First Presbyterian, Lafayette Louisiana
Year C, Ordinary 17
Today's texts speak of something that fascinates me, the idea of talking directly to God. We find this more in the Old Testament than the New, for in the New Testament Jesus becomes the presence of God for all time and space. In the past I have asked people in classes and conversations to tell me if they feel they have ever experienced God's presence directly. Not many people are willing to say they have. Perhaps in church we might, but what if you were talking with a friend who is having a tough time in life. Maybe they've had a difficult medical diagnosis or they have a child or grandchild going through some difficult times. Take your pick because life is full of it: divorce, job loss, illness, the economy, ecology, politics... Now, I imagine that most of us make the assumption that God is a part of these things and in the midst of all of our joys and suffering.
What about someone who doesn't? Do you have friends that fall in that category? Most of us probably do, and most of us, when it comes to religion, prefer to let that be a private thing. Presbyterians are not pushy. Yet, sometimes, I believe that we limit others in their ability to say what they think and feel because they don't really know what we think and feel. Perhaps that is because we Presbyterians can be a little conflict avoidant at times. Perhaps that is because we Presbyterians are less dogmatic than a lot of other folks. We believe in the Bible as God's word and in Jesus as our Savior, but I bet that in a room of ten Presbyterians you can come up with ten different ways to understand a given passage and ten different understandings of how to respond to the grace offered to us in Jesus Christ.
Personally, I see that as a great strength of the church. We do not always agree, and (even though we don't want to come into conflict with someone outside the church) we are willing to risk conflict with one another in order to come to a more faithful response to the Gospel. That's what I see happening in the readings we have received today. Abraham (who at this point in the game has known God as a conversation partner for around 24 years), is actually daring to argue with God. Not in the sense of an opponent, but rather in the way of child to a parent. Children have this way of latching onto words and phrases as an aspect of your character. We lose this as adults because we experience loss and because we become aware of the uncertainty of life. As a parent, you still have to find ways to communicate certainty and provide stability for your children. Sometimes that means agreeing with a demand and being held accountable by your own words. Sometimes it means just letting them cry and get over it.
I've mentioned to a few of you that we are in one of those phases with Sam these days. He's testing the boundaries and occasionally gets a little whinny, and he's learning that whining doesn't really help. Just a few Sundays ago I scolded a few of you in the kitchen, perhaps prematurely, for letting out a chorus of "Awe…" when Sam became upset about something.
All of us, in our own way, get tired or overwhelmed at times. All of us, in our own way, need to know that God is still God…still loving, still providing, still offering a way to make sense of things. Abraham, in his own way, is seeking to check his understanding of God. What he is hearing does not square with his experience and belief systems.
So God assures Abraham that God's character is still that of grace and mercy even in the midst of judgment and correction. God's will has not been bent, but God's willingness to forgive is established. As we read further we find that the only people spared from God's wrath are Lot and his family, and they are only spared because of Lot's relationship with Abraham and the hospitality Lot showed to the strangers who represented God.
So far we have a good story. The good end up victorious. The bad are destroyed, and God remains the constant guide and companion to Abraham. A good story…but is it our story? Is it your story? Many people in this day and age are frustrated with religion because these stories are just stories to them. God seems uninvolved in their lives, and they long for something they can taste and see. I believe that is the reason we have the phenomenon of praise music and worship services that are more emotional than rational. This is not the first time that emotional and cultural influences have changed the way we worship, and I doubt it will be the last.
I can't remember when or where I first heard it, but somewhere I remember someone saying that they wanted a God with skin on. This questioning of God comes up in pop culture all the time, and it's very much like the questions Abraham asked. It's like our world is saying, "God, if you are here, do something, say something, give us a hand! Far be it from you to leave us on our own!"
Of course many of us believe that Jesus Christ was God with skin on. Paul's letter to the Colossians confirms that and reminds us that through Christ, we become the presence of God for one another. But what about someone for whom these words are someone else's story? What does it matter that the Bible says "in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fullness in him"? For that matter, what does it mean to say "Ask and it will be given to you."
I can tell you that someone who does not see this as their story will often hear these passages and think that Jesus may have been God in the flesh, but that was a long time ago. They are also likely to have had the experience of praying for things that never come true. Now, I want to be very clear because I am using some insider/outsider language that is not typical for Presbyterians. My intent here is not to cast judgment onto others but to acknowledge our responsibility in the relationships that we have been called into. The only way for others to experience God in the flesh is through our hands and feet. In fact the only way for us to experience the presence of God is by offering it to someone else; making concrete God's promise to love, forgive, provide, encourage, and make sense of life's difficulties (even if that only means suffering with us).
And so we come to Jesus as his disciples. We are seeking to be as he is in the world. That is what the Rabbinic tradition of a disciple was. A disciple did not simply follow instructions but truly emulated the teacher. In asking how to pray they were asking, "How can we be as you are?" Truly that is what the term Christian meant in it's origin. It meant to be a little Christ, literally a representation of him.
So Jesus gives us the words we pray every Sunday to let us know what matters to him and to encourage us to reflect that to others. But Jesus knows that the words are not enough. Words can be a prison if there is no action or relationship that follows them. They can bind our hearts while allowing us to feel justified because we have said the words that we feel and stated what we believe.
That's why he follows it with this goofy parable about a persistent request for bread in the middle of the night. At first glance it seems odd that Jesus would portray God as someone who is bothered by our request. Yet in the end, I think he is simply acknowledging the fact that God does not answer our request because of our worthiness. In the end it is always about God's willingness to be who God has said God would be. It is for that reason that we knock. It is for that reason we know that we will receive the gift of God's presence.
And this gift, the Holy Spirit of God dwelling within us, is not to be kept. Even more importantly, those we seek to share it with are the means by which we experience the gift that we have been given.
Last week when I went to Richmond I met up with an old friend. Nancy was a member of the youth group that just never fit in. After she started college she and I went to a rock climbing gym together a couple of times. We would take turns climbing and supporting one another on belay. Belaying for someone means keeping tension on the rope. We would talk about life and faith, and we would encourage one another.
I think that is what it means to be the church. We are called to seek out the ones that don't fit in, but not simply to include them. We are called to persistently seek the presence of God with those that we can lift up and support, and it is my great conviction that we will be lifted up with them.
It is important that we come together to support one another. It is important that we invite and draw others into our fellowship, but it is crucial that we represent Christ in our daily lives. For we do not simply go to church, we are the church.
Teresa of Avila, a Carmelite Nun and Christian reformer from the 1500s said it this way:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassionately on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassionately on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours. Amen.