Proper 12B; August 23, 2015
Psalm 34:15-22; John 6:56-69
Trinity by the Cove Episcopal Church, Naples, FL
The LORD is near to the brokenhearted
and will save those whose spirits are crushed.
These are the words of verse 18 of today’s Psalm. For me they are some of the most reassuring, comforting words that I’ve come across for those devastating times in my life when my heart was broken, my spirit crushed – in lonely, tough times . . .
In pastoral ministry many of the people who come my way find themselves living this 18th verse of the thirty-fourth psalm. Oftentimes when someone comes in to see me – or when I go out to meet them in their homes or in the hospital — they are in a rough place. Of course, I’ve also had lots of chances to rejoice and give thanks with you all during the two and a half months I’ve been with you . But all of us, without exception, at some point in time find ourselves feeling very alone and broken-hearted – with spirits that are seemingly crushed. So how do we go about experiencing God, how do we look for God . . . cry out for God — in these lonely, tough times?
We don’t preach about the psalms very often – I think that’s too bad because the psalms are the only collection of prayers in the Bible. And in those prayers are honest cries that come from our deepest humanity: there’s thanksgiving and joy, but there’s also fear and doubt and anger – and even despair. The psalms resonate with most every human emotion and experience – and they give us a sounding board . . . sometimes when we have no words of our own.
It seems right in this world – it seems a matter of justice – that the good people should be rewarded and the wicked suffer. In the book of Proverbs we actually read that: “Misfortune pursues sinners, but prosperity rewards the righteous.”
But we know that’s not exactly true! For instance, I look around – you all look like good people to me! It’s Sunday, you’re dressed up and you’re in church . . . We all are good people, right? Maybe not perfect, but generally speaking good.
But each of us finds ourselves in times when we suffer misfortune. And this points to the huge “Why question” – Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God when bad things happen to us? The theological term for this is theodicy: “If God is good and just and all powerful, why is there evil and suffering in the world?” Brilliant scholars and theologians have wrestled with this question, probably since the beginning of time, and to no really satisfactory end. So I’m not going to try to explain or answer that question. More to the point is this: How do we cope in difficult times? Where do we go for help? And how do we experience God in those times of suffering? . . .
Faith and prayer have a profound role in all of this. We may find our faith profoundly challenged in the times and circumstances that leave us broken, our spirits crushed – when we seem to stagger around helplessly in confusion. We may find it difficult if not impossible to pray.
So do we turn to God – or do we turn away?
Abraham Lincoln who knew more than his share of difficult times, has been quoted . . .
“There were many times when I was driven to my knees because I was overwhelmed by the conviction that I had no place else to go.”
This is pretty much the same conclusion that Peter has come to in the Gospel reading today . . .
This sixth chapter in John’s Gospel is pivotal. The chapter began with Jesus miraculously feeding the multitudes. And that sets up a long discussion of Jesus as the Bread of Life. At the end of this discussion Jesus makes the bold statement that “those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me.”
Now we know Jesus is not talking about cannibalism. We know that he is talking about the sacrament of Holy Eucharist. But for his first hearers it is obviously a startling and disturbing statement. And for many of them, they just can’t quite accept who Jesus is – who Jesus really is. They’re offended – they can’t get their minds around it – and they give it up. They turn away. . .
And Peter and Jesus’ other closest friends. What must they have been thinking? It seems that Peter must have been certain of his faith – but at that moment, not necessarily comfortable with it. That’s the difference: the life of faith, even sure faith, is not always comfortable. Sometimes the life of faith is filled with turmoil – doubts and testing. We’re left wondering why God put us where we are – wondering if God really loves us – maybe even wondering if there even is a God. And the question at this point: “Do we chose to turn away?”
Peter’s answers Jesus’ question: “Do you also wish to go away?” with another question. Where else was he to go? Once you recognize and know the Holy One of God, once you have come to place all your trust in that Holy One, where else can you go?
Peter’s answer demonstrates the meaning of faith. Faith means trust . . . loyalty . . . confidence. Faith is grounded in experience. Faith is built on a relationship with Jesus. It may not be always easy. We may not always want to stay and follow. But where else can we go?
The truth is: God is always present even when difficulties cloud our ability to understand – and suffering numbs our heart so that it’s hard to reach out to God in prayer.
Many times, I think the most immediate experience of the nearness of God comes to us in and through one another. Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic, said that Christ’s body is no longer on earth. Only our own – our own eyes, our hands, our heart, our feet – live out the compassion and presence of God in this world. So when you’re in a tough place, look for God in the person who comes to you , the one who sits next to you and listens with their heart when you need to pour out your suffering.
We experience God here together in this service – in prayer, in praise – in words and song – in sacrament . When we come to the Lord’s Table for the bread of life that never perishes, God is near. Remember that Jesus said, “Come unto me, all ye who travail and are heavy laden and I will refresh you.”
So if you came here today wanting to experience God, remember that God is right here – dwelling in us – among us.
“The Lord is near to the brokenhearted
and will save those whose spirits are crushed.” Amen.