Am I not a God far off? (sermon)

Sometimes, I have a hard time finding God outside of church.

This probably sounds like a strange confession, coming from someone in the pulpit, someone who is in training to be clergy in the church.

But there are many days when I leave these four walls and mentally check church off the to-do list. “Okay, done for the day, God. It’s time to go take a nap, or go see a friend, or do some homework… or do whatever else is next on my calendar”

It’s amost too easy for me to relegate God to a list of things to do, or places to be… even when my life involves church almost every single day.

It’s too easy to compartmentalize, to put church and God in a box, or even just forget about God, as I get caught up in busyness and the cares and concerns of this world.

It’s too easy to forget the question that God asks in today’s lesson from Jeremiah, where God asks “Am I a God near by, and not a God far off?”

Am I a God near by, and not a God far off?”

This rhetorical question is a bit confusing. We all have different conceptions of God and where God is present for us, but I think it’s fair to say that many of us draw from an image of God as friend. An image of Jesus sitting beside us, of Jesus healing the little children. Of soft, friendly, Jesus who loves us and died for us and wants us to be with him.

So it’s a little bit shocking to be confronted by this question. “Am I a God near by, and not a God far off?”

“Am I not bigger than you think I am?”

“Am I not able to see everything that goes on in the world?”

“Do I not fill heaven and earth?”

In this reading, God is telling the people of Israel—“don’t underestimate me”.

And as I think about how easy it is to put God in these four walls and move on with my day, what God says here is really challenging. “Do I not fill heaven and earth?” Do I not fill your days, your schedule, your busyness, even when you forget I’m there?

I forget sometimes that God is bigger than all of this.

Psalm 82 says that “God takes his stand in the council of heaven; he gives judgment in the midst of the gods”. God takes God’s stand in the council of the heavens as we go through our daily lives, as we go to work and class, as we make choices as communities and nations about the poor, the captive, and the immigrant.

Jeremiah and the psalmist tell us repeatedly that the God who is near enough to be in our hearts and minds, is also able to see all our choices, our joys, and our failings from the highest reaches of heaven.

The God who stands in the council of heaven, who parted the Red Sea, who shut the mouths of lions, who sent Jesus to be our savior and redeemer, wants us to know this: God wants to be part of every moment of our lives.

Three years ago, I was getting ready to move to a monastery for an internship. There were a lot of people who were giving me advice about what I should make sure to do in Boston, or how to cope with being newly graduated. But one of the most common pieces of advice I received was from people saying “read Brother Lawrence”. “Oh, you’re going to a monastery, you have to read Brother Lawrence”.

I had no idea who this Brother Lawrence fellow was, but I took their advice anyways. Brother Lawrence, it turns out, was a medieval monk who wasn’t literate, but was so profoundly spiritual that someone bothered to interview him about his spirituality and write it down in a book called “The Practice of the Presence of God”.

What I love about The Practice of the Presence of God is that Brother Lawrence is completely honest about his failings as a good Christian. He starts out talking about how he’s really a bad person, and that he thought that he should become a monk as a way of apologizing to God, and to live a life of penance. But as it turns out [the book says] “GOD had disappointed him… he having met with nothing but satisfaction in that state” [of being a monk].

Lawrence’s actual point though, is this. I quote “That we should establish ourselves in a sense of GOD’s Presence, by continually conversing with Him.” What does this mean? For Brother Lawrence, this means talking to God constantly throughout his duties in the kitchen. He says “That our only business [i]s to love and delight ourselves in GOD”.

Our gospel reading makes a big point of talking about how following Christ must necessarily create division between us and others.

This division doesn’t always look like family arguments and battle lines and political parties. What I know from my own life is that more often that not, this division happens in my calendar, and in the thoughts I have throughout the day. What we do with our time matters.

We can make a choice, like Brother Lawrence, to be faithful to the presence of God in each facet and moment of our lives, even if it’s a moment of prayer while peeling potatoes in the kitchen or standing by the copier at work, or simply remembering why we’re doing this really good outreach work in the first place. That choice is ours to make, and that’s what we’re being invited into right now.

Faithful ones—God is very near to us, but this is a gift that we can’t be complacent about. Discipleship requires focus and dedication, not just in one part of our lives, or on one or two days of the week.

We’re called to work for justice for all people, and to lead faithful lives with our whole being. This is the call that we promise to live into in our baptism— to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to strive for justice and peace among all people.

As we do this work, we need to know that this too, is where God is. Not just in these four walls, near us, but in the council of heaven, calling us continually, to make time for the presence of God wherever we are in this world.

Sermon Recording

Fatigue and the Beginning of Wisdom (sermon)

Preaching is a genre of speaking, where our goal is—through Scripture—to learn about God, the world, and each other. Preaching should be edifying. And preaching should ultimately be about the Good News of God in Christ.

So given this description of what we might expect a sermon to contain—sort of the baseline qualifications, it’s perhaps understandable that you might wonder why today’s sermon is about the reading from Ecclesiastes.

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity.

Things continue to go downhill from there, really. The Teacher writes that even though he was king, and had access to all the wealth and education that might make it possible to find wisdom, he’s got nothing. No lasting wisdom, just frustration, and some exhaustion to boot.

All is vanity, and a chasing after wind.

After all, he continues, all of this work he does isn’t going to do him much good. He’s going to die. Just like everyone else. And who knows if the kids or grandkids or great grandkids are going to be wise or foolish? Is it worth it, really, to work work work all day and night, knowing that death is coming?

So as you can see, this is an incredibly uplifting reading. We’re all going to die. So what’s the point of wisdom or of a “good” or “productive” life?

What’s going on here? Why is this text in the Bible at all, and what are we going to do with it, on this Eighth Sunday after Pentecost?

This week, I was reading an article which called out some of the human rights abuses occurring in our country, and in our common political life. And in the midst of this impassioned discussion, one particular paragraph stood out to me. In this paragraph, the writer said that “Protesting in the face of such outrageous abuses of power, of such true horrors, can feel overwhelming.”.

This writer goes out of their way to name that this work is exhausting, even while arguing that it should be done. If you read a lot of work on social justice activism, you’ll know that this feeling of overwhelm actually has a name—“activism fatigue”.

Activism fatigue. Or maybe, you know it as work fatigue. School fatigue. Social media fatigue. Or just plain exhaustion at the hectic pace of life.

So when I read this part of Ecclesiastes, I hear this same sense of fatigue. Exhaustion at having tried just about everything.

Perhaps, for our Biblical author, it’s a frustration that no matter how hard we work, no matter how desperately we seek wisdom, it all eventually feels like nothing. Perhaps, it’s that, as the author says later in the book, “there are righteous people who are treated according to the conduct of the wicked, and there are wicked people who are treated according to the conduct of the righteous.” (8:14). The text describes this as “vanity”, but you could easily substitute the words “ridiculous”, “unfair”, or even “sinful” or “futile”. ‘Unfair. This is all just unfair’ (I’m sure you’ve heard, or said that before, right?).

This is all unfair.

The lectionary today has this incredible contrast between Ecclesiastes and the Gospel. In the Gospel, we find the parable of the man who thinks he has it all. Wealth, food, drink, a good harvest. Jesus tells us God’s response to this—“you fool!”.

I don’t know what God’s response is to the writer of Ecclesiastes, but I wonder if it might be the opposite? “you wise one!”

We find in Ecclesiastes, someone who has toiled under the sun. Who is exhausted. Who says that “all is vanity”, all is meaningless.

But we also find someone who is willing to recognize that he is not the greatest. He recognizes, like our psalmist, that our “graves shall be [our] homes for ever/ though [we] call the lands after [our] own names. He recognizes, unlike the rich man of the parable, that there is a season for everything, and that we are limited in what we are able to accomplish.

And most importantly, the conclusion of this book of the Bible is a reminder of what should center our limited, joyful, complex lives: he says in chapter 12 that this is “The end of the matter… fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone”.

The end of the matter. Live according to the commandments of God. This is not vanity—in fact, any mention of vanity is gone by this epilogue.

Fear God and live according to the commandments.

This is, as the Gospel might say, being rich toward God.

This is our whole duty.

So if you walked in this morning, perhaps able to empathize with this writer in proclaiming that “all is vanity”, that “this world is unfair”, I hope you know that these words are enshrined in Scripture… for you. For us.

Because so much is unfair. There is so much pain, so many needless, senseless deaths—from guns and wars and our own inability to live together, to love each other. And I don’t know about you, but I feel the fatigue of this reality weighing down upon me this morning, in the wake of yet another shooting, this time in Texas.

This is also vanity.

So what do we do now?  

Christ tells us the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God, and to love your neighbor as yourself.

This is not a platitude.

This is to fear God and live according to the commandments.

And however hopeless or terrifying or strange things may seem—however much work and exhaustion we are in the midst of—this is our whole duty.   

In our limited, complex, and even joyful lives, this is our whole duty: to love God and neighbor, and live according to the commandments.

May we remember this on our good days and our bad days—our call is to be faithful.

This is not vanity. This is faithfulness.

Why should we believe God this time?

Sarah and Abraham have been on a long journey. They’ve left their home in the land of Ur, they’ve left their home in Haran, because God said “I will make of you a great nation”.

They’ve left most of their family behind, said goodbye to brothers and sisters and cousins, because God said “I will make of you a great nation”.

But, you see, in order to become a great nation, you need to have children. There’s no democratically elected nationhood happening in the ancient world—to be a nation, to be a people with a leader, that leader must have children.

It’s easy to see what the problem is, right? No children means no nation. And even though Abraham and Sarah have made it through famine, Egypt, tons of family drama… there’s still no son.

God keeps saying over and over again “I will make of you a great nation”, and that “your descendents with be numerous”. But does God keep God’s promises? Will God keep this promise?

It’s easy to read what happens just after this lesson ends, you know that bit where Sarah laughs as she overhears all of this, and she’s chastised for doing so, like “what, you don’t believe God?”. It’s easy to reduce this to disbelief

But would we really believe God after all of this? Promises of nationhood, repeated over and over again. This might just be another promise, no follow-through.

Scholar Valerie Bridgeman makes a compelling case that instead of asking why they didn’t believe God’s promise, the question really is “why should they believe God this time?”.

Why should they believe God this time?

We might be able to ask the same question about our Gospel lesson—the famous Mary and Martha story. In a world of wandering prophets and oppression, why is Jesus any different from the last one? There’s plenty of prophets and and rebels in Judea. Why should Martha believe that Jesus is the one, this time?

Yes, sure, they’re described as friends of Jesus, but maybe Jesus is one of those friends who has ten new ideas per minute, “hey guys, I have a great new business idea, listen to this one! This will be the one that wins big!”. We’ve all known, or maybe we’ve been someone like this—lots of energy, lots of ideas, and the idea doesn’t always translate to action. Maybe Jesus isn’t really any different.

Why should they believe God this time?

I wonder if you’ve ever thought this. Why should I believe God this time? Why should I believe this promise in scripture this time? Or perhaps a more familiar question: does God actually hear these prayers? Why doesn’t God do something? Why should I believe that God will do something this time?

I know I’ve thought all of those questions before. Many times.

It’s hard to see the death and pain and oppression in this world and not wonder why we should believe a promise of hope and mercy this time.  

It’s hard to get the diagnosis, to sit with a suffering loved one, and not wonder why we should believe a promise of relief and healing this time.

It’s hard to pray with our feet and feed the hungry and shelter the homeless and aid the refugee in the face of unrelenting need and divisive political policies, and not wonder why we should believe a promise of care and new creation.

Why should we believe God this time?

And I will admit that I’m not standing here with the right answer, or even an answer to this question.

But what I do know is that we are not the first people to ask this question.

And if we look at the stories of Abraham and Sarah, and Mary and Martha, people who might logically ask why they should believe God this time, they both do one thing, regardless of their skepticism.

They offer hospitality. A place for the three men to sit, bread, milk, curds, the fatted calf. Abraham literally ran out to invite the them in, like “come, come, just have a little bread”, and instead of an appetizer, he prepares a three course meal. “Come. Eat. You are welcome here.”

Mary and Martha offer the hospitality of their home. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus, his disciple, listening to an honored guest. Martha prepares food, which as Jesus points out, distracts her from his teachings, but this work is also the work of hospitality.

Mary and Martha, Abraham and Sarah, offer hospitality to Jesus, to the Lord, from the ordinary space of their daily lives.

They don’t know that any particular transformation will take place.

They don’t know if this will be the moment when everything will change.

Should they believe God this time? Perhaps not, but nonetheless, they make space for the presence of God in their lives, and by doing this, they allow for the possiblity of transformation.

Hospitality allows for the possibilty of transformation.

Hopeful hospitality says that maybe, this will be the time. Perhaps it will be this time, and this space.

I don’t think they knew that it would be the moment of change in their lives. Sarah didn’t think that she’d have a child after all this time. Mary didn’t wake up that morning planning to take up the role of pupil, a role very much for men in that culture.

Friends, we don’t know when we can stop asking the question. We don’t know if this moment, this Sunday in church, this Eucharist will be the moment of transformation. We don’t know if this prayer will be followed by good news.

But perhaps we might find our hope in hospitality. Hope in the practice of opening the ordinary moments in our lives to the possiblity, to the probablity that there will be grace and transformation in this time. In hospitality, the tradjectory of the world and our daily lives collides with God’s presence and promise.

And one day, we will find ourselves like Sarah and Abraham and Mary and Martha, face to face with the promise fulfilled—the promise of a new creation, the redeeming love of the cross that cannot help but fold the world in an embrace.

And we will find ourselves, saying as the poet Wendell Berry writes, “here, as we have never been before… our place Holy, although we knew it not”.

Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-10a, Luke 10:38-42

Recording begins around sentence six in the manuscript.

Preparing the way

Do you remember learning to write a story, when you were a child? Perhaps you remember painstakingly practicing your penmenship until you could write it perfectly. Or perhaps you remember filling out worksheets, sort of mad-libs, fill in the blank style that taught you a bit about what makes a compelling story tick. Or perhaps, like me, you remember the incessant chant that your teacher or your mother would keep saying—”who, what, when, where, why, and how”?

Who. What. When. Where. Why. How. These are the pieces of information that make even the simplest short story make sense. And this is true for not just short stories—novels, series, t.v. shows, any good public relations statement… we need to know who, what, when, where, why, and how. It’s part of what makes us tick.

And this gospel lesson from Luke certainly has all of those pieces.

Who? Jesus, and 72 disciples.

What? Jesus sending 72 disciples in pairs.

When? Now, already. Get a move on it!

Where? To every town and place where he was going.

Why? Because the harvest of the kingdom is plentiful and the laborers are few.

How?  No purse, no bag, no sandals, no idle chitchat, with urgency, with purpose and focus.

And from there, the story feels like it goes into a list of instructions: here’s how you interact with people who want to hear the good news. Here’s how you respond to people who will not hear what you have to say.  

“The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go. He said to them, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest. Go on your way. See, I am sending you out like lambs into the midst of wolves. Carry no purse, no bag, no sandals; and greet no one on the road. Whatever house you enter, first say, `Peace to this house!’ And if anyone is there who shares in peace, your peace will rest on that person; but if not, it will return to you. Remain in the same house, eating and drinking whatever they provide, for the laborer deserves to be paid. Do not move about from house to house. Whenever you enter a town and its people welcome you, eat what is set before you; cure the sick who are there, and say to them, `The kingdom of God has come near to you.’ But whenever you enter a town and they do not welcome you, go out into its streets and say, `Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet, we wipe off in protest against you. Yet know this: the kingdom of God has come near.’”

What do you hear?

When I read this, I keep coming around to that unmistakable, sinking feeling that this is just one giant to-do list. Yes, it’s a great story, and it tells us who, what, when, where, why and how. But there’s so much detail here that I think it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.

And you know, I think the reason I feel overwhelmed, and perhaps you do to, is because it feels like there’s just so much to accomplish. There’s so much to do. So many people to share the good news with. So many people who are not going to be interested. So many people who might be interested if perhaps we could just muster up enough courage to say something. And so many requirements—no purse, no bag, no extra pairs of shoes, no other distractions.

Part of me just wants to give up right now. Lord, you have the wrong person. I can’t do all of this.

I can’t do all of this.

But I wonder, if that’s not the whole point. I wonder if acknowledging the fact that I can’t do all of this is, perhaps, the right response.

I think it’s really easy in an individualist culture to hear a lesson like this, and feel overwhelmed because I can’t possibly, as one person, manage all of this. If our filter, the lens through which we see the world is set on applying everything as personally as possible, then of COURSE this feels like too much.

Because it is too much for one person. And we might say, yes, of course. That’s why the 72 were sent out in pairs. But it seems like an awful lot, even for seventy-two people divided into pairs.

It’s too much because it wasn’t meant to be done alone. It wasn’t even meant to be done just in pairs. “The Lord appointed seventy others and sent them on ahead of him in pairs to every town and place where he himself intended to go.”

He sent them on ahead of him to every place where he himself intended to go.

I’ve read this passage so many times over the years, and I’ve never noticed that little line. In the midst of telling this important story about telling the good news, and what it means to be a disciple and an evangelist, Luke thinks it’s important for us to know that Jesus only sent the disciples to where he intended to follow later.

He sent them on ahead of him to every place where he himself intended to go.

It’s almost as if, in my individualist desire for self-sufficiency, and a checklist of who what when where why, and how to get this evangelism job done, I missed, really, the entire point of why I was going to a town, or city, or neighborhood, or friend’s home in the first place.

What’s important here is that the disciples are not only sent out to do this work, but that reporting back to Jesus and checking the evangelism box is not the end of the story. The seventy two evangelists, as we might call them, go out knowing that the work they do is important, but they do it knowing that Jesus will soon follow them into the same place, the same village, the same city and neighborhood.

I think what’s sometimes intimidating about the idea of evangelism is that we have to do it all ourselves. That we have to grab a friend and put on suits and knock on doors. That we have to go stand on a street corner and figure out what kind of sign to carry. But in reality, evangelism is more than just doing these things. Evangelism can be entering the spaces that you already inhabit, the neighborhoods that you already visit with intentionality.

Intentional evangelism. That’s what Jesus is giving instructions for—to be aware of who is willing to hear, who is curious. To be aware of who isn’t ready, and to respond without anger. To be focused, ready to share. And most importantly, to walk into wherever you’re called to be knowing that it’s not all on you. Because Jesus is following us. And our work, as evangelists–and yes, you are an evangelist—is to intentionally find ways to engage this story—this marvelous insane story of Christ’s love—in the places we find ourselves.

So as you prepare to go out into the world today, consider what spaces you’re called to be an evangelist in. Where are we preparing the way for Jesus to enter?