Name it for what it is

Posted on

I have learned through life experience and through study that it is best to simply name something for what it is and not try and pretend that it’s okay. 

For example: If a child dies of hunger or malaria, we say, “This is so terrible and should have never happened.”  If someone is abused, raped, or neglected, we say, “This is wrong and against what God wills for our lives.”  In all of the stories in the news and the beheading of John the Baptist, we say, “This is death and it’s awful.”  Even Jesus’ death on the cross is first and foremost death in all its ugliness and finality.

7th Sunday after Pentecost; Year B

Amos 7.7-15; Psalm 85.8-13; Ephesians 1.3-14; Mark 6.14-29

Pastor Renee Splichal Larson

 

Grace to you and peace from God our Creator, Jesus our Savior, and the Spirit, our life-giver.  Amen.

We live in a world with incredible beauty and life.  Even out here on this campus I am amazed at the beauty.  The Heart River that borders the north and east part of campus, the rolling hills that extend to the west and the south, the trees, grass and flowers that grow, the garden that produces food, the turkeys and deer that seem to like wandering on the grounds of this place, and this chapel in which we gather that stands in the middle of it all.  This is creation and it is beautiful.

At the same time, we also live in a world in which death and suffering are an ever-present reality.  Four of the five top read articles in the Bismarck Tribune this week were all about tragic deaths.  Brothers, five and nine years-old get run over by a drunk driver as they sleep in their tent.  A family of three is killed on I-94 by a head-on collision because a drunk driver was going the wrong way on interstate.  One man murders another and tries to cover it up by crashing his vehicle.  And a father travels to Wisconsin and murders his 11, 8, and 5 year-old daughters.  We live in a world where these horrible things happen.  These are our realities and they are ugly.

Our Gospel reading today, too, has so much ugliness.  An innocent man is killed because of hate, a rash drunken promise, and a pleasing dance.  John, the one whose death we read about today, is Jesus’ cousin.  John the Baptist is the one who proclaimed in the desert the forgiveness of sins for those who were burdened with guilt.  John is the one who went down in the Jordan River with Jesus and baptized him.  John is a person of faith who with every action and word of his life pointed to Jesus Christ.  He stood up for what he believed in and spoke the truth even though it led to his arrest and eventual murder.  John the Baptist falls victim to the ugliness of the world like so many others.

We can read stories like the ones in the Bismarck Tribune and like the beheading of John the Baptist in the Bible and think, Where is the redemption and the Good News in all of this?  Where is God?  These things are downright depressing and awful. 

I have learned through life experience and through study that it is best to simply name something for what it is and not try and pretend that it’s okay. 

For example: If a child dies of hunger or malaria, we say, “This is so terrible and should have never happened.”  If someone is abused, raped, or neglected, we say, “This is wrong and against what God wills for our lives.”  In all of the stories in the news and the beheading of John the Baptist, we say, “This is death and it’s awful.”  Even Jesus’ death on the cross is first and foremost death in all its ugliness and finality. 

Yet it is precisely also in the death of Jesus in which we begin to get a glimpse of how God works in terrible, seemingly unredeemable situations.  God does not run from tough situations.  God does not run from you in your struggles, whether that be depression, mental illness, addiction, fear of the future, or whatever it may be. 

What Jesus’ death on the cross means for you, me, and the world is that God goes right into the belly of suffering with us, goes to the depth of despair with us, and will ultimately accompany us in our own death.  God in Jesus Christ enters into the ugliness of the world and goes to the heart of what causes suffering, pain, and death.

Often times in this life death seems to win.  Hatred and violence seem to rule in many places and evil seems stronger than goodness.  I would also guess that every one of us here has felt God’s absence or silence when we needed God the most.  We are certainly not the only ones.  Even people of deep faith who have witness incredible atrocities have been forced to contemplate the mystery of God’s presence in the worst of situations.

There is a story that has stuck with me from the first time I heard it.  It is so sad, yet it also speaks to the heart of faith in the midst of suffering.

In the mid-1900’s in Europe, over 6 million people, most of them Jews, we murdered as an attempt to wipe out an entire race of people.  It was a time of great misery.  There is a man named, “Elie Wiesel, a survivor of a Nazi concentration camp, who said, “The SS hung two Jewish men and a boy before the assembled inhabitants of the camp. The men died quickly but the death of the boy lasted half an hour. ‘Where is God?’ a man behind me asked.  And I heard a voice within me answer, ‘Here is God—God is hanging here on this gallows.’”

          – Copyright 2002 Justice and Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ, Cleveland, Ohio.  J. Bennett Guess.

Just because we do not physically “see” God or audibly “hear” God does not mean that God is not with us.  During the Nazi rule in Europe, Jewish people hid in places for years.  Many could not see the sun from where they were hiding and time seemed to drag on as the war continued on and on.  It was in one of these places “…on the wall of a cellar in Cologne where Jews were hidden that these words were written: I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. I believe in love even when I do not feel it. I believe in God even when God is silent.”

          – Copyright 2002 Justice and Witness Ministries, United Church of Christ, Cleveland, Ohio.  J.  Bennett Guess.

Again, just because you cannot hear or feel or see God, does not mean God is not with you.  Just because horrible things happen does not mean God wants them to happen to you, me, or anyone else.   We live in a world in which evil has power to destroy.  Often times we want a God who will fix everything.  We want a God who exercises power to take down those who we think are evil.  We want God to stop bad accidents before they happen.  We want God to show God’s self so then finally we can really believe. 

God does not always work the way we want God to work.  Instead of God taking away our suffering, God chooses to enter into it with us.  Instead of fixing everything, God chooses to work through human beings to bring comfort and peace to the world.  Instead of stopping tragic deaths, God chooses to give people new life in the resurrection on the other side of death.

Faith, then, is trusting that what God has chosen is the better way.  Life is never easy for anyone, and we need God to walk through life with us.  And this is exactly what God promises.  Jesus, after his resurrection from the dead says this to his disciples at the end of the Gospel of Matthew: “Remember, Lo, I am with you always until the end of the age (Matt. 28.20).”

We gather here together today for worship.  This is a place where it is very appropriate to talk about life and death, suffering and joy.  Our Gospel reading today is certainly not the most up-lifting text in Scripture, but it speaks to the realities of the world we live in. 

Bishop Demond Tutu of South Africa knew both of the ugliness of the world during Apartheid, as well as the beauty of creation and having faith in God.  There was so much hate, racism, and violence in South Africa during Apartheid.  Demond Tutu was an alternative voice for peace and reconciliation.  He was and still is convinced that goodness is stronger than evil, love is stronger than hate, light is stronger than darkness, life is stronger than death.  He believes that victory over all of the painful realities of the world, especially death, comes through God who loves us and is with us. 

In Ephesians we read:  “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses…With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth (Eph. 1.9-10).”

God, in Jesus Christ, will gather all who have tragically died, all who rest in him, all who are wounded, all who find no reason to hope…and will give us all a new heart, a new Spirit, and new life.  This is most certainly true.  Amen.