know… Yes, as he had that sinking feeling, Peter was suffering.

Let’s face it, suffering is easier to talk about than faith because lots of times it seems like suffering is all around us. Faith, on the other hand, is a lot harder to pin down. Can we have a show of hands – who here has ever suffered? That’s what I thought.

Obviously a hospital is a place filled with a lot of suffering. Many days as I have made my visits around the hospital, just before I enter patients’ rooms, I get that sinking feeling, a little bit like Jonah and Peter. What suffering will I be faced with now?

I think of the man in his 70s I visited with for a long time last week. He is devastated by his sister’s death and now he is betrayed by his own body as he struggles to breathe and to walk. His life seems to have been shattered into a thousand pieces. He is suffering. Or the alcoholic in his 40s, bloated, jaundiced and dying as his liver and kidneys fail. Sitting with his elderly mom and dad as they struggle with the anger they feel towards their son and maybe, if they admit it, the anger they feel towards God. Suffering. Or the 20 year-old young man I met in intensive care – a feeding tube up his nose, his eyes glazed and his scared young girlfriend sitting sadly by his side. Suffering.

We don’t have to look far to find suffering. But what about this morning’s other theme, faith? More than the issue of suffering, it is the issue of faith that has troubled me during my time working in the hospital. Sure, nearly every patient I meet claims to believe in God, and all the Christians say they believe in Jesus. But I have a feeling that lots of people say this because they think that’s what the nice chaplain wants to hear. It’s sort of like asking a lonely person if they have friends. Often they’ll say “Oh, sure, I have friends”. But then if you ask who their friends are, it turns out they have no one. With the patients, when I try to dig a little deeper and ask how their “faith” helps them or how they experience the presence of God – usually I get lots of ums and shrugs. I think this is very sad and discouraging.

It’s sad because the message of the entire Bible can be summed up in one word – “Emmanuel” – “God with us.” Throughout the Scriptures God promises one thing over and over – God promises to be with us always. God promises God’s presence. God does not promise an easy life. God does not promise a life without suffering. God does not promise miracles. God promises one thing - God promises to be with us through all the suffering – and all the joy – of life.

And yet so many of us, especially in times of great suffering, struggle to feel God with us. Must be frustrating for God! I think part of our problem is that we have turned faith into an intellectual activity. We’re too much up here in our heads and too little down in our hearts. We say “I believe this, that and the other thing.” OK, that’s fine, I guess. But what happens when we experience something that causes us to question or doubt all those “I believes”? What happens when we get that sinking feeling like Jonah, Paul and Peter? Unfortunately I think what often happens is the faith up here in our heads evaporates and we are overcome by fear and doubt. Since we don’t feel God’s presence we think, maybe we were kidding ourselves, fooling ourselves, lying to ourselves. The intellectual faith, the faith of our brain, is not enough to give us strength in our times of need.

But if not an intellectual faith, then what? Well, maybe the word “faith” itself offers an answer. Our English word “faith” comes from the Latin word “fido” which means “to trust, to confide in.” “To trust, confide in.” It turns out that really faith is a verb, it’s an action, it’s a doing. Faith is a practice. Faith really is putting our trust in God. Faith is not somehow convincing ourselves that what’s written in a holy book is true. Faith is not convincing our brains that what people in fancy robes tell us is true. No, faith is the act of putting our trust in God. Faith is placing our confidence in God. Simple, profound, and for me at least, really hard!

Faith is the work of our lives. Not easy and, sure, we will doubt and hesitate – especially when times get tough. But as we practice our faith – by praying with our whole hearts, by serving our brothers and sisters, by coming to church and praising God - as we practice our faith our relationship with God deepens and matures. As we really pay attention to the world around us, as we are mindful – our faith deepens and matures. We are not just called to say “I believe this, that and the other thing.” It’s more than that. As we practice our faith, as we live our lives, we are called to open our hearts and place our trust in God, to make room for God, to confide in God, to rest in God. And by developing that deep trust in God’s presence, we will be stronger when those tough times come.

Really if we think about it, keeping up with God is not so different from keeping up with friends and family. Who wants to be the person who never makes time for other people and then ends up alone wondering where are all the people close to me? Why is no one visiting or calling me? Oh yeah, I never really bothered with them, did I? Same with God. To feel God’s presence we need to work on our relationship with God – to make some room for God - that is faith.

So the message of today’s readings is pretty clear. In the midst of their suffering Jonah, Paul and Peter reached out, opened their hearts, put their trust in God. As we especially see with Peter, their faith wasn’t perfect – they doubted and stumbled. But that’s OK because in the end they put their trust in God, creating more and more room for God to work in and through their lives.

If we know anything about the lives of Jonah, Paul and Peter we know that their faith in God did not guarantee an easy, painless life. Far from it. But their faith, their putting trust in God, did guarantee a deeper and deeper relationship with God – a different kind of sinking feeling – a sinking into the One who is love and the source of all life - a sinking into the One who never abandons us even if, like Peter, we are of little faith. Amen.

Now, as it happens, in a second we will stand and say the creed. Maybe today we can say these words not only with our brains and mouths, but also with our hearts – hearts open to the presence of God.