Saturday, July 16, 2011

In the Meantime

First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, Louisiana
July 17, 2011 - Ordinary 16 A
Genesis 28:10-19a
Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Who, or what, is God to you? This is a question I often start with in discussions of faith with groups ranging from confirmation classes to new classes of elders. It is a simple question with a seemingly obvious answer. Yet many of our descriptions of God are limited to particular actions that we claim to be God’s actions. That is why H. Richard Niebuhr once argued that Western culture is not, as we like to claim, monotheistic. Instead he claimed that we are polytheistic. For Niebuhr, God is a center of value - a place from which we determine the value of other things and by which we organize our priorities.

That changes the question a little bit. The question, “Who is God?” then becomes, “Who or what is the center of value for your life?” Chances are that this question might have more than one answer depending on the topic. As a parent I am oriented around the care of my children. As a husband I am bound to partnership with my wife. The list goes on.

A modern parable that addresses the idea of centers of value is the movie, The Blind Side. If you haven’t seen it I’m going to ruin it for you. It is based on the true story of a rich white woman who takes pity on a poor young black boy and nurtures him into a successful professional football player. There is so very much more to the movie than that - I haven’t spoiled it yet.

Throughout the film the characters express varying levels of Christian faith, but the faith they express is primarily idealism and altruism. All of that becomes compromised when true faith mandates involvement in actual relationships.

Relationships are risky. Relationships are messy. The climax of the film comes when the young man, Michael Oher, has been recruited for the football team of Ole Miss, the alma mater of his adopted parents - to which they contribute generously. Accusations are made about ethics and intentions. Michael finally confronts his adopted mother and says, “Did you do this for me or for yourself?!” Even with the purest motives, I doubt any person can truly answer that question - for there is both wheat and weed growing in every soul.

Even Jacob, after seeing a vision of God and hearing God’s commitment to him, immediately set parameters on the relationship. As we read on we find Jacob saying, “If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.”

O Jacob! What is God to you? Surely the Lord was in that place, and you did not know it! Surely God shows up in places we never expect or want God to be in - and we don’t know it!

Another question I often ask is, “How or when have you experienced God’s active presence in your life.” Sadly, you would be amazed how many people do not immediately think of worship. I would even say that the majority of people I have asked that question to are not sure that they have ever experienced the presence of God.

Most people assume that it has to be something terrible or wonderful, like Jacob in a dream or Isaiah in the temple. Some assume it can only be in times of divine intervention like a car wreck that should have killed you. It used to be assumed that a near death experience equated to faith because there could be no such thing as an atheist in a fox hole.

Unfortunately, or maybe not, that is no longer the case. I say maybe not because I have hope that Christian faith offers something that neither requires the threat of death nor looses anything without it. In fact, my hope is that Christian faith causes more problems than it solves.

You see, we tend to praise our own initiative. We like to anoint rocks. We tend to think that we can and should be able to figure things out. Sometimes we can, and sometimes we do, but today’s passages remind us that ultimately we are indebted to God alone.

Paul writes to the church in Rome in order to declare the mystery of faith - that God has chosen to adopt us, to include us, to make us citizens of a kingdom we have no claim or share in. This claim that God has placed upon us does not protect us from suffering. In some cases it even encourages it!

Yet God’s claim on our lives involves us in something that is larger than we can imagine - something that all of creation has been longing for since the dawn of time. And so we have this hope that we might experience in the here and now some glimpse of the eternal, some experience of the Holy, some invitation to be received as beloved even though we live in between the promise and the gift.

And in the mean time, what do we do about the weeds? What do we do about the feeling, the conviction, the deep sense of knowing we have that some folks just don’t get it and they could be messing this up for everyone?!

And Jesus said, “Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, ‘Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.’”

Not to be cavalier or flippant, but I would suggest that there is but one Creator. I will even state that although there are sin sick souls in this world, there are yet wheat and tares in each of us. It is not up to me or to you to say who God will take in or who God will cast out. It is up to me and to you to say that our hope in this life and the life to come is found in the transforming power of Jesus and the opportunity to respond. It is up to you and to me to say how we will experience the presence of God in the messy, ordinary, and extra ordinary relationships we find ourselves to be a part of.

Walter Wangerin, Jr. wrote a short story about encountering God in the mundane and messy. The story is called “To a Lady with Whom I've Been Intimate, Whose Name I Do Not Know.” In this story he writes about a chance encounter with a woman in a convenience store. By his description she is overweight and buying items that indicate a solitary and unhappy life. She drops a quarter and he violates a social taboo by picking it up, greeting her, and sincerely asking how she is doing.

The woman snarled at him, grabbed his wrist forcefully with one hand and snatched the quarter with the other before leaving in a huff. In reflection, Wangerin writes:

“Ah, you. You.

How much I must have hurt you by my question. Was that mild commonplace too much a probe, too lethal, too threatening for the delicate balance your life has created for itself? Does kindness terrify you because then, perhaps, you would have to do more than imagine the Harlequin, but then would have to be?

I think so.

To cross the gulf from Life Alone to Life Beloved—truly to be real, truly to be worthy in the eyes of another—means that you are no more your own possession. You give yourself away, and then games all come to an end. No longer can you pretend excuses or accusations against the world; nor can you imagine lies concerning your beauty, your gifts and possibilities. Everything becomes what it really is, for you are seen and you know it. “How are you” triggers “Who are you.” And it wasn’t so much that I said it, but rather that I meant it and that I awaited an answer, too—this caused the lonely She to know her loneliness, even in the moment when I offered you the other thing: friendship.

It’s frightening, isn’t it?

To be loved, dear lady, you must let all illusions die. And since, between the bathroom and the kitchen, between People magazine and the Harlequin, your Self was mostly illusion—at least the acceptable self—then to be loved meant that your very Self had to die—at least the acceptable self.”


Dying to ourselves and rising again in Christ - that is the formula of our baptism.

Death and resurrection - that is the invitation of this table. So, come, you who have much faith and you would want more. Come and experience the Holy in the midst of the mundane.

Beloved of God - the One who is, was, and always shall be awaits you and me here and now so that we may continue to experience, express, and explore the love of God in this life and in the life to come.

To God be the glory, both now and always. Amen.
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