Vespers in the Garden – 24 June 2012


During the summer at Grace UMC in Newburgh, we hold a short worship service on Fridays and Sundays at 7.  After running and coordinating this ministry for the past three years, I have turned it over to another Lay Speaker, George Love of Trinity UMP in Newburgh.  George has a calling for this type of open ministry and he has truly grown with this ministry.  Please keep George in your prayers as well as all of those who come to the Vespers.

The following are my thoughts on the theme “Our Weakness and God’s Strength”.  I used 2 Corinthians 5: 18 – 6: 2 and Mark 4: 35- 41 as the Scripture readings.

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And the winds came and the boat rocked and the disciples were afraid and not just afraid but afraid that they were going to die.  Perhaps I am putting too much into this reading from Mark but it is noted somewhere that the Sea of Galilee was not a quiet little lake but rather susceptible to quick and violent storms that could easily sink small fishing boats.  And as fisherman, Peter, Andrew, James and John had probably encountered such storms and well aware of what they could do.  So, if they were scared, they had good reason to be scared.  Of course, it didn’t help the disciples’ state of mind that Jesus was over in the corner sound asleep.

We would probably feel the same way if we were on a boat going through the narrow passage on the Hudson below Bannerman’s Island and a sudden storm were to come up.

The timelessness of the Gospel is illustrated in this passage.  We wait until the storms of life arise and raging all around us before we seek Christ.  And we get upset when it seems as if He does not seem to care or is aware of our problems.

Of course, He is well aware of what is happening to us but we are so busy in this world trying to solve problems by ourselves that we do not see Him standing next to us.  Ours is a society in which all of answers seemingly come from this world.  We only turn to God when we seek answers that are the ultimate points of life – the source of meaning, the place of guilt in our lives and at the frontier of death.

But if God only appears to us at the extremities of life, when we are at our lowest and He cannot be found in the midst of life when we are strong, what manner of God is God?

What good is any god that waits until we are cornered and in trouble but of otherwise no earthly use?  If this god of the universe is only there at the beginning and the end, what good is he?  Wouldn’t it be better to find our answers somewhere else, in the manner and shape of the world around us?

What we are discovering is that the important answers cannot necessarily be found in the world.  We cannot simply brush aside the bad things and evil in this world nor can we simply find the answer to guilt in some psychological evaluation.  And in choosing death as the end and inevitable, we find ourselves still searching for meaning in this world.

We all know the opening words to Ecclesiastes 3, “to everything there is a season”.  Our lives, though, are expressed in verses 9 – 13, when the Preacher wrote,

But in the end, does it really make a difference what anyone does? I’ve had a good look at what God has given us to do—busywork, mostly. True, God made everything beautiful in itself and in its time—but he’s left us in the dark, so we can never know what God is up to, whether he’s coming or going. I’ve decided that there’s nothing better to do than go ahead and have a good time and get the most we can out of life. That’s it—eat, drink, and make the most of your job. It’s God’s gift.

And our lives end and we wonder what happened.  We hope that there will be time, as there was for the penitent thief, to repent of our ways and received God’s mercy.  But too often we are like the other thief crucified alongside Jesus who mocked Him.

The problem is that we may not know when our time will come and we will not have the opportunity to repent and ask for forgiveness.  Remember the story that Jesus told about the rich man who died and was thrown in Sheol?

All his life, the rich man had thought that he would be going to heaven; after all, he was a rich man and the rich only gain their wealth if they lead a righteous life.  But he had ignored Lazarus, the beggar who sat outside his house begging for food and mercy.

I am constantly drawn to the works and writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the theologian who gave up a safe and secure life in America to fight the horrors of Nazi Germany and who died some three weeks before the concentration camp in which he was housed was liberated.

We can be like the rich man, expecting that our richness and good life will be the keys to opening the doors of heaven.  But as Paul pointed out, it is not what is on the outside that tells the story.  The outside is what Bonhoeffer called “religious clothing” and it caused him great uneasiness.

Bonhoeffer would write,

I often ask myself why a Christian instinct frequently draws me more to the religionless man than to the religious, by which I mean not with any intention of evangelizing them, but rather, I might almost say, in ‘brotherhood’.  While I often shrink with religious people from speaking of God by name – because that Name somehow seems to me here not to ring true, and I strike myself as rather dishonest (it is especially bad when others start talking in religious jargon: then I dry up completely and feel somehow oppressed and ill at ease) – with people who have no religion I am able on occasion to speak of God quite openly and as it were naturally.  Religious people speak of God when human perception is (often just from laziness) at an end, or human resources fail: it is really always the Deux ex machina they call to their aid, either for the so-called solving of insoluble problems or as support in human failure – always, that is to say, helping out human weakness or at the borders of human existence.

Bonhoeffer insisted that to be a Christian was not be religious but human.  To be truly human is to be open to the full breadth of the human existence that Christ revealed.  But the Christian way demands real tension with the way of the world; a tension revealed in the Cross of Christ.

The trouble is that discipleship means an estrangement from the world.  It also leads to attempting to acquiring faith by leading a holy life.  It was the same thing that John Wesley tried to do – lead a holy life in hopes that it would gain him the faith that he sought.

For Bonhoeffer, the attempt to keep the church and the world apart lead to the church’s acquiescence of the false worldly values of Hitlerism.  So Bonhoeffer thought a non-religious life was more genuine because it was the life revealed to us in Christ.  In Christ we see God not as the omnipotent one standing outside the world, a God of the religious world as a separate realm but rather a God coming to us in weakness and suffering and allowing Christ to be edged out of life on to the cross.

When we see God as something that we can put in the closet or on the shelf, to bring out only when we need Him, we fall into the trap that is this world.  We must see God not as a God who waits for us at the edges of our lifes in our weakness and extremity but as the Lord who comes to us in the midst of the secular life at points of our confidence and strength as well as the points of weakness.  It is a life that transcends our ordinary life because it is a life that is wholly ‘for others’.

Paul will write to the Corinthians that the life in Christ that they seek will not always be an easy one.  And while Jesus can calm the waters, it doesn’t mean that the problems of the world will go away.  But the world around is is not easy, when the way of the world gets tough, Jesus will be right there with us.

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