Is God Asleep?

Mark 4:35-41

4:35 On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.”

4:36 And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him.

4:37 A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped.

4:38 But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?”

4:39 He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm.

4:40 He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”

4:41 And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”

A sermon preached on June 21, 2015 at The Church of Christ at Federal Way, Washington in response to the massacre of nine persons at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Many years ago now, I managed a homeless shelter for single men. In my time there I got to know a lot of unique men. One man was a veteran of the Vietnam War who never recovered from a divorce. Another was a man who was seriously injured at work and ended up losing everything. A third man got into a bar fight in his early twenties and seriously injured someone. He ended up serving many years in prison and moved into his mom’s garage upon his release. When she lost her home, he had no friends, no work experience, and a violent felony on his record. Helping this man find a job proved to be one of the most difficult things I’ve ever tried to do.

Another man I got to know was Frank. Frank was a short man with a big belly and a bald head who looked perpetually burnt by the southern California sun. Frank drove a medical supply truck. He entered the shelter fully employed. However, after a very messy divorce he found himself with no home. For awhile he slept in a church parking lot. The agreement he had with the pastor was that he could sleep there as long as he was gone before staff showed up for work during the week, and especially before congregants arrived before worship service on Sunday morning. Well, one morning he slept in and woke up to congregants stepping over him to get into the building. He wasn’t allowed to sleep at the church anymore.

Eventually, he found his way into our shelter. He kept driving and found another church. One day I came into the office to find Frank pulling pieces of a bible out of the trash and duct taping them back together. He told me that, in frustration, he had ripped it into pieces and thrown it away because someone at his new church told him he was homeless because he wasn’t praying hard enough or didn’t have enough faith. If he’d just believe more and pray more fervently, they said, God would give him a home. Well, if there was one thing Frank did, it was pray. He didn’t think it was possible to pray any harder than he already did. So, in a moment of frustration with God, he tore up his Bible, threw it in the trash, and made a vow to give up on God because God obviously wasn’t paying attention to him. He changed his mind in the morning, but that moment has stuck with me because anyone who takes seriously the promises of scripture must feel at times like God isn’t paying attention. Like God is asleep.

Frank felt like the disciples felt in that boat. Being tossed side to side; the waves coming over the sides of the ship. They were sure they were going to die, and where was Jesus? Asleep. How could God in the flesh be asleep in the middle of a storm? Have you ever been on a boat being tossed to and fro? Most of us haven’t, so imagine being on a rollercoaster. Can you imagine sleeping on a rollercoaster? Your hair being whipped around, your stomach flipped upside down, people screaming all around you? Impossible, right? Yet that’s what Jesus did.

Jesus was asleep. With the lives of his closest friends and followers at risk, Jesus was asleep. Eventually, after screaming and begging, Jesus heard the cries of the disciples. And he calmed the storm. And then he questioned their faith. Wasn’t the presence of Jesus, even if he was asleep, enough comfort? Wasn’t it enough assurance that there would be peace? No, it was not. The disciples wanted action, not presence. And aren’t we the same?

The world is a mess. This country is a mess. A violent, hate-filled, racist mess. It is also filled with classism, and ableism, and a whole lot of other –isms, but its original sin, racism, is still palpably present. Like many across the country, I have been mourning the terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina. If somehow you have not heard, a white supremacist terrorist walked into a historically Black church during a Wednesday night Bible study and opened fire killing nine people. He said he had to stop black people from “taking over the country,” and online searches have uncovered his desire to reinstate segregation, start a “race war,” and create a new apartheid state.We were told not too long ago that we live in a “post-racial” society. It is clear that we don’t.

We live at a time when black and brown people are disproportionately incarcerated, killed by the police, and impoverished. They have shorter life-spans, in large part due to these factors, and in recent years, in Christian churches and Sikh temples to name just two, they have been killed by white supremacists while worshipping. And the killer is not some old, dying breed. He is twenty-one, a new generation of American terrorist. Studies have shown that Millennials are just as racially prejudiced as Baby Boomers and Gen Xers. In short, while Jim Crow laws are no longer on the books, our prejudices, while not appropriate in polite company, are still quite alive and are still resulting in grave injustice and even death. This is our world. And it seems like God is asleep.

One would think that a church would be the first place that God would be awake. That in the midst of the prayers of God’s people God would be present and active. And yet, in the midst of that violence and chaos, people died and God did not calm the wind and the sea. Rather, the boat flipped over and people died.

I have spent many years studying genocide, crimes against humanity, and other horrible instances of human violence and injustice. Sadly, I have never run out of material. There is always another case study, always some new atrocity happening in the world. People make sense of these horrific events in different ways, but one response that is common across nearly all of them is a reshaping of peoples’ theology. God as wonder-worker is hard to believe after the death of a child. God as deliverer is questioned after enslavement. God as all-powerful makes no sense after genocide. A God who sleeps, though, seems to fit.

How are we to make sense of this God who sleeps? Jesus implied that worrying about God’s seeming lack of activity was evidence of a lack of belief. Are we not to care that there are times when our lives, when the world, seems out of control? Does it not seem inappropriate for God to sleep in times of trouble? Can a sleeping God be worthy of worship?

These are hard questions, but they are not to be avoided because they are hard. Indeed, they are the kinds of questions Jesus eventually had to ask. On the cross, facing death and abandonment, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

The Christian tradition has had a hard time making sense of this cry of Jesus. In my opinion, few accounts have made full sense of God crying out to God about God’s abandonment of God. It is a moment that will always remain a mystery to human beings on earth. And that is fine, God should remain more of a mystery than we sometimes allow.

However, one thing we learn from this petition of Jesus is that Jesus too felt like God fell asleep. Jesus felt abandoned by a God he entrusted with his life. And Jesus, like the disciples, did all that he knew to do in his humanity. He screamed. He cried to the only one who could save him. But unlike the disciples, he wasn’t saved. He died that day. God died that day.

God knows suffering and God knows death. Indeed, God knows what it means to be murdered. God was present at Golgotha and God was present at Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. But God wasn’t present in the way that we often assume. God wasn’t present in power or glory or miracles. No, God wasn’t present in shekinah glory or in tongues of fire. Rather, God was present in death and violence and hatred and injustice for that is where God has always been present. Not always overcoming death, though there are times where this has happened, but enduring all the death and violence and hatred and injustice that humanity can dish out. What we learn from the life of Jesus is that God is present among the least, the lowly, and the crucified. Not only is God present there, but God takes on the suffering and violence and death that humanity invents into God’s own life.

It is not that God sleeps. Rather, it is that God endures. God endures the always present reality of humans killing other humans. God bears it on God’s own body, in God’s own self, and promises to transfigure it in the resurrection. In the meantime, God is present though not how we’d often wish.

This theology of God’s presence will call many of us to reevaluate our own understanding of God’s way in the world, but the massacre of God’s children in God’s house should make us reevaluate our theological commitments if they cannot make sense of such an atrocity. And let me tell you now that overly triumphalistic theologies cannot make sense of such an atrocity without causing any thinking person to tear up their bible and throw it in the trash. You see, Frank didn’t tape his bible back together because he was wrong to be angry at the God his fellow congregant told him about. Rather, he remembered that the God of Jesus is the one who is present with him in his troubles rather than the one who punished him for not praying hard enough.

So, to those whose lives are in a storm, and to those who have the eyes to see that the world is out of joint, know that God suffers with you. I cannot promise that God will provide a miracle, though it has happened many times before, but I can promise you that God is present in your suffering and bears it alongside you. God is not indifferent, God is not asleep on the watch. No, God bears the weight of the world alongside you. Indeed, God is most present in those places where suffering is present. It is why Jesus said that whatever one does for the least one has done for him. Specifically, Jesus said that God is present as the prisoner and the hungry person. God is homeless, and God is dying, and on Wednesday in Charleston, South Carolina God was Black and killed in the name of white supremacist ideology.

And to those who find themselves on solid land. You do not feel as if you are in a boat being tossed to and fro. You are healthy, your family is healthy, and you are free from the murderous scourge of racism that permeates our world – you are called to imitate Christ. Be present amidst suffering, stand in solidarity with the marginalized, and bear in your own life and body that which others are forced to bear by no decision of their own. Do not sleep. Stay awake. And do not forsake your sisters and brothers dying violent deaths or those experiencing the slow, steady, dehumanizing indignities of life in a racist society.

If we cannot even name this as true, if we deny the particular brokenness of our time and place in the world, then we will be unable to accurately identify those with whom we are called to suffer. We will be unable to identify the injustices that God calls us to address. We will cross the street into communities where God is not most present. And we won’t discover the kingdom of God. But if we do find it within ourselves to name evil when we see it and stand in solidarity with those who suffer it most directly, we may find ourselves closer to God than we’ve ever been. And it will change our lives forever. And we will be a new creation.

James McCarty III

About James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

James McCarty III

James McCarty III

Dr. James W. McCarty III is co-founder and editor of Symposium Ethics. He is Campus Minister for Social Justice and an adjunct professor at Seattle University. He has published widely on the ethics of reconciliation, peacebuilding, transitional justice, and racial justice.

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