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God does not manipulate us

Matthew 10:24-39

Sunday Sermon

The Rev. W. W. (Tad) Meyer
Assisting Priest

June 25, 2017

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. And even the hairs on your head are all counted. So do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows.

From what I know of sparrows and given what I know about the human race, I’m not sure that I share our Lord’s confidence in their comparative value. At the very least, it often seems like a pretty close race. But laying aside that question, the image of divine attention that Jesus holds before us is a provocative one that speaks powerfully about the omnipotence of God’s care. It is a reassuring image that evokes a certain sense of comfort and security, a deep feeling of paternal attention and care. Far too often, however, I’m afraid that comforting sense of safety and assurance is enveloped within a very distorted notion of the relationship between reality and God’s grace.

Given the image of the falling sparrow, it is quite easy for us to see ourselves as so much flotsam and jetsam, drifting down the great stream of life, carried along by currents that are beyond our control. As we drift along, we are cradled and cushioned by our faith in the God of the river, serenely confident that every eddy and rapid, every rock and obstacle is somehow placed there for our best interest. All that we experience is preordained for our benefit. Even the hairs on our head are precisely numbered so that as gruesome and dangerous as the journey may become, we can rest assured that it is all the product of God’s benevolent will. Almighty God stands behind a large and sophisticated control panel, regulating the flight of sparrows and the myriad currents of countless human lives. God is the cosmic manipulator who moves all the complex pieces of reality in accordance with an equally intricate divine plan.

It is a notion of divine control that I have seen emerge far too often, particularly in traumatic situations when people are struggling with heart-breaking circumstances involving loss and grief. A child dies and a mourning mother is comforted by a well-intentioned neighbor who stoically assures her that all is well. It was meant to be. God took her child, carrying her off according to the divine plan. It was the child’s fate that she should die. God knew the proper moment, just as God knows when the sparrow’s wings will finally fail, and at that precise moment God pushed the appropriate button. All was done in accordance with the great scheme of divine propriety.

Such a concept of God may seem comforting and may indeed hold within it an important grain of truth, but it rests dangerously near to fatalism and it does a tremendous injustice to both God’s love and our free will. A child’s death may indeed become the vehicle of God’s grace but not because that death conforms to some pre-ordained divine plan. God’s grace enters into such painful situations through the responses and reactions of those who reach out in love, not through death itself. God’s grace appears within grief and loss not in spite of them, for grief and loss are expressions of that love. Confronted with such calamities, we are not asked to suffer silently and stoically, resigning ourselves to the horror of the situation by viewing it as the preordained will of Almighty God. No, our response must be to look at the situation realistically, in all of its fearsome terror: the pain of a severed relationship, our anger at the unfairness of it all, our own fear of loss and death. We must first accept these feelings and fears and the reality which they represent. We must look within them to the very depths of our humanity for it is that humanity which our Lord accepted and redeemed and which has become through that gracious act, the instrument of our salvation.

It is interesting to note that, just before Jesus assures his disciples of God’s care with the image of the sparrow, he first tells them, in very graphic terms, about the confusion and horror that they will all face. They will be betrayed, tried unjustly, flogged and dragged before hostile authorities. Adherence to their new faith will break down the bonds of family, pitting brother against brother, children against parents. Hatred and suffering will abound, but he who endures to the end will be saved. To endure is not to bury our anger and grief beneath a blanket of fatalism, as comforting as such a solution may appear to be. No, to endure is to accept the truth that no matter what suffering or loss we experience, God remains in the midst of it, not as a divine manipulator but as a graceful, healing presence, calling us to respond in love.

In his spiritual autobiography, the journalist Dan Wakefield wrote about his own experience of God in times of suffering and anguish:

For me the light is Christ, and it is not just a light as in “sweetness and light” but an illumination of pain as well, and a force for understanding and bearing it. When I went to our minister once at a time of particular anguish I asked him suddenly, with a challenge, “Where is Christ in all this?” and he answered without hesitation “He is in the pain.” I learned that resurrection is not just a “happy ending” that follows crucifixion but, as our minister put it, those events are “two aspects of the same experience, even as Good Friday and Easter are the same reality.”

“He is in the pain.” He is not the cause of the pain. When Christ tells his disciples in this morning’s Gospel not to fear, I don’t believe that he is suggesting to them that they simply should stoically accept their fates, resigning themselves to their preordained trials and tribulations passively without anxiety or emotion. Earlier he told them that they must be like their teacher and their master. Can anyone forget the tears and fears of the Garden of Gethsemane on the dark night of Maundy Thursday? Christ is not telling his disciples to rely on their belief in God’s omnipotent control. He is assuring them instead that all human life is under the aegis of God’s grace and so if we choose to respond in faith, God will be with us in the pain as well as in the joy of our lives. We are not to gloss over our anguish and fear with fatalistic thoughts of the domination of the divine will, that is the arena of astrologists and fortune tellers. We are invited to accept a far greater and more remarkable truth, that God in Christ is present within all such moments, asking us to open our hearts in faith and choose the reality of God’s redeeming love.

Pain and suffering, loss and death, anxiety, anguish and depression, these are not minions of a manipulative deity who uses them to control and direct our lives, leading rats through a laboratory maze. No, they are essential components of reality, part of the natural process of human existence and as such, they are as inevitable as breathing. We cannot avoid them, as hard as we may try, and I imagine, in a very restricted sense, they were indeed meant to be. But the glorious message of the Christian faith is that whatever situation we find ourselves within, whatever heights we climb or depths we descend into, God is there, offering us grace and mercy, assuring us that nothing can separate us from the redemption of God’s eternal love.

Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul; rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.

We are not puppets who are jerked through life by divinely controlled strings that are pulled and eased and eventually cut. We are human beings, made in the image of God who must make difficult and important decisions in the midst of the uncertainties of life. If within such moments we choose to exercise faith, acknowledging and accepting the redeeming reality of God in Christ, we need not fear for God will join us in our pain and our joy, offering us the resurrecting power of his love which will even carry us through the dark portals of death. But to deny God at such times, that is to fall prey to those forces that are seeking to destroy our souls as well as our bodies.

God does indeed have a purpose for creation, a purpose that is no less than the redemption and salvation of the world. But that salvation is not forced upon us, reducing our role to that of a robot or automaton. Salvation is not forced upon us but is offered to us, cradled in hands bearing the wounds of the cross. It is freely given and it must be freely accepted. God does indeed reign over the flight of the sparrow and the windings and ramblings of our all too convoluted lives. He reigns over them but he does not control them. God stands by the falling sparrow and she stands by you and me, beckoning us to open our hearts and minds to the reality of pervasive grace. To respond to love with love is to find that you have become like the master and that you are indeed as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. You have become no less that a citizen of God’s eternal kingdom, made whole and righteous through the gift of faith. To become such a citizen, to faithfully accept the gift of God’s love and grace, that, my friends, is what is truly meant to be.