Rev. Dr. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd, Westworth United Church, May 18, 2014
Psalm 31:1-5; 15-16; Acts 7:55-60; John 14:1-14
What does it mean to trust God? Our responsive reading from today’s psalm is a prayer for God’s protection with a sung response of trust in God. But how can we trust in God to protect us when so many people die due to conflict and war, such as Ukraine and South Sudan, or due to accidents, such as the Turkish mining disaster and the Korean ferry sinking, or even due to natural disasters, such as the recent landslide in Afghanistan? How can we trust in a God who doesn’t seem to offer protection consistently for everyone?
“Do not let your hearts be troubled,” our gospel lesson begins, “Believe in God; believe also in me.” Some scholars translate this as: “Trust in God; trust also in me.” But if God doesn’t seem to protect us from premature death or suffering, what does God protect us from? For what are we to trust God?
The gospels tell us that Jesus quoted Psalm 31:5 when he cried out to God his last words, “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” How could he trust in a God who let a torturous death happen? As Stephen was being stoned to death, he also quoted from Psalm 31, repeating the very words of his Saviour, “Into your hands, I commit my spirit.” How could Stephen trust in a God who was not saving him?
There was a time, in our church history, when these questions wouldn’t have made any sense. In the early church there was a group of Gnostics who weren’t concerned about the body—about its abuses or needs. God is concerned only with the Spirit, they said. When Jesus and Stephen were both killed, they committed their spirits to God—their body didn’t matter. There was no need for God to intervene and save a physical body.
Later church councils called this belief a heresy. God was concerned about both the body and the spirit, they countered. To emphasize this, they agreed upon a statement of faith called the Apostles’ Creed which stressed the humanity of Jesus—he was conceived, born, suffered, crucified, died, was buried and rose again. The human body of Jesus mattered. Christianity, they claimed, was an embodied religion. But if our bodies matter to God, then the question of trust and protection returns. Why doesn’t God intervene to protect our bodies? The teachings and stories of Jesus do address this. They urge us to be his body—as we care for the bodily needs of others, so God cares through us, the body of Christ.
Over the course of history, the Church has swung to either side of this embodied continuum. Evangelical churches in the 1900s began to emphasize the spirit once again, saying that concerns about the body were superfluous to the gospel. They even called the social gospel demonic because it watered down the purity of the spiritual gospel. The church should only be concerned with saving souls—let others worry about the body.
Last week I was in Saskatoon as one of the members of the General Council Committee on Theology and Interchurch Interfaith. We organized a symposium on the theology of the land, as it pertains to Israel and Palestine, from our Canadian context of colonization. We invited Aboriginal, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Israeli and Palestinian speakers. A rabbi recommended a principle of interpretation for Christians. We should be concerned about our own souls and the bodies of others. When we get that backwards—when care for our own bodies and the souls of others, torture and conversion at the point of the sword has been justified by the church. Jews and Muslims, as well as indigenous peoples, have been the victims.
The United Church, with its Methodist roots, has long argued that concern about both the body and the soul of everyone is central to Jesus’ teachings. It has strongly resisted a disembodied faith. But I believe the United Church has swung so far to the body side of the continuum that we have neglected the spirit. Instead of a disembodied faith, we are moving towards a dis-spirited faith. But surely our religious faith should care about both the body and the spirit.
This weekend many of us will be planting gardens, sleeping in, having a relaxing evening BBQ—weather permitting. We do well at looking after our bodies. Imagine if we spent that much energy and resources looking after our spirits.
The few people I know who spend significant time and energy attending to matters of the spirit often exhibit a deep, peaceful wisdom even in the height of stress. They are grounded in the Spirit, who flows through them with healing energy. And when they are healthy spiritually, they become healthier physically. Multiple studies have found a direct correlation between physical health and a spiritual practice of daily prayer and meditation.
When you begin to realize the importance of spirit-care, today’s scripture readings about trust start making a little more sense. Both Stephen and Jesus were entrusting their spirits to God. When you trust God to protect you, your focus is not on physical safety or divine intervention in the course of history. Rather, you are praying for spiritual fortitude; for God’s Spirit to protect your spirit as you encounter whatever the world may offer.
If we believe this, it will radically change the way we pray. No longer will we pray for God to intervene and change the course of history or even change a physical diagnosis of disease. Instead, we will pray for God to change hearts. When our restless spirits finally find peace, when the winter of our discontent melts into a spring of hope, we will find healing for our souls.
This healing may extend to our bodies. When stressors are lessened and our spirits find healing, our bodies usually respond in kind. But not always. Not for Jesus, not for Stephen, not for those who still die of disease and sickness. For them, healing means to find peace and fortitude to accept what cannot be changed. Trusting God means to entrust our spirits to God’s keeping.
Along with this trust comes courage and strength to change what we must—ours is not a complacent faith. We must actively be concerned about our bodies, the bodies of others and even the earth’s body. Our spiritual health is dependent upon our discernment of what to work at changing and what to let be. We trust the wisdom of God’s Spirit to guide us in our discernment of what can be changed and what cannot be, as a Mother Goose rhyme reminds us:
For every ailment under the sun
There is a remedy, or there is none;
If there be one, try to find it;
If there be none, never mind it.
By now, you may be recalling Reinhold Neibuhr’s serenity prayer, which many of you know by heart. Let us entrust our spirits to God as we pray together:
God grant me
the Serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
the Courage to change the things I can,
and the Wisdom to know the difference.