Lectionary 12 B
June 21, 2015
Water is filling up the boat – the sea is rushing in. “Save us, Jesus,” cry his disciples – “do you not care that we are perishing?” Job also, who has lost everything, wants to know why the terrible chances of life have fallen so heavily upon him. And while, in the end, Job’s fortunes are restored, his children have all died; and while Jesus calms the storm and the disciples make this crossing, other storms will come for them that they will not survive.
We want Jesus to calm the storms that surround our little boats – we want protection so that we can go about our lives peacefully. But the changes and chances of life sometimes come down hard upon us, and they do not spare us any of their pain. Yet, even in the darkest pain, Jesus crosses the water with us. And though the crossing may be costly, Jesus promises us the peace of knowing that we are not abandoned, and that he is able to transform all our pain into joy – and not only for the life to come, but for the lifting up of grace and hope in the here and now. And it is not that God orchestrates storms and other troubles for our lives. These just happen because life in the here and now is full of many changes and chances. And sin infects our world causing pain and troubles in so many ways. And we get caught in the middle of the storms that rumble through our world. But Jesus promises, that no matter what, he is present in the terrible storms of our lives and though the storms may do terrible damage, he can even use such trouble to transform us into more faithful instruments of His peace and he works in ways we cannot always see to bring grace and hope to the world.
I had planed today to tell the story of Horatio and Anna Spafford and how, out of the storms of their lives God brought hope in surprising ways. And I do want to tell their story in brief. They and their four daughters lived in Chicago at the time of the great fire that destroyed much of that city in 1871. Following the fire, Anna dedicated herself to the social work of helping the 100,000 people who had been left homeless by the fire. After two years she was exhausted, and their family doctor suggested a vacation. The family made plans for a vacation in Europe, but as they were ready to leave, Horatio, who was a prominent lawyer, needed to stay behind. Anna and the girls went on ahead. But in an accident in the middle of the Atlantic, the ship on which they sailed sank and of the family, only Anna survived. When Horatio sailed to join his wife in France, the captain of the ship pointed out where the other ship had sunk. In his grief and his own struggle to keep his faith, Horatio wrote the words of a hymn as he sailed across the waters where his children had drowned.
When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say: “It is well, it is well with my soul.”
The Spaffords faced more storms when their son, born a few years after the tragedy at sea, died of scarlet fever.
But that is not the end of the story. Horatio’s hymn, “It is Well with My Soul,” has been an inspiration for many people in times of grief and despair; but in East Jerusalem today, the Spafford Children’s Center provides medical and other social services to children of poor families from, mostly Palestinian, East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
Here’s what happened. Hoping for a renewal of faith and hope in their lives, the Spaffords took a kind of pilgrimage with friends from Chicago to Jerusalem. The story has many turns. This group, known as the “American Colony” quickly made friends with their Palestinian neighbors and their home became a place of hospitality for travelers and a center of ministry to the poor. Then, after both Horatio and Anna had died in Jerusalem, their daughter Bertha in 1925 established an orphanage at the place the Spaffords had lived in Jerusalem. It later became a children’s hospital and finally the Spafford Children’s Center. And the Spafford story is an example of how God works in the storms of our lives to bring hope healing and peace beyond what we can ever see.
I could have told their story in more detail, but the events in South Carolina last Wednesday are another kind of storm, and though it did not happen in northeast Minnesota, we are still connected to that storm. Jesus crosses the sea with his disciples, and that means crossing over to Gentile territory. The great storm in the early church centered around the question of whether the gospel was only for the Jews or whether God’s love through Jesus extended to people outside the Jewish faith – whether the church could include people that Jews had learned to hate. And the short and the long of that debate is that God’s love is for everyone, no matter what, and that hatred for another person has no place among the followers of Jesus. So how do we respond when a young man acts out the hatred that bubbles up around him? Racism did not come to an end in this country in either the 1860s or the 1960s. We get caught in dividing the world into two groups: my- people and not-my-people – and then we give ourselves permission to hate the one’s who are not-my-people. Three years ago, the shooting that happened was in Wisconsin – six dead of those who were worshiping at that Sikh temple. And then we didn’t call it terrorism either, but the work of an unstable individual. But isn’t it terrorism when an individual acts out the racism and hatred of the community around him. I remember a short surrealistic play I was in in high school. A group of people find themselves together in a strange place with some building materials around them. They can hear that there are other people some distance from them. They begin their time together in a bit of conflict, but then they decide that the building materials are there for them to build a wall of protection, to keep them safe from the “others-out-there.” Fear of the other turns to suspicion, if not outright hatred. Then the builder comes with a blueprint. He says the building materials were not intended for a wall, but to create a bridge between the groups of people in this surrealistic world. But the people like their wall, and they crucify the builder.
Jesus directs us to the other side, he directs us to put aside our fears and prejudices and hatreds. Whenever we make assumptions about a group of people based on some brief experience, or hear-say that keeps circling around our community, we fall into the traps of prejudice and racism from which God means to free us. Every single person God has made is sacred, and though we are all wounded and infected by sin, it does not take away the sacredness of our lives. As followers of Jesus we are called to see that sacredness in the lives of everyone we meet and everyone we hear about. And when we allow Jesus to get inside our hearts, so that we can see there are no others-out-there, but that we are all one family, because we are all included in the great circle of God’s love – when Jesus gets inside of us, his love overpowers hate and the racism it breeds.
We are baptized into Christ so that he can guide us, and work through us to bring hope and peace into our world. May Christ work through your lives so that hatred and violence no longer have a place of accommodation, and may you become, like Horatio and Anna Spafford, people through whom God’s peace and hope and grace flow like a river. AMEN