By Reverend Rodger Allen
Mark 4: 35-41; Exodus 16:2-4a; 136:15; 17:1-7; Numbers 11:4-6, 31a; 14-1-4
When I was a little kid, a hundred years ago, I did something that little kids of several generations have done now: I watched Saturday morning cartoons. They weren’t the same cartoons that are on Saturday mornings now, but the general tradition continues.
One of the cartoons I watched was an animated version of “Gulliver’s Travels.” You probably remember the story: a man named Gulliver is shipwrecked on an island which turns out to be inhabited by a bunch of tiny people called Lilliputians, people no taller than Gulliver’s knees. In the Saturday morning cartoon version, Gulliver had a continuing series of adventures with the Lilliputians, and with four Lilliputians in particular, with whom he was especially close friends.
One of those four friends had one very noticeable feature in chi character: he always looked on the negative side of things. I believe his name was even Glum. And he talked like this (nasal, sad voice): “It’ll never work. I just know it won’t. The rop0e will break. The car will crash. We’ll all fall down. It’ll never work. I just know it won’t.”
This particular character, this Glum, was a cartoon character, in a cartoon called “Gulliver’s Travels.” He is not in the Bible. Or is he?
The Hebrew tribes had had a pretty tough time of it: they had been slaves for many years. They escaped their slavery only after being put through the emotional roller coaster of hearing Pharaoh change his mind several times about letting them go. After they did leave, Pharaoh chased them down. Then they wandered in the desert, living, at best, in tents for years while neighboring tribes often tried to pick them off, steal from them, or wipe them out. They had had a rough time. But all through that time, they had had one constant, unwavering advantage: God was with them. Pharaoh’s troops chased them and the people cried out, “Why did you bring us out here, Moses? Now we’re going to die.” And God saved them by providing a safe pathway for them and then drowning the enemy. They got hungry in the desert and said, “Why didn’t we stay in Egypt? Now we’re going to die of hunger.” And God said, “I will rain bread from heaven for you,” and He did.
They got thirsty in the desert and said, “Why did you bring us out of Egypt, Moses—to kill us of thirst?” And God said, “Strike this rock, and water will come out of it for you,” and it did. They said, “Why can’t we have meat to eat? In Egypt we had lots of good things, not just this manna.” And God said, “You shall have meat to eat,” and they did. Every step of the way, when the Israelites felt threatened or afraid or just bored with their diet, God calmly responded.
Moses got a little crazy a couple of times, crying, “What am I going to do with these people?” But God was calm; God understood; God gave them what they needed. Finally the Hebrew people came to the Promised Land, and some of their advance scouts said, “Okay, let’s go! It’s a wonderful land full of milk and honey. Let’s move in.” But others said, “It’s full of people who are bigger than we are and who don’t want us there. We can’t go in.”
So the people had a choice: after all they’d been through, after all the predicaments God had rescued them from, after all God had done to prove they would be okay, did they act with confidence? Did they trust in God? Did they move in, with faith and hope? “It’ll never work. I just know it won’t. They’ll attack us. They’ll kill us. We haven’t got a chance. It’ll never work. I just know it won’t.”
The disciples accompanying Jesus had been with him for some time now. At first, they had made a leap of faith. Something about him attracted them, drew them to him, but they weren’t sure what it was. They knew very little about him at that point.
Since then, that feeling that he was something special had been confirmed. They had seen him cure hundreds of sick people of fevers and other diseases—even leprosy. They had heard him say things which amazed the people and impressed even the Pharisees. They had watched him reverse lifelong disabilities, like paralysis and withered hands. They had heard him command evil spirits and seen them obey. This man Jesus, they now knew, could do whatever he wanted; he must be the Messiah, the Son of God. So when they were in a boat with him one evening, after a long day of teaching the crowds, and a storm came up, and the boat was being tossed about, and he continued to sleep in the stern without a care in the world, did they say, “Everything will be fine. Look, Jesus isn’t worried. So why should we worry? After all, we’re with him and he can do anything—cure diseases, heal disabilities, command demons.”?
Did they act with confidence in the Messiah they had found? Did they trust in God? Did they proceed with faith and hope? “It’ll never work. I just know it won’t. The storm will get worse. The boat will sink. We’ll all drown. It’ll never work. I just know it won’t.”
How does God respond to the people with the Glum attitude? How does God react when the people who have seen so many encouraging things, so many miraculous things, so many things which demonstrate God’s power and God’s presence with them, respond in a way that shows no faith, no trust, no confidence in God’s watching over them? Is it a response which shows God’s infinite patience, which demonstrates an unceasing understanding of human faithlessness? Does it reveal an endless tolerance for hopelessness and insecurity and fear? Does God always say, “There, there, that’s all right, I know you’re afraid. I understand.”?
It may come as a bit of a surprise to find that this is not the case. Here is God’s response to the continuing weak faith of the Hebrew people, to their lack of confidence after all the miracles they had seen: God says, “How long will this people despise me? How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I have done among them? I will strike them with pestilence and disinherit them, and I will make of you, Moses, a nation greater and mightier than they.”
Here is Jesus’ response to the fearful disciples, to their weak faith, to the ones who have said to him—to him, the healer, the curer, the compassionate savior—“don’t you care that we’re all going to die?” Jesus says, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?”
Apparently, even God has a breaking point, a point at which a response of weak faith, of hopelessness, of pessimism, of “It’ll never work” is no longer acceptable. At this point, after there have seen many repeated signs and miracles, many demonstrations of God’s power and God’s presence, God’s longsuffering patience runs out.
At this point, God has strong words for those who persist in finding only the dark side, in holding onto a weak faith: “How long will you refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs that I Have done?” “Why are you afraid?” “Have you still no faith?” At this point, the Glums of the world have doubted too long, have too often refused to see.
Ultimately, of course, God’s response is one of continued love and caring and patience. God did not strike the Hebrew people with pestilence and disinherit them, after Moses interceded. They did eventually move into the Promised Land and conquer their enemies. But they did have to wander in the desert for another forty years first: a strong response to their weak faith.
Jesus did not make the disciples sit through a frightening storm, or fire any of them once they reached land. He calmed the storm and continued to teach them. But not without expressing his disappointment, not without scolding them: “Have you still no faith?” Strong words for their weak faith.
At some point, there comes a time to leave behind the doubt, the negativity, the pessimism, the hopelessness, the weak faith. After a person has seen enough signs, enough evidence, enough demonstrations of God’s power and God’s presence, there is an expectation that he or she will trust God, will express some confidence, will no longer hold on to doubt and weak faith. God expects us, after our experiences of His power and presence, to believe, to have confidence in that continuing power and presence in our future. We can move into the Promised Land. We won’t be killed in the storm. God does care. And God expects us to trust in that.
There have been times in the history of the Christian church, when things didn’t look good for the future of the church. Certain Roman emperors decided to bar Christian worship, seeing it as a threat to the empire. In the 11th century, The Eastern Orthodox Church split away, taking thousands of believers. In the 14th and 15th centuries, certain popes proved to be corrupt or weak or ineffective. One was even kidnapped, leaving the papacy vacant. Some reformers named Luther and Calvin and Zwingli broke away from the Church, taking other believers with them, a movement which some believed would split, divide, and maybe even destroy the church.
A theory of evolution came along which allowed for the possibility that we might have come into being without a Creator. But the Church thrived under Roman persecution, until finally an emperor came along who was himself a believer. The weak popes proved that the church was strong enough to continue, and even improve, without a strong pope in place. The divisions in the Church resulted in revivals, in thousands of new believers, not in catastrophe. The theory of evolution reminded the faithful that their faith is just that—faith, not scientific necessity.
Two thousand years after its birth, the church continues. How many human institutions can make that claim? Not corporations. Not empires. Very few countries. God will not let the church die. God’s Holy Spirit sustains it.
Now there are those who would say again, “The church is dying. There’s no prayer in schools. The world is immoral. The churches are emptying. It’ll never work. I just know it won’t.” How would Jesus respond to them? Would he say again, “Have you still no faith?”
There have been times, in the history of Presbyterianism, when people feared for the future of the denomination. Several times a group of churches has left over a difference in theology or church government. The ordination of women as elders and ministers brought dire predictions that thousands would leave the church, or that it would no longer be led effectively, or that God would no longer bless it.
The Southern churches left over the issue of slavery, and people said we could not survive. The Southern churches merged back in and people said the two bodies could never work together as one! But the denomination continued in many different forms after the divisions, and even prospered. Women in leadership roles have strengthened, not weakened it. The Northern and Southern Presbyterian churches survived, while apart and while back together.
Four hundred years after its birth, the Presbyterian Church continues. Nearly two million people are on the active rolls of the Presbyterian Church of the United States. Over four million Americans say they belong when they’re asked. God will not let the church die. The Holy Spirit sustains it. Now there are those who would say again, “The Presbyterian Church is dying. Attendance is down. We’re not having enough children. The people don’t trust the leaders. It’s too liberal. It’s too conservative and out-of-date. It’ll never work. I just know it won’t.” How would Jesus respond to them? Would he say again, “Have you still no faith?”
Perhaps there have been times in the history of Paris Presbyterian Church when people feared for the future of the congregation; times when the number of active members officially on the roll has dropped; times when it’s been hit by several deaths, or people moving out of the area over a short period of time; times of uncertainty or transition; times when the town’s population or economy has shrunk; times of financial concern.
Through those times, Paris Presbyterian Church has continued, has it not, always rebounding from a difficult period, always persisting in its worship and its service to the community, always finding new leaders if one had to step down. 191 years after its birth, Paris Presbyterian Church continues. God has not let the church die. The Holy Spirit sustains it. If there are those who are ever tempted to say, “Our church is going down. We’re getting older. Last month’s income was down. It’ll never work. I just know it won’t,” how would Jesus respond to them?
At some point there comes a time to leave behind the doubt, the negativity, the pessimism, the hopelessness, the weak faith. God has done marvelous things. And after we see marvelous things, enough evidence, enough demonstrations of God’s power and God’s presence, there is an expectation that we should, finally, trust God—we should express our confidence, we should no longer hold on to doubt and to a weak faith.
God expects us, after our experiences of God’s power and presence, to believe, to have confidence in that continuing power and presence in our future. We can move into the Promised Land. We won’t be killed in the storm. God does care. And God expects us to trust in that.
Let’s pray: “God, thank You for all you have done for us. Help us to be a people of strong faith, a people who trust in the future you have prepared for us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”