Is God Trustworthy?
Based on Genesis 22:1-14, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 10:40-42
You may remember that I attended a conference at Duke University back in October – back when gathering with hundreds of people in an enclosed space for a prolonged period of time was commonplace! I heard a number of wonderful talks at that conference, some which have given me “nuggets of truth” which have continued to rattle around in my head. One of those nuggets of truth was the following statement: “Social change happens at the speed of relationships and relationships happen at the speed of trust”. Maybe, this is why it takes so long for social change to be realized – especially in this current time of polarization from neighbors and distrust of government.
Think about any aspect of society or social interaction that we might want to change for the better. Maybe it’s race relations, maybe it is having all employers pay a living wage, maybe it is improving access to healthcare or access to healthy foods, how about affordable housing complete with rural broadband? Whatever social change you undertake you will soon realize that it is too large to change by yourself. In every issue there will be proponents of keeping the issue as it is (typically those who are benefitting from or not paying attention to the status quo) and those who oppose the current reality. Of those who oppose, there will be a number of ideas on how to enact the social change and exactly how that change should look. You will need to build a coalition of folks who are willing to sit down, think creatively and be able to compromise about how to change what needs to be changed. You will have to agree on a plan and on myriad details…in short, you will have to find people that you can trust deeply in order to effect meaningful change.
Our scriptures today speak to us about the many aspects of developing a deep and trusting relationship with God. Jesus is sending His disciples out into the world telling them to look first for welcome before they bring the good news. Paul telling us to enter into our relationship with God “as instruments of righteousness” rather than of worldly sin and wickedness. The story from Genesis tells us how challenging our trusting relationship with God might be when God asks us to sacrifice something we deeply love. Let us go to God now in prayer that our relationship with God might be worthy of our deepest trust…
Jesus’ final words to the disciples before they leave on their first mission is to look for welcome before entering into relationship with the “lost sheep of the house of Israel”. Jesus says to seek out those who are longing for a relationship with something real and healing, something that brings them meaning and purpose – something that eases the thirst they are feeling for peace and justice. Without being welcomed, the disciples will be hard pressed to enter into relationship with the lost. With a welcome, however, there is already a modicum of trust that is extended and upon which a solid relationship can be built.
The Apostle Paul is writing from the perspective of a slave – a reality for 80% of the people in the Roman Empire. Paul is matter-of-fact in stating that the believers in the Christ have a choice of whom they will serve. Will it be the forces of sin that enslave and destroy them, or will it be enslavement as people of righteousness under God? Paul notes that enslavement to sin is paid off in death. The payment from serving God is “eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord”. By choosing to trust and serve God they will find that, “…you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification. The end is eternal life….”
Chapter 22 of Genesis causes many faithful people to ask the question “is God trustworthy?”. The story of God commanding Abraham to travel 50 miles to sacrifice his beloved son is hard to reconcile with our idea of a loving God. Theologians, biblical scholars and everyday believers across time have attempted to make sense of this story. Abraham is often celebrated as an example of how our relationship with God can grow to such a point that we can trust God with everything in our lives – even with the loss of our most cherished possession. Most of us fall short of that ideal, however, because maybe that’s not the point of the story for our faith development.
I wonder…what if this difficult and shocking story exists to help people make sense of their most difficult faith experience? That experience when God seems to remove all blessings from us or asks us to sacrifice a possession we feel we cannot live without? In other words, maybe the important point for our faith development from the story known in Judaism as “the Akedah” (the binding) is to help people develop a deeper and more abiding trust in God when their world has turned to ruin around them.
Over the millennia, the 22nd chapter of Genesis is one of the places people have gone to wrestle with God when they came to the limit of their understanding and faith in God; in those times when the question is asked, “why does God allow us to suffer like this?” Not surprisingly, the last answer people want to that question is a reasoned explanation, because any reasonable explanation would be limited and would make a mockery of the depth of their anguish. The story of the attempted sacrifice of Isaac is the place we can go when find ourselves out beyond anything we imagined possible, beyond anything we ever imagined God might ask of us. We find ourselves in a place where the most rational thing to do might be to deny that God exists, that God cares, or that God is omnipotent and therefore trustworthy. That would be rational and sensible, except we find it impossible – because when we are struggling with trusting God, we realize we are so deep into relationship with God that to deny God’s existence in our lives would be to deny our deepest love.
When we find ourselves deep in relationship to God, to deny God any meaningful role in our lives would be to deny the existence inside us all the image and likeness of God. We discover that we are bound to our pain and incomprehension and the only way to move at all is to move with God, to move more deeply into this relationship that we call faith. That is what Abraham does: without understanding, horrified and stunned by what’s been asked of him. Abraham trusts God’s command, because it is the God who has been steadfastly faithful over decades who asks. To the question of why God is asking this of him – Abraham demands no answer.
It is quite common to define Abraham as a model of unquestioning obedience to God, but this is both untrue and damaging to Abraham’s character and to our ability to be like him. After all, obedience is virtuous only if it serves justice. If it is purely out of blind obedience that Abraham submits to God’s command, then his unquestioning submission is incomprehensively monstrous. Maybe there is another option…what if Abraham deeply trusts God when what God asks of him seems to make God wholly untrustworthy? You see, trusting someone deeply leaves us vulnerable. You can be disappointed and deeply wounded by someone you trust. God’s own trust makes God vulnerable; for example, God is “grieved to the heart” by human evil, as the flood story in Genesis tells us (Gen. 6:6). Thus, it requires deep commitment to continue to be trusting in a relationship where we’ve been so wounded. We do not often think of God as needing to be deeply committed, yet it requires this level of commitment for God to stay in relationship with humans, just as it takes equally deep commitment for each of us to stay in relationship with God.
Relationship with the One true God, the God of Abraham and Jesus, is not for the faint-of-heart or those with “commitment issues”. The Bible tells us plainly that sometimes being in relationship with God is bewildering AND it can hurt like hell. Almost always we must step forward in trust with no idea of where this relationship is leading. However, the gospel tells us clearly that the journey of the disciple in a trusting relationship with God is through the cross to sanctification. It’s leaving behind the sins of the world and being supported on the way by the embrace of God. It’s being embraced by an almighty love, the divine love that will not let us go – not ever, no matter what God asks of us or if we are trustworthy. Social and personal change both happen at the speed of trust within a relationship. Will you today commit to the personal change of building a trusting relationship with God – no matter what God asks of you? May the grace of God and power of the Holy Spirit foster your trust in God – amen and amen!