Fifth Sunday after Pentecost
One of the most unhelpful notions about Christianity is that doubt is the opposite of faith. It is not. Doubt is an intrinsic part of faith, for by definition faith is about making a commitment and a decision about matters that cannot be proven in measurable ways.
Frederick Buechner puts it this way: “Whether your faith is that there is a God or that there is not a God, if you don’t have any doubts you are either kidding yourself or asleep. Doubts are the ants in the pants of faith. They keep it awake and moving.”
Certainty is the opposite of faith. Certainty can only live when things can be proven beyond any doubt. Certainty is much more than a balance of probability, much more than beyond reasonable doubt. Certainty can only be when things can be proved. Where certainty is the opposite of faith, doubt is an integral part of faith, not something challenging or competing with faith.
Our text from Job is filled with questions. In fact, God does not answer Job’s lingering question, “Why me?” “Why has chaos visited me?” God denies any dark purpose and indifference to Job’s suffering. Then God aims God’s own barrage of questions at Job. God asks if Job was present at the start of creation. Where was Job when God laid the foundation of the earth? Does Job understand how and why God made the earth?
Why these questions to Job? Job’s story began with Job as a good man for whom life was going well. He had plenty of money, a thriving business, and a good family. Job was faithful in his religion. Then things went off the rails. His children died. The animals that are his business are stolen. He becomes ill. Perhaps frustrated with his continued belief, his wife may have left him.
All this in the framework of life that believed if you live a good life and are obedient to God, you will be rewarded with good fortune- health, wealth, and other blessings. At the same time, the opposite is true, those who sin and disobey God’s commandments will meet misfortune- illness, poverty and other woes. That was the essence of Job’s sense of justice: people get what they deserve and reap what they sow. When tragedy strikes, it is punishment deserved.
So when the chaos came knocking at his door, Job has his “why me?” questions. His friends “comfort” him by telling them it’s his own fault. Job rejects their insights and stands by God, but still he asks, “Why me?”
In chapter 38 God begins to respond. The purpose of God’s questions is to illustrate for Job that he will be unable to understand everything in this world because he was only able to look from a human perspective. One needs to see from God’s perspective in order to understand everything.
This passage is telling us that the underlying message from God is that we cannot understand unless, and until, we see things from God’s perspective. And that won’t happen on this side of eternity. As G.K. Chesterton put it, “The riddles of God are more satisfying than the solutions of man.” But riddles are hard to understand, and so it is doubtful Job, as yet, feels satisfied. We are in the realm of faith and doubt, not certainty.
Which brings us to the gospel. Jesus calms the storm. In scripture, the sea stood was a symbol of universal chaos, and the chaos of disasters that can befall anyone. So Jesus is not just saving the disciples in a storm, there is a greater significance of Jesus commanding order out of chaos. As God brought order out of chaos at creation, so too, Jesus brings that order out of chaos as well.
Still our questions abound about this story. These fisherman disciples would have been well used to the lake. What kind of storm would it take that even they were frightened? And if it was such a storm that they were really so terrified, how is that Jesus can sleep thorough that? Finally there is the question of the disciples themselves: “who is this man that the wind and waves obey him?”
There it is again, as in Job, unanswered questions. Both texts leave unanswered the ultimate questions. We are in the realm of faith and doubt, not in certainty.
There is a beautiful symmetry in our readings today. In response to Job, God asks the question: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge?” And at the end of the gospel reading, the disciples echo the Lord’s phrase, ‘Who is this,’ when they ask, “that even the wind and sea obey him?”
Neither God’s question to Job, nor the disciples’ question requires an answer. It is enough that the question is asked. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Do you not care that we are perishing? Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?
It is unfortunate that as we age we leave behind the infant’s capacity for asking endless questions. Educational experts all stress the importance of asking questions. To be true to ourselves and to God, we need to affirm that asking questions is to be encouraged in the church.
Questions, though, can be unsettling. Humorously, a Pontius Puddle cartoon tells it like this, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he allows poverty, famine and injustice when he could be doing something about it.”
“What’s stopping you?”
“I’m afraid God might ask me the same question.”
Jesuit priest and theologian Richard Rohr is more telling:
It seems to me that it is a minority that ever gets the true and full Gospel…Most of us just keep worshipping Jesus and arguing over our certainty of the right way to do it. The amazing thing is that Jesus never once says, “Worship me!” whereas he frequently says, “Follow me.”
Christianity is a lifestyle – a way of being in the world that is simple, non-violent, shared and loving. However we have made it into an established religion and avoided the lifestyle change itself. One could be warlike, greedy, racist, selfish, and vain throughout most of Christian history, and still believe that Jesus is one’s personal Lord and Savior or continue to receive the sacraments in good standing. The world has no time for such silliness anymore. The suffering on earth is too great.
Questions are both unsettling, and comforting. They stir us to examine our failures to attend to the chaos in the lives of others. And they affirm God’s engagement with us when the chaos swamps our own lives. Job, Mark and the rest of scripture tell us there are a great many questions, many ultimate questions. Questions about life, about death. Many of those we will not know the answers this side of eternity.
And it does not stop there. The message is not simply that we have to live with questions. God does not leave us alone, God engages with us. Like the disciples in the boat, Christ is with us to reassure us, support us, encourage us, heal us, prompt us, and save us. Christ accomplishes this for us through the Holy Spirit, living and working in in us, and in this church, and call God’s churches, and all God’s world. This is illustrated in communion; for as we break bread and share it together, as we share the cup together, Christ is present with us through the Holy Spirit, turning the table into a celebration meal of living presence. God’s questions to Job, Jesus in the boat, forcefully tell us we are not alone.
When the chaos abounds, in our lives, or those for whom we are called to engage, the words of William Ernest Henley’s Invictus comfort and call us to our task:
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid
It matters not how strait the gate
How charged with punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
In essence there are many ultimate questions in life that we can never know the answers. But we are not alone because Christ is with us through the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Christ enters into our questions alongside us. And that alone, allows us to walk on in faith. South American theologian, Leonardo Boff, said it this way: “God does not answer our questions, but in Jesus, God enters into the very heart of our questions.” God does not answer our questions, but in Jesus, God is in the very heart of every question we ask.