Harrowing Of Hell
December 12, 2021

Sermon Series #3 on Kingdom of God Intelligence: Trust Versus Control

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Two Sundays ago, Kelli Martin, in her sermon, talked about the necessity of facing our life. That theme was picked up at our men’s retreat last weekend by our leader, Dr. Ron David. He formed the retreat around four questions: facing God, facing ourselves, facing our neighbor, and facing the existential threats that seem to be gripping our nation today. Within these categories the one I want to continue discussing with you is that of existential threat, because it is one of the precipitating reasons for this sermon series on Kingdom of God intelligence. 

Now what do I mean by existential threat? At its simplest, it is a threat to an individual’s survival. It is that thing that will end this thing (point to my body). In the way we were discussing it at the retreat, however, it wasn’t around individual health, or staying in shape; it wasn’t about particular kinds of accidents or violence we could trip into. Rather, our discussions had more to do with the disruption of life as we currently live it, with reflections on the division, if not disintegrations of this nation. 

Pollster John Zogby, in a 2021 poll, found that a plurality of Americans, 46%, believed a civil war is likely. Even if we don’t think it will happen, the specter of a divided nation, a nation of irreconcilable differences, is easy to talk about because of the general gestalt of what we witness all around us today.

The answer to this existential threat is trust, which I’ll talk about more in a bit, but first I want to examine the influences that perpetuate the division we are experiencing.

Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians (2:1-2) reveals it this way: “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air.” The ruler of the power of the air… interesting. It was a euphemism in Paul’s day for the demons who haunted the atmospheric miasma where humans lived. The Greek understanding of the earth to sky continuum was in layers with the thickest and ickiest near the ground, and the thinnest and cleanest up high. Humans and demons wandered the chaos of the lowest levels.

A comparable analogy today might be the chaos of the Internet, over and against the clean simplicity of the mathematical algorithms that run it. We, too, live in a layered system, and most of us wander the virtual realm where we are susceptible to the powers of the air. And while some may still call those influences demonic, others understand them as people and corporations bent on perpetuating ideas that provoke existential angst in a way that accrues power to themselves.

The rulers of the power of the air, then, are forces who whip up emotional fervor and passion around ideas that, generally, have very little concrete connection to the average person’s life. I’ll give you an example: A law passes in a school district in Tennessee and becomes the thing that divides neighbors in Seattle. Sixty years ago there would have been no national existential threat in that local action. Today it is spun up through 24-hour news cycles and social media algorithms seeking eyeballs for advertisers.

Jesus has another name for the rulers of the air. He calls them the “Father of lies” (Gospel of John 8:44).  The air sparks fear and then fans it with the breath of rumor and innuendo and gossip and tripe… all out there in the ether sphere, fueling a constant din of lies and half-truths ricocheting around as background noise that lodges in the conscious mind as truths to be trusted.

Which brings us back to trust. Trust is the attribute of Kingdom of God intelligence we want to explore in this final sermon in this series. And mores specifically, trust over and against control. Today the word to remember is trust. Paul’s letter to the Philippians sets up the conversation for us. He has a problem, broken trust in Philippi. Two church leaders, two women, Euodia and Syntyche, seem to have fallen into an intractable disagreement, with Paul a thousand miles away, locked in a jail cell in Rome with only a piece of paper and an ink quill through which to act. So, he does. Writing. Trusting. 

Now what does that mean? What is Paul trusting in? And how, through trust, does he prevail in stitching back together the church in Philippi? Well, Paul taps into the two channels of trust; one that runs through God, and the other that runs through neighbor. Trust God.  Trust neighbor. Sound vaguely familiar? It should, it pattern-matches the greatest commandment of all: love God and love neighbor.

So, I’d like us to look individually at these two channels of trust, becoming acquainted with how they work as a means through which we ground ourselves in the trust needed to push back against the existential threat swirling in the air around us. So, to trust. There are three things to remember about trust:

1) it is always personal;
2) it is always grounded in history; and
3) it is always built on love.

Let me give you an example from my life that might be helpful in looking at how these three strands of trust the personal, the historical, and love are braided together into trust God and trust neighbor.

As a kid I remember, on a fairly regular basis, overhearing my dad on the telephone with relatives talking about their medical issues. Whenever there were any medical questions, they called dad. He is a rheumatologist, so he can answer anything. But they also called because they know my dad, personally; they have a history with him, in many cases for their entire life; and they love him, and he loves them. They call because of trust. 

And lately that trust has been tested, because of the lies of the power of the air. There are people out there who seek their own power by telling lies about COVID-19 and the nature of the vaccine. And some of those lies have seeped into the conscience of people related to me and my dad.

Here is the message they hear: “Take control of your life! Don’t let people tell you what to do! You’re not a dummy! Do your research! Do your OWN research!” That is the mantra that “empowers” people to make “their own” decisions about COVID-19 and the vaccine, and in too many cases, a decision that leads to their death.

But along the way they feel in control. Control trumps trust. Control is their higher good. And even though I am not an anti-vaxxer, I understand the desire for control. I don’t like being told what to do. I love the feeling of studying and discovering and gaining insight. I’m all for being informed, and taking control of my life… after all, that is a part of what it means to face your life.

And yet, the risk is the rabbit holes of misinformation. The algorithms that blow beneath the search engines is designed to amplify the extremes. They are not personal. They are not historical. And as for love, well, the question hardly needs to be asked. There may be information on the internet that makes us feel empowered with knowledgeable but, Kingdom of God intelligence teaches and testifies, to the truth that love is of greater value than knowledge.

The existential threat we feel today is that trust is at war with control, or shall I say the illusion of our control as perpetuated by the rulers of the power of the air. I have a relative or two who completely trust my father with their health care in every case, save one; the vaccine.

And where the challenge lives is not just in convincing them to get the vaccine, which remains critically important, but also in sitting with the ambiguity of caring about them, and honoring the history, and staying in relationship, while being entirely frustrated, if not befuddled, by the power of lies to overshadow lifelong trust.

Paul has the same problem with Euodia and Syntyche. And his response: “Let your gentleness be known to everybody. The Lord is near… by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your request be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:5-7).

Trust God. We tap into the channel of trust through prayer, supplication, and thanksgiving. We seek not the information of the Internet, but the mind of Jesus, through prayer. And this will allow us to attain in the peace which surpasses all understanding, even as we remain vexed by the churn of misinformation put out by the father of lies.

Trust God, for God is a personal God. The incarnation, the birth of Jesus, makes apparent the reality of God’s personal presence in the world.

Remember too, that we have history with God… God has always been here, this near, closer than an electron to a proton. And that history is universally particular to every person who has lived, who does live, who will live.

Finally, remember that God loves you, and this kingdom over which God reigns is a perfectly safe place to be at all times. Now, of course, that does not mean there is no pain or suffering or even death, but it does mean that there is always love from God to each one of us. Love never dies. Love never ends. And in that you can put your trust.

But there’s one more thing to consider as we consider trust: the relationship we have with our neighbor. When you find yourself in disagreement over a particular issue or idea ask yourself: How well do I know this neighbor? What is our history? Do I love them?  Do they love me? 

And if you find the answer is yes to many of these questions, then I invite you to reassess the knowledge position you find yourself taking; because maybe you’re the one who has prioritized control over trust. But even if you are sure of your stance, as you most certainly would be around the vaccine, remember your top intelligence metrics, Kingdom of God intelligence, and how love is more important than knowledge.

And if it is your destiny to love someone all the way to the grave, then do so. But hopefully your love, as Paul’s for Euodia and Syntyche did, proves a model of reconciliation that tips the scale toward trust. For it was Paul’s personal relationship with these leaders, based on their shared history, grounded in love for God that revealed the peace which surpasses all understanding and allowed the church in Philippi to heal and thrive.

That is the hope for all our relationships as well…which is why we train in Kingdom of God intelligence pursuing the attributes of flexibility, curiosity, and trust so as to live a balanced, healthy and holy life. For it is this life, this lifestyle, that robs the rulers of the power of the air the oxygen needed to sow chaos and division. Kingdom of God intelligence is the reconciling wisdom of Jesus, and that is the wisdom we seek on our common journey, as a learning church, you and I together, here at Epiphany.