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As the Delta jet lifted off the runway in Miami en route to Atlanta, I tightened my seatbelt for what was going to be a bumpy ride. The late-afternoon thunderstorm had been predicted; and, sure enough, the weather reports were accurate. And, as always, I said a prayer for the pilot and the crew.
The two women sitting on either side of me noticed my moment of mediation, but they went on with their conversation, which I couldn't help but overhear. They had been to a Christian conference in Jamaica, and back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, they talked about the Bible studies and the inspiring speakers and how glad they were to have attended the Women's Aglow gathering.
When the pilot's voice came over the intercom telling us that we had leveled off at 28,000 feet, that the storm was mostly behind us and that we could expect a smooth flight on into Atlanta, I was relieved, and I whispered, "Thank you, God," and pulled out my Bible and sermon manuscript for the coming Sunday. When the flight attendant asked our row for beverage orders, my two traveling companions said, "Diet Coke, please;" but I answered, "Chardonnay," which turned out to be a big mistake.
As the drinks were set down on our trays, the lady on my right introduced herself, proceeded to introduce her friend, and then she asked me point blank, "Are you a Christian?" With my Bible and manuscript in front of me and the plastic cup of Chardonnay in my hand, I replied, "Well, yes, I am." And when I finally told them after further interrogation that I was also a Presbyterian pastor and a preacher, the woman on my left looked at me, and she said, "Well, then, you don't need that wine, Reverend. All you need is to trust the Lord, and he'll get you safely to Atlanta."
That woman's comment caught my attention. And I share her profound words with you because they apply not only to air travel from Miami to Atlanta; those words apply to our journey through life. Do I, do we, really trust God to get us to our destination?
As people of the Word, we know what the Bible says-
Psalm 56, verse 3: "When I am afraid, I put my trust in thee, in God whose word I praise, in God I trust without fear."
Isaiah 12, verse 2: "Behold, God is my salvation: I will trust and not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength…."
Jeremiah 17, verse 7: "Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord."
And Proverbs 3, verses 5 and 6, our Old Testament text: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Do not rely on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."
Most of us know what the Bible says about trusting God, and my guess is we believe those words to be true when the sun is shining, the sky is blue, and there isn't a cloud on the horizon. But when the storm strikes, when the rough winds of failure and disappointment toss us to and fro, when the lightning of sudden trouble or trauma flashes before us and the thunder clouds of pain and sorrow, deceit and dissension, suffering and illness roll all around us, when the storm strikes and we are caught in the middle of it, wondering where to go and what to do, do we turn to God, trusting in him to see us through?
In the mid-16th century, a group of 50 Spanish nuns led by the Carmelite Sister Teresa of Avilla traveled on foot to a neighboring convent in a rugged storm. Crossing a rickety bridge over a swollen stream, the sisters prayed that the bridge would hold up until they were safely across. It didn't. Near the center it collapsed, spilling all of the nuns into the water. As they managed to swim safely to shore, Sister Teresa raised her eyes toward heaven and said, "Lord, if this is the way you treat your friends, it is little wonder you have so many foes." Now, Sister Teresa was known for her wit and her sense of humor. She was finally sainted by the Catholic Church, but she also knew that the God in whom she believed did not keep the storms away. Neither did he play games with the laws of the universe. And yet she trusted God to help her cope with trouble, and she believed beyond the shadow of a doubt that God would see her through.
Do you have that kind of trust in your life? It's available to each and every one of us, you know, through Jesus Christ, who has been through the storms of life himself, and who in the Garden of Gethsemane, got down on his knees to pray, "Lord, not my will, but thine be done." You see, Jesus trusted his Father in heaven to take him through the sorrow and the pain of Calvary's cross, all the way to the resurrection of Easter day.
And that's what Peter was trying to tell us in the New Testament lesson. He - Jesus Christ - committed no sin; no guile was found on his lips. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return. When he suffered, he did not threaten. Instead, he trusted to him who judges justly. And by his wounds we have all been healed and returned to the shepherd and guardian of our souls.
My friends, that kind of trust is available to us through Jesus Christ, the Lord of life. He has promised to be with us at 28,000 feet, helping us make it through the storm. He has promised to walk with us even when the bridge breaks, and he will carry us across to the shore. And he has promised when we go through the valley of the shadow to surround us with his love and peace as he leads us all the way home.
Now just as that can happen for each of us individually, it's also possible for all of us to trust God and one another collectively in this society, in our families, in the communities where we live, the cities and suburbs and exurbs and rural areas where we work, as well as in our congregations and denominations, and the myriad of institutions that are supposed to hold this nation together. And, yet, we who live here in America at the dawn of this 21st century, we who say that we subscribe to the words "In God we trust," we are struggling all across this land with a lack of trust that has invaded our society. I believe this lack of trust comes from an erosion of integrity, a loss of respect and civility, and a growing sense of indifference and hostility toward people who are different than we are, toward those who disagree with us, toward folks who are riding high and wealthy, or others who have dropped down below the line of poverty, toward people, frankly, whom we just don't trust.
With all of that said, you'd think that the Church of Jesus Christ could and would bring hope and healing to our situation. But the sad truth is, unless and until we as Christians, learn to trust others across the street and across all of our human-made congregational and denominational and theological and biblical boundary lines, unless we learn to trust, how can we make our witness to a war-torn, weary world which is broken and hurting and needs the hope and the healing which God has offered us in person in the person of Jesus Christ?
Back in 1972, another Christian opened my eyes and my heart to that very reality. I met him at a youth ministers' conference in Philadelphia. On the first night, the conference leader organized about 200 of us into small groups of eight or 10 people. As we introduced ourselves, I discovered that my group included a couple of Catholic nuns, several Episcopalians, three fellow Presbyterians, a Baptist pastor, and a Pentecostal. I was the only one there wearing a suit and a tie with black wingtip shoes and carrying a briefcase, but I was just out of Princeton Seminary and feeling rather important.
When the Pentecostalist introduced himself as Neil Chadwick from the Assemblies of God, I thought to myself, "He's a holy roller, a hot gospel type -stay clear of him." And I did for the next two days, until on the final night we gathered around in our small group to share gifts with one another. Nothing that we had bought, mind you, but symbolic gifts. And when everyone else had offered theirs, only two of us were left: Neil Chadwick and I. He stood up. He crossed the circle. He looked at me, and he said, "George, I have the feeling that you don't think all that much of me, but I love you as a brother in the faith, and I want to give you my clergy card as a reminder that wherever you go, whatever you do, there's a Pentecostal preacher out there somewhere who is praying for you."
Well, I was stunned, and I began to cry. I took his card and gave him mine. And I have carried his card in my wallet ever since to help me try to remember never to judge nor fail to trust another brother or sister in the faith. And all these years - all these years later - I'm still working on that.
The storms will come and go, my friends, but we do not face them alone. Jesus Christ, the Lord of life, has come alongside us to show us the way. He has promised to guide us home, and he is ready here and now to offer the gift of trust to you and to me.
Do you believe that? Do you really believe that?
Hannah Whitehall Smith, a Quaker woman with a deep faith, believed it more than a hundred years ago, and she staked her entire life on it. She wrote a prayer which has become important to me, and so I share it with you in closing, hoping that this will become your prayer too.
"Lord Jesus, I believe that Thou art able and willing to deliver me from all the care and unrest and bondage of my life. I believe that Thou didst die to set me free, not only in the future, but here and now. I believe that Thou art stronger than my sin, and that Thou canst keep me, even me, in my weakness, from falling....
"So Lord, I am going to trust Thee to keep me. I have tried keeping myself and I have failed…. So now I will trust Thee. I give myself to Thee. I keep back no reserves. Body, soul and spirit, I present myself to Thee....
"And I believe Thou doest accept that which I present to Thee....That this poor, weak and foolish heart has been taken possession of by Thee, and that Thou hast even at this very moment begun to work in me to will and to do Thy good pleasure. So I trust Thee completely, O God, and I trust Thee now." In Jesus name. Amen.
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