Sermon preached on the 7th Sunday of Easter, May 20, 2012, at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Psalm 1, John 17:6-19
We hear Jesus pray this morning,
Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one….I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one.
I want to be honest this morning about something with which I struggle. This asking God for protection, I know we do it all the time, and I am unwilling to say we should not do it, but I am also unsure why it is a prayer God frequently chooses not to answer.
This is a real quandary because this is not just some whim of a prayer. It is prayer that Jesus prayed himself for us and that he taught us to pray. The line in the Lord’s Prayer that reads, “lead us not into temptation” or “save us from the time of trial,” is basically a prayer for protection. I have often thought, no matter which version you use, that this prayer must be one of the least answered prayers ever prayed.
Now there are a couple simple ways to solve my frustration. The first way is the way of Psalm 1, which we just read/sang together. God protects the righteous and the way of the wicked is doomed. In the end, that is too simple a solution because we all know that life does not work that way.
A second way to solve my problem is that I can simply cite the mystery of God. God’s will is unfathomable. We cannot possibly know what God’s plan is for our life.
I know a lot of people for whom that answer works, and that is perfectly fine with me. If you are one of those people, God bless you. You can stop listening to this sermon now.
But that answer does not work for me. It is certainly true that God is mystery and there is much we cannot understand, and certainly a great deal we cannot control. But what was and is the point of Jesus if in him we cannot see into the mystery of God, if in him we cannot know a good deal of what God is like and, yes, at least the contours of God’s plan for any one of us?
Ultimately the question I am wrestling with is this: What is God like? Is there any way or ways in which I can depend on God to act, or are we all subject to divine whim?
I’ve recently been reading the writing of someone who is helping me think and pray my way through these things. I have mentioned him before. He was an early 20th century Church of England priest named Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. He was a British army chaplain who spent much of World War I on the front lines. The experience profoundly affected his understanding of God and the biblical story.
He wrote many books. One of them, The Hardest Part, was written while he was serving at the front, and it begins with this story.
When I had been in France as a chaplain about two months, before I had heard a gun fired or seen a trench, I went to see an officer in the hospital who was slowly recovering from very serious wounds. The conversation turned on religion, and he seemed anxious to get at the truth. He asked me a tremendous question.
“What I want to know, Padre,” he said, “is, what is God like? I never thought about it before this war. I took the world for granted. I was not religious, though I was confirmed and went to Communion sometimes with my wife. But now it seems different. I realize that I am a member of the human race, and have a duty towards it, and that makes me want to know what God is like. When I am transferred into a new battalion I want to know what the Colonel is like. He bosses the show, and it makes a lot of difference to me what sort he is. Now I realize that I am in the battalion of humanity, and I want to know what the Colonel of the world is like. That is your real business, Padre; you ought to know.”
…I pointed to a crucifix which hung over the officer’s bed, and said, “Yes, I think I can tell you. God is like that.” I wondered if it would satisfy him. It did not. He was silent for awhile, looking at the crucifix, and then he turned to me, and his face was full of doubt and disappointment. “What do you mean?” he said, “God cannot be like that. God is Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, Monarch of the world, the King of kings and Lord of lords, whose will sways all the world. That is a battered, wounded, bleeding figure, nailed to a cross and helpless, defeated by the world and broken in all but spirit. That is not God; it is part of God’s plan: God’s mysterious, repulsive, and apparently futile plan for saving the world from sin. I cannot understand the plan, and it appears to have been a thoroughly bad one, because it has not saved the world from sin. It has been an accomplished fact now for nearly two thousand years, and we have sung hymns about God’s victory, and yet the world is full of sin, and now there is this filthy war. I’m sick of this cant. You have not been up there, Padre, and you know nothing about it. I tell you that cross does not help me a bit; it makes things worse. I admire Jesus of Nazareth; I think he was splendid, as my friends at the front are splendid—splendid in their courage, patience, and unbroken spirit. But I did not ask you what Jesus was like, but what God is like, God who willed his death in agony upon the Cross, and who apparently wills the wholesale slaughter in this war. Jesus Christ I know and admire, but what is God Almighty like? To me he is still the unknown God.”
How would you answer him?
I think that is a profoundly important story and a profoundly important question. And despite the fact that the officer in that hospital bed asked that question almost a hundred years ago, it is still one of the most important question we can ask and struggle to answer honestly if we are ever going to see the long, slow decline of the church (which started with World War I) end.
A little later in his book, Kennedy begins to wrestle with the question. By this time he has spent time at the front in the trenches.
What is God like? I remember that’s what that officer in hospital asked me. “You ought to know; that is your business, Padre,” he said. I suppose it is, and I ought to know. But do I? Do I know and love God? Jesus Christ I know and love….but Almighty and Everlasting God, High and Mighty, King of kings and Lord of lords, the only ruler of princes, to whom all things in heaven and earth and under the earth do bow and obey, do I know anything about him at all?...I have said these such words [describing God] a thousand times. What did I mean? What did the men who wrote them mean? It all seems like silly sentimental nonsense in the face of this [war]….
I don’t know or love the Almighty potentate—my only real God is the suffering Father revealed in the sorrow of Christ.
What good is God if he cannot or will not protect us? I don’t know. But what good is God if he protects some and not others, because that is the evidence. If God is not in the protection business, what business is he in? What good is he?
Here is where I currently am in wrestling with these questions, with the help of Kennedy and many others, including all of you, as we share the life of faith together.
The truth is, I believe that the weakness and defeat shown on the cross, which was so repellent to the officer in Kennedy’s story, is, in fact, God showing us not only how to walk through the valley of the shadow of death, but his guarantee that we do not ever take that walk alone, and our companion has walked that way alone before. He knows every ounce of our fear. God does not protect us from the valley of the shadow of death. God walks through it with us.
That’s what God is good for: that compassion and solidarity as a way of life are stronger than the way of death, even when that death led through the horrific trenches of World War I. The good news is that we are all in this together, God included; that is, in fact, our salvation. This means that if we pray for protection, we must also work for protection, especially that of the weakest among us, knowing that in this world we will fail sometimes, maybe often, but we are on the road to an existence where fear and death have finally been conquered—the promise of Easter—and in that place God will prove to have been Almighty all along.
At the end of his book Kennedy writes
There is a sense in which I believe more firmly than I ever did that God is Almighty. I can still…say “I believe in God the Father Almighty,” and in those glorious words confess my faith that the final Victory of God is as sure, nay, surer than the rising of to-morrow’s sun. God is suffering his agony now, but the day will surely come when his agony and ours will be ended, and we shall sing our song of praise to the triumphant God of love. Sin and sorrow, though real, are only temporary…but they will pass away, and God will prove himself Almighty in the end.
Here’s the bottom line: when we pray to be protected from evil, to be saved from the time of trial or not be led into temptation, we are praying not for God to do something to us, but in and through us. God is never the answer to our prayer alone. The answer to our prayer is always God and us, in partnership, in solidarity, walking through the valley of the shadow of death.