Sermon of the Week
No Insignificant Question: How Do We Know God is There?
Keywords: Particularity, Absence of God, Still Small Voice, Practices of Faith, Footprints.
I’ve been trying to think this week about the times when I’ve been left speechless
with absolutely nothing to say.
It might not surprise those of you who know me
that this was a challenging exercise for me.
I almost always have something to say.
In part, I now know, this is because I find silences awkward.
And for much of my life, until I kind of worked to change it,
I would often be the one to fill the silence with a comment or idle talk or something.
I started seeing this in myself
as I was working my way through high school and college.
Helpful teachers would remark about my propensity to comment
about the subject at hand, all the time,
not that I was unhelpful or out of place or necessarily wrong, or anything,
just that, maybe, where I needed to grow
was to take in what others were saying a bit more
give it time to sit with me more
let the themes and the topics work a bit more
and that I didn’t always need to be the one driving that bus.
It wasn’t just school.
I have always been something of an extrovert
sometimes striking up random conversations with someone on a park bench
or at the check out line at the grocery store
or once at the DMV
getting my first driver’s license.
The DMV isn’t really the most social place.
Most people don’t want to be there.
The waits can be insufferable.
The space has all the charm of an empty airplane hanger.
Maybe the first time I remember being left speechless
was at the DMV going for my first driver’s license.
I was jittery and excited and probably was quite annoying
but I remember when the person in line in front of me
after hearing me say ‘good morning’ and ‘hey I like your hat’
looked me in the eye, and then turned back around
and in the most obvious way possible
put his earphones on over his ears
to tune me out.
I think I stood there with my mouth agape for a second. Speechless.
This has changed with me, as I’ve gotten older
and more aware of my propensities and nuances.
I learned how to sit through an entire class and not have to comment,
how to read other people and whether they’re interested in idle talk or not.
how to let the situation inform good social interaction
how sometimes it is better to just let the silence be
which, by the way, is often the very thing that the DMV calls for.
I had to learn that the silence was sometimes a gift
that it was ok to sit with my thoughts and my feelings
even if those thoughts and feelings sometimes were racing around inside there.
I’m not sure why I was this sort of child,
or where we get our particular inclinations about this.
We’re all different with this sort of thing, I know.
Some people have the exact opposite inclination
never wanting to speak up, or contribute to a conversation
or be the one, God forbid, that the kid in line talks to as we’re waiting.
Why I was the more excitable sort, nervous about the quiet,
or wanting to explore more of the social connection, I don’t know.
But it helps us to note that we all have different personalities,
different approaches to this,
and that that’s ok,
we’re all made just a little bit different, a little bit unique
and we all have to learn about ourselves and our inclinations along the way.
We are all particular.
Sure, there are certain things that all of us experience, and feel, and yearn for
but these are more like guidelines and frameworks
For example: we all have capacity for love, yearn for love, need love to feel complete
but how we love, who we love, how potent this is in us varies from person to person.
Or, we all have the capacity for curiosity, for exploration, for seeking understanding
but some of us transform this into something like wanderlust
always seeking out new experiences, new people to meet,
and fill our time with books or travel or seminars or online learning programs
like the one I keep seeing ads for on facebook called Masterclass
where apparently Steve Martin can teach me how to do comedy
and Aaron Franklin how to master Texas-style barbeque,
whereas, on the other hand,
others of us are more inclined to chill out at home, where we are,
comfortable in the curiosity we’ve already undertaken, thank you very much,
taking the new experiences as they come
rather than seeking to make them for ourselves.
No two people are the same. We are all particular.
And as the parent of identical twins,
I can say that’s true even for two people with the same genetic make up
alike in many ways, and yet so wonderfully distinct in others.
I’ve always marveled at how this works out for our faith lives, too.
How some people come across as so strong and sure and confident
when it comes to God,
on the one hand,
and then we see others who have naturally a more skeptical
or cautious, or tentative approach.
Have you ever noticed that difference?
One of the greatest pitfalls of our faith, it seems to me,
is assuming that my experience of the religious life
has to follow yours,
that my experience of God is going to be of the same intensity and style and duration
as other people say that they experience.
That is a concern, because we know that we are all different
that we have different experiences and inclinations and aspirations
that we are all particular
and because of that, our experiences of God are going to all be different.
This is particularly challenging for us
when God seems aloof, or distant, or not real, or absent,
when God doesn’t particularly show up when we think God will,
when we pray and wonder if there’s anyone we’re actually praying to,
when we suffer and ask why am I suffering.
I have had those moments.
I have had times when God feels distant.
When I pray, as someone once did in the Gospel of Mark: I believe, help my unbelief.
And sometimes, in those moments,
we see other people with what looks like answers that work for them
and the lack of that in us makes it even more of a challenge,
or sometimes a crisis
because God is supposed to be a rock for us.
God is an answer to our most important questions
our deepest longing
or questions about why
and if we can’t feel or sense or understand God
particularly when we feel we need her
that can be deeply concerning.
This sermon series is exploring questions and topics
that were submitted for reflection.
These are all really profound, wonderful topics for us to dig into
in part because many of them are uniquely human questions.
They go to the heart of what it means for human beings
to seek meaning and understanding
sort of what makes us us.
Today’s topic was phrased this way:
How to know God is there,
because sometimes it feels like there is no one there.
When I read that question,
I kind of knew that it would find its way into this series
because it is the sort of question that I think everyone can, at least a little bit,
It is the sort of question that has a long history,
as long as there have been human beings searching after God,
which is to say,
as old as humanity itself.
So, for instance,
not only does our bible tell stories about God searching out people
but people looking for God,
sometimes finding God, sometimes not so much:
Moses found God in a bush that was on fire,
but a bush that nevertheless wouldn’t be consumed,
on fire, but not really burning out,
and Moses was so confused, that as he got closer
God told him to step back, and take off his shoes
because he was on holy ground.
The book of First Samuel
opens with a story of young Samuel under the care of the priest Eli
and they’re asleep, at night,
and Samuel hears a voice calling for him
and he runs in to see what Eli wants
but it wasn’t Eli. Eli was asleep
Go back to bed, Samuel.
So he does, and he hears the voice again
and he runs back to Eli
and Eli, annoyed, says to him to go back to bed
and he does, until it happens a third time
and they figure out that its God calling for Samuel
and Eli tells him to listen again
and next time, to answer and see what God is asking him about…
Or then there’s Elijah, the prophet
who went out search for God at Mount Horeb
and while he was there,
Elijah experienced powerful wind,
and the text said that God was not in the wind, or in the earthquake, or in the fire.
And afterwards came the sound of sheer silence.
And when Elijah heard it, that silence, that nothingness,
he wrapped up his face and went out and stood there
speechless, with absolutely nothing to say,
and it was then that God spoke to him.
What are you doing here, Elijah?
There are all these great stories about searching after God
sometimes finding God
sometimes coming up short, or with mixed signals.
In particular, I remember how once,
when I was a student pastor
I was working at a church in Chicago
and we were doing a bible study on that passage about Elijah
the passage is in the book that we call First Kings
and afterwards a man came in to talk to me
and he said to me
How come God doesn’t speak to me like that?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying I want to hear God speaking to me like that
it might scare me to death if I did
but how come God doesn’t?
All these stories in the bible have God speaking to this person or that person
I don’t think I know anyone who has heard God actually talking to them…
He had a point.
I haven’t had God speak to me like that, either.
And we talked for a while about expectations,
about how we think we might experience God,
and where we do actually hear God
and how that happens for us in our day and age.
But it was an example to me about
how these stories sometimes shape our expectations
and can make us feel inadequate, or like something isn’t quite right
if we’ve not heard a voice from God
or see clearly where God is calling
or have a vision of a bush that is burning, but not.
How do we know God is there?
That is a significant question.
The two texts we’ve chosen for today
are meant to offer a few responses that hopefully will help.
This passage from the Psalms that I read today may have been familiar,
because they were the words that Jesus spoke from the cross:
My God, My God, Why have you abandoned me
Why are you so far from helping me,
from the words of my groaning?
O my God, I cry by day,
but you do not answer;
and by night, but find no rest.
It is significant that Jesus spoke these words
in the middle of his crucifixion.
Jesus, the one we look to as our closest connection to God,
the example of what a faithful life looks like,
the one that Matthew calls Emmanuel, God’s very self with us,
Jesus himself expressed his doubts, his distance from God.
Why have you abandoned me?
Where are you, God?
I cry, but find no answer,
where are you.
Jesus knew the Psalms.
He knew that the Psalms express all sorts of human feeling and sensibilities:
both joy and grief
both triumph and desperation,
both finding God, and searching for a God that seems like will never found.
Jesus knew that the Psalms put into writing all of these human emotions
and wrap it in an understanding that God is bigger than all of them
that God can handle them, that God loves us throughout them all.
if we, as Christians, affirm that we look
to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ
as an example for our own life,
then it should be some comfort that Jesus understands what it feels like
to think that God is not there, that God feels absent.
It is not a shortcoming of faith.
It is not a failure, or a mistake, or a limitation on our part.
Jesus himself had those moments.
We should allow ourselves the charity
to understand that it is ok for us to have them too.
At the same time,
as we read the story of the life of Jesus
we know that he was never really abandoned, never really alone.
He certainly felt like he was.
He wondered, aloud, where God was and why he was suffering.
But God was there,
weeping with the rest of us, from noon until three,
and soon would show the whole world what new life would do.
There is a distinction
between what we feel and perceive, on the one hand
and what is really going on, on the other.
These often overlap, to be sure,
but our perception and our feeling and our understanding is always limited.
So it is that
even though we sometimes think that we are alone
that we have trouble sensing God, or experiencing God, or understanding God,
God is still there with us, still loving us, still caring for us, nevertheless.
God’s care for us never ends.
That’s the second reading for the day,
the one that Sharon offered, from the book of Romans.
There, the apostle Paul reminds us
that God cares for us during our difficult moments.
That God prays for us, when we do not have the words to pray.
That sometimes God intercedes with sighs too deep for words.
And no matter how fraught life gets,
Paul uses words like
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me….
that no matter how fraught life gets,
nothing can separate us from the love of God.
The promise of our faith is that God’s love never ends.
That God is always there.
That there is nothing that can break that love
not angels, or rulers, or things present or things to come
nothing up high or down low
nothing in all creation.
God is always there.
God’s love never ends.
How do we reconcile that with the reality that sometimes it doesn’t feel that way.
That sometimes my hurt is too strong
my loneliness too deep
my suffering too powerful
my anger too potent
my weariness too encompassing?
Just because we don’t see it, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.
And the promise of our faith is that God’s love is stronger than all of this
and will always be there for us, no matter what.
Let’s conclude with a few specifics.
I was reading a really fascinating article that was talking about examples of this feeling
throughout Christian history.
You can google a bit about the “Dark Night of the Soul”
or about the Cloud of Unknowing
or the life of John of the Cross
if you want a few examples about how various Christian thinkers
have wrestled with this.
Some of you, this week, mentioned the famous footsteps poem
where someone prays to God about walking with God on the beach
and noticing that there were places where there were two sets of footprints
and others where there were just one
and wondering why God abandoned them.
O my child, comes the response, I didn’t abandon you
that was where I carried you.
These are all examples that lift up a felt absence of God.
How this isn’t at all unusual, and in a sense, is normal at times.
We all hold in tension
both the God that promises to go with us everywhere we go
and the reality that God feels absent sometimes, not always there.
The question asked “how do we know God is there”
and in one way we can answer with these assurances, these promises
the testimony of others that have felt like we do
and have realized that God is there even in our dim moments.
God is there because that is who God is.
But that is not the only response.
We can also offer that it is good to tend to our searching
and to listen carefully for it.
To share it with people we know and trust and love,
because we’re not in this alone,
and you might experience things differently than I do
and I might see in your experience something that helps me.
This is why we form friendships, do bible studies,
go play golf together. We share our problems, our worries, our stress,
our searching for God, and sometimes we find that God is there
through our friends and our partners when we’re talking about them.
And then there are times that
these feelings coincide with depression or mental illness
and it is important for us to take good care of ourselves when that happens
eat well, get sleep, spend time with those friends and loved ones and pets and the like
and get a medical check up, and perhaps some therapy,
to help out along the way.
The searching after God might sometimes feel like one more brick in the wall
one more reason why we aren’t doing things right,
but, in truth, it is normal, and a sign that we are human after all.
We can come to church to be reminded. That’s a good thing.
The practices, the routines of our faith,
the singing of hymns,
the offering of prayers,
the celebration of the sacraments
the pondering of holy words
these things help us explore God’s world and consider other possibilities
and maybe connect to God in new and different ways.
Finally, doing those things that connect to the big things of life
that give you joy
that bring you love
that move you, that inspire you,
those are good things for your spirit. Do more of those.
But throughout it all, know that if you struggle with sensing God
that’s ok. Because God is there, with a love that will never let you Go.
So may we search after God, yearn for God, wonder where God is,
and also understand that sometimes we will falter
finite creatures as we are
and that that’s ok
because God will be there to hold us up
to carry us when we need it
and to love us every day of our lives.
May it be so.