Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Trusting God

Genesis 9: 8-17
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE
February 22, 2015

            The summer I turned 15 I was enrolled at a day camp as a counselor in training. One of the requirements of our training was that we would take a course in junior lifesaving in the freshwater pond where the camp was located. I had had rigorous swimming lessons since I was 8 years old but mostly in clear, chlorinated, heated pools. I didn’t know any of my fellow CITs outside of that camp. And our instructor was a handsome, burly 19 year old college student from UMass Amherst who looked like he was 25. To say the least, I was a bit intimidated by the thought of learning how to rescue someone from drowning.

            I suffered through leg cramps, swimmer’s ear, sunburn, sunfish nipping at my toes, and an endurance swim around the perimeter of the pond.  Finally it came time for our final exam.  Our class was divided into rescuers and victims, each of us taking our turn being one or the other.  I got to be victim to a girl I had become friends with over the summer.  Her name was Lisa.

            I admired Lisa because she was a strong swimmer.  She had chutzpah and a healthy sense of self-deprecating humor.  She had even managed to tow our nearly 200 lb. instructor Steve in a training exercise.  She impressed me because Lisa was only about 4 ft. tall.

            When it came time for us victims to perform our role, Steve would give a ‘thumbs up’ or ‘thumbs down’:  down meant we would be completely passive as victims, limp, floating, perhaps feigning unconsciousness.  Thumbs up meant an active victim: thrashing, panicking, yelling, even attempting to grab onto our rescuer.  Steve game me a thumbs up.  Since I was over a foot taller than Lisa, I didn’t have the heart to grab onto her.  Instead I dunked her.

            She came up in the same spot in front of me.  I dunked her again.  Her head popped up right in front of me once more.  And I dunked her!  This was more fun than swimming with my brother.  I was actually given permission to dunk someone again and again!

            Finally, Lisa remembered what she was supposed to do with an active victim.  She swam away from me underwater, and from a safe distance she instructed me with what she was going to do and what she expected of me.  She then pushed a floatation device toward me, I grabbed onto it and she towed me to the dock.

            I had pushed her down, beneath the water.  Her head went down, the water closed in over her, the bubbles rising above her.  Not just once but three times.  Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit.

            Life can feel like that sometimes.  We think we’re doing all the right things, trying to be good people who sometimes cause others grief.  Then suddenly we’re under the water, pushed down, what sustains us slowly leaking out of us.

            Now, not to trivialize the flood story, God drowning the wicked multitudes and saving the righteous few, but life isn’t always a direct cause-and-effect universe.  Most of the time, we know better than to blame God when our lives are pushed down.  God promises Noah and his descendants that never again will God flood the earth and destroy human beings.  We no longer call a flood an ‘act of God’ but an act of nature.  Scientists would call them random events mixed with the effects of a human population interacting with the environment.  Physicists would quote the second law of thermodynamics, leaving God entirely out of the picture.

            But for we who believe and seek a relationship with the divine, God promises ‘never again’.  What then does that mean?  What does this covenant hold for us?  That God’s justice will no longer look like human revenge?   That by putting God’s bow up in the sky, our God is a God of nonviolence?  That God will not punish but teach?  Yes, all this and something much simpler.  ‘Never again’, laying down one’s weapon and promising peace is a way of saying ‘you can trust me’.

            Love requires total disarmament.   The love of God requires the Almighty to be as helpless and as trusting as an infant.  God becomes vulnerable with us and to us.  God reveals the soft underbelly of the divine heart, seeking a relationship, a connection—not only with human beings but with all of creation.

            But the words ‘trust me’ are ones that we post-modern folk can often regard with suspicion, even if it just happens to be the Almighty saying them.  I have a plaque with a saying attributed to Mother Teresa:   “I know God won’t give me any more than I can handle.  I just wish he didn’t trust me so much.”  And we can all think of those times when we’ve had more than we thought we could handle.  As if we had been pushed down under the water.

So what does it mean to trust God?  Well, think of the people you trust, with whom you can be your most vulnerable self.  What is it that makes them so trustworthy?  What qualities do they possess?  Usually these are folks we can believe in, that is to say, they have integrity, their insides match their outside—they are authentic.

When we say we believe in Jesus, what the Church ought to mean when it says that is that we believe, we trust that he is the authentic, utterly faithful image of the fullness of God.  Recall these words from Jesus’ baptism:  “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’”  We look to Jesus, his actions, his teachings, his authenticity as one who fully embodies God’s law and love.

Due mainly to the Enlightenment in the 18th century, the words ‘trust’, ‘believe’, and ‘faith’ have come more to mean to ascribe to a creed or doctrine or religious code.  Originally, these words had more to do with loyalty and relationship than with any kind of test.  The word ‘believe’ comes from an old English word which means ‘to belove’.  When we say we believe in Jesus, we believe in God, we believe in the Holy Spirit, what we’re really saying is that we belove them.  We have a relationship with them.  We trust them.  We trust that when a promise is made, that it will be fulfilled; that we are unconditionally loved; that when we are reaching for the surface, we will be raised up; that the kingdom of God truly indeed dwells within us and amongst us.

The opposite of faith and trust is not doubt but anxiety, worry, panic, fear—the very emotions that can lead to drowning.  Think about how often during the course of the day you are worried, anxious, fearful.  Think about those times you have felt those feelings at church.  Are there people here with whom you can share your anxiety, your worries, your fears?  Is this a church where these feelings are talked about openly and authentically or with only a few?  Is this a church where we trust each other?

Keeping our anxiety, worry and fear to ourselves is what makes us feel like we’ve gone under the water, is what drives apart community and gets us feeling as though we are in the dark.  When a community, a church operates from within those murky shadows, all of the decisions made, even with the best of intentions, contain within them an undercurrent of anxiety and worry.  Being open and honest about these feelings takes away their power over us, bringing the light of God into that shadowy place.  Believing in one another, being faithful in our commitment to each other, trusting that everyone is doing the best they can with what they’ve got—this is how we rise out of the watery depths, it’s what brings us together, and gives our life together meaning.  This is what makes a church feel like home.

Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”  Said another way, “Belove one another as I have beloved you.  Believe in one another as I have believed in you.” 

To trust God is to belove one another, to believe in one another.  To trust God is to be who we really are, our authentic selves.  To trust God is to go under that water knowing that we will rise with the Spirit.  To trust God is to allow ourselves to be driven out into the wilderness, to be tended to by angels, and to keep following Jesus, even as he heads toward Jerusalem.

            A life built on the trust of God may seem like a fairytale to some, crazy to others, and there are days we wonder what’s in it for us.  A life built on the trust of God certainly is no rose garden.  I’m not being flip when I say Jesus trusted God and look what happened to him.

I’d like to share with you a quote by one of my favorite authors, Samir Selmanovic.  He grew up in what was Yugoslavia, the son of a Muslim father and a Christian mother.  He was raised culturally Muslim but as for religion he was raised as an atheist.  At 18 he began his compulsory service in the army and it was through a friendship there that he converted to Christianity.  His family disowned him, throwing him out of the house, and it was years later before he was able to reconcile with them.  He is now a Christian pastor and the founder of an interfaith community called Faith House Manhattan.  He says this about what is promised in following Jesus:

“Jesus offered a single incentive to follow him…to summarize his selling point: ‘Follow me, and you might be happy—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be empowered—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have more friends—or you might not. Follow me, and you might have the answers—or you might not. Follow me, and you might be better off—or you might not. If you follow me, you may be worse off in every way you use to measure life. Follow me nevertheless. Because I have an offer that is worth giving up everything you have: you will learn to love well.’”

Trusting God, trusting in Jesus, trusting the unpredictable Spirit means we will learn to love well, to be forgiving, accepting, and compassionate—even when we’ve been pushed under the water.  Because trusting God also means that we will learn to be loved well, to be beloved, to know these words to be true:  “You are my child, the Beloved.  With you I am well-pleased.”


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