ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH JUNE 17, 2018
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
WHAT ON EARTH?
2 Corinthians 5: 6 – 15; Mark 4: 26 – 34
Italy is far away – beyond the range of our natural eyesight. Yet, when Terry and I went to Italy I had no doubt the plane would land in a place called Rome with aqueducts, the Coliseum, a forum, the Vatican and the Catacombs. It never occurred to me that Italy was a myth because my mother had come from Italy; I had seen pictures; I had received gifts from people there; I had studied its history in university. I believed Italy existed, and it did! Heaven is a bit like Italy. We can’t see it. We don’t know for certain it exists, but we have enough evidence to make us believe it does. We know it’s there because Jesus came from there; John described the vision he had of heaven in the book of Revelation; we have received grace and peace and gifts from the Holy Spirit; we read of it in scripture. We believe that heaven is real, even if we have not yet seen or experienced it ourselves. However, our journey to heaven is a little more like air travel. Any number of things can go wrong: you’re late, you’ve forgotten your passport, you can’t figure out how to get a boarding pass, your luggage is too heavy. They pat you down at security. Then you wait. Boarding is late. You’re almost crushed by impatient people. Planes are cramped, uncomfortable, full of germs and bad food. You’re seated next to a talker or a twitcher. Not to mention, planes are not always reliable. They sometimes need repairs or de-icing. You don’t know if you’ll run out of gas. A bird might fly into the engine – is the pilot skilled enough to land you safely in a river? A wing may fall off. You may hit turbulence. A terrorist might hijack it. The pilot may be suicidal. A flight attendant may be rude. Maybe you’ll arrive at your destination in a storm and they won’t let you land. Many things could cause the plane to fall out of the sky, especially gravity. One positive experience doesn’t guarantee the next. So, what makes any sane person get on a plane? We’re motivated by a deep desire to go someplace wonderful. It takes a great deal of faith to hop on a plane.
When it comes to life, the same thing is true. “It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going” (2 Corinthians 5:7) or more simply, “We walk by faith and not by sight”. For most people, it’s easy to walk by sight. We look forward to where we’re going. We’re capable of seeing where we’re headed. We keep an eye out for bumps, cracks and obstacles that could cause us to trip. Walking by faith is a whole different game. Personally, I’m a klutz. I’m forever walking into things. On any given day I have fresh bruises on my shins and my thighs, depending on the height of the table or chair that I’ve walked into. Truth be told, I’m so good at being klutzy, I could trip over nothing. I spill food on my shirt. I drop things. I stick myself in the eye with my mascara wand. I like to think of myself as classy and elegant but once I accidently drop kicked a plastic plant down the aisle of a church. There’s no recovering from that. In the hallway of my high school, I body checked a gym teacher who outweighed me by about 100 lbs. and sent him flying into the lockers – fortunately, he was impressed. I have walked into plate glass doors – that hurts. Don’t do it. I wanted to be a ballerina but as it turns out it’s a long way from the stage to the floor, chancels are a little safer. As a person who’s intuitive when it comes to spiritual things, energy, feelings, anticipating what’s next, etc. I don’t do so well with what is concrete. More than once I’ve tripped over curbs. This is me walking in high heels. You get the picture. I suppose it would help if I paid closer attention and watched where I was going, but apparently, I do not walk by sight.
The same is true of our journey through this world. Just for clarity, I was going to use the term our “faith journey” but we only have one journey. We each have one life and what is spiritual about that life is not separate from any other part of it. We may compartmentalize our lives into segments – our social life, our work life, our home life, our school life – but it’s all the same life. We live spiritual lives and who we are and all we do are wrapped up in the one spiritual journey we call life. And in that journey, we’re motivated by a deep desire to go someplace wonderful. We walk by faith and not by sight. And the truth is, we’re not very good at it. When it comes to faith we’re all rather klutzy. Sometimes we’re not good at it because of choices and mistakes we make, sometimes we hit turbulence, and sometimes the errors or actions of others cause us to stumble.
Somewhere along the line we’ve gotten the idea our lives should be perfect or at least, if our lives aren’t perfect, our faith should be. We should walk down dark alleys without a flicker of fear; we should walk across hot coals without burning our feet; and without thinking twice we should hop in Blondin’s wheelbarrow for a ride across the Niagara Gorge. The reality is, as we go through life, our faith fluctuates not because we don’t believe in or desire to get to our destination and not because we don’t care about pleasing God. Our faith is unsteady because we can’t see. That’s what makes it faith. If we could see, we’d walk by sight. We wouldn’t need faith.
Part of what we can’t see are obstacles on the path, the pit falls, construction zones, land mines and icy spots that we need to manoeuvre. We do not know when someone with evil intentions is going to jump out in front of us. Every day I meet Christians who are merrily walking down the path of life when something causes them to trip. A spouse discovers their partner has been unfaithful. A work contract isn’t renewed. The bank forecloses on a mortgage. We fail school. We discover our child or grandchild is on drugs. The police knock on the door with a warrant for an arrest. Someone we trust double-crosses us. Illness announces itself and takes over so that we sleep, breathe and eat Doctors’ appointments and anxiety. Death sneaks up behind us and pulls the rug out, not only from under our security but, from under our hearts. In the disorientation of life, we lose our sense of self. Sometimes the imbalance lies within us. A devastating childhood has left us with self-loathing. An injustice has caused us to grow bitter. A sense of powerlessness has let in the dark cloud of depression. An injury has allowed vengeance to grow and choke out our ability to forgive. A desire to have something we want has moved us to cheat and manipulate to get it. The road’s not smooth and we’re not spiritual gymnasts – most of us are muddling through.
That’s not to say we don’t have faith. We do. Faith isn’t the ability to breeze through life’s wounds and challenges as if they didn’t happen. Faith is what allows us to find God within them. Jean-Pierre de Caussade, a French Jesuit priest, wrote, “To live by faith is to live joyfully, to live with assurance, untroubled by doubts and with complete confidence in all we have to do and suffer at each moment by the will of God. We must realize that it is in order to stimulate and sustain this faith that God allows the soul to be buffeted and swept away by the raging torrent of so much distress, so many troubles, so much embarrassment and weakness, and so many setbacks. For it is essential to have faith to find God behind all this.” As we walk this Earth we are not guaranteed that life will be rosy, or prayers will be answered as we desire, or faith will come easily. We are aliens on this earth, it is not our true home. We find ourselves in a place of exile, awaiting our home-coming. We will always hit ruts in the road, but faith gives us the strength to keep walking until we find our way through those rough patches. We may have moments of hesitation or fear; we may even find ourselves in the gutter or lost and wandering on a wrong trail for a time but as Paul asks, “Do you suppose a few ruts in the road or rocks in the path are going to stop us?” (vs. 8) Faith is the determination to get back on the path. Faith is trusting that whatever happens, God is still with us and heaven awaits us.
Adoniram Judson, the first American missionary to Burma, was lying in a foul jail with 32 lbs. of chains on his ankles, his feet bound to a bamboo pole. A fellow prisoner sneered, “Dr. Judson, what about the prospect of the conversion of the heathen?” His reply was, “The prospects are still as bright as the promises of God.” When we walk by faith, we hold on to God’s promises even from the depths of the darkest pit.
A television program preceding the 1988 Winter Olympics featured blind skiers being trained for slalom skiing. Paired with sighted skiers, the blind skiers were taught on the flats how to make right and left turns. When they mastered those skills, they were taken to the slalom slope, where their sighted partners skied beside them shouting, “Left!” and “Right!” Faith doesn’t take our limitations from us and it can’t take the obstacles out of our way. Faith is listening for the voice of Christ and trusting that in his love, God will guide us to the finish line. Walking by faith doesn’t give us control of our circumstances. It enables us to please God, regardless of our conditions.
In Mark’s account of Jesus’ life, Jesus tells a story of the kingdom of heaven. “God’s kingdom is like seed thrown on a field by a man who then goes to bed and forgets about it. The seed sprouts and grows—he has no idea how it happens. The earth does it all without his help…” (Mark 4: 26& 27). The good news is that faith is what makes the farmer toss the seed onto the ground. He cannot see the plant and he certainly doesn’t make it grow. He doesn’t pray it into existence or whip himself into a frenzy of conviction. In fact, he goes to bed and forgets about it. And somehow God does what only God can do. The seed sprouts and grows. Our faith may be imperfect. We may stumble and fall as we walk through the field, but that imperfect faith from our frightened, uncertain souls is enough. It’s enough to drop a seed. It’s enough to get on the plane.
The African impala can jump to a height of over 10 feet. Yet these magnificent creatures can be kept in an enclosure in any zoo with a 3-foot wall. The animals will not jump if they cannot see where their feet will fall. Faith is the ability to trust what we cannot see, and with faith we are freed from the barriers in our lives and our inner entrapping fears. As St. Augustine said, “Faith is to believe what we do not see, and the reward of faith is to see what we believe.”