“Trusting God” for People who Have Everything
A sermon on Mark 6: 1-13, 14-15, 21-23 & 2 Corinthians 12: 2-10 by + Andrew Woff, 6 July 2003


As always, thank you South Yarra Community Baptist Church
for your many gifts to the wider church,
and for the privilege of being with you in your worship this evening.

The theme that arises for me out of our Scripture readings this evening
is really much too big for me.
It is more a question with a few inklings than a definitive pronouncement.
But I hope that it is a helpful question to ask,
and may invite us toward a richer experience of faith together.

What strikes me from both our Gospel and out New Testament readings this evening
are themes of vulnerability and weakness and dependency.
The disciples are sent out on mission,
and Jesus’ instructions are that they are to take no provisions with them
so they are required to be dependent on the hospitality of others.
Clearly, there are no guarantees; rejection of them is a distinct possibility.
And Paul is given a painful affliction and yearns for it to be taken away,
but is told that God’s way for him is not to be free of all limitations.
Grace is all he needs and strength is to be found in weakness.

Vulnerability, weakness and dependency
turn us away from an easy reliance on our own resources.
We need help,
we need other people
and we need God.

But this is all very counter-cultural.
I feel sure that vulnerability, weakness and dependency
are not particularly welcome in our society
and are certainly not instinctive for us.
In my first experience of pastoral ministry,
I was a youth pastor at East Doncaster Baptist.
I helped to lead a discussion group of 14 to 17 year-olds
on issues of life and faith.
At one point, I decided that I would like to explore the themes of faith and trust with them,
and in an attempt to ground the idea a bit,
I began by asking them to tell me something that they really needed,
that they didn’t have and they didn’t know how they could get it.
In other words, I wanted to know what their experience was
of needing something which they didn’t already have easily accessible resources to get.

They couldn’t think of anything.
Even after much probing from me, they couldn’t think of anything.
Of course, there were many, many things they would have liked.
But when it came to their needs,
within their stable middle class families,
they were already contentedly resource-sufficient.
So how do you talk about trusting God,
about depending on God,
when you can’t consciously identify anything you need?

Please, I’m not saying that everybody around us has this same sense of adequacy
in their own resources.
We all know that our wealth is poorly distributed,
and that there are many people in our society who have critical needs that
are not met.
But I think the fact is that we do live in such a fabulously resource-wealthy society
that most of us have learned to instinctively rely on our own resourcefulness
to get us what we need.

This is not just about material things.
Perhaps I’d better speak for myself.
If I discover something that I lack,
my first impulse is probably not to pray for it.
Because with a bit of work, it is probably already accessible to me.
My first impulse is to think about how I can access available resources.

Last night, Alice and I were trying to do a budget
and our frustration was increased by the fact that we couldn’t work out how
to do something on an excel
spreadsheet.
One of my friends is an expert on Excel so I rang him and found out.

Is my car broken down?
I’ll ask people to recommend a reliable mechanic.
Does my hot-water service blow-up?
I’ll let my fingers do the walking and find someone who will supply, deliver
and fit a new one before the week is out.

Am I being restricted in my living or my career by a personality problem?
I’ll find an assertiveness course or an anger management course at the
local community centre.
Do I need to develop my qualifications?
No problem - there’s a TAFE course or a Uni course that will meet my need.
Is my marriage in trouble?
I’ve got a whole book of accredited marriage counselling agencies.

Have I relied on God for any of it?
Probably not. Why should I ask God for it? It’s already there for me.

I’m not saying that this is a bad thing. It is a good thing to find that your needs are
met. You could argue that my prayers have been answered before I even
ask them.

And I’m not saying that it’s like this for everybody or that I don’t have any critical needs. All we need is a medical crisis or the loss of a job or the death of someone close to us to leave us feeling highly vulnerable. And I know that some of us do live with chronic illness or loneliness or limitation and our sense of dependence on God is very rich and strong.

But my point is only that our lifestyle appears not to be the fertile soil where
vulnerability, weakness and dependency grow
or where an open-hearted reliance on God thrives.

Compare our situation to the two in our Bible readings this evening.

The disciples are sent out on mission:
to go into villages and preach that people should turn their lives toward
God. They are to heal and challenge the power of evil.

They are to go in utter dependence.
Their authority to do what they do is not their own;
it is given to them by Jesus.
They are to take no money bag,
lest people think they are wandering magicians doing it for the money.
They are to take no provisions or second tunic to sleep under;
they are to be reliant on the generosity and hospitality of others.
They are to stay wherever hospitality is offered - not go looking for the five star
option up the road.
And if they are rejected, their only defence will be to brush the dust off their
sandals as a testimony against the place and move on.

They are to be vulnerable, weak and dependent.

As I reflect on this story,
I find myself wondering whether rediscovering the mission of Jesus
is one pathway through which we might re-enter the experience of
dependence on God.
I suspect that we have become so culturally enslaved
that even our mission is undertaken with careful analysis and balanced
budgets.
I wonder whether a more open-hearted listening for the call of God,
and adventurous embracing of it
might bring us into a more vibrant experience of dependence on
God.
Having said that, I am aware of an email from Garry that went around the South Yarra email group over the last couple of weeks,
inviting the church to consider a new venture in mission.
A residential community,
perhaps housing for people fleeing situations of violence and
oppression,
perhaps a healing centre.
As Garry knows, my immediate response was to feel overwhelmed by it -
a reaction I suspect that was more about the kind of week I was having.
But perhaps we are being called on pathways that are not safe, predictable and
obviously resourced.
Perhaps we are being called to a lifestyle of more radical vulnerability,
dependence, weakness and trust.

The story we read from 2 Corinthians sounds to our ears quite cryptic.
It is part of a very complex correspondence,
arising from an even more complex relationship between Paul and the
Corinthian church.
In short, the church at Corinth had been planted by Paul,
but various influences had sought to establish their own authority by
undermining Paul’s.
In this passage as he tries to establish his credentials without boasting about
them - and it’s debatable how well he succeeds -
he ends up choosing to boast about his weaknesses,
especially a painful affliction which knocks him around.
He calls it a thorn or a stake -
the same word that is used for a sharp stake used for trapping and
tormenting opponents in military battle.
So painful and restrictive is it that Paul pleads with God 3 times for it to be taken away,
but it is not.
Instead he receives 2 affirmations.
My grace is sufficient. And
My power is made perfect in weakness.

For Paul, that is the final answer.
Because his whole life is about the Gospel of Jesus:
that people enter into relationship with God not on the basis of their
strength, their adequacy, their merit,
but precisely on the discovery of their weakness, their lack of merit,
their reliance on God.
It is precisely this affliction that reminds Paul of his vulnerability, his weakness, his
utter dependence on God.
Is there some way that we can see the trials that afflict us
as a call to a deeper dependence on the grace of God?

I’d like to finish my wondering around this theme with a few thoughts I have gleaned from a little book by Johannes Baptist Metz, called “Poverty of Spirit”.
Metz says that we humans are in the most awkward of situations.
We have self-awareness, yet we are also vulnerable, fragile and dependent.
We have needs we cannot meet on our own,
dreams we cannot fulfil on our own,
fears we cannot allay on our own.
We have a choice between 2 possible responses:
Frightened of our vulnerability,
we seek to establish our permanence, our completeness, our immortality
by overcoming everything that threatens us.
We establish resources for our security and comfort and success as if we can be
the masters of our own destiny.
Except that we’re not,
and deep down we know we’re not,
so we live with the deep-seated anxiety that any moment the great edifice of
our own making will come tumbling down.

The alternative is to do what the human Jesus did.
We acknowledge and accept our limitations
and embrace our dependence on God.
And we discover there our deep fulfilment in the truth that our life only comes to
wholeness in active dependence on God.

So we no longer need to establish our own credentials or even our own security.
We do not need to be noticed or heroic,
or dazzle people with our cleverness,
or cling to our own resourcefulness
or win superiority over others
or fight to avoid the time of our death.
We are free to accept the things within us that are ordinary, weak, confusing,
vulnerable, incomplete.
Set free from pre-occupation with ourselves,
we are free to love without reservation,
we are free to be authentically ourselves,
we are free, Paul would say, to allow the power of God to be seen in us.

So there is the question.
In an indulgently resourced society like ours,
how do we recapture our sense of vulnerability, of weakness, of
dependence
that calls us to a deep trust in God?

And my two inklings from these passages.
The pathways of adventurous mission
and an openness to grace
may be our help,
and our salvation.
What do you think?
Amen.