"Peace, When All Meaning Is Hidden"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - September 21, 2005
Kendrick constantly reminds us to “get out our Bibles” and follow him verse by verse while he preaches. He has a passion for the Scriptures because the stories and illustrations are among some of the most well known in history. Regardless of a person’s system of beliefs, these stories capture humanity at its best and at its worse. The Bible spares nothing. In fact, if more parents realized the graphic nature of many of the stories found within its pages, they might consider placing the Bible on the banned book list for “school-agers.”
Many of these stories in the Hebrew Bible were told around campfires and were kept alive through a process called Oral Tradition. Storytellers described the activities of God among the Hebrews, leading them to believe that they were God’s chosen people. The way these stories were taught, however, made God’s acts of salvation the centerpiece of their message. This morning I want to celebrate something quite different from God’s perceived activities in history.
What prevents our vision from seeing other themes in these stories is the conclusion of how wonderful God is. While this cannot be denied, as we listen to a story line from its beginning to the end, we miss the tiny steps of faith and trust that were taken by the hero at a time when the outcome of their drama was unknown.
Unless we take time to consider this often overlooked subplot of each story, we will conclude that God routinely intervenes in human history. This is not a message that may help us during experiences that awaken our deepest fears. In fact, we may be setting ourselves up for failure because biblical stories train us to look to an external God whom we expect will arrive and fix our problems when we ask.
What happens to our faith when God does not arrive and our problem is not fixed? This very thing occurred when Hitler was exterminating the Jews during the Holocaust. There were prayers, lots of them, but God never arrived in time to save the lives of millions of Jews. This morning we are going to be considering what happens to people of faith before the end of their drama is known.
As we turn to our lesson, the Hebrews were populating Egypt at such a rapid pace that it evoked the fears of Pharaoh. According to the author of Exodus, there arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph who had saved the Israelites from starvation during the seven years of famine. Pharaoh reasoned, “These people are so numerous and strong that they are a threat to us. In case of war they might join our enemies and fight against us.” These fears loomed so large that Pharaoh decided to engage in a heartless form of birth control by killing the male babies.
A Hebrew woman bore a son and hid him for three months. When she could no longer shield him from those who were destroying male babies, she placed her son in a waterproof basket along a reed bed at the edge of the Nile. She trusted him to whatever fate waited. Without hindsight to guide her, she acted simply out of love for her son. There were many other biblical characters whose faith allowed them to take big risks.
Some of you may remember the story of Elkanah and Hannah. Hannah was so desperate to have a son she prayed, “Lord, look at me, your servant! See my trouble and remember me! Don’t forget me! If you give me a son, I promise that I will dedicate him to your service for the rest of his life.”
She finally delivered a son and after she weaned him, as promised she took him to Shiloh. After reacquainting herself to the resident priest there, we read from I Samuel, “Then Elkanah and Hannah went back home to Ramah, but the boy Samuel stayed in Shiloh and served the Lord under the priest Eli.”
These two mothers had to experience the pain of surrendering what they loved and had longed for more than anything else in life – giving birth to sons. In fact, Hannah had been suffering emotionally for years because of her inability to have children. Both mothers did not have the gift of hindsight. They did not know if their sons would survive. This element in biblical stories is not discussed as listeners and readers had their minds focused only on God’s activities.
Think of a time in your life when you were so distraught, so disappointed, so devastated by some event, so in need of approval or validation and it never came. Think of the times when perhaps suicide appeared to be a viable option, when life was coming apart and when there were no apparent alternatives that would make your pain go away. If you can remember such a time, you were standing with the mothers of Moses and Samuel who stared into the darkness and saw nothing.
Nearly every biblical story of a hero has such internal struggles that are not intertwined in the story line. For example, think what it was like to be Joseph, a young teenager who had just been sold by his brothers to a caravan of Ishmaelites as they traveled from Gilead to Egypt. Think of what went through his mind as he looked over his shoulder watching everything that was familiar to him vanishing from view.
Joseph went through countless reversals while holding on to his faith. He did not link what was happening to him with God’s abandonment. Later he told his brothers, “Do not be upset or blame yourselves because you sold me to that passing caravan. It was really God who sent me ahead of you to save our people’s lives.” During the passion of the moment, a much younger Joseph would not have had any reason that might have brought peace. He was among strangers who looked upon him as a bargaining chip or a piece of property they could sell.
For Christians, perhaps the most dramatic example of being trapped in a drama of the moment is when we read how Mary stood at the bottom of the cross upon which her son was dying. Perhaps she was recalling the words of the angelic being who told her she was going to have a baby who would be powerful, and of his kingdom there would be no end. Maybe she remembered the challenging days that led up to her delivering her son in a barnyard. Looking at her son, she watched his physical form writhing in pain until his body grew still and lifeless.
She may have thought, “He was such a good boy. He healed so many people and taught such wonderful lessons. How could God have allowed his life to end like that of a criminal caught in a capital crime against Rome?” She was powerless and overcome with grief as she stared into darkness. There was no reason to have hope. There was no consolation that might have brought her peace. There was no hint that the world would change as a result of the three years her son had spent in ministry.
Many of us find ourselves in the pain of one of those in-between times when our story is not over and all we can do is hold on as we stare into darkness. There is no crystal ball. There is no assurance that our desires and goals will be reached. We must learn to surrender everything and let go, even though we do not understand “Why?” something so horrible has happened to us. Holding on to our faith in the face of such hopelessness is the challenge and the real grist of many biblical accounts.
Holding on may seem like a ridiculous exercise when we feel alone and isolated. Perhaps we have developed feelings of being betrayed and abandoned. It was the challenge to keep on keeping on when there appeared to be nothing left for which to live that gave Rabbi Harold Kushner the idea for writing a book entitled, When Bad Things Happen To Good People.
Obviously we can learn a lot from Moses’ mother. She did have the opportunity to nurse her son until he was weaned, but then she had to surrender him to become a prince of Egypt. There is a peace that comes over us when we let go and trust God. No more worrying about whether we are going to get our share, whether our idea will be well received, whether we are getting enough love or whether God is listening to us or even cares. The list of our fears can be as long as the number of them that we create.
Some years ago, as part of my responsibilities as a member of the Conference Board of Ordained Ministry, I was mentoring a single parent who eventually entered the ministry of our Annual Conference. During the course of our discussion, she told me how she was handling her son, Tom. He was bright but very bored with life. He ventured into alcohol and drug abuse. She loved him very much but never allowed his behavior and attitudes to pull her into his web of neediness.
One day he announced that he was quitting high school and going to California with several older teenage boys. There, he was convinced he would find his fortune while being in the company of surfboards and lots of beautiful girls.
This ministerial candidate told me that she had made a decision that was very similar to the one made by Moses’ mother. She was going to release him to the river Nile of life. She placed a Good News Bible among his belongings and off he went.
Her wrestling match with herself began in earnest. She was filled with self-doubt. Had she done the right thing? Were there other measures of intervention that might have worked? We might imagine that these same struggles came to the father of the prodigal son. So many parents find themselves in this in-between time of the story line of one of their children’s lives.
Life on the west coast was not easy for Tom. He learned first hand that he had to have a job. He learned how easy it was to pile up bills. He often did not use good judgment so his decisions and attitudes frequently sabotaged most of his efforts to succeed. Finally, he decided to finish his high school education and enlist in the Marine Corps.
He did so and as a Marine, soared to the top of his class. He called his mother and told her that he was one of only six others to have the honor of wearing his dress blue uniform for the parade during his graduation ceremony. Then he unloaded the shocker. He said, “Isn’t God incredible, Mom?” He continued, “I never would have believed that God’s program works until I had the guts to try it.”
He told her how he had arrived at his decision to finish high school. It was his mother’s unwavering faith in him that made him fall to his knees one night and say, “God, if you can hear me, I can’t go on like this. Please help me. My Mom doesn’t deserve this and I am treating all the people in my life that mean something to me as though they are my enemies. Why am I so angry and rebellious? Please help me find a place in me where I can be kind, understanding and patient just like my Mom.”
After praying, he told her that he opened the Bible he had discovered among his belongings and read these words, “But those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed. They will rise on wings like eagles; they will run and not get weary; they will walk and not grow weak.” (Isaiah 40:31)
His mother could not speak as she was listening to his words over the phone. Tears were flowing uncontrollably. For many long months she tried to hold on to her peace and trust that God’s will was unfolding somehow in her son’s life. After listening to him, she understood why her son had to first hit bottom before he could look up.
Was this mother in harmony with God’s will? Absolutely! Think of how God showers us with blessings while maintaining infinite, inexhaustible peace and patience with each of us. When our lives are not going well, God simply waits for us to look up, come to a different orientation toward life or step away from standing within our own shadow.
Of course, God can do this easily. For us, it takes courage to hold on to our peace even though the meaning of so many events remains hidden. What we have to remember is that our story line is not over. There is much more. Anticipation that more is coming will energize and encourage us while we wait in peace, knowing that God is still creating in ways we cannot understand.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Loving God, we thank you for allowing us to crawl, walk and run when we decide to do so. Like children, we often cry out to be picked up, held and carried. Yet in your loving wisdom you allow us to struggle. We learn that the butterfly receives its strength to fly from pushing against the walls of its cocoon. Eventually hindsight teaches us to be thankful for unanswered prayer. Help us to greet life patiently. May our faith give us peace even when the events of life make no sense. Restore our confidence that there is a pattern to creation that we cannot see. Help us to carry ourselves as people of hope, people whose trust in the unseen enables others to share our vision. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving God, we are so thankful for our lives and the beautiful tapestry that can be created when we allow you to weave the threads of our bittersweet moments into a work of art.
So many times we become snagged on the edges of an experience that we feel is so unjust or unfair, without ever knowing how that experience might be preparing us for a more fulfilling life. We are quick to judge our circumstances without knowing how one piece of the puzzle fits so perfectly into another. We marvel at how failure can lead to an open door, how a fractured relationship can lead to one that heals, how the loss of a job can lead to a better one or how frustration can inspire our creativity. Help us, O God to trust your wisdom in how our lives are molded. Only when we doubt your presence do we find ourselves blind and lost. Only when we forsake our trust in you, do we strike out on our own by seeking fulfillment in places that cannot provide it.
Lord, help us to be more open to the movement of your spirit. Encourage us to be more expressive of our faith. Help us lead others to the discovery of that which may now be totally lost among their many priorities – a spirit that needs to be nourished. Help us remember that what Jesus taught remains in our hands to give away to others. Enable us to look upon all who enter our path as our mission field. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus who taught us to say when we pray . . .