Pastor Joe Britton
St. Michael’s Church
Jesus said, “Stand up and raise your heads,
because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21)
“Our society is suffering from a crisis of trust.” Those words might sound as if they were spoken just yesterday, but they come from a series of Lenten talks given more than a decade ago at Canterbury Cathedral. (Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, 2007). Trust has been in short supply for a long time.
The source of mistrust, is that we sense that someone else’s agenda or purpose has nothing to do with my own good, or the good of my community. So nowadays we are mistrustful of government, which seems bound by the self-serving straightjacket of bureaucracy and partisanship. We are mistrustful of corporations, which seem motivated purely for the benefit of their investors. We are mistrustful of institutions like colleges and universities, which seem more oriented to their own self-preservation than to the service of society. So too, we are mistrustful of the institutional church, which seems structured to provide an aura of importance to those in authority, while neglecting structures of accountability for their actions.
I would venture to say, that we are even mistrustful of ourselves, knowing from modern psychology that we are often motivated by deeply rooted prejudices and resentments that obscure our judgment and blunt our goodwill.
This kind of mistrust creeps in to relationships of all kinds, short-circuiting their vitality and sabotaging their effectiveness. I recall, for instance, visiting the St. Nicholas Seminary in Ghana when I was dean of an American seminary, with the goal of establishing an exchange relationship with its students and faculty. Its wary president told me, “Mr. Dean, we have been courted before by other American seminaries, only to be left standing alone at the altar when their priorities changed. So our experience is that Americans are not to be trusted. Can you promise something better?” And in truth, knowing the political vicissitudes of American educational institutions, I found that I could not. I knew that we as a school, when all was said and done, did not value, and were not structured, to make long-term commitments. We were, as an institution, fundamentally untrustworthy.
In today’s gospel, Jesus describes what a world lacking in trust looks like. There is distress and tension among the nations, people are full of fear and foreboding, uncertain of what is coming. Anxiety and anger dominate. Sound familiar?
So how does Jesus respond to this atmosphere of mistrust? Well, as you might expect, he tells a parable: a simple parable of predictability. When the trees sprout their leaves, he says, you know for a fact that summer is near. So too, there are signs that God is near, if we are able to read them.
The implication, of course, is that amidst the uncertainties of the world, Jesus is saying there is at least one thing, which is fully trustworthy: and that thing is God. So, of course, the question arises: how do we know that?
Ironically, it is the very one who asserts the validity of the statement that God is to be trusted, who is himself the validation of it. Jesus is the one whose life shows us what God always means to have happen, what God’s agenda is, if you will. In the mercy that Jesus shows to those around him, in the peaceableness that he teaches, in the turning toward the other with complete openness and acceptance—in all these things, we see enacted God’s way with humanity.
God, you see, doesn’t give us ideas about who God is: God gives us a life, the life of Jesus. And that through our own contemplation of that life, we find that we have enough to go on to be able to say to ourselves, “God can be trusted.” Because, as it turns out, we don’t see anything in Jesus that is not in some way an expression of the love that is at the heart of who God is.
Julian of Norwich, the well-known fourteenth-century hermit and mystic, was asked what was the meaning of the recurring visions she had. Her answer was simple and direct: “Love was his meaning.”
Think, if you can, about someone you have known in your own life who you gradually came to realize acted without any thought for him or her self, without expectation of reward, who was wholly focused on the good of others. In lives like that, we see a reflection of what God is like: someone whose joy comes from sharing in the joy of others; someone whose intentions are always for good; someone who doesn’t need other people (in the sense of figuring out how to take advantage of them), but who delights in them. That is the kind of person you can truly trust, someone in whose hands you would willingly place your own life.
That’s what the disciples found in Jesus: someone who was so unalterably focused on others that they came to trust him without reserve. The climactic test of that trust, of course, comes in Jesus’ death—when at first the disciples thought that, after all, their trust was to be disappointed, because Jesus was defeated. But in his return, they discover a whole new level and reason for trust, because it turns out that the life that he lives is not his own, but God’s. And if God’s, then a life of mercy and peace—the very words Jesus first says to his disciples at Easter: “Peace be with you.”
Today, Advent Sunday, has the purpose of turning our eyes toward the life that is given to us in Jesus, that through it, we might see something of the life of God—not the whole of it, but enough to be able to trust in it. To trust that like Jesus, our challenges will not overcome us; to trust that suffering when it comes will not endure indefinitely; to trust that our efforts toward compassion and peace will not be in vain; to trust that love is at the foundation of it all, and that the source of that love cannot be exhausted.
As Dame Julian reported of her visions, “[Jesus] said not, ‘Thou shalt not be tempted, thou shalt not be travailed, thou shalt not be diseased’; but [rather] he said, ‘Thou shalt not be overcome.’” Amen.