Sermon for 12.03.17
Confucius told his disciple Tsze-kung that three things are needed for government: weapons, food and trust. If a ruler can’t hold on to all three, he should give up the weapons first and the food next. Trust should be guarded to the end: “without trust we cannot stand.”
This story was quoted by Onora O’Neill in her Reith Lectures in 2002. She gave five lectures on the subject of trust, a very live issue in the world at that time, just a few months after the event that has defined this century so far, the mass murder of 9/11. How do we know whom to trust? How far should we trust? Can we really live without trust?
In a complex technological world, we obviously have no choice but to trust. We have to trust that the water that comes out of our taps is fit to drink, that the boiler that heats our house won’t blow up, that we won’t be electrocuted when we plug in the kettle. We have to trust that our bus or tube driver is skilled and non-suicidal, that cars will stop at red lights when we cross the street, that the lift will work when we get into it at work. We trust that our salary will be paid on time and that the bank will keep our money safe. We trust our smartphones and PCs to be reliable and not lose our data or send it to the wrong places.
But it’s not just the mechanics of the modern world that we put our trust in. We trust our friends to keep our confidences and our partners to be loyal and our children to tell us the truth. We close our eyes at night to sleep, trusting that we will remain safe through the hours of darkness.
So with all this practice in trusting, why is it so hard to trust God? It seems to me that this is the biggest spiritual problem of all. It’s hard for everyone. The story of Abraham is so remarkable because he did what so few people could do – he trusted in God’s promises and staked his whole life, and even his son Isaac’s life, on the faithfulness of God. To Jews, to Christians and to Muslims, Abraham stands out as an extreme example of trust.
The Bible is absolutely heaving with stories about trust or lack of it. There are a lot of untrustworthy characters in the Bible. Eve put her trust in the serpent – an unwise move. Abel trusted Cain, Laban trusted Jacob, Samson trusted Delilah, Sisera trusted Jael, David trusted Saul – all bad judgments. If you don’t remember the particular stories, go dig out the books of Genesis and Judges and Samuel, indeed revisit the Bible Challenge and reread most of the Hebrew scriptures, and you’ll see trickery and betrayal on every side.
So trust and the disastrous consequences it can lead us to are not skated over in the scriptures. There are plenty of times when we are foolish to put our trust in someone. It’s not just the Bible. If you are around my age you’ll remember the series of Peanuts cartoons where Lucy holds a football for Charlie Brown to kick, and every single time she whisks it away at the last moment, leaving him flat on his back. Why does he keep trusting her to do what she promises? Charlie Brown is an endearing character but he really is a bit naïve.
People used to be told that they should trust their partner’s enduring love even when that love was abused over and over again and they were hurt and betrayed. Now we are more realistic. We tell them that they must keep themselves and their children safe, and get out of abusive relationships before they become a pattern.
Clearly, human beings don’t always earn or deserve our trust. The Church of England is struggling at the moment – still! – with the issue of how people with different views on women’s ordination can continue to trust each other. You’ve probably heard that our former neighbour at Old St Pancras in Camden Town, Philip North, has withdrawn his acceptance of the post of Bishop of Sheffield, because many people of that diocese do not feel able to trust that a traditionalist can be a focus of unity. We are wrestling with how to move forward, trusting each other’s conscientious positions and good intentions, while still maintaining some kind of coherence as a Church.
We have to learn trust from birth onwards. Newborn babies whose needs are consistently met, who are cuddled when they cry and fed when they are hungry, gradually learn that the world is a safe. They trust their primary caregivers to love and protect them, once they understand that they are separate people and not just projections of their own needs and desires. Eventually they can take the very big step of letting go, trusting that their caregiver will return after an absence. Loved babies become confident children and trustworthy adults.
These fortunate people naturally find it easier to trust God than do the people whose needs as children were left unmet and who experienced repeated betrayal as they were growing up. For them it takes an exceptional leap of faith to trust that they are truly loved by God.
But even the most secure, happy, confident, beloved person can still struggle to trust that God is good. And that is because we measure God’s trustworthiness by our own happiness and security. If something bad happens, we withdraw our trust. How could God let my parent or child die? How could a bad thing like cancer or financial ruin happen to me? When our hopes are crushed, we are tempted to give up on God, believing either that God doesn’t exist or that God is a sadistic monster.
This Lent some of us are reading extracts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s work, many of them written while he was in prison for joining an anti-Hitler conspiracy. He was hanged before he could marry the fiancée with whom he planned a happy future. Those of us who have been reading him every day for awhile now find it a bracing experience. There is nothing warm and sentimental about his view of God. He doesn’t expect things to work out the way he wants them to. But he trusts God utterly to death and beyond. He never blames God for letting him down – his concern is altogether the other way around, about whether or not he is being a faithful disciple of the one who was crucified for us.
God has not promised us an easy and comfortable time, a happy marriage or a healthy family, a good job or a prosperous lifestyle. God offers us the way of the cross. Jesus in the desert struggled with the temptation to put his trust in bread, fame or power, but he withstood those temptations by remembering the words of God in the scriptures. Nicodemus, in today’s gospel, comes to Jesus by night, not quite trusting that his mysterious message can make any sense to a righteous teacher of Israel. What on earth can it mean to be born of water and the Spirit, to be blown by the wind wherever it chooses?
It means, of course, that life is a tremendous adventure, and that its meaning is not to be found in any material things or worldly powers, or in a magical ability to get everything to go our way, but in relationships of love and trust that give meaning to our lives. If we have learned to be trustworthy with one another, we’ll find it easier to trust God, but God is faithful even to those who are full of doubt and suspicion. But we do need to take a step of faith. Abraham is the example, Jesus is the perfect model, but each of us has to make our own decision to trust God in order to be brought to the fullness of life.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul doesn’t say, God will banish all pain and make everything go the way you want. But he does write, God gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. Those things include our courage, confidence, sense of purpose and trust. A life of meaning and purpose, a life rooted in loving relationships, is possible for us all, no matter what bad things may happen. Jesus shows us how to live by trust in God.