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Calvary Episcopal ChurchBob Hansel
Memphis, Tennessee
October 5, 2003
The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost

God’s Faith in Us
The Rev. Dr. Robert R. Hansel

Psalm 8
(This sermon is also available in audio)

I want to remind you of an old story--a story that, I’m sure, all of you have heard at some point. The thing about old stories is that they become old by being told over and over. And the reason they are told and retold is because they contain a lot of truth and insight--enough that people want to retain and remember them. Well this story is about a community of blind people in India who wanted very much to know about elephants. They had heard all about these creatures but, of course, had never seen one. They selected a group of six blind representatives to be taken where there was an elephant that they could inspect by touching it--and then they were to report back to all their blind friends. The first one to return had touched only a tusk and, therefore, reported with confidence, “The elephant is long, hard, and has a sharp point.” The second witness laughed off that report because he had felt the creature’s tail. He indicated, with assurance, “The elephant is like a rope with a tassel at the end. Each of the others dismissed the earlier statements and, depending on which part of the elephant they had felt, reported that it was like a high wall, a large fan, a fat wiggly snake, or the trunk of a tree. Each report was accurate up to a point, but none contained the whole truth, even though the witness in each case was absolutely certain.

This same sort of shortsighted jumping-to-conclusions happens everyday. Individuals form an unshakeable perception that’s based on a partial truth and then wind up arguing and fighting about who’s right and who’s wrong. Here’s an example: along one street here in Memphis, within just a few blocks, you can drive by a church that says it’s the “Missionary Holiness” congregation. A block away stands the “Reformed Missionary Holiness, and just down the street you’ll find the “Greater Reformed Missionary Holiness” church. Around the next corner is “Tabernacle Greater Reformed Missionary Holiness” church. Apparently the original church was composed of people who saw things somewhat differently and so, their varieties of interpretation led not to a strengthening unity of broader insight but a division into separate, competitive factions.

I’m thinking about all this business of divisiveness because, in recent weeks, in response to our own Episcopal Church’s General Convention, we have seen individual members and even whole congregations arguing about matters of Faith and practice, leading to division and judgement. We apparently still haven’t learned that none of us is ever gifted with absolute knowledge, no matter how sure we are of our own position on any given matter. We haven’t discovered how to take our own limited information and put it together with that of others so that, with forbearance and forgiveness all of us move closer to the truth.

When it comes time for Church historians to write about what was going on in the Christian Church here in the United States during the second half of the Twentieth Century, I expect that they will focus on our effort to rearticulate what it means to have Faith in God. The archaic words of Bible and liturgy may sound beautifully poetic but they simply can’t carry the weight of providing to the modern mind a convincing explanation of who God is, where God is, and what God wants of us. From revolutionary books on theology such as Honest to God, to the pronouncements of Vatican II, to the work of the so-called “Jesus Seminar”, to the 1976 revision of The Book of Common Prayer, throughout the past fifty years there has been a consistent effort to reexamine the classic language of the Faith, seeking to re-state it in more contemporary patterns of thought and expression. The Church has been seeking to communicate the reality of God in terms that can be easily understood by ordinary people--students, union workers, housewives, executives, scientists--anyone who is part of pragmatic modern society. All of us have been pressing for “relevance”, for a fresh, credible, and understandable way to talk about God in our own time. For most of us, I think, that search has produced some answers--and that is a good thing, indeed, because, heaven knows, if ever there was a time in mankind’s history when we really need something to believe in and hold onto it surely is now.

Man’s search for God is an important and commendable enterprise. There can’t be too much of it, in my opinion, but what I want to talk with you about today is a basic problem connected with our persistent search for a logical and compelling statement of our Christian Faith that needs to be recognized. The danger in human beings seeking to find a logical, rational, fully believable version of God is that we just might windup with a “do-it-yourself” theory that sounds great but has nothing to do with the way God really is. The problem is that this notion of “searching for God” is not a one-way street, an activity that proceeds strictly out of our own limited insight and understanding. It’s not like God is lost or that God is hiding--so that somehow it’s up to us human beings to figure out the Truth all on our own. The reality is that our search to discover the basis for our faith in God is at all times matched and far-exceeded by God’s Faith in Us.

The Christian Faith is, technically, a “revealed” religion. That is, what we know and believe about the nature and purposes of God have been revealed to us over centuries of time. No one sat down and dreamed up the story of God coming among us in the person of Jesus. No one decided that it would be a good idea if God would be pleased whenever those who had more than enough resources to share helped the poor. No one calculated that the extent of forgiving one’s neighbor was properly “seventy times seven” occasions. All this insight and information about God didn’t just pop into the mind or imagination of some great thinker while he or she was meditating on the mysteries of God. Rather, God revealed all these things to us because God really, really wants us to know, understand, and have faith in God. Why does God bother? Because God has absolute unconditional faith in us, in spite of all evidence of history that suggest you and I may not be very worthy of such faith.

I want to direct your attention this morning to an element of our Sunday worship services that doesn’t very often get much notice: the Psalm. We’ve just sung together, with a major assist from the Choir, a beautiful version of Psalm 8. The central question raised in the text of that Psalm is this one (addressed to God) asking: “What is mankind that You should care so much about us?” The text contrasts our puniness and insignificance with God’s limitless power, our fickleness and instability with God’s constant dependability, our own dullness of sight with God’s boundless creativity.

Now the psalmist is not engaging in mental gymnastics or idle speculation. He is speaking on the basis of hard evidence, his experience of the world and of nature. In short, he is sharing some things that have been revealed to him over a lifetime of observation. Just listen, once again, to what the writer of this Psalm has to say:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,
What is man that you should be mindful of him,
the son of man, that You should seek him out?
You have made him but little lower than the angels;
You adorn him with glory and honor;
You give him mastery over the works of your hands;
You put all things under his feet…O Lord our God,
How exalted is your name in all the World!

These are not impersonal, abstract, theories about God. The writer is sharing very personal observations of recurring patterns that frame and define his very existence. He reflects on his faith in the light of what God has shown to him. He starts not with his need to find God but, instead, with God’s ongoing effort to find us and to show us God’s own nature and purpose toward us.

If you go to your favorite bookstore, you will find shelves of literature about mankind’s search for God, all sorts of Bible study, meditation guides, and spiritual exercises that purport to offer you a shorter journey in your quest to discover God. You may very well find some resources there that are insightful and helpful. At the same time, you need to recognize that almost all of it is sheer speculation. Who among us is ready to claim complete understanding of the mind of God? Who among us has the right to claim that we can make infallible statements about what God thinks about this or that contemporary social issue?

Now here is, to me, a fascinating thing to ponder: Even as we acknowledge that the mystery of God is always beyond our comprehension or discovery, the exact opposite is true of God’s knowledge of each one of us! God’s knowledge of you is not partial, but complete. God understands everything about us, our innermost thought, without any speculation or distortion of any kind. Still, even with all our faults and shortcomings, God loves us without any preconditions. God will never abandon us no matter how disappointing our thoughts and behavior may be. God patiently supports us and awaits our response of trust--no matter how long it takes. God has absolute Faith in us.

Here’s the point I’m trying to make: Our Faith in God has its beginning, if it is to be more than some faulty human philosophical speculation, in an awareness and appreciation of God’s Faith in us--that we can and will stand together and, with forbearance and forgiveness, exercise humility, listening to one another and learning together.

When we respond to God’s knowledge of us, God’s presence always and everywhere surrounding us, God’s creative spirit sustaining and maintaining everything that is or ever will be, then we are able to share in the wisdom, the calm, and the wonder of the writer of Psalm 8. True Faith is not the product of our search for God but our recognition of the fact that, during every moment of our life, we are constantly encountering God’s faith in us. That awareness and its celebration are the only basis for a living Faith. That orientation alone is the foundation for living gratefully, generously, and responsibly. I promise you, God has faith that every one of us has the capacity and opportunity to arrive at exactly that gracious, appreciative, and accurate perspective.

God believes in you. And, incidentally, so do I.

Psalm 8:
1 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You
have set your glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. 6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have
put all things under their feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along
the paths of the seas. 9 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! NRSV

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