Are you familiar with the artwork of Andrew Wyeth? I don’t think I had ever heard of him before going to Maine. But, like a lot of people, after I moved to Camden, I grew to appreciate his work. It seems to be on display everywhere. He’s something of a native son up there I guess. I once came across an interesting story about Wyeth, told by his brother Nat, and quoted in a book by Kenneth Brown called, Inventors at Work.
Nat said, “Andy did a picture of Lafayette’s quarters near Chadds Ford, PA., with a sycamore tree behind the building. When I first saw the painting, he wasn’t finished with it. He showed me a lot of drawings of the trunk and the sycamore’s gnarled roots, and I said, ‘Where’s all that in the picture?’ ‘It’s not in the picture, Nat,’ he said. ‘For me to get what I want in the part of the tree that’s showing, I’ve got to know thoroughly how it is anchored in back of the house.’” Nat went on to say, “I find that remarkable. He could draw the tree above the house with such authenticity [only] because he knew exactly how the thing was in the ground.”
I like that idea. In order to really understand the part of the tree Wyeth could see, he had to look deeply into what could not be seen, what kind of foundation the tree had; its trunk and its roots. It doesn’t take much imagination to apply that same idea to people. By and large, the part of us that is visible on the surface doesn’t reveal all that much about who we are. There’s an awful lot about us that’s “not in the picture.” And that makes it challenging for other people to really know us or even for us to know ourselves.
If we want to really know ourselves––what makes us tick, what drives us, where we come from––we need to look deeply into those things that are not always visible; our foundation; the values, philosophy, culture, habits, family and community that have shaped and informed our lives. It’s what we’re grounded in that makes us the people we are. But we’re not always conscious of what we’re grounded in, and as long as we’re not conscious about it, we can’t really be very intentional about it either. We have to have some sense of what our foundation is, before we can know whether or not it is what we really want it to be.
I remember back when I started seminary, in practically every class, in one way or another, the professors kept asking us a question; “Who is God for you?” At first, I thought that was a really strange question. I remember thinking, “Wait a minute. I’m paying you guys a lot of money. Aren’t you supposed to be telling me who God is? Isn’t that why I came here?” Gradually though, I came to realize that this is a really important question. People have all kinds of ideas about who God is. So, figuring out for ourselves who God is, is a large part of knowing why we’re here and what we’re meant to be doing with our lives.
Now, Paul, in the passage I just read to you, is offering us a glimpse of his own foundation; a vision of who God was for him. In Paul’s vision, God is always there, always loving, always caring. God has a purpose for our lives, and if we live according to that purpose, Paul says, then nothing can ever harm us, and nothing can ever separate us from God. All things work together for good.
You’ll notice that he does not say that all things are good or will necessarily be good. He doesn’t say that if we decide to believe in this vision of his we will never experience “hardship, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, or sword.” (The man had a rich imagination when it came to tragedy.) What he does say is that the power of God can and will weave in and through any and all of our human tragedies to accomplish God’s divine purposes, and that if we hang in there with God, we will ultimately triumph over all adversity, even death itself. We will be more than conquerors.
Now, that’s a pretty powerful vision, isn’t it. This was the foundation that allowed Paul to stand up against all of the trials and tribulations and persecutions of his life and ministry. Paul’s conviction was solid as a rock, as we say. But in telling us about this vision, clearly, he wasn’t just patting himself on the back. He wasn’t just being open and vulnerable with his own story. He was telling us that he had found something, in Christ, that made it possible for him to face all of the challenges of his life with faithfulness, courage and gratitude. And, he passionately wanted all of us to know, that what he had found was ours for the asking. All we have to do is embrace it. All we have to do is open our hearts to it, and the peace of Christ will be ours just like it was his.
If God is for us, who is against us? It’s a rhetorical queston. Obviously, if God is for us, nothing could possibly be against us. In Paul’s mind, the question of whether or not God is for us has been decisively answered for all time in the death and resurrection of Jesus. So, really, the question is not “Is God for us?” The question is, are we for God? Who is God for you?
Now, having been through that process in seminary myself, I do not make light of how difficult that question is, assuming we take it seriously. Paul’s vision is one among a multitude of beliefs and philosophies that are competing for our attention all day, every day. Think about the marketplace of the internet. They’re always talking about “competing for our eyeballs,” which is to say that they make money based on how effectively that can draw and hold our attention; our eyes on their ads. Or, not unrelated, people complain about the news media a lot these days. I don’t personally agree that the news is entirely untrustworthy, that it’s all a pack of lies. But clearly, what we call the “media” represents a cacophony of voices that are all in competition with one another for our attention. Trying to figure out what’s true in the midst of all that noise can be a real problem.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul wrote that “we must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine.” (Ephesians 4:14) Well let me tell you, the winds of doctrine in his day were no more than a gentle breeze compared to the hurricane we deal with today. But that just makes it all that much more important that we not allow ourselves to be blown all over the map. That we find that calm eye at the center of the storm. What is your foundation? Who is God for you?
I’ll tell you, part of the reason I’m drawn to this morning’s passage of scripture is because it was my father-in-law’s favorite. The fact that Jim was a minister and that, when I met his daughter, I was already planning to become a minister gave us an immediate connection. We used to talk about religion and theology and philosophy endlessly, and one of the themes we kept coming back to was “All things work together for good for those who love the Lord.” Jim essentially built his entire theology and ministry around that line. The way he used to say it was, “The good news is that even the bad news is good news.” But Jim didn’t believe this just because it was a catchy turn of phrase. He believed it because it essentially saved his life.
Some of you know that Pam had two brothers who died of Cystic Fibrosis when they were young. Even after having been in the family for more than 40 years, I still can’t imagine how incredibly painful that was for all of them. Bruce died when he was 13, and Peter when he was 19. I remember Jim telling me about how much he loved his sons and how overwhelming it was to lose them. But also how, if it had not been for his faith, he could not have survived it. He said that, through his grief, he came to realize that, as long as he held on to his faith, he could survive the loss of anything and everything else in his life. But if he ever lost his faith, he would be completely lost.
The good news is, that even the bad news is good news. The good news is that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” That is the foundation we are invited to embrace. That is the love that will not let us go. If God is for us, who is against us?
Paul’s affirmation, and Jim’s, and mine, is that God is for us. The question is, are we for God. How are we grounded? What is our foundation? Have we found our way to the eye of the storm, where the cacophony of competing voices becomes quiet, and we can hear the still, small voice of God.