Not If, But When

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John Mann | April 26, 2020

Isaiah 43:1-7

When I sat down for an interview with the vacancy committee at St. James’ Parish Church in Glasgow, they may have wondered what planet I had stepped off of. I was sort of wondering what planet I had landed upon. 

People around the circle had questions to ask. The kind of questions that seemed fairly standard for that setting. Except for one fellow who asked if I played golf. 

One question they asked was, “What is your vision for St. James’?” 

By that time in my life I had learned that planning for the future does not guarantee a certain outcome. We can plan, we can lay a solid foundation, we can build a life. But our ability to predict the future with any sense of certainty is guesswork. 

I thought about it for a moment and then answered, “I don’t have a vision for St. James’. More important than me bringing a vision, would be me listening and learning. Then we might together see what emerges.” 

One of the questions that has helped me as a guiding light over the years does not involve what I think might happen, but rather “now that this has happened, how do we respond as people of faith?” 

We throw that word “faith” around assuming everyone knows its meaning. We say, “Have faith,” or “We need more faith.” What is faith? One definition is faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the certainty of things unseen.” That’s a good definition, not just Christian faith, but that human tendency to seek out spiritual realities that are not contained by sight and touch. Every culture has room for faith of some kind. That seeking for something beyond the self that helps us understand what our lives mean. 

Faith is not that we know what’s going to happen; it’s that we know what we hope for. It is the certainty that there is more to life than we can plan for, and certainly beyond what we may ever predict. 

We were fond of saying things like, “We live in a changing world.” Now the world has changed more than we thought possible. This is not a once and for all event that we are living through, like something to which we attach a date; it’s fluid and evolving. We don’t know how it will end. We may talk about getting back to normal, but we know that will be a long journey. 

Whatever normal we find at the end of this journey will be a new normal. 

So, how do we respond as people of faith? Which implies that if we will respond as people of faith, then we must respond as people of courage, hope and love; and all the other positive attributes that we claim as part of our personal and world view. That’s never an easy task. 

To help us get a sense of where we are and where we might be headed, we can reflect on the past. I’m reminded of the story of the people of Israel when they were taken into captivity. 

Around 2,400 years ago, God’s people wondered if they would survive. Some of them were held captive in a foreign land and the rest of them scattered and disconnected. The people who had once been a great nation were in real danger of snuffing out like burned down candle. 

There was a voice of prophecy, a vision for the future as God intended it. The prophet may have himself been a captive. He wrote under the name of Isaiah, whom we know as 3rd Isaiah. In chapter 43 of the book of Isaiah, the prophet spoke of a time when God’s people would be brought back together. They would go home. They would come from all parts of the world where they were scattered. 

And the most important thing, they would be empowered by their relationship with God:

“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; when you walk through the fire, you shall not be burned . . .” 

This prophecy was so far removed from the reality of their lives that it required a supreme act of faith to grasp it. But it came to pass, and they did come home. Yet there is a sharp edge to this good news. It does not say, “Nothing bad will ever happen to you.” Quite the contrary. 

 “When you pass through the waters and through the rivers . . .”

When you walk through fire . . .” 

When I started out as a church minister I was under the impression that it was my job to convince people to do what they were supposed to do. You know, somehow get people to be kind and loving and reflective of Jesus in their lives. And every year when the pledge drive came around, somehow convince people to give more; without being too pushy about it. Or heaven forbid, too preachy about it. By all means be a good preacher, but don’t be preachy. 

I learned that I couldn’t get anyone to do anything they didn’t want to do. Experts in the field were always coming up with new packaging for the message and methods, and most of those ended up in the proverbial museum of trendy failures. Many of us felt a sense of blame for when plans didn’t turn out according to the hype. 

Along the way, it was as if God was letting me know, “Don’t worry son, it’s not about you. The only thing you need to do is just show up and remind the people that I love them.” 

So I took that on as my reason for living and it seemed to work pretty good. I can’t promise what the future will be, especially not with clichés and platitudes, but I can promise that when we get to the future, by living through the present, God will be there. 

One day I was at the church for a funeral. It was a perfect day for a funeral; a miserable, grey and rainy Glasgow day. “Dreich” they call it. 

It was a sad situation. A family in the parish, wonderful, loving and kind people. Their son had died. He was third one of their children to die in tragic circumstances. Words seemed inadequate. But words being all we had, we tried to make the best use of them. 

The casket was taken out of the hearse and placed on the shoulders of the pall bearers. As they were getting into position to carry the casket into the church, I asked the father of the young man who had died if he would like to lead the procession. 

This is what he answered, “Walk with me minister. I want my son’s final journey to be with God.” 

That’s the way it is. We just want to know that in the difficult steps we have to take, that God is with us.

Not if, but when. God says, “I’m not going to save you from bad things. That’s life. When they happen, just remember, I am with you. Because I am with you, you don’t have to be afraid, even in the face of death.” 

This deep underlying truth of our faith helps me to understand something else. In the meantime, God is ever present. God does not call us to be the best of anything. God calls us only to be faithful and God calls us by name: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” 

In my mother-in-law’s house there is a woven tapestry with a brief poem stitched into it. The poem is said to have been found scratched onto a wall in Cologne, Germany; possibly put there by a Jew hiding out during the Nazi era. 

The words say – 

“I believe in the sun even when it is not shining. 

I believe in love even when I feel it not.

I believe in God even when God is silent.”

I don’t worry about the future. There is one thing of which we may be certain: there will be a future and God will be in it. Amen.

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