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June 24, 2018

“Giants, Waves, Big Faith”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>Put a hand on our shoulder and point us in the right direction. Put our hand on someone’s shoulder, and let it matter. Amen.<<

There’s an Israeli joke about a time when President Bill Clinton visited Benjamin (Bibi) Netanyahu. In Bibi’s office, Clinton noticed a mysterious blue phone on the desk, and asked about it. Bibi replied, “that blue phone is my direct line to God. I call whenever I need advice.” Upon his return to the States, President Clinton directed his staff to provide him with such a phone, regardless of the cost. Two weeks later, a blue phone arrived in the Oval Office. It worked perfectly but the bill was exorbitant: two million dollars for just a one-minute conversation with God. After seeing the cost, Clinton phoned Bibi demanding to know how the Israeli government could afford their blue phone. “Is this how you’re spending our State Department’s money?” asked Clinton. To which Bibi replied calmly, “No, it’s not that at all. You see,” he continued, “for you it’s a long distance call. For us, Jews, it’s a local call.”

It’s a funny story, but it does make you think about how convenient it would be to have such a “blue phone” to get a piece of heavenly advice, or an answer or two to some pressing questions, or get some direction about the right course of action. As he labored to prevent Civil War in 1858, Abraham Lincoln wrote in a letter, “there is no contending against the Will of God; but still there is some difficulty in ascertaining, and applying it, to particular cases.” “I just want to do God’s will,” said Martin Luther King Jr., in his Mountaintop Speech. “Not my will but thy will be done,” prayed Jesus in Gethsemane the night before his cross. When the man with leprosy approached Jesus, he said, “if you are willing, you can make me clean.” “We must do the will of God instead of obeying human authorities,” said St. Peter at his interrogation in the Book of Acts. “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven,” we pray together each week.

There’s a technical debate within the history of Christianity over the “will of God.” Made more complex, because no one – not even the most devout saint – has a direct line to God. Blue phones don’t exist. In his work titled Concerning Divine Decrees, Puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards – considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian – wrestled with the “blue phone” question, the “what is God’s will” question. Edwards was a Calvinist. He believed in a muscular God of eternal decrees and unchangeable will; a God who predestined all things from the worst of human evil to the salvation of souls – only some souls, of course. For the doctrine of predestination, with roots that go all the way back to St. Augustine in the fifth century, says that only a portion of humanity is predestined to salvation; the rest are predestined to hell. It’s called “double predestination.” In his writings, which one of my seminary professors mercilessly made us read, Edwards struggled to reconcile the fact that Jesus said God loves the whole world, and yet, as a Calvinist, Edwards thought that God predestined bad things to happen to good people; and predestined that only some people from the world would be saved. How can God love everyone – will the best for everyone – and yet, at the same time also will bad things to happen to good people?, wondered Edwards. Edwards concocted an elegant solution to explain this discrepancy in the will of God by distinguishing between the “revealed” will of God – that God loves everyone – and the “secret” will of God – that God, secretly, also wills bad things to happen.[1] God has two “wills,” wrote Edwards: the revealed and the secret. It was a clever, albeit twisted, solution to a very Calvinist problem back in the 1700s.

But the question – the “blue phone question,” the “what is God’s will” question, the question – the issue, the desire articulated in many places in the Bible, and by Abraham Lincoln, and by Dr. King in his Mountaintop Speech (“I just want to do God’s will,” he said) is something that people of faith continue to wonder about as the issues of the world press upon us – the macro issues of climate change and racial injustice and poverty and the separation of families at the border and who in the vast rainbow of humanity needs a special touch of God’s love; and the micro issues, the family and personal issues that sometimes take on a macro form when we have to face them: from personal illness to personal tragedy, from addiction to depression, from choosing career paths to choosing when to retire, from concern over self-destructive family members to concerns over paying bills. Sometimes the issues we face seem like Goliath-type giants – to refer to our Old Testament reading for today. And sometimes the issues we face seem like tempests that blow up around us – to refer to today’s gospel reading from Mark about the disciples in their storm-tossed boat. And it would be nice to have a “blue phone” to get some clear divine direction.

But all three of today’s scripture readings – including the text from the Letter of James that I read a moment ago – view life’s macro and micro issues, the giants and the storms, as opportunities for faith to express itself. Take the well-known David and Goliath story, for example. The story begins with two armies arrayed for battle – the Philistines and the soldiers of Israel. Goliath the giant steps forward and starts talking trash. The story-teller uses grotesque language to describe Goliath: he’s nearly ten feet tall (six cubits and a span); his coat of armor weighed five thousand shekels (about 125 pounds); his spear-head of iron weighed fifteen pounds (six hundred shekels). Elsewhere in scripture, the giants of Gath – Goliath’s hometown – were said to have six fingers and six toes. Goliath was a big dude with a big mouth. And for forty days, according to the story, he hectored and taunted the Israelite army. There’s no indication in the story that David knew about Goliath prior to his arrival at the front. David appears in the story as a humble shepherd, the youngest of eight boys, carrying supplies to his older brothers in the army. Upon arriving, David hears Goliath’s bullying taunts, and doesn’t wait for a sign from God or a ring on a blue phone – he doesn’t even pause to pray. David acts with that “courage to be,” as theologian Paul Tillich once called it; that will toward action that is the visible manifestation of faith. “Faith is not a state of mind,” writes poet Christian Wiman. It’s “an action in the world, a movement toward the world.” “The deed [action],” wrote Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “is our confession of faith.”[2] Faith, in the David and Goliath story, is simply doing what needs to be done. It’s taking action when the odds are long, and the outcome uncertain. It’s the courage to be in a world without the clear answers provided by blue phones.

In his book My Bright Abyss,[3] Christian Wiman tells a story of his encounter with a UCC Minister in the days after he was diagnosed with cancer. “I was walking [in a cloud] early one bright winter morning … when I heard my name,” writes Wiman. “I turned around to see [the preacher] half running down the street toward me as he tried to pull a flannel shirt on over his T-shirt, careful not to trip over his untied shoes. I was in no mood to chat, especially not to an enthusiastic preacher, and all my thoughts were hostile. But I stopped, we had a kind of introduction as he tied his shoes, and then he asked if he could walk me to the train station. Those days are a blur to me, but I remember Matt straining to find some language that would be true to his own faith and calling and at the same time adequate to the tragedy and faithlessness … that he perceived in me. And I remember when we parted there was an awkward moment when the severity of my situation and our unfamiliarity with each other left us with no words, and 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 empathetic anguish 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 upon me. It was, I’m sure, one of those moments when we enact and reflect a mercy and mystery that are greater than we are … . We stood for a minute in the aftermath, not talking, and then went our suddenly less separate ways.”

In today’s reading from Mark’s gospel, this faith-as-the-courage-to-act is expressed by Jesus himself. As Mark tells it, Jesus and the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat, when a storm blew up around them with waves that swamped the boat. Mark piles up Greek words to describe the ferocity of the storm, using grammar that isn’t reflected well in our English translation. The storm, writes Mark, was a great squall – a squall with hurricane-force winds and towering swells; a bit like in that film from the year 2000, The Perfect Storm, about Gloucester, MA fisherman who tried to ride out towering, hundred foot waves. The disciples – seasoned fishermen all – stunningly, according to Mark, did nothing but wring their hands. They, like the Israelite army before the giant Goliath, did nothing, but sit in fear. Jesus, meanwhile, was below deck, peacefully asleep on a “pillow,” writes Mark. The disciples roused him; and he calmly surfaced from below deck and spoke directly to the wind and the waves. Mark’s Greek grammar is the grammar of command – of a superior to an inferior: “Peace!” ordered Jesus. “Be still!” And at the command of Jesus, the wind dropped, according to the Greek text, and the sea became as smooth as glass. Then Jesus turned on the disciples, rebuking them for their inaction. “Have you still no faith?” He asked. It’s a withering question. For beneath this question, I think, is the underlying issue – the “blue phone” issue: are you waiting for some sign from God? Just do what needs to be done; and that is faith in action. “Faith,” writes Christian Wiman, doesn’t drive us “more deeply within” ourselves, but “propels [us outward] … toward the world and other people.”[4] It’s why some of the greatest examples of faith-as-courage can be found in soldiers fighting alongside their brothers and sisters on the front; or, when an exhausted parent at their wit’s end wills themselves to get up and live for their children another day; or, when a minister facing long odds – like Rev. Dr. William Barber – preaches about ending poverty on the steps of Congress, and gets arrested for it; or, when progressive Christians across our nation take a stand, and say enough is enough, when it comes to demonizing immigrants or misquoting scripture to justify the unthinkable. Sometimes the giants and the storms of adversity can make the diamond of faith – of faith-as-courage, faith-as-action – emerge.

…In his 2014 TED Talk, Andrew Solomon described how we become better people through adversity.[5] “As a student of adversity,” says Solomon, “I’ve been struck over the years by how some people with major challenges seem to draw strength from them. … [W]e might … call it ‘forging meaning.’ My last book,” says Solomon, “was about how families manage to deal with various kinds of challenging or unusual offspring. And one of the mothers I interviewed, who had two children with multiple severe disabilities, said to me, ‘People always give us these little sayings like, “God doesn’t give you any more than you can handle.” But children like ours are not preordained as a gift. They’re a gift because that’s what we [the parents] have chosen.’ We make those choices all our lives,” says Solomon. “When I was in second grade,” he goes on, “Bobby Finkel had a birthday party and invited everyone in our class but me. My mother assumed there had been some sort of error, and she called Mrs. Finkel, who said that Bobby didn’t like me and didn’t want me at his party. And that day, my mom took me to the zoo, and out for a hot fudge sundae. When I was in seventh grade [and then through High School, I was bullied] … . I graduated high school without ever going to the cafeteria, where I would have sat with the girls and been laughed at for doing so, or sat with the boys, and been laughed at for being a boy who should be sitting with the girls. I survived that childhood through … [sheer] endurance. What I didn’t know then and do know now, is that … [we] need to take the traumas and make them part of who [we]’ve come to be, and [we] need to fold the worst events of [our lives] into a narrative of triumph … . Some of our struggles are things we’re born to,” Solomon continues: “our gender, our sexuality, our race, our disability. And some are things that happen to us: being a political prisoner, being a … victim, being a … survivor. … [We can] draw strength … [by] substituting ‘and’ for ‘but’ – not ‘I am here but I have cancer,’ but rather, ‘I have cancer and I am here.’ … [A]s a gay American,” says Solomon, “I’ve experienced prejudice and even hatred … . In 2007, six years after we met, my partner and I decided to get married. Meeting John had been the discovery of great happiness and also the elimination of great unhappiness. … Marriage soon led us to children … . As a gay father, I can teach [my children] to own what is wrong in their lives, but I believe that if I succeed in sheltering them from adversity, I will have failed as a parent.” Solmon concludes with these words, “a Buddhist scholar I know once explained to me that Westerners mistakenly think that nirvana is what arrives when all your woe is behind you, and you have only bliss to look forward to. But he said that would not be nirvana … . Nirvana, he said, is what you arrive at when … [you] find in what looked like sorrows the seedlings of your joy.”

…Maybe that’s the best way to describe faith. Not as hoping for a blue phone and a clear answer – a clear sign about which way to go. But a forging of meaning – of willing ourselves to continue – when the giants of life are menacing, and the storms of life are threatening. Trusting in the One who left a tomb behind after three days – trusting, hoping that facing the crosses of adversity will fell giants and still storms, and empty the tombs, so that sorrows can become joys. Amen.

1 See for example: http://www.westminsterconfession.org/the-doctrines-of-grace/the-will-of-god-and-the-gospel-offer-jonathan-edwards-charles-hodge-and-asahel-nettleton.php

2 Quoted in Stanley Hauerwas, Performing the Faith: Bonhoeffer and the Practice of Nonviolence (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2004), 33.

3 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 69.

4 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 75