Listen to the sermon from Sunday, August 28, 2016 titled “Where’s the Lord?” by Rev. Dr. Larry Bethune.
Jeremiah is known as “the weeping prophet” because of his self-reflective laments anticipating modern psychotherapy. But in our passage today, it is God who is whining and weeping. “What wrong did your ancestors find in me that they went far from me, and went after worthless things, and became worthless themselves?” They did not say, ‘Where’s the Lord who brought us up from the land of Egypt…’ ”
God’s own peeps had gone gaga for the bawdy Baal cults to the point where they not only forgot everything God had done for them, but even quit seeking God altogether.
Surely God would make the same complaint in our day, because our modern God-replacements have proliferated far beyond a few Baal statues, while participation in historic organized worship or classical spiritual practices has dropped like a rock even among people who consider themselves “spiritual.”
“See if there has ever been such a thing,” God gripes, “Has a nation changed its gods, even though they are no gods? But my people have changed their glory for something that does not profit.” God has a point. We do keep giving ourselves to pursuits that have no lasting life in them. When you get what you want, what will you have?
But I think we moderns might respond, “Well, where is the Lord, then?” God is playing hard to get these days.
The Hasidic rabbi Baruch of Medzebozh said,
Imagine two children playing hide and seek; one hides and the other does not look for him. God is hiding and (we are) not seeking. Imagine (God’s) distress!
But that begs the question, doesn’t it? Why does it seem like God is hiding? Especially in those times when we are desperately seeking, or as the psalmist puts it, “hungering and thirsting” after God?
God is harder for us to flocate than the proverbial Waldo, though I want to say God is all over this scene. Back to that later.
It’s always been this way. You can’t nail God down. Increasingly since Marco Polo our exposure to the diversity of beliefs about God has created confusion. The world’s great religions don’t agree, even Christians don’t agree on who God is and what God wants, and we’ve all had enough of violent abuse in God’s name. No wonder people look at this human confusion and decide it’s all relative, it doesn’t matter what you believe, or even, there is no God, so why bother seeking God at all? This, of course, is a false conclusion throwing out the baby with the bath water.
God talk is a can of worms, though, and some of them are poisonous. We Christians don’t have a lock on God, and only arrogance would lead us to assume we are right and everybody else must be wrong. But how do we find God, let alone connect with the Eternal Source of Being and Meaning? There is a field of scholarship as voluminous as any other documenting humanity’s search for God.
I love this mug I saw for sale on Facebook this week: “Please do not confuse your Google search with my theology degree.” I have a theology degree, and I have to say, so much of what I hear about God from other people, not a few of them my fellow preachers, falls into the category of rank superstition and self-delusion. And some of it is dangerous. I don’t mean to be judgmental and elitest. I don’t believe you need a PhD to connect with God. But I do believe some hesitant humility is in order when we talk about God or presume to do anything in God’s name. After all, taking God’s name in vain is one of the big ten, too.
Every belief we have about God is a working proposition we have to test out in our actual living. Seeking God is the journey of a lifetime, not a Google search, or a few quick decisions that let you put the matter to rest so you can get on with playing Pokemon Go. Even the atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
If God is or even might be, then seeking God is our first and foremost “mission in life.” And the spiritual mystics who experience the Divine most deeply all begin with a long obedience in the historic religious tradition of their choice. They arrive at the same place, mostly love poetry to God, and their reflections have a similarity that transcend their traditions. Yet each took a religious pathway to get there: Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism. They reach a point where their connection with God transcends their religion, but the religion is the road. But they insist: don’t confuse the road with the destination. Don’t mistake the roadsigns for the reality. As I have said before, our faith is not in what we believe about God. Those are human thought constructs. Our faith is in the reality that is God who is beyond our comprehension.
Bishop Sheen once observed, “Ever since the days of Adam, (humankind) has been hiding from God and saying ‘God is hard to find.’” You remember the lovely story in Genesis that lays out how this God/human dance has gone from the get-go? God creates the ideal world and places humanity in it with a single “Don’t do this.” So of course they do it and then they hide from God. God comes looking for them. “Where are you?” God pleads. The rest of the Bible right up through the resurrection is about God searching for us and asking continually “Where are you?”
The truth is, we use our confusion and God’s mystery as an excuse to hide from God. God is not that hard to find. But God can’t be nailed down. God won’t be our on-demand deity. God won’t be used as an excuse for our designs. And God makes demands on our lives we don’t always want to follow, like loving one another, caring for the creation, helping those who need us, or creating communities of justice and peace. God messes with our selfish agendas.
How do you seek God? There are the time-tested ways: corporate worship, prayer, meditation, study. But God is not bound by books, let alone all in our heads. You can’t study God like some bug you dissect in high school biology.
We seek God in each other, through relationship, by connecting with God-inst-among-us, as Jesus urged.
We experience God in serving the lost, the last, the least, and the left out. That’s our Gospel lesson today. God is more interested in how we include than whom we exclude and that pushes us beyond our comfort zones.
We can even meet God in our personal challenges if we have the humble courage and honest vulnerability to face our own truth instead of blaming everybody else. As Mark Nepo observes in his poem Understory:
I’ve been watching stars
rely on the darkness they
resist. And fish struggle with
And against the current. And
hawks glide faster when their
wings don’t move.
Still I keep retelling what
happens till it comes out
the way I want.
We try so hard to be the
main character when it is
our point of view that
keeps us from the truth.
The sun has its story
that no curtain can stop.
It’s true. The only way beyond
the self is through it. The only
way to listen to what can never
be said is to quiet our need
to steer the plot.
When jarred by life, we might
unravel the story we tell ourselves
and discover the story we are in,
the one that keeps telling us.
According to Reza Aslan, “Almost every religion in the world has a sentence, a commandment that is a version of ‘Do unto others as you would have done unto you.’” Remember what Jean Valjean says in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable? “To love another person is to see the face of God.” The world’s religions agree on this, too: above all else, we find God in our loving the Other.
But, you all know, loving other people is really hard to do. We tend to hide out from that, too, to sink into solitary confinement in the cell of the Self. God calls us out of ourselves into relationship, into to community, into love. It takes a lifetime to learn how to love, and we still need a lot of grace as we go. But that is the primary place we find God. And find a life worth living.
We are all seekers here. We have some answers our forbears have passed down to us. And we are seeking to find God by loving others in the name of Christ. We would love for you to join us. But whatever you do, don’t quit seeking God. Don’t quit learning to love. And one day, when you’re not even expecting it, God will find you. Amen. May we pray?
We understand why you would be mystified, dear God, when we decide we are wiser than all the generations before us and abandon our sacred story to pursue lifeless gods. Forgive our ingratitude and foolishness, but understand our confusion. We grope around in the darkness and lose our way because we are afraid to trust your light. But we long for you and look for you, sometimes in the wrong places and the wrong ways. Open our eyes to see you in the faces of each other and reveal yourself to us as we learn to love, in the name of Christ, who is God with us as we seek God. Amen.