Sermon: “Trusting Jesus: the Work of a Lifetime”

“Trusting Jesus: the Work of a Lifetime”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
August 5, 2018

Psalm 56:3-4
O Most High, when I am afraid,
I put my trust in you. 
In God, whose word I praise,
in God I trust; I am not afraid;
what can flesh do to me?
John 6:24-29
So when the crowd saw that neither Jesus nor his disciples were there, they themselves got into the boats and went to Capernaum looking for Jesus.

When they found him on the other side of the lake, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ Then they said to him, ‘What must we do to perform the works of God?’ Jesus answered them, ‘This is the work of God, that you trust in the One whom God has sent.’

If you grew up like I did, this whole invitation to “trust in the one God has sent” – that is, Jesus – might sound a bit foreign, not quite in your religious vocabulary.

You see I was raised in a UCC church full of warm, caring people who were much better at talking about what they thought about Jesus rather than what they felt about Jesus, or whether they trusted him. So when evangelical friends would casually refer to their “personal relationship” with Jesus, I was both wary and intrigued. It sounded a little too intimate for a person I knew mostly through 2,000-year-old scripture – yet also somehow appealing. Didn’t I want to be close with this Jesus who, I knew from all those Bible stories, had had such impact on the people who let him get close, who told him their stories and invited him to help them grow and heal and change?

Going back at least as far as the emotion-filled revivals of the early 1700s, we mainline protestants have a proud history of bewaring religion that privileges the heart over the head. Basing our faith on something as flimsy as how we feel about God – on whether our emotions will show up and sweep us away every Sunday – seems like a far riskier undertaking than carefully discerning and reasoning out a set of beliefs we can assent to using our intellects. Not to mention the dangers of religion that wants to do all your thinking for you, or dismisses science, or breeds charlatans who swindle gullible believers into forking over their cash.

But then we get to a passage like the ones this morning: “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” “This is the work of God, that you trust in him whom God has sent.”

Oof. Those two verses are loaded with feelings. Putting your trust in someone not only creates an emotional bond; it leaves you vulnerable – to disappointment, to pain, to change. Trusting someone requires us to let go of our control over a situation, shattering the comforting illusion that we can do this life thing on our own. “Believing” in God – the more common, but less accurate, translation of the Greek word used here – is a lot less messy than trusting in God; it’s safer, somehow. Belief implies that we assent to a truth; trust requires that we completely make over our hearts in response to that truth.

Despite the fact that I’m a pastor, moving from belief to trust has been a journey for me. You might not be surprised that there were no classes in my Methodist seminary about how to become friends with Jesus; I graduated able to parse out the nuances of the Trinity, but without much of a relationship with the Jesus I had in theory been studying for the last three years. But whenever I heard someone speak with loving affection of Jesus, I felt a tug of longing that I would quickly dismiss, because it seemed like that kind of closeness with Jesus always went hand in hand with doctrine that excluded people or with some kind of schmaltzy “Jesus is my boyfriend” praise music that just wasn’t me.

But then a few things happened: first, I served as a pediatric chaplain for kids with cancer and heart defects, and I realized that so much in life was out of my control. As you might imagine, there was a lot of death happening in my departments; I was continually brought face to face with incomprehensible pain and suffering. I did my best to listen and comfort and pray and be present; but it quickly became clear to me that the only person who could accompany grieving families into the depths of their pain and cup their broken hearts together while they inched toward some kind of healing was Jesus: God made into a vulnerable human who knew what it meant to suffer agonizing pain and isolation and heartbreak right alongside them – and who knew how to remake life in the face of death.

The second thing that happened was reading a historical novel that went beyond the sometimes obscure prose of scripture, allowing Jesus to come alive as someone I could trust.  The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth George Speare tells the story of Daniel, a young Israelite in the time of Jesus whose life revolves around two things: caring for his sister Leah, who suffers from mental illness, and taking revenge for his father’s death at the hands of the Roman occupiers. Yet his desire for revenge leads to the death of his friends at the hands of Roman soldiers, and then to the crushing of his sister’s fragile spirit when Daniel, in a rage, forbids her to speak to a Roman soldier who has befriended her. His righteous anger stagnates into bitterness at a world that has stolen both his sister’s peace and his own sense of agency and freedom.

When his neighbor Simon entrusts his blacksmith shop to Daniel and leaves to follow a charismatic new preacher named Jesus, Daniel is intrigued. Later, when Daniel finds himself alone with Jesus for a few moments, Jesus asks Daniel to follow him, to give up his hatred for the even greater force of love. To Daniel it seems too much to ask: he cannot turn from the only way he knows how to be or renounce the driving purpose of his life.

Yet as weeks go by and his sister’s condition worsens, he wonders whether Jesus might cure her. When Jesus comes and kneels at what Daniel is afraid will be her deathbed, Daniel burns to tell him that it is his own anger and hatred that has reduced Leah to this state.

But “there was no need to speak. Jesus knew. He understood about Leah. He knew that Daniel had rejected him” by choosing his vendetta against the Romans over his sister’s happiness. Jesus’ “eyes, searching and full of [compassion], looked deep into [Daniel’s] and saw the bitterness and the hatred and the betrayed hopes and the loneliness. And then [Jesus] smiled. …Suddenly, with a longing that was more than he could bear, [Daniel] wanted to stop fighting against this man. He knew that he would give everything he possessed in life to follow Jesus” – even his desire for vengeance that had sustained him through the years. “To know Jesus,” he decided, “would be enough. [And] almost with [that] thought the terrible weight was gone. It its place a strength and sureness, and a peace he had never imagined, flowed around him and into his mind and heart.”

The closing scene finds Leah healed of her fever by Jesus, who leaves as suddenly as he had come. Daniel follows him out into the street, desperate to thank him – but sees instead Marcus, the Roman soldier who befriended his sister, waiting anxiously for news of Leah’s health. Daniel pauses, wondering how this new life of love will feel. Finally, he turns to the Roman. “Will you come into our house?” Daniel asks.

‘This is the work of God, that you trust in him whom God has sent.’

Trusting in Jesus isn’t about being overly sentimental or gratuitously emotional. It is about making the oftentimes difficult decision to let God made flesh look us directly in the eyes and help us release whatever holds us captive – whatever pain, or anger, or false sense of control is walling us off from love.

There is nothing sentimental or easy about the decision to let our hatred be transformed into love; our bitterness be transformed into healing; our fear be transformed into peace and generosity. It is, indeed, the work of a lifetime.

Yet through such trust, we come to know Jesus intimately – not as the subject of shmaltzy praise songs or even as some kind of magical, sin-erasing savior, but as the compassionately real, reassuringly human face of the divine power that frees us to live lives of joy, healing, and love – to trust the One whom God has sent.