(a sermon by Mark Parent)
(delivered at the Pereaux Baptist Church)
(June 24, 2012)
Our Gospel lesson this morning focuses on the theme of trust or lack of trust by the disciples. I confess, since confession they say is good for the soul, that in a perverse way I am cheered by this passage and by the disciple’s lack of trust. You see, in spite of being an ordained minister, I have a hard time trusting in God. In part, I blame this on the fact that for the first six months of my life I was raised in a foster home where, according to my mother who adopted me, I was abused and neglected.
Erik Erikson, a German psychologist who expanded on the work of Sigmund Freud, postulated that we human beings go through eight stages in life, each with its special challenge which we learn either to resolve in a negative or a positive manner. The first stage lasts from birth to one year of age and it is stage where we learn either to trust or to mistrust our environment. If, as in my case, one learns to mistrust one’s environment and the people around you then Erikson claims that for the rest of our life such individuals struggle with issues of trust.
Of course, all this is just speculation and I, for one, can find much more immediate reasons why I find it so hard to trust God. Let me focus on just two.
To begin with, the mills of God, as the poet Henry Wadsforth Longfellow phrased it, grind ever so slowly. The Apostle Peter writes, basing his words on Psalm 90, that “in the Lord’s sight one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day.” Peter uses these words to comfort his readers and to encourage them to continue in their faith. But to be truthful such comfort seems so inadequate, so weak, like the warmth of the sun when it is obscured by a blanket of fog.
Is it really any use to me, I ask, whose life span is measured in multiples of ten, to have trust in a God who operates in multiples of a hundred?
Of course, I realize that the difficulty I have in trusting such a God is exacerbated by my own impulsiveness, an impulsiveness which makes it hard for me to be patient for even a few hours much less a few days. Surely one of the benefits of growing older is that as our time grows shorter paradoxically our patience grows a little longer. In the Cat Steven’s song “Father and Son” there is a compelling interplay between an impulsive son who’s got to have it all, and have it today, and his father who counsels him to take life slowly and to realize that impulsive action is often inferior to calm patience.
But even though we need to learn to be much more patient than we are conditioned to be, how can we possibly be patient with a God who treats a thousand years as a day? Who can be content with the promise of hope within a span of such length that when it is complete we are dead and gone and even the memory of the memories of those who knew us has passed like a prairie fire across the landscape of life and vanished?
Who can trust in a God who acts and responds so slowly? As the wag once put it, I know the story will end in God’s glory but as present the other side’s winning.
This is the first reason why I find it so difficult to trust in God and the second reason is this, God’s ways are inscrutable. The author of the book of Proverbs writes about four things which are incomprehensible to him: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a maiden. But there is a fifth thing even more puzzling than these four and that is the way of God within this world of ours.
Theologians have, naturally enough, tried to turn this inscrutability of God into a positive rather than a negative feature. The silver tongued preacher of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, once declared, “a comprehended God is no God, which prompted Ronald Knox to write this small poem:
O God, for as much as without Thee
We are not enabled to doubt Thee,
Help us all by Thy grace
To convince the whole race
It knows nothing whatever about Thee.
But while it is most certainly true that a comprehended God is no God, it is also true that an incomprehensible God is a terribly frustrating God. And, if we are honest, God and God’s way in this world and within our own lives seems at times to be so terribly incomprehensible. As Paul asks in the book of Romans, “who has known the mind of God, or who has been God’s counselor?”
A young boy leaned over the crib of his baby brother and said, “tell me quick little brother before you forget, what does God look like?” But, you see, this really isn’t the haunting question within life. The haunting question is this – “what does God act like?”
In this regard, one of my favorite scripture passages is contained within Paul’s famous letter on love where he writes these words, “for now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.”
There are some days, I confess, when it is all that I can do to hold on to even the smallest degree of trust in God and in God’s will in my life; some days when Paul’s words are my only lifeline to faith, “now I know in part, then I shall understand fully.”
But even though I find it hard to trust in God, I know that I must trust God if for no other reason than that I have no choice. If God exists, than the most important thing in life is to trust God and seek to serve God.
Such an assertion is terribly hard for us proud westerners to stomach. You see, we think we can depend on our own ingenuity, on our technology, on our wealth or if we trust in God it is a God fashioned in our own image, open to our manipulation and control. We conceive of God as some sort of gigantic computer that if we input the right data we will obtain the right answer or guarantee the right behavior.
Some years ago now I went through a rather hellish time where I lost my faith in God’s existence. God seemed to me all like a great big lie that we human beings give our consent to because we can’t face the terror of life without someone somewhere, looking after the good, reproving the bad, and guaranteeing the ongoing life of the dead.
Many Christian friends offered condolences and sympathy and kind words, but one friend was not so comforting, although in in the end far more helpful. When I moaned out that I no longer believed in God, this friend rather sharply replied, “do you really think God cares whether you believe in Him or not? Do you really think it makes any difference at all to God?”
I mumbled out something about how, of course it didn’t matter to God but it certainly mattered to me. But the moment I realized that my doubts and lack of trust didn’t mean that God did or did not exist was also the moment that I realized that I still had faith in God, if you can follow such convoluted logic as this.
In this regard, I think of the Apostle Paul who when asked by Jesus if he too would abandon him replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you alone have the words of eternal life.” Similarly, to whom shall we go if not God? Do we put our ultimate trust in Stephen Harper, in Barak Obama, in global corporations? No, there is nowhere else to go, no one else to trust but God and God alone.
Of course the most important reason to trust in God is not because we have no other choice but rather because trusting in God and God’s will is the best choice for the living of our lives.
The tapestry of life is too involved, too intertwined for us to think that our limited and fallible wills can do all the weaving. We can do a small part, I will not deny this, but only God can weave together the whole.
Blaise Pascal in one of his Pensees writes about the power of a small thing such as a fly which can win battles, eat our bodies, stop our souls from acting.
And how true this is. A soldier in battle jerks his head because a mosquito bites him and because he jerks his head at just the right moment a bullet narrowly misses hitting him. A mother and child at a cottage decide that the black flies are too much for them and so they proceed to go home, they get into the car and onto the road right at the time that a drunk driver has taken the wheel of his car and is driving towards them along the same highway.
And if such a small thing as a fly can so drastically change the course of our lives for the better or for the worse how about the more important things of life? How about the passions, the desires, the pride, the anger, the love which moves us to do this or that and in doing this or that changes everything?
We would have to be incredibly naive, or insufferably self-centered to believe that our wills can possible arrange the dramas of our lives better than God can do it.
In the Old Testament when God finally answers Job, God does not explain why Job has suffered the loss of family, friends, fortune and health. But instead challenges Job by asking:
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
who determined its measurements — surely you know!
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together,
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?
When we come to realize that our perspectives are so incredibly limited, it is then, that we are driven to confess, to admit that God’s will and not ours is the best choice and it is better to trust God rather than our own limited ingenuity and insight.
In an autobiographical novel entitled Report to Creco, Nikos Kanzantzakis tells of an earnest young man who visited a saintly old monk on a remote island. He asked him, “Do you still wrestle with the devil, Father? To which the monk replied, “Not any longer, my child. I have grown old, and he has grown old with me. He no longer has the strength. Now I wrestle with God.” “With God!” exclaimed the young man with astonishment. “Do you hope to win?” “Oh, no my son,” came the reply, “I hope to lose.”
To trust in God with all our hearts is not to sit passively in the corner, resigned to what life has to offer to us or to withhold from us. It is to wrestle with all our heart and soul and mind with God, to wrestle to win. And yet, if we know what is best for us, it is to hope to lose, to hope that God’s Will, not our will, will be done on earth as it is in heaven. To hope that God’s Will, not our will, will have its way in our homes, our churches, our communities, our world.
Above all it is to hope that God’s Will, not our will, to paraphrase William Butler Yeats, will have its way in that place where all faith must start, “in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the [human] heart.”
A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat, so that the boat was already being swamped. 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?” 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. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” 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?”