August 11, 2019


Uncertainty and Faithful Trust

Preacher:

Synopsis: A mixture of uncertainty and faithful trust keeps playing itself out throughout our lives. How does one face the future without fear? Sarah and Abraham are our biblical examples of trusting God’s promises even when they didn’t see them in their lifetime. To trust in God’s future means letting go of every “ism” that seeks to keep control of the present.

 

I still remember walking with our child to the end of our drive and waving goodbye as she got on the school bus for the first time. Uncertainty and fear were jumbled together with hope and excitement. This mixture of uncertainty and trust keeps playing itself out throughout our lives. These roles were reversed when Ruth and I took a Mennonite Central Committee assignment in India. Our three adult children had drawn a poster that read “India or Bust” that they asked us to hold as they took a picture of us departing at the airport. Then there were the hugs and kisses and heartfelt goodbyes.

 

The most recent article of the National Geographic contains stories of immigrants making the danger-filled trek from their homeland in Africa with the hope of finding a new life in Europe or from Latin America to find a new life here in the United States. I try to place myself in their shoes. I know the poignant feeling of leaving a loved, familiar place in order to expand my horizon and in hope of a better future. But I can’t fathom the vulnerable desperation that such migrants must feel—that it’s better to risk death on the road than to stay where one is. There are so many push and pull factors that compel people to take such risks. Can we see these migrants as heroes of faith?

 

Let’s consider all the uncertainties of life and how they impact us. In his book, Keeping in Touch, Roger Sizemore writes:

The future is always faced with uncertainty, even panic. The unknown is always seen as more terrifying than the known, for we are not certain our coping behaviors have developed to meet the new challenges. Besides, we get accustomed to dealing with the familiar. It’s secure, like old bedroom slippers. Anything new might require us to reprogram ourselves altogether. And that we find a most threatening prospect. Again the question haunts us. Given the jostling and rapid change of today, . . . how does one face tomorrow without fear? How does one develop an inner hold to meet the invading forces of the yet-to-be-born?[1]

 

Sarah and Abraham are our exemplars of faith in the Bible. They are held up because they trusted in God’s promises even though they never completely saw them in their lifetime. Furthermore, their better angels were accompanied by their shadow side. Things did not come easily and sometimes they really messed up. One such time was when they sent Hagar and her son Ishmael away.

 

Look at how George Segal portrays this in his sculptural work Abraham’s Farewell to Ishmael. It portrays so many conflicting hopes, fears, and emotions. On the left, Abraham embraces the son who was to be the future; Hagar (in the foreground) faces an unknown desert-exile. Her eyes stare into the distance and her empty arms mimic Abraham’s as he hugs Ishmael. In the background Sarah, mother of Abraham’s other son Isaac, watches in silence as one uncertain future is traded for another.

 

Yet, even in the midst of their many missteps, they trusted in God’s promises. Such hopeful trust turned into a life that was right with God. Let’s look at this more in depth. As biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann explains, God’s promise stood over against barrenness, creating a crisis of faith. Notice the movement of verses 1-6 in detail:

(v.1) God’s promise: “I am your shield. Your reward (gift) shall be great.”

(vv. 2-3) Abraham’s protest: “I continue childless and my adopted heir is Eliezer, the slave who is head of my household.”

(vv. 4-5) God’s response: “Your descendants shall be as many as the stars in the heavens.”

(v. 6) Abraham’s acceptance: “Abraham trusted God and God recognized his righteousness.”

 

Walter Brueggemann continues:

The large question is that the promise does delay, even to the point of doubt. It’s part of the destiny of our common faith that those who believe the promise and hope against barrenness nevertheless must live with the barrenness. Why and how does one continue to trust solely in the promise when the evidence against the promise is all around? It’s this scandal that’s faced here. It’s Abraham’s embrace of this scandal that makes him the father of faith.[2]

 

This is easily misunderstood because our American religion (especially evangelicalism and new-age spirituality) is shot through with belief in the power of positive thinking and that if we just believe we will receive the desires of our heart. This is a shallow caricature of a biblical understanding of faith and God’s grace. It becomes a toxic spirituality that does great harm. The kind of faith that Sarah and Abraham had is much more akin to the faith expressed in the old African American spiritual “We Shall Overcome” that was sung during the civil rights movement:

We shall overcome, we shall overcome

We shall overcome some day

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

We shall overcome some day

 

The Lord will see us through, the Lord will see us through

The Lord will see us through some day

Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe

The Lord will see us through some day

 

I like the way Walter Brueggemann frames the crisis of faith:

Can the closed womb of the present be broken open to give birth to a new future? It will take an heir to break it. An heir stands in contrast to a slave who only continues the hopeless present. Abraham and Sarah could possess many slaves. But a slave is no sign of the future, for slaves bespeak necessity, fate, compulsion. What’s needed is an heir to break the power of necessity.

 

This is the faith embodied by Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle for civil rights in our country when more timid and comfortable pastors urged him to not rock the boat. It’s the faith embodied by Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Niemöller as they stood up against Nazism when most other German Christian leaders embraced this hateful ideology. They trusted that a way would be found when things were very dark and no path could be seen.

 

Several weeks ago Cory Suter and I were spreading silicone sealer on our church roof. It was hot, grimy work. To help us keep a positive attitude, Cory reminded me that we were doing our small bit to fight climate change. The sealer reflects the bright rays of the sun in the same way that polar icecaps do. Then we began talking about the environmental crisis and how desperate it now appears to be. We fear what the future may hold for our children and grandchildren.

 

Abraham and Sarah were able to place their trust in God when there appeared to be no way forward. Walter Brueggemann explains, “It means to trust God’s future and to live assured of that future even in the deathly present.”[3] This means letting go of every “ism” that seeks to keep control of the present. Instead, their faithful trust risked the uncertainty of an unknown future as a new creation. In our world today, immigrants embody that better than any of us as they leave behind the familiar, often with only their feet to carry them, in search of a better future for their children. Those who demean and disparage them demean and disparage God.

 

The writer of the book of Hebrews describes faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This makes a distinction between what’s real and what can be seen—what we see with the inner eye and what we see with the naked eye. What we see with the naked eye is a world of suffering and setback, of violence and hardship, and of fierce competition for resources.

 

What we see with the inner eye of faith is God’s love, grace, and acceptance of us even when we badly mess up. It includes God’s promise of a new world being born in our midst. God’s promise to Abraham is that your “reward” shall be great. The Hebrew word kr is better translated as “gift.” There’s no quid pro quo—one thing for another. It’s a gift pure and simple, not a reward for Abraham’s faith.

 

With the inner eye, we learn to trust in the gift and let go of our fear of uncertainty. I know from personal experience that my insecurities too often drive my efforts to fix things or other people. I then easily trample on others and can do great harm in the process. With the inner eye of faithful trust we can let go of such compulsions and we see that love is more powerful than hate and violence, and that Jesus’ way of sacrificial love goes with the grain of the universe.

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[1] As quoted in Imagining the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, Vol. 1 (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 1994), 250.

[2] Walter Brueggemann, Genesis: Interpretation (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2010), 140.

[3] Ibid., 145.

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