Year C, Epiphany 6
February 17, 2019
The Reverend Dr. Brent Was
“Blessed are those who trust in the Lord, whose trust is the Lord.” On the other hand, “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the Lord.”
Last week we heard about the call of Peter and about how that encounter described a pattern of how humans beings can come to trust in God. First we must listen to God. We must realize that reluctance to follow is natural. Following God is usually scary, and is often unpleasant if not downright dangerous. We need to obey God’s will when revealed. Humility is a natural reaction to an encounter with the holy. And lastly, we must throw down our nets and follow, lay aside the encumbrances of, attachments to this life and put our own skin in the game. Everything is up to God, our human efforts amount to very little, and we must trust in that. We must trust in God just like Peter did, drop everything and follow Jesus down the beach.
Today let’s talk about how we trust in God. But before we get to trusting, what does it even mean when we say “it is up to God?” We say that all the time, “It’s in God’s hands!” “God willing!” Does that mean God chooses, there is some will akin to our will that chooses “That one gets polio.” “That one gets good teeth.” “That one is able to feel her mother’s love truly and deeply in her heart.” “That one gets a taste for meth.” Is that how we understand God? Dispensing blessings and curses? Maybe based on those who deserve it? Maybe randomly?
Some think so, that God actively blesses the deserving and curses the undeserving. And it certainly it feels that way sometimes. We feel lucky, blessed. A very good thing happens to someone who (in our humble opinion) deserves it. (And its converse comeuppance, or as a Buddhist of mine friend says it karmuppance, the wages of sin, just desserts for the wicked). It is natural for us to ascribe to God credit for blessings and curses. “Thank God” or “Thanks be to God!” How many times have you said that or something similar and meant it?
But in thinking more closely, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. If God gets credit for the good, for the blessings, shouldn’t God also get credit for the bad, the curses and woes? Bad things happen to good people all the time. (And very good things happen to very bad people, again, all the time). The rain falls on the good and the evil. Did God want those children at Parkland to die? Or those particular warehouse workers in Aurora on Friday? Goodness gracious no. That was not God’s will. Not the God I believe in. That is not the Gospel that I preach. Describing God’s action in our lives as some kind conscious choice by a fickle deity is bad theology. It is certainly not biblical theology. Our God didn’t will them to die, or the shooter to shoot, or the families to groan under the weight of overwhelming grief. Our God breaks with them. Our God weeps with them all and holds out warm, familiar arms to catch the broken on their headlong plunge into the pit of despair.
I don’t understand God to be moving us around on some eternal chessboard, destining some for good, some for ill; be it according to human effort or base worthiness, by pre-destination or by grace alone. How could you have faith in a God like that? That is not who Jesus called Abba, Papa.
When we say “It is up to God,” or “It is in God’s hands,” or “God willing,” what we are properly saying is that it is a mystery. It is beyond our doing or wishing or understanding. There is nothing we can do about most of what happens in our lives, in the world. And it is not that everything is going to be fine. Not everything is going to be fine. Disappointment happens, and suffering. Evil exists, horrendous evil. Each of us has felt tragedy. In the end we all will decline from sickness unto death. Those facts of life require our lamentation, demand our grief and grieving. It is hard to have the broken hearts we all have sometimes. That is just the way it is. And the sun will rise tomorrow. And the rains (or the sun in our case) will return, some day. Life will triumph over death. Most broken hearts will heal, at least enough to keep on living. We know this by faith. Resurrection will happen. That is what it means to trust in God. To trust that life triumphs, that resurrection will happen. Resurrection didn’t make up for the horror of the Passion, but the horror of the Passions did not keep resurrection from happening. The arc of the universe is long and it bends towards justice. And Life. And Love. It bends towards God. And God gets the last word. That is one way of understanding what it means to say it is up to God..
Everything is up to God. Now if our fate is shrouded in a Divine Mystery, and it will eventually land us all in the grave with maybe a few providential cookies along the way, how do we go about trusting that? Seriously, what’s to trust? What does it mean to trust God? It doesn’t mean that we trust that what happens in the world is God’s will. God doesn’t will horrendous evil to happen, or innocents to die, or climates to change (or not change or change back). Trusting God doesn’t mean accepting that the goings on in the world are as they is supposed to be. Far too much of it is precisely opposite from how it is supposed to be. It is supposed to be harmony and balance and love. And it often is, but it often is not.
Trusting in God is unrelated to personal outcome. That is the first major shift in thinking we need to make. That is huge. To trust in God is not to trust that everything in your life is going to be fine, that is it going to work out as you hope it does, or in some way favorable to you. It is not about you. That is not how it seems to be if we read the Bible or look back in history or in our own lives. God’s business is not making things work out in the faithful’s favor. It is about the Creation, all that is seen and unseen, the cosmic balance, the conservation of mass and energy. It is about all in which we live an move and have our being. It is about God in Christ with the Holy Spirit. It is about Everything.
There was this crusty old priest I knew who preached in 2004 as the Red Sox were on their miraculous run to the world series. And he conceded (from a pulpit in Boston no less), that it was not appropriate to pray for the Red Sox to win. That is just not how it works. But there had been a problem around some umpire’s call that changed or nearly changed the course of one game. In this he observed that it was completely appropriate to pray for good officiating. See, trusting God is not a personal matter, it is not individual, it must be universal.
Trusting God is about knowing what I said above. The sun will rise tomorrow. Life will continue and will triumph. Maybe not to our liking, not to our plans. Maybe not our lives, or the lives of those we love, or even of a form of live we recognize or value, but life universal will triumph. Resurrection will happen. Trusting God is not about trusting things to work out for us, individually, or communally for that matter. That math doesn’t work. Trust in God is trusting that it will work out universally. There couldn’t be better news, really, but that message can be hard to treasure, can be hard to seek solace in. But there is hope… there is always hope.
The Hope, the Christian Hope in this message is two-fold. First, universally all will be well, all will be well, every manner of thing will be well. That is our hope and is God’s promise to us. We are puny and cannot see as God sees, which is everything, but by the time we get to the Omega, the Fullness of Time, it will be well. If we are able to accept that life is as it is, will be as it will be, there is great equanimity in that. Immense peace. Now we must not settle for suffering needlessly, for enduring injustice until our final reward, certainly not, that was Marx’s critique. Just the opposite, however, is true. Trust in God like this, the universal trust in the base Goodness and Good Will of the Creator and the Creation is what drove Dr. King and St. Oscar Romero and all the anonymous saints of peace and justice and Jesus Himself to the cross for the sake of others. Trust in God isthe peace of God that surpasses all understanding. Some might say that is some Zen twist of logic, but it is not, it is as Christian as can be.
There is another aspect of our hope and God’s promise: we are not alone. That no matter what happens, no matter how profound the suffering, no matter if you lose it, all of it: control, your mind, your life, everything, no matter what, God is there. You are not adrift in the universe or your empty house or in the cacophony of voices or memories in your head. God is always with you. Jesus, our broken Divine Ruler of Everything: He is with you. You. The Spirit of Life itself is part and parcel of you, your very being. The Holy Trinity of God is in your heart, giving the blessed assurance that you do not, have not, will not live in vain, but are loved to the moon and back by the foundation of existence itself. As a hen tenderly gathers her chicks, God gathers you to the breast and nurses you back to health, no matter what. We can trust God to do that. That is something to hope for indeed.
So are you following me? By trusting in God, we mean not only that we rest into That Which Is, Abba, God, assured that life triumphs, and that we are not alone, that we, all of this, has meaning, is loved, is bound together in and by and for love… in and by and for God.
But what about these blessings and curses in Jerimiah and Luke? Isn’t that the opposite of everything above? God blesses some and curses others; some kind of consequences are implied. Isn’t that kind of quid pro quo-y? “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals… Blessed are those that trust in the Lord.” Or from Luke, “Blessed are you who are poor… who are hungry now… who weep… Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.” And woe to you on the other side of the equation: the rich, the full, the laughing, the well thought of…
The beatitudes and woes (beatitude just means blessing, “supreme blessing” to be precise), those are not assurances of God’s conduct towards us based on our condition. The last will be first and the first will be last… That is this message. But it is not that God does that to us. No. This is an observation by Jesus of the state of our being when we trust in God and God alone. This is a description of what will happen to you if you are faithful to God. If you really follow God, really live as Jesus lived, do as Jesus taught, you will be poor. You will be hungry. You will weep. People will hate you, exclude you, revile you, defame you precisely because you are doing what is truly right. But that is not the end of the story. Things are not always as they seem. In the big picture, in the long game view, in the universal God who was and is and is to come context, this is what happens, these are the natural consequences of doing right. To choose poverty in obedience to God is better than choosing wealth in the name of the self. It is confusing, because wealth, conventional notions of happiness, having all of your needs (if not wants) satisfied, being respected and well thought of, those things give the appearance of flourishing, and they are, in the perishing world. But in the imperishable world of God, they are a curse, for they draw us from what is truly important, God and neighbor. The beatitudes and woes are descriptive of the state of true disciples, not of what God will do to you if you break the rules. It is not a pretty picture, it is kind of grim actually, “Do what’s right and you will suffer! Whoopee!” But that is the way it is, and we are in peril if we try to convince ourselves otherwise. Having our cake and eating it, too is not the Jesus way. We can trust in that.
Trusting in God we understand that it will not all work out for us personally, not necessarily, but that the equanimity and harmony of the Creation will continue until that great gitt’n up day. And it means that we can trust that no matter what, we are not alone, our life and the lives of everyone else are infused with the Spirit of Life, the breath of God in God’s self, the body and blood of our Savior Jesus Christ. And that’s pretty good. Thanks be to God. AMEN.