The Sixth Sunday of Easter
May 21, 2017
The Rev. Austin K. Rios
St. Paul’s Within the Walls
Recently I watched the Martin Scorsese film, Silence, a powerful and haunting tale which explores faith through the lives of converts and missionaries in 17th century Japan.
It is not a movie for the faint of heart or stomach, as it documents the tortures that Japanese Christians and their European missionary priests suffered at the hands of the ruling shogunate.
Some of the scenes are terrible and serve as horrific examples of how we humans can use our intelligence to hurt each other.
But it was during the midst of one of these excruciating scenes where the beauty of the film emerged, when the main character, a Jesuit priest named Rodrigues, wrestles with the foundational questions of his faith.
Where God can be in all this suffering? he asks.
Why does God not simply appear and end the torture of the faithful? How can God remain silent in the face of such evil?
If you have been living your faith for a significant amount of time and with a significant attention to it beyond the level of superficialities, then no doubt you too have been faced with such questions.
Where was God when my father died?
How could I pray so hard for God to hear my prayers and respond to this situation, and yet be met with only silence?
Our contemporary world has little patience for what it views as God’s absence, and that weariness, along with mounting stories of the painful human abuses and failings that have sullied the institution of the Church, have aligned to produce a generation of convinced secular doubters…a bevy of believers whose faith is based upon a world where God does not act nor exists.
Ardent defenders of Christianity, or at least some forms of Christianity, have railed against this trend and set themselves as God’s defenders, choosing to attack all aspects of culture that support such a view, while advocating for God’s central place in our world.
While I would agree with them that God is indeed in the midst of us and exists, I often question whether their combative tactics and strategies are beneficial for “the cause” or whether they further drive away those teetering on the edge of what to believe.
Today’s Gospel is a farewell narrative, in which Jesus is preparing his closest followers for just such a world.
He is doing his best to let them know that the kingdom he has come to proclaim will not be as apparent or easily graspable as the reigns and realms of this world in which we live.
Instead of being presented with all the answers and a concrete road map to the halls of salvation, his followers will have to constantly be dedicated to a journey of self-discovery and questioning, to acts of humility and service, and to a gracious and enigmatic exploration of the world around them.
Jesus promises them that they will not be orphaned…and says that though the world will soon be unable to see him, they will indeed be able to see him.
“They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
This is a promise that will be tested over and over again, and it forms the heart of the crucial questions in the film Silence.
What commandments are we called to have and keep in order to love God and consequently see God?
Could it be rigorously observing the tenets of the law, or going to church every Sunday, or serving as a missionary and converting people for Christ, or making sure Christianity is defended in the public square?
Are the commandments of God something clear and transmittable, like a set of 10 laws written on tablets of stone, or a catechism, or defined set of spiritual practices?
The Jesuit priest in the movie Silence, discovers that the law of love demands more of him than the rules that undergird his missionary fervor or his core religious practices.
The law of love causes him to sacrifice that which is most dear to him, in order that his neighbors might live.
And it is only when he yokes himself to that very costly, and very counter-intuitive law, that the silence is broken and he hears God, and sees where God has been in the midst of all that torture, suffering and hardship.
I’ll leave the details of that revelation to those of you who choose to watch the film, but suffice it to say that it does not come about in the way he ever anticipated or hoped it would.
Which I don’t think is too different from the way our own understanding of where God is at work in this world and in our lives comes about, should we be bold enough to pose the question from a place of genuine openness to unexpected answers.
My own life has been a series of meditations on God’s eternal proximity and faithfulness, even though that presence has not kept me from suffering, from sadness or from pain.
I have felt closer and further away from God at various points in my life…have been passionate about my place in this body and defeated in my defense of it…have known the healing balm of our Savior’s touch and looked longingly into the silent dark void and heard only the echoes of my own cries.
My faith and hope and trust rest in Jesus’ promise that he will not leave us orphaned and that because he lives, we live.
And God indeed is revealed to those who love God, even though the revelation may not always arrive in the manner in which we expect.
I know this because I have witnessed it in my own life, and because once this Easter promise becomes true for you, nothing in this world can ever take it away.
God has never spoken to me out of a cloud, or appeared to me like God did to Moses on Mount Sinai.
But God has been revealed to me in the breaking of bread, in the eyes of guests in the Joel Nafuma Refugee Center, in the gentle touch of a stranger reaching out to comfort me in the midst of trials, and in the sound of the wind carrying away the drying leaves of fall.
Faith in God has not always made my life easier, nor simpler, but it most certainly has made my life richer and full of the moments and assurances that make life worth living.
If you are struggling today dear friends, take heart and be encouraged.
Our God was no stranger to such struggle, but certainly does not desire the suffering of his servants.
Instead, I believe God wants us to love beyond our current capabilities, and offers us the hope that suffering or not, God will be our companion (will literally break bread with us) and will be revealed to us along the journey.
Be on the lookout for those glimpses my brothers and sisters.
Keep watch and listen deeply even to the silence.
For it is in such silences and in the most ordinary moments of our daily lives, where the ever-present companion God is being revealed to us.