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November 8, 2009 | 8:00 a.m.

When Faith Is Threatened

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 119:1–8
John 14:8–11

“Philip said to him,‘Lord, show us the Father,and we shall be satisfied.’”
John 14:8 (NRSV)

God in heaven let me really feel my nothingness, not in order to despair over it, but in order to feel the more powerfully the greatness of thy goodness.

Søren Kierkegaard

Once again our illusions have been shattered, especially about safety and security. Who would have thought that the largest and presumably the most-well-guarded and secure military base in the country could become the scene of such a massacre of human life as occurred at Fort Hood, deep in the heart of Texas, last week. Once again we were reminded that the torment and treachery within can be as much or more a threat as the terror without.

Add to this the vitriolic spewing of outrage and hatred from those who experience themselves as powerless, who fear such things as “government takeover” and terrorist attacks sooner or later, as well as from those obsessed with ideologies and a worldview they are so certain about that they deem it necessary to force upon others—with violence if need be—and one can understand how it might seem as though the world has gone mad.

Is it any wonder then that some people have gotten fed up with all the posing and prancing and posturing, the strutting and swaggering, that goes on in the world by individuals and nations? Is it any wonder that some people have had their fill of those who promise this and protest that, proposing one thing and performing another? And all the while you can’t get away from the nagging notion that there is a vast gap between what we see happening and what we hear being promised, between what we experience as reality and what we have been told is reality.

Whether one looks at others or oneself or God, a good case can be made for cynicism and for anyone who might be going in big for bitterness nowadays. Life can get pretty crowded anymore with disappointment and disillusionment and, we might add, deception, and the faith you might have had in others, in yourself, and in God takes such a beating that you can barely recognize it.

Someone once observed that choosing a partner in life is like buying a phonograph record: you buy it for what’s on one side and have to take what’s on the other. I find so often that things and people rarely turn out to be quite what I thought or hoped of expected they would be. I discover that I am not what I thought I was, not quite as caring or responsible or kind or competent as I saw myself to be. I realize that I had God figured out all wrong, that God doesn’t operate the way I thought God did, that God is not as concerned about the things I thought God was most concerned about and is more concerned about what I figured was of little consequence to God. I recognize that what I thought the Christian faith could and would do for me doesn’t get done, that what I believed I could escape if I became a Christian, I haven’t escaped, and that what I had hoped the church could do to make a dent in the demonic in this world somehow boomerangs, and it’s the demonic that has dented the church. And when I draw a line under all that and add it up, the subtotal is disappointment and disillusionment, and the not-so-grand total is often anger and bitterness and despair.

Some have figured out a way to put blinders on, like they do with certain horses in the Kentucky Derby, to keep them from being spooked by what they see on either side of them, and as a result, there is not much disappointment and disillusionment in their lives. Their faith is little threatened and their mood barely depressed. But if you are among those of us who can’t help but see what’s on either side of us and can be easily spooked by what we see and experience in life, either head-on or out of the corner of our eyes, then we can keep one another company this morning, and we can join the company of that group of disciples who met in an upper room with our Lord on the night in which he was betrayed. Especially will we be able to relate to one of them in particular, Philip, when in confusion and bewilderment he put to Jesus the challenge, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.”

For you see, Philip and his fellow disciples were struggling with the same things that sometimes threaten our faith, namely, disappointment and disillusionment. Despite the clarifications offered by our Lord, as recorded in verses one to seven of this fourteenth chapter of John’s Gospel, the disciples were still confused. He had claimed to be “the way,” yet his path led straight to a cross. He had claimed to be “the truth,” yet he could not convince any of the religious leaders to follow him. He had claimed to be “the life,” yet he would be dead in less than twenty-four hours. So how could anyone expect the disciples not to be at best confused and at worst disappointed and disillusioned? The one whom they thought would eventually show his hand, let the forces of oppression feel the bite of his words and the sting of his whip and finally topple the tyranny of Rome, would somehow turn out to be a marshmallow, a helpless victim of his own idealistic but thoroughly impractical illusion that you could play power politics by being a gentle man.

So out of the depths of that kind of disappointment and disillusionment, and with his faith teetering on the brink, Philip gave voice to the disciples’ desire—and he gives voice to our desire in this mixed-up world of ours—for some less ambiguous evidence and for more concrete proof in which to believe. “Lord, show us the Father. Show us what’s really real, after all. Show us what is really trustworthy. Show us what is ultimately dependable. Show us the one thing that can lay to rest our doubts, allay our fears, dissolve our disappointments, and dispel our disillusionments. Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.”

Over against the disappointment and the disillusionment that so often plague our lives as individuals and as a society is the record of the biblical revelation and the truth of the gospel message, which have no illusions about human nature and no fancy notions about the way things are in life, no faddish ideas about having a good time and always feeling good, as if these were somehow a guarantee that life affords us. We may choose, if we want to, to pin our foolish faith on the idea that we have been pestered to death with for so long: that all you have to do is educate humanity, give it a chance to run things, put at its disposal the discoveries of science, write some laws for it, let it sign some treaties, and you can count on things turning out just fine. Of course, you just have to overlook the violence and carnage throughout the world. As the poet, W. H. Auden, reminds us,

We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.

Yet unless they do die, these illusions of ours, unless we willingly submit to the disciple of disillusionment and let go of our foggy ideas and false notions, we’ll never be able to see beyond our disappointment and disillusionment.

That’s why, when all is said and done, you and I cannot put our ultimate faith in human nature, even though we shall have to at times put some measure of faith in ourselves and in others in order to live in the world with some degree of rapport and responsibility with reference to one another. But when it comes to a way past the disappointment and the disillusionment we are bound to experience with one another and with ourselves, we end up with Philip’s plea, “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied.” If we could really know what God is like, we might just be able to make it through life without having our faith so threatened and our hopes so battered.

And it’s right here that we run headlong into what might well be the most staggering statement Jesus ever made. He himself was taken aback by Philip’s question, but with infinite patience, yet with a tinge of disappointment in his voice, our Lord responds, “Philip, surely you and the others have not been with me this long and don’t know that if you want to know what God is like, if you want to get at least a glimpse of that which you can ultimately count on in the long run, you have only to look on me. You ask to see the Father, Philip. See me, see him.”

What a staggering statement that is! You either have to know precisely what you are talking about or be out of your head to make a claim like that. Our Lord knew that. That’s why he goes on to say that if they couldn’t believe his words, then surely they could believe his works. And he follows that with an equally staggering assertion that the works that the disciples will do will be greater even than his works.

The heart of the matter is in that simple but profound exchange between Philip and Jesus: “Lord, show us the Father”; “See me, see him.” Lord, show us something beyond our disappointment and disillusionment. Show us whom we can trust, no matter what. Show us that which can enable us to transcend our hurt and bitterness. Show us that even when we’re a disappointment to ourselves and to others and even when we disappoint you, you won’t abandon us, you won’t disown us, you won’t forsake us.

See me, see him. See me when in anger I clean out the temple and rail against the injustice of it all. See me when in compassion I weep over Jerusalem and heal the sick and care for the poor and the broken of the world. See all of me, all of what I said and all of what I did. See me, and see him who is the God and Father of us all. Then, in the midst of the world’s imperfection and when the woes of life threaten to undo you and you are scared to death, you will be satisfied by the Love that will not let you go and by the God who will not abandon you.

One of the most tragic experiences in the ministry that I have ever heard of occurred during the height of the Vietnam War. It was at a time, you remember, when many people, especially young people of draft age, were struggling with emotional and ethical issues that became focused on that war. Some young people were showing their protest of the war and this country’s involvement in it by burning their draft cards and by refusing to report for military duty.

The father of such a young man had spoken often about how his son had been threatening to burn his draft card and flee the country, as many others had, and go to Canada to escape the war. The father had told his son that if he were to do that he would disown him and never let him come home again. The son was no deadbeat, but a sincere, though troubled and conflicted, young man, trying desperately to determine what was right for him in the confusion that was his world at the time. His father was also a man of profound integrity who also was trying desperately to do what he perceived to be his Christian duty, his loyalty to his country, and his love for but now great disappointment in and disillusionment with his son.

Then one Saturday afternoon late, the father’s pastor received a phone call from him. The father was obviously quite distraught. He and his son had just had a bitter quarrel and had almost come to blows. Would his pastor come over and talk with him and with his son, who at that moment was in his room upstairs with his record player blaring loudly.

The pastor went to the man’s house, spent about an hour with him in conversation downstairs in the living room. For the first time he saw some softening of this father’s very adamant attitude toward his son, who asked his pastor if he would go with him to his son’s room to see if somehow they could become reconciled. They mounted the stairs, came to the son’s room, and opened the door. The father screamed. There, hanging from the ceiling fixture, was the father’s son, a rope looped around his neck, his body limp. He had hanged himself while they had been talking downstairs.

Later on, the pastor returned to the room. Near the record player was a large ashtray with the partially burned remains of the lad’s draft card and his birth certificate. He restarted the record player to play the record that was there. It was a popular one of the day, called “A Father’s Open Letter to His Teenage Son.” With the music of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” playing softly in the background, the record is that of a father who supposedly shares his innermost thoughts with his son on matters like long hair and beards, whether or not God is dead, and loyalty to one’s country and the war in Vietnam. The record comes to a climax when the father says, “Remember, son, your mother will keep on loving you no matter what you do, for she is a woman. But I am a man.” And then came the shocker. With the music swelling behind him, the father declares, “If you burn your draft card, at the same time I will burn your birth certificate, for at that moment, I no longer have a son!”

It was a long time before the father of the son who had hanged himself could receive God’s forgiveness and quit punishing himself. Shortly after the first anniversary of his son’s death, he said to his pastor, “I guess I was so busy trying to do the right thing that I wasn’t able to be a good father.”

The God we see in the face of Jesus Christ has no illusions about you and me and will never, never burn our birth certificate, no matter what.