NOTE: Here are my worship notes for Sunday, May 29, 2011 following the Common Lectionary readings. This is still a part of my series influenced by Rob Bell's new book, LOVE WINS, but also grows out of the conversations around finding God in our suffering at First Church. Special thanks to my buddy, Black Pete, of Thunder Bay, Ontario for sharing a quote from Charlotte Bronte. And great appreciation for the sacred work of Georges Roualt whose paintings shape this week's posting. If you are in the area, please stop by for worship at 10:30 am.
I want to speak very personally with you today – pastor to people as well as believer to believer – as we try to go still deeper into the question: where the HELL is God in all of this? You may recall that for the past few weeks I have attempted to outline a broad theological construct for discerning the presence of the Lord in the midst of our suffering.
• First, I shared with you what I call a spirituality of God at the beginning – a way of being attentive and prayerful about God’s presence at the core of your life – so that you learn to shift your focus from yourself to the Lord. The catch phrase for this spirituality might be: We don’t think ourselves into a new way of living, rather we live ourselves into a new way of thinking.
• Second, I spoke with you about God’s absence and silence, right? God’s wrath in the old words, but with a twist because this apparent absence is not meant to wound us, but rather to awaken a longing to return to God’s grace. “You want to see what it is like to live in fear – or greed – or lust? Fine, go ahead,” says the Lord, “have it your way – and then maybe you will want to return to grace.” Perhaps a summary for that second message would be: “When circumstances persist even though I bend every effort to eliminate them, then clearly those are the will of God for me – and there is something in them that I must learn to deal with.”
This brings me to installment number three – a highly personal testimony about where God meets us in the midst of suffering – because by faith I believe this is true. I believe – that is to say that I trust – that in the God made flesh in Jesus Christ, we are NOT left alone in our suffering nor are we abandoned by God because of sin.
And that’s the clue I ask you to pay attention to this morning – the God made flesh in Jesus Christ – because, you see, your awareness of Christ’s true nature will either help you experience God in your pain or leave you out in the cold and all alone. In St. John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples just before facing the shame and agony of the Cross: “If you love me, show it by doing what I've told you. I will talk to the Father and he'll provide you another Friend so that you will always have someone with you.”
Did you hear that? “You will ALWAYS have someone with you – a friend in the Spirit – shaped and informed by Christ’s love.” And it gets better…
This Friend is the Spirit of Truth. The godless world can't take him in because it doesn't have eyes to see him, doesn't know what to look for. But you know him already because he has been staying with you, and will even be in you! Listen: I will not leave you orphaned. I'm coming back to you. In just a little while the world will no longer see me, but you're going to see me because I am alive and you're about to come alive. At that moment you will know absolutely that I'm in my Father, and you're in me, and I'm in you. So remember: the person who knows my commandments and keeps them, that's who loves me. And the person who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and make myself plain to him."
Those who love me will keep and embody my commandments and I will keep them always in the Father’s love so that they will never be alone: sounds like it would be important for us to know what Christ’s commandments are, don’t you think?
• Now let’s be clear: I’m not talking about the spiritual instructions of Jesus, ok? The Sermon on the Mount in Matthew’s gospel is life changing, but it isn’t one of Christ’s commands.
• And please don’t get distracted by trying to remember all the Lord’s parables either; they have their place, too and can also take us deeper into the Jesus life.
But for just a moment, try to focus on the unique commandments of Jesus, ok? There are just three of them – that’s a clue – and in just a moment I’m going to ask you what you think they are, ok?
And the reason I am pushing you on this is not because I want to be a hot shot preacher and show off how much I know – or remember – or can find on my computer while writing my sermon. In fact, this really has nothing to do with me – it has to do with you – and your grief and sorrow and pain – and your broken hearts. One of the reasons I believe we suffer so much in our lives is NOT because God is absent, but rather because we don’t know where to look for the Lord.
We neither know the commandments Jesus promises will unite us with the presence of God’s grace so that we will never be alone; nor do we grasp what they tell us about God’s true nature…
So let me ask you again because what you KNOW about God as made flesh in Jesus Christ can either help you experience the Lord in your suffering or else leave you out in the cold and all alone. What do you think are the three unique commandments Jesus has given his disciples that serve as a guide into the true nature of God?
First there is Matthew 22:36-40: "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" And Jesus replied: "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
• What is Jesus telling us about the true nature of God here?
• I think he is saying that love is at the heart of God and is to be our heart and soul, too. Not judgment – but gratitude. Not rule keeping and fear – but compassion and community.
What’s more, I think he is telling us that unless we let ourselves be guided from that love which comes from above, everything else we do – including our quest for God in our suffering – will likely be futile. Not because God wants to stay hidden, but because we need to look in the right place.
Do you remember the old Sufi story about the holy fool, Nasrudin, who lost the key to his door? Tradition has it that after losing this key he sent his friends out to help him find it. And after hours of looking, they came back empty handed only to find Nasrudin on his hands and knees searching for his key under a street light in a part of town totally unknown to him. “What are you doing here, man?” they shouted. “You’ve never been here before in your life.” To which Nasrudin said, “Yes, yes, I know but… the light is so much better over here.”
To find God’s presence in our pain, we must look in the right place – not judgment, guilt, fear or shame – but love: I believe that anything less takes us into confusion. Second Jesus explains God’s love for us with greater clarity in the next commandment found in chapter 13 of John’s gospel: "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another."
And let’s be clear that when he said this he had a towel around his neck and was washing the dirty feet of his disciples in preparation for the feast of the Passover. So what do you think this commandment tells us about God’s nature as revealed by Jesus?
• Could it have something to do with finding God in the tiny acts of mercy shared by those who love us when we are hurting? Is it possible that God comes to us in our pain when others get out their safety and comfort zones and risk loving us even when we are unlovable?
• When our feet stink and our souls are filthy? When our hearts are broken or our minds confused? When we feel worthless but God comes to us still and embraces us beyond our wounds? Promising not judgment or hell, but a banquet?
So often we miss God’s presence either because we’re afraid of our own dirty feet and pain – and won’t let anyone see them – they call that the sin of pride but also fear and shame. Or else we’re so afraid of touching another’s dirt – we want sacred things to be sanitized – that we try to make the Body of Christ pretty and nice.
Have you ever looked at a Crucifix? Protestants tend not to spend much time with Christ’s body on the Cross – we want to emphasize the Resurrection rather than the Passion – and that has its place. And Roman Catholics sometimes clean up the Cross, too – or else fetishized the agony – and that brings its own set of problems. But here’s the deal: often God comes to us in Jesus as his broken, wounded body – and what is true about Christ is equally true for you and me.
• But our pathological discomfort with the real Cross turns Church into a Miss Manners club where being nice is more important than meeting the Lord in the muck.
• My Canadian friend, Black Pete, recently reminded me that this isn’t a new problem for the Church. Listen to this quote from Charlotte Bronte’s 1847 masterpiece, Jane Eyre:
Conventionality is not morality. Self-righteousness is not religion. To attack the first is not to assail the last. To pluck the mask from the face of the Pharisee is not to lift an impious hand to the Crown of Thorns. These things and deeds are diametrically opposed: they are as distinct as is vice from virtue. Men too often confound them: they should not be confounded: appearance should not be mistaken for truth: narrow human doctrines, that only tend to elate and magnify a few, should not be substituted for the world-redeeming creed of Christ.
Beloved, sometimes God comes to us – or we bring the spirit of the Lord to another – when we get out of our own way and let love touch that which is beyond the pretty and nice and proper:
• Thomas put his hand within the Lord’s open wound. Peter was allowed to feel the full measure of his grief and betrayal.
• Jesus let the broken woman from the street shed her tears upon his naked feet – and then washed the feet of his wounded disciples – saying: love one another as I have loved you.
Then the third unique commandment of Jesus found in Matthew 28:18-20: "Then Jesus came to them and said, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And know that surely I am with you always even to the very end of the age."
Do you see what’s happening here? Jesus is saying very clearly that our understanding and experience of the Lord will shape our encounter with God here and now more than we ever imagined.
• This is not really a call to go out and convert or exploit or control or colonize other people, right? How would THAT embody Christ’s spirit? No, this is all about living in the world in such a way that we document God’s alternative to the status quo.
• Go teach and baptize the people – that is, go and immerse them in the love of God that meets them in the muck and offers a banquet of grace – so that they know the universe is not closed – so that they know there is an alternative to fear and shame and suffering.
So that they will know, writes Rob Bell, that: Eternal life doesn’t start when we die; it starts now. It’s not about a life that begins with death; it’s about experience the kind of life now that can endure and survive even death.
Now I’ve shared with you the three commandments of Jesus – each one tells us a little about God’s nature and promise – and each comes with the promise that if we immerse ourselves in them then Christ will be with us in all things just as God was with him in all things.
• Know that surely I am with you always even to the very end of the age. So listen: I will not leave you orphaned. I'm coming back to you.
• These promises and commandments are what I trust – not always perfectly – and rarely without doubts. But they are at the core of my faith – they are the heart of what I trust about God’s loving presence even beyond the evidence – and they are what assure me that God is with us even in the filth and fear and suffering.
Someone asked me last week, “Well, ok, I am with you in what you’ve said so far, but where is God when the innocent child is beaten or abused? Where is God when the innocent women and men are killed – or starved – or sent to the death camps? Is God with them? And do they know it?”
• By faith – given what I have experienced and been shown of God’s nature in Jesus Christ – trusting the testimony of the apostles and faithful throughout the ages – I have to say: Yes – without a doubt God is with those who innocently suffer death and disease and abuse.
• How could a God who looks like Jesus do otherwise? A God who looks like fear? A god shaped by superstition or karma? Yes, but not a God who looks like Jesus the Christ.
I believe that God shared Jesus us with us so that the One we mostly know in silence can have a voice: he is God’s word made flesh. “A voice to lead us through our questions – a love to be present with us in our doubts – a friend to wait with us in our silence and the assurance of grace until the silence is full and complete.” (Barbara Brown Taylor)
To trust this love “requires a death, a humbling, a leaving behind of the old mind, and at the same time it will require an opening up, too; loosening our hold and letting go so that we can receive, expand, find, hear, see and enjoy.” (Rob Bell)
This is the good news, beloved, for those who are ready: so let those who have ears to hear, hear.
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