A master from another religious tradition once said,
“The whole of wisdom can be found in two statements the Bible makes:
‘I am what I am,’ and
‘Be still and know that I am God.’”[i]
You want to know the way to God in this confusing, fractured world?
Begin with the plain truth that–God is God, and we are not.
Among many other things, that means…
…Beyond every human tendency to exalt ourselves—
…Beyond all our assumptions about our own power to shape destiny—
…Behind human claims about how vast is our knowledge—
–there is a mystery about God
there remains mystery!
When author Madeleine L’Engle was asked:
“Do you believe in God without any doubts?”
she replied: “I believe in God with ALL my doubts.”
…There will always be MORE to learn than we now know.
…There is always MORE going on in any given situation than we can see.
…And there is always more to FAITH than we can grasp.
You don’t have to be alive on this planet for very long to understand that
in a close-to-home, real-time way.
Things spin out of control or break apart with astonishing SPEED.
And, just as quickly, human beings have an astonishing CAPACITY
to bring hope and healing, in the most unlikely ways,
in the most desperate situations.
All this can happen—to any of us, at any time—without any notice
Behind all human claims about how vast is our knowledge—
–there is a mystery about God—
and mystery about US…
Episcopal priest John Claypool once told a story from ancient China:[ii]
There was once a farmer who owned only one horse.
He depended on the horse for everything; to pull the plow, to draw the wagon.
One day a bee stung the horse, and in fright
the horse ran away into the mountains.
The farmer searched for him but couldn’t find him.
His neighbors said,
“We are really sorry about your bad luck in losing your horse.”
But the old farmer shrugged and said,
“Bad luck, good luck — who is to say?”
A week later his horse came back, accompanied by twelve wild horses,
which he had obviously encountered,
and the old farmer was able to corral all these fine animals.
News spread throughout the village, and his neighbors came and said,
“Congratulations on this bonanza out of the sky.”
To which the old man once again shrugged and said,
“Good luck, bad luck — who is to say?”
The only son of the farmer decided to make the most of this good fortune,
so he started to break the wild horses
so they could be sold and put to work in the fields.
But as he attempted to do this, he got thrown from one of the horses,
and his leg was broken…in three places.
When word of this accident spread through the village,
again the neighbors came saying,
“We are sorry about the bad luck of your son getting hurt.”
The old man shrugged and said,
“Bad luck, good luck — who is to say?”
Two weeks later a war broke out among the provinces in China.
The army came through conscripting
every able-bodied male under fifty.
Because the son was injured, he did not have to go,
and it turned out to save his life–
–for everyone in the village who was drafted was killed in the battle.
“Good luck, bad luck — who is to say?”
There is always more going on in any situation than we can see.
Final judgment on the value of any event must be left to God and to distant history.
From where we sit, we are in no position to say.
But, we don’t need to turn to OTHER traditions to make this point.
How about a vivid, crisis-filled story from Genesis,
the one about Joseph and his brothers who sold him into slavery.
To make a LONG story short—
–Joseph evoked his brothers’ jealousy,
so they threw him in a pit
and then they sold him into slavery.
Joseph was taken from Canaan to Egypt,
where he interpreted the Pharaoh’s dreams
won Pharaoh’s favor
and was given a position of power and authority.
His brothers came to Egypt asking for food
because there was a terrible famine in their homeland.
Later, after the death of their father Jacob—
–the brothers, awash with regret, full of sorrow,
fell down before Joseph, now the great leader of Egypt,
and wept, saying, “We are here as your slaves.”
But Joseph said, “Am I in the place of God?
Though you intended to do harm to me–God intended it for good,
in order to preserve a numerous people,
as God is doing today.”
If his brothers had NOT sold him into slavery,
his family—indeed, the Hebrew people–might have perished.
Or what about our text from Jeremiah today that Pat read for us.
This youth—clearly not “qualified” by any standard
WE use for credentials—is called by God
he’s CALLED. Hey you, get over here, Jeremiah.
You are to be God’s voice, to speak to God’s people.
Like most of the authentic prophets in scripture,
Jeremiah was astonished that God was talking to him. Who me?
And what is he called to say?
Pluck up, pull down,
destroy, overthrow…build, plant. Not exactly a gentle word to the people.
The constructive work of God, Jeremiah was to announce,
comes through all this DISRUPTION that was happening…
…well before we get to the building and planting…
Who is to say how a thing will ultimately turn out,
and what effect, through the grace of God,
even terrible events can have upon the future?
Think about your own life.
I’ve thought about it in mine, and about my family…
The job that you lost.
The engagement that was broken.
The college application that was rejected.
The road not taken.
The opportunity missed.
The heart-breaking episode
from which you were NOT sure you could go on…
The journey of a life takes a different set of turns
from what one had expected.
But who is to say that the life you did not live
would have been better than the life you are living?
Some of you may know the story of David Helfgott,
an Australian pianist whose anguished early life
was depicted in a movie called Shine several years ago.
It was the movie that introduced me to Rachmanioff
It came back on one of my cable stations last November,
so I got to watch it again.
In the film, you see Helfgott’s a tyrannical father
a father who both nurtured his son’s extraordinary gifts
and crushed his spirit—
–and partially as a result
Helfgott suffers a breakdown.
He spends ten years of his young adulthood in mental institutions.
He gives up playing the piano entirely,
this instrument he loved, that defined him,
that he could make sing…
he gave up playing until—
–one rainy night after his hospitalization ended,
he’s just walking about,
and he wanders into a piano bar in Perth
and he just sits down, and starts to play…
Ever since, he has been able to manage his illness
and to play the piano with skill and spirit.
It’s a remarkable film, a remarkable story.
Helfgott once said to a reporter:[iii]
“Been through hell, been through hell — lucky to be alive –
keep smiling—keep smiling now.”
He even claims to enjoy riding in the traffic.
“There is a pattern in the traffic,” he said with delight.
“If you understand that, you can concentrate and relax.
I have learned–it is very important to enjoy the journey.”
That’s a truth of life in God’s world, I think.
It’s a position of faith:
to see a pattern in the events of our intersecting lives
that we cannot fully grasp,
a providence at work in random happenings.
BUT—it’s NOT the pattern of ORDER,
which we so obsessively desire—
–a pattern that will have everything make sense
and be explained
and fit neatly together…
…NO: it’s the pattern of God—
–who is ceaselessly at work bringing us to God
in all manner of circumstance.
…It may NOT be orderly—but it CAN fill our soul!
As we said last week,
this is NOT to say that God is the author of evil, illness, or misfortune.
God does not cause suffering. God suffers, along side us when we suffer.
Instead, however, it is to say that THROUGH the power of God, the love of God—
out of bad things…good can come.
NOT that it takes away the pain
or makes us yearn for more dark times!
It’s just—if we are going to follow Jesus,
then we are going to journey through his life
his death, and his resurrection…
–THAT is the “pattern.”
Out of bad things…good can come.
Eugene Peterson has written a translation, an adaptation of scripture
that he calls The Message.
Parts of it are just lovely.
In particular, I have been taken with how he’s interpreted
this thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians…[iv]
“We do not yet see things clearly.
We are squinting in a fog,
peering through the mist,
but it will not be long before the weather clears
and the sun shines bright.
“We will see it all then,
see as clearly as God sees us,
knowing God as directly as God knows us.
“But for right now–until that completeness comes—
we have three things to do.
Trust steadily in God,
[and] love extravagantly.”
You probably know this passage.
Couples often ask to read First Corinthians 13 at their weddings.
Because we hear it so often,
I am aware that the ears of many of wedding guests
have been numbed from
its rich meaning because of its familiarity.
I sometimes can see some people nod off—
–“oh, it’s just that 1 Corinthians 13 thing again…patient, kind.”
I’m just glad they don’t snore during the vows.
Whenever I get to officiate at a wedding, though,
and a couple asks about this passage, I always say yes.
I like considering the possibility that at least the couple
will stay tuned in long enough to get to
the “through the glass dimly” part.
I like for them to hear that there is more going on
in the events of their lives
than either of them can see.
How do we nurture that in our lives,
the ability to be patient
Where do we create that space to see, to feel, that more is going on than we can see?
A few years ago, I went to an exhibit of the works
of the great 20th-century artist, Henri Matisse.
No one–especially Matisse himself—
–could have foreseen the direction his art took
as he left behind the somber,
subdued styles and tones of 19th-century art…
…and moved toward the bold brilliance that crowned his career
and began a whole new era in artistic creation.
Matisse considered his masterpiece to be a chapel in southern Italy,
a chapel that he designed, built and furnished.[v]
He became involved in the project because of a woman
who at one time had been his nurse when he was ill.
Years later, she joined the Dominican order of nuns
and was asked to work on the chapel.
When she realized she did not know how to design a chapel,
she asked Matisse for his help, as you do…
she looked him up, and asked, and he said yes
and he gave that project his whole heart and energy
this chapel that would become his masterpiece.
Who would have foreseen that connection yielding such a collaboration?
According to his notes,
Matisse hoped that everything in the chapel would
“create a spiritual space where thought is clarified,
and feeling itself is lightened.”
…Where does that happen for you?
…WHEN do you experience that in your life?
Where do you have a spiritual space
where thought is clarified,
and feeling itself is lightened?
This room, this hour,
this table and font, and pulpit may create that time or space.
It can happen in a dozen different ways,
but it NEEDS to happen—for each of us.
–Because clarified thoughts and light feelings
lead us to the very heart of God.
once preached a sermon where he cited
a piece of paper was found in the pocket of a Confederate soldier.[vi]
As it happens, the anonymous words have been
commandeered by sentimentalists in recent years,
but they still contain a wisdom from God, for us:
“I asked God for strength, that I might achieve;
I was made weak, that I might learn humbly to obey.
I asked for health, that I might do greater things;
I was given infirmity, that I might do better things.
I asked for riches, that I might be happy;
I was given poverty, that I might be wise.
I asked for power, that I might have praise;
I was given weakness, that I might feel the need of God.
“I asked for all things, that I might enjoy life;
I was given life that I might enjoy all things.
I got nothing that I asked for –
but everything that I had hoped for.”
This is a hard world much of the time.
Pain, doubts, loss add up…
…and God does not meet us with “a plan”
that makes it all “OK.”
Rather we get an invitation.
We are invited
when we are seeing things clearly,
and when we are in a great FOG:
An invitation to a revolutionary way of life:
…What an amazing thing—
–the things we do not know…
…YET we receive
from God’s good and gracious hand!
Thanks be to God.
[i] So claims Joanna Adams in her sermon “As Through A Glass, Darkly.” This sermon adapted from Adams’ work on this text.
[v] For more on the chapel, see http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/art/features/henri-matisse-and-the-nun-why-did-the-artist-create-a-masterpiece-for-sister-jacques-marie-9217486.html and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chapelle_du_Rosaire_de_Vence