Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Grace in Being Tested

“God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”  1 Cor. 10:13

The Rev. Luther Zeigler
Lent 3C – February 28, 2016

Lent is a season for being tested, as each of our readings today suggest in different ways.  So, let me begin by talking a little bit about tests.  For most of my life, dating back to my college years, I have had a recurring dream – a nightmare, really – that basically goes like this:  I bolt upright out of bed, suddenly realizing that my alarm clock has not gone off as it should have. Disoriented from sleep, I struggle to open my eyes to make out the time on the clock.  I see that I’m hopelessly late for my history final exam.  Panicking, I stagger out of bed, throw on some clothes, and head out the door.

I try to run, but my legs feel like I'm wading through sludge.  I can’t seem to get my body to move quickly enough; it’s as if I'm running in slow motion.  I eventually make it across the campus quad to the History building.  Then I realize that I have forgotten in which room the test is being given.  I ask everyone I meet for directions but no one seems to know the answer.

Finally, I find the room.  Everyone else is already hard at work on the exam.  As I look at the first question, I am horrified to see that it is in a language I do not recognize. Even though I have no idea what the question is asking, I decide to just start writing everything I remember about the class, hoping that some of what I say may be in the ballpark and will fall upon merciful ears.  But then, each time I put pencil to paper, the graphite tip keeps breaking off on the page. While everyone else is finishing their test, I can't even get the pencil to write.  The ticking of the clock on the classroom wall grows louder and more insistent.  And then I wake up.

If you've had this dream or one like it, you're not alone.  Psychologists say that this type of dream – a dream of failing a test, or not being prepared for a test, or being late for a test, or some variation on this theme – is one of the most common dreams people experience.  Dreams of this kind are so common because they reflect a basic truth about the human condition.  Human beings fear failure.  We fear being judged unworthy.  To one degree or another, we are all insecure about our abilities, about our relationships, about whether we will be accepted.  We worry that everyone else has what it takes, but that we don't, and that we will be left behind, alone and unloved.

This fear of failure, of inadequacy, can be one of the most debilitating in all of human experience.  The fear has deep roots in the biblical narrative, as we just heard in our first lesson from Exodus.  When Moses, the greatest prophet in all of the Hebrew Scriptures, first encounters the mysterious power of the burning bush, he is overcome by fear.  And not just fear for his safety in the presence of God's overwhelming being; no, what Moses really fears, we discover, is that God is choosing him for leadership and that he, Moses, may not be up to the task.

In his heart, Moses worries that the Hebrew people will not listen to him, a young man who grew up as an adopted child in Pharaoh's court, who has no real standing in the community, and whose one claim to fame is that he is an outlaw for having murdered an Egyptian in a fist fight.  And secretly, as we later learn, Moses is also acutely self-conscious of his own limitations – most noticeably, the speech impediment with which he was born, his stuttering, his inability to speak with precision and clarity.  What kind of prophet is barely able to talk?  Like us, Moses is afraid of his own inadequacies.

But notice what God does in our text.  God does not abandon Moses to his fear.  Instead, God draws near, saying these crucial words:  “I will be with you.”  God reaches out and invites Moses to trust to Him.  And herein lies the key, the key to unlocking fear, the key to seeing through the risk of failure.  In a word, it is trust:  to acknowledge our dependence upon God and to trust that He will carry us through our fears – yes, through, not around, our fears.  The true power of the story lies not so much in the fiery spectacle of the bush as it does in the continuing promise of God's saving mercy, and Moses’ willingness to place his trust in that promise.

In our epistle lesson today, St. Paul points the good people of Corinth back to this Exodus story, and to the various experiences of the Hebrew people in the wilderness, both good and bad, as examples of how we might faithfully endure the tests that life places before us.  St. Paul concludes by saying that “God will not test us beyond our strength, but with the testing he will always provide the way out so that we are able to endure it.”

This emphatically does not mean that the road will be easy or that God always ensures good outcomes along the way.  As Christ’s own journey to Golgotha demonstrates with painful clarity, a faithful life is not one free of suffering and challenge, or even, death.  We will inevitably be tested.  Sometimes we pass life’s tests, sometimes we fail.  Sometimes the doctors find a cure for the disease, sometimes they don’t.

What matters, it turns out, is not whether we succeed or fail, but rather, how faithfully we endure the trial.  God does not expect us to be perfect; he merely expects us to be faithful.  For God works through our failures as much as he works through our successes; indeed, maybe more so.  To trust in God is to know that neither our successes nor our failures define us; what defines us, what gives us our worth and dignity, is the steadfast love God in Christ shows for us in both the triumphs and the disappointments.

One of my favorites lines in all of the Book of Common Prayer is from the General Thanksgiving (BCP 836), written by one of my predecessors at Harvard, Charlie Price.  It goes like this:  “We thank you, God, for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us.  And we thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.”

The eyes of faith see that the tests of life are less a measure of our worth than they are occasions for grace, opportunities for God to help us grow in maturity and fruitfulness.  This insight, too, is at the heart of Jesus’ parable of the withering fig tree.  Left to its own devices, the fig tree is barren and will remain so. But when it allows the gardener to care for it, to till its soil and fertilize its roots, it suddenly has the potential for fruitfulness.  The fig tree’s only hope is to acknowledge its dependence on the loving care of a gardener with strong and wise hands.

So there you have it:  An orphaned outlaw survives the test of prophetic leadership because he turns to and trusts in a God who promises “I will be with you.”  A confused and lost church in Corinth survives its own wilderness test by turning to and trusting in an apostle who preaches only Christ crucified.  A withering fig tree is tested and given the promise of life by turning to and trusting in a merciful gardener, whose saving presence, incidentally, we will meet again on Easter morning at the empty tomb.

I confess that I still have “the nightmare” from time to time; the nightmare about failing the history test.  But now when I awaken from it, I am able to laugh, knowing that I have nothing to fear so long as I turn to and trust in the One who sent His very own Son to carry me home.  Amen.

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