As the saying goes, “Children say the darndest things.” In our house, particularly our four year old. This past week with all the rain, Brendan said as we got into our minivan, “Good thing we don’t have a convertible.”
Then he asked “Why is God not a person?” We gave an answer about the trinity and about Jesus being a person and he said enthusiastically “Right, because he is the light of the world!” – we liked that a lot. Then he asked, “How do you fall in love?” Where did that come from? Brendan asked, “Does God die?” Then he answered himself before we could that “God can’t die because God is already in heaven and wouldn’t have anywhere to go?”
And then driving to church one day Brendan asked, “Does God control us with a remote control?” And I knew I had a title for my sermon on providence. The question of how we interact with God, of God’s involvement in our lives, is an age old one. It’s a particularly important question when one is addressing the great emptiness that we all can feel in life. For God frees us to walk alongside God in the world. Let us pray.
We talk about how God holds us in God’s presence and power. But our view of God’s providence is challenged by the difficulties of living in the modern world. This has been a hard week. A lot of my time this week has been spent in the hospital visiting people. Lots of time counseling. Discussing difficult diagnoses. And very difficult transitions. Several of you asked where is God in this? Then we look around outside the church and there are problems of violence and joblessness and international tensions. And where is our government in the midst of the problems? It remains shutdown!
The state of the world causes many of us to conclude that God is either all powerful but indifferent to us or loving and caring but powerless in the world. It didn’t used to be that way. The historic church believed that God was all powerful, involved and responsible for most of the things that happened to us – good and bad. When there was a natural disaster it was part of the plan. When lightning struck people thought it was thought to be from God. Each Monday I send a submission into the New Yorker magazine for its cartoon contest. I have yet to win. One cartoon two weeks ago (around the time we talked about how lightning struck the church in Ohio) had a God talking to a man on the cloud who was holding a lightning bolt and God said, “10 bucks says you can’t hit him twice.” In the insurance industry they call accidents like lightning strikes “acts of God.”
Today we know from weather patterns when the rain will come as it has the past few ways. But when it results in such destruction as it did in parts of India last night, many ask where God is. Is God either intimately involved or completely absent? Is God all or nothing?
Many of us see a world without God. Atheists like Richard Dawkins who believe there never was a God. Or the man I parked next to last night at Whole Foods whose bumper sticker read, “Darwin loves you.” Or who look at the issues of the world and conclude with Nietzsche that God is dead. Or the many who look at life and all they see is a void where meaning should be found.
Christianity is realistic about the world. Our scripture lesson describes how uncomfortable, hostile and scary our world can be. The Bible prominently includes the fall, many wars and, of course, the cross. Our faith affirms that we are mortal, finite beings. When we try and deny that, and exceed what we were created to be, sin and evil creep into the void.
Yet our tradition affirms what my personal experience confirms, that the void can also be filled with God’s love. For that is what providence is to me. John Calvin wrote in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that God’s providence “sets us free from every care.” Free from every care but God’s care for us.
We affirm with the Psalmist that God sustains us. God counsels, guides and molds us. I believe that God is at work in your life and mine to accomplish God’s purposes in the world even if we don’t realize it. One reason we at Bradley Hills care about the world is because we believe that God is active in the world. In doing so, we find that far from our being alone, God is walking with us so to accomplish God’s purposes.
The cross is not only a symbol of God’s humility and loss, but of God’s love and willingness to walk with us in our mortality and to fill the void with meaning. God is with us in sickness and health, in joy and sorrow, in life and death. Jesus does not come to ignore us but to journey with us. Not to control us but to set us free.
Our passage today gives me hope. It contains a vision that is not all or nothing. A vision of a God who gives up some control by offering us free will. Of one who is not absent but committed and involved. The word “providence” derives from the Latin meaning to “see ahead.” Not to do ahead but to see ahead and to be continuously present. Our relationship with God parallels the relationship between Jesus and his disciples in the passage. It begins with Jesus calling his disciples together. He meets Andrew and Peter, James and John and Matthew, as well as many others for which we don’t have the total back story. And Jesus calls them. A better translation of the word “summon” in our passage, from earlier translations and the original Greek is “called.” Jesus doesn’t coerce or force people but invites them to join him. That is consistent with a view of a God who walks along and invites us to participate in the work of the world.
Our passage depicts a challenging world that is uncomfortable, hostile and scary. Maybe you have been put in an uncomfortable situation with someone you might not agree with. That can be the case in the church. That is the case with the disciples in our passage. Jesus invites Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Cananean into the same group. According to theologian William Barclay Cananeasns were part of a group of Jews called Zealots, a category like Pharisees and Sadducees, who were committed to opposing Roman occupation.[i] Barclay argues that Zealots hated tax collectors, for tax collectors collected taxes which helped support the empire.[ii] Simon and Matthew had every reason to hate each other. But in Christ they were both part of the team. Barclay concludes that this shows that through Christ, people who might not otherwise get along can find something in common. People who disagree can get along if they both love Jesus.
A common gesture of love fills a void with divine connection. The world can be hostile. Jesus knew the disciples would be persecuted by family, church and state. Jesus sent the disciples out with his authority, his direction and his guidance, but most of all with his confidence that while they might seem alone in the face of persecutions, God would always be with them. The world is scary. That is the world described by our text. Last night we took our boys to their first haunted house. The first time we went in, we made it a third of the way through the house before we found ourselves running back out the door we had come in. By the seventh time through the haunted house, however, my boys were so ok with it they wanted to go by themselves. And they did. But they only got there because they knew I was waiting outside, not micromanaging, but watching over and out for them. Likewise, Matthew tells us that God knows us so well that even our hairs are numbered. That like the sparrows, no part of God’s creation is excluded from God’s love and care.
It’s not all or nothing. God does not control us with a remote control. But God is not absent either. God invites us to fill the void in our lives by walking with God in the world. We are free to accept or reject God’s invitation.
C.S. Lewis writes, “God created things which have free will. That means creatures which can go wrong or right. Some people think they can imagine a creature which was free but had no possibility of going wrong, but I can’t. If a thing is free to be good it’s also free to be bad. And free will is what has made evil possible. Why, then, did God give them free will? Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having. A world of creatures that work like machines- would hardly be worth creating. The happiness which God designs for His higher creatures is the happiness of being freely, voluntarily united to God and to each other. And for that they’ve got to be free.”[iii]
What does it mean to use our freedom to walk with God? It means to take responsibility. So we don’t need to look at tragedies by assuming they are the will of God. If there is gun violence or a car accident we don’t blame God but look to safety measures. There are a billion people around the world who are hungry, should we blame God that they don’t have food when there is enough food on the planet for all, or reexamine our distribution system? Much like the disciples freely chose Jesus’ call, when we see people harmed by poverty or bullying or selfishness, we don’t ask why does God cause the poverty or bullying or selfishness? We ask why we didn’t do more to address it.
Elizabeth Gilbert suggests in Eat, Pray, Love, “We gallop through our lives like circus performers balancing on two speeding side-by-side horses–one foot is on the horse called “fate,” the other on the horse called “free will.” And the question you have to ask every day is–which horse is which? Which horse do I need to stop worrying about because it’s not under my control, and which do I need to steer with concentrated effort?” In accepting God’s loving call we find ourselves walking along with God.
A common gesture of love fills a void with divine connection. In his new book My Bright Abyss, poet Christian Wiman reflects on his experiences with health and spirituality. He writes, “After I was diagnosed with cancer several years ago, my wife and I found ourselves walking through the doors of the little church at the end of our block. I’d passed by the church every day for three years on my way to the train and work downtown, but I couldn’t even have told you what denomination it was. It wasn’t tuned into churches or to Christianity. I was, however, tuned in to something. When I look back at some of the things I wrote, I am struck by a strong sense of negative energy. Negative in the sense of something missing…. That church was a smattering of hipsters and upscale parents, people who were homeless or headed there. The preacher spoke about how the void of God and the love of God come together in the mystery of the cross. I felt lightened by it. The next week I traveled to Boston to see a specialist, at the time the only person in North America doing research on my participate disease. He shared a terrifying thought, that the cancer might already have spread to my heart, causing a death sentence. On returning, I was walking one morning that next week near the church and I heard my name. I turned around to see the preacher half running down the street to see me. I was in no mood to chat…. He walked me to the train station and as we parted I remember the awkward moment where the severity of my situation and the unfamiliarity of us to each other left us with no words. But in a gesture that I’m sure was completely unconscious, he placed his hand over his heart for just a second as a flicker of empathy crossed his face. It sliced right through me. It cut through the cloud I was living in and let the plain day pour its balm on me. It was one of those moments when we reflect a mercy and mystery greater than we are, when the void of God and the love of God, incomprehensible pain and the peace that passeth understanding, come together in a simple human act.”[iv]
I talked with a woman this week who received a difficult diagnosis. It was significant development of cancer and surgery was required. And after she shared and several people lay hands on her, I put my hand over my heart and prayed. Afterwards she said, “you know God is walking with me. That gives me strength.” A common gesture of love fills a void with divine connection.
We each are gifted with freedom and with the invitation to walk with God in the world. If we ignore this call, then the void many feel will grow. But if we use our freedom to further God’s purposes as God has revealed and as God guides, then the void will be filled with love. The strength of God will be present. And the hope of God, once seemingly remote and beyond our control, will be within our grasp. May it be so. Amen.
[i] William Barclay. The Gospel of Matthew. The New Daily Study Bible. P. 415.
[iii] C.S. Lewis. The Case for Christianity.
[iv] Christian Wiman. My Bright Abyss. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013. pp. 67-71.