God is always with us, even in our most terrible suffering

by Thomas Gumbleton

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Every week, if we listen deeply enough, the Scripture lessons speak to us about things that are happening in our daily lives, in our world around us. But sometimes it seems even extraordinary how directly the Scriptures speak to us about what has been happening in our world and in our lives. I don't know if Pope Francis planned this -- I doubt it, but it's so amazing that this week when he published that encyclical letter about the planet and what's happening to it and all of creation, that now on this Sunday, we have a passage from the book of Job, which calls us, challenges us to think deeply about creation.

Twelfth Sunday in Ordinary Time
Job 38:1, 8-11
Psalms 107:23-24, 25-26, 28-29, 30-31
2 Corinthians 5:14-17
Luke 7:16
Full text of the readings

As I mentioned in the introduction, Job had been arguing with God: "Why did this happen to me -- all this suffering?" He wants answers, and God, being God, has no need to give answers. It isn't that God doesn't love him, but God is trying to bring him through that suffering to some new reality of relationship with God. God speaks to Job about creation and makes it clear how Job had no idea in the deepest sense of [who] God is.

God answered Job out of the storm: "I will question you, and you must answer. Where were you when I founded the earth? Answer and show me your knowledge. Do you know who determined its size? Who stretched out its measuring line? Who shut the sea behind closed doors when it burst forth from the womb, when I made the clouds its garment, when I set its limits? Have you ever commanded the morning or shown the dawn its place that it might grasp the earth by its edges? Have you journeyed to where the sea begins or walked in its deepest recesses?"

This goes on for a whole chapter where God is pointing out that out of nothingness, God drew forth all that there is. Of course, in the book of Job, it's put in a way of expressing the cosmology that they understood about the world, but now we know even more about the world, our planet. It's only a tiny, tiny part of the huge universe that started billions of years ago and is still expanding. All of the universe continues to evolve, and it's all out of the initiative of God, God's love drawing forth into existence all that there is, even all of us.

That's a mystery that we need to reflect on frequently so that we understand, as Job came to understand, our relationship with God. God has loved us into being and constantly supports us every instant that we exist out of love. This week, Pope Francis has reminded us how we have taken this planet and literally abused it. There are so many things that are going wrong, and that's because we haven't respected and loved and cherished the creation that God has given to us.

I truly hope that when it becomes available, all of us will read this encyclical because it calls us to an awareness to God's goodness, of God's power, of God's being with us at every instant, and also challenges us to do what we can as individuals and as a community -- a human family to do what we can to repair our planet, prevent it from being destroyed, and do it before it becomes too late that irreversible things will begin to happen that we won't be able to change.

It's a very clear challenge to us, to the whole human family, that we must work together and appreciate this gift -- this wonderful, wondrous, amazing gift of creation that we take for granted, just hardly ever thinking about how God has drawn all of this into being and continues to develop our universe and draws all of us ever more deeply into God's life. There is much that we can learn if we take the time to pray, to think about this passage in the Book of Job that the creation is just an utter gift of God's love that we must cherish and nurture.

But then also -- and as I say, I don't know if Francis planned it that way -- this first reading today really draws us to think about all that Francis has developed in his teaching letter. Then also the Gospel today, the Gospel speaks to us about something else that just happened this past week, and that's that terrible tragedy in South Carolina -- the killing of nine innocent people gathered together for Bible study.

It's almost unbelievable that this kind of thing keeps happening in our nation. I'm sure that those people at Emanuel AME Church struggle to understand, Why did this happen to us? If they look at the Gospel, and if all of us look at the Gospel today, we discover a very important teaching. Often in our Scriptures, turmoil and distress and even kind of chaotic happenings in our lives are described as "being in the midst of a storm."

That's why Mark put this in the Gospel. He was writing at a time when the church for which he was writing was in a terrible storm. They were suffering because first of all, the war that had taken place or where there had been an uprising, the Roman soldiers came in, destroyed Jerusalem, killed thousands of people, and drove them out. But then also there was a continuing persecution. This would be during the time of the Emperor Nero.

Those first Christians were struggling to understand, "What's happened? Where is God? Why are we having this kind of suffering, this chaos in our lives?" Mark tells the story about the storm on the lake where those first disciples were so upset, and they chide Jesus, rebuke him almost, "Why are you sleeping? We're going to perish! Don't you care?" What Mark tells us through the story: Yes, of course Jesus cares, and Jesus does rebuke the storm, calms the sea. Everything's OK.

But the deeper lesson is Jesus/God is always with us in the midst of our worst troubles, the most terrible sufferings that we could endure, Jesus is there to be with us. I think as I look back on what happened this past week, that those people in South Carolina from that church give us an inspiring example of people who suffered unbelievably, cruelly, a kind of terrorism, really. A person gets up in the church and begins to kill people. What was their response?

I don't know if you had the chance to hear, or see it, or read about it, but when he was brought into court for arraignment, the families of those who had been killed had a chance to speak to him. It was through closed-circuit television, but a number of them spoke about how in spite of what he had done, they loved him and they forgave him. To me that seems almost impossible that they could immediately love and forgive the very one who did it.

When I think about it and wonder how people could do it, I remember (as all of us do, I think) how Jesus acted in the face of violence, cruelty, pain being inflicted upon him, especially in two circumstances: Judas and Peter. Judas in the garden when he comes up to Jesus to have him arrested, he comes with a mob of people with swords and clubs, and what does Jesus do? He walks up to Judas, embraces him, and says, "Why have you come?" He's trying to draw Judas back. He's forgiving Judas. Judas walks away.

Later on, Peter, who had been so bold about "I'll never deny you," denies him three times. Then Jesus looks at him across the courtyard, and Peter and Jesus exchange a deep glance of love. Peter goes away and weeps. He's forgiven, and he's reconciled. If you notice the difference (and to me, this is so hard): When Peter weeps, there is a connection. If you saw that young man in jail, there was no exchange of expression on his face. It's like he was totally indifferent to the people who were loving him and forgiving him.

That makes it very hard to forgive when there's no response. But Jesus did it, and these people last week did it. I think there's an extraordinary lesson for all of us in the way the people of South Carolina responded. Whenever there are difficulties in our lives, sufferings, violence in our society and it seems to happen so much, what's in my heart? Is it a spirit of forgiveness and of love for the one who does the terrible thing?

Or is it a spirit of vengeance that will only continue to promote the violence that has been perpetrated; it will beget more violence. There are many that are calling for that, but if we follow Jesus, follow the people of Emanuel AME Church and their following of Jesus, we could begin to change what's happening. We have to, and obviously these people in South Carolina in that Christian church were aware that God and Jesus [are] with them, and out of the strength of Jesus, they were able to do what they did.

As St. Paul put it in our second lesson, "The love of Jesus impels me," and that's what impelled those people. We have to try to nurture an awareness of Jesus being present to us in every circumstance of our life -- not only being present, but pouring forth God's love upon us. Let that love of God in Jesus impel us to reach out to others in love even in the most terrible circumstances of hate and violence. When we are able to do that more and more, each of us will be changed and gradually will rid our society of the violence that seems to overwhelm us.

[Homily given at St. Ann Catholic Church in Frankfort, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]

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