Written by Pastor Ed
Restore Us, O God! We wonder.
March 12, 2017 Lent II
Genesis 12: 1-4a
Matthew 17: 1-9
I don’t know about you, but I like to have some fairly clear idea of where I’m going before I start out on a journey. Oh, granted, sometimes it’s fun just to wander around and see what you can find, and sometimes I like to take alternate routes to get somewhere, but for the most part I like to look at maps, have a destination in mind, and have a fair idea of how I’m going to get there.
And yet, whenever it has become clear in my professional life that it is time to move on to the next position, I have always announced my intentions of leaving well before I knew where I was going. And that’s often felt a little like what I imagine Abram felt like when God said he should pack up and move “to a place that I will show you.” And then he had to go tell his wife and family! You can ask Gay how that feels.
Would you be willing to pack everything up, load the truck and then say, “Ok, God, where are we going? And remember, this wasn’t the first move the family had made. Abram’s father had left his home land of Ur and headed around the fertile crescent for the land of Canaan, but for some reason, when they got to Haran they settled there. Maybe it was a case like my grandparents who left Pennsylvania planning to move to Montana, but when they got to Indiana they had to stop to care for my great-grandmother and never left, which is why I’m from Indiana rather than Montana.
In any case, after settling in Haran for a time, God told Abram to pick up and leave – leave you country, your extended family, and I’ll show you where to go. And furthermore, I will make you a great nation that will end up blessing the whole world. And he was 75 years old! (around the age of George) There must have been some wondering going on! What was this all about? Where were they headed? What awaited them when they got there? As Henry pointed out to me this week, this was not empty land, there were other people already living there and they would have to settle in a new community with strangers and all that that entailed.
Our theme for today has to do with wonder. Now that word “wonder” has two different meanings, although they are obviously related. We can wonder, as in questioning something, wondering what is in the wrapped package, or we can be in wonder, awe, of something like the beauty of the natural world, a glorious sunset or the aurora borealis. But part of the reason we are in awe of something is often that we have questions about how it happens or what caused it. And even natural things change, as we were reminded this week when this famous arch in Malta disappeared in a storm overnight.
The account of the transfiguration of Jesus undoubtedly contains both of these elements for the disciples who experienced it. On the one hand to have been on the mountaintop with Jesus would have been an awe inspiring event, full of wonder. It truly was a mountaintop experience for them and they were amazed at the brilliance of the light and the appearance of the patriarchs of the faith with Jesus.
But they must have also wondered what it all meant. This was totally outside their normal experience. How could you explain this? And then Jesus told them to not tell anyone! Not tell anyone, when you’ve just had an experience of a lifetime? What is that all about? They must have gone away shaking their heads and wondering.
On the Meyers-Briggs scale, most people are “J”s which means they like to have things well defined, clear-cut; sometimes defined as “a place for everything and everything in its place.” Most of us like to know, to have concrete answers to questions. Quite a few years ago someone wrote a book about why conservative churches were growing, and the main answer was because they gave definitive answers to questions, things were black and white. None of this ambiguity that seemed to be present in more liberal churches.
But the reality is that life is not black and white. Very few things can be nailed down once and for all because life continues to change and evolve. When I was involved with pastors’ health insurance issues, I learned the cardinal rule of the actuaries who, after outlining the past year’s experience, would always remind us that “past performance is no guarantee of future trends.”
I’m often reminded of a conversation I had with an Amishman living just outside Ashland, Montana in a small community of families that had moved there from Wisconsin. On one of my travels to visit churches in the area, I stopped in to chat and learn more about the group and he was willing to talk.
As we talked he asked me about the internet and whether it was good or bad. Of course, I said there was both good and bad on it, and then made a comment that sometimes we look at the Amish and think how it must be easier to have things more clearly defined as to what one should or shouldn’t do. His reply surprised me a bit, because he said it really wasn’t any different, they just drew lines at different places and still had to decide. As an example he noted that in Wisconsin, his particular community was not allowed to use power tools, including chain saws. But when they moved to Montana, they realized that chains saws were not a luxury item, but a necessity, and so they changed their rules.
We could cite many similar examples throughout the life of the church, including recent discussions. I recall the discussions in 1986 when people insisted that we settle the issue of homosexuality once and for all, and so we voted on a motion. Last summer, 30 years later, Mennonite Church Canada passed a resolution recognizing that we don’t all agree on the issue but we will continue to work at being the church together in spite of our differences and continue to listen to what the Spirit might be saying to us.
Unfortunately, some people still want a definite answer and have decided they can’t live with that ambiguity and so are withdrawing. But as one person confessed, if they go and join a group that has a definite answer on this question now, who knows where that group will be in five years when they are forced to deal with it.
Even when we think we know the answer to a question, we might still wonder. An alternate Gospel reading for today was from John 3, the story of Nicodemus who came to Jesus at night with some questions. And even though Jesus answered his questions, Nicodemus still went away wondering what Jesus really meant. How was one born from above? How could a grown person start over? “How can these things be?” Nicodemus asked.
One of the sayings I have pinned on my bulletin board says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.” It echoes something I recall Howard Charles, one of my seminary profs, saying; that if we are sure about Jesus, then lots of others things can be left open to question. I have probably also talked before about Maurice Martin’s contrast between a strong faith and a well-defended faith. A well-defended faith is one that has all the answers and can defend them strenuously. Unfortunately, such a faith is like a rigid brick wall which if it gets even just a slight disruption can easily crumble. Whereas a strong faith is one that can allow for questions, see things from different points of view, and still maintain its integrity, like structures that are built to withstand earthquakes without falling because they have flexibility built in.
Abram could strike out from Haran because he worshiped an awesome God and had faith that God would lead him. Paul in Romans 4 cites Abraham as an example of faith because “Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:3) The disciples could carry on the work of Jesus because they had come to believe in that voice and vision they had seen on the mountain, even when they didn’t understand fully what it all meant.
To be filled with wonder and to ask questions is to become childlike in our faith, which Jesus suggests is what we need. It was Socrates who said, “Wonder is the beginning of wisdom.” If we never ask questions, then we have become rigid, ossified and perhaps even dead in our faith. There are so many questions in life and in our faith to which we will never have clear answers. Paul reminds us that we only see dimly and know only in part.
The bigger question is, “can we live with that?” Are we ready to trust God enough to leave some questions unanswered or ambiguous? If God calls us to leave our comfort zones, are we willing to follow? It isn’t all that easy and as Abram and Sarai, the disciples and Nicodemus, and Gay and I know, it can be filled with anxiety and doubting. Does God really want us to move away from what we know to a strange new city in a different country where we only slightly know a couple people?
This season of Lent calls us to examine ourselves and see if our theme song truly expresses our faith in a God who is all we have and supplies us with all we need. If we stand in wonder of such a God, then we can indeed place our lives in God’s hands and follow wherever God may lead us, even when we wonder what the purpose may be or even where it may lead us.
I invite you to join with me as we confess our hesitancy to follow and ask God’s spirit to restore us to a sense of wonder before an awesome God.
Leader: God of mystery, you call us into the unknown. But we do not always follow willingly.
Reader 1: We confess that we do not want to leave behind what is familiar. We prefer looking like those around us.
Reader 2: We do not want to change our well-refined beliefs. We prefer to think and believe in the same ways we always have.
Reader 3: We do not want to give up the comfort of our own self-sufficiency. We prefer to stay in control.
Leader: Forgive us, O Lord, when in our best effort to work for you, we fail to move with your Spirit.
All: Stir us deep within. Recover a sense of your holy wonder and make room within us for the mystery of your Spirit.
(Pause for silent confession)
Leader: God of mystery,
All: restore us.
Leader: Our help comes from the Lord, Maker of heaven and earth. The Lord will keep you from all harm. The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore. Amen.