Monday, June 20, 2016

Sunday's Sermon - When God Shows UP

Luke 8:26-39
1st Kings 19:1-15a

            As you know, last Sunday morning there was another tragedy, another mass shouting, another attack of hatred and anger and fear, this time not at a school, not on a campus, not in an apartment complex or a mall, but in a gay bar. 49 people died, many others were injured. I would hope and trust that no matter what you believe about anything else, the loss of more lives in yet another act of hatred and anger would be upsetting, would be challenging, would be a cause of pause, for questioning, for looking at how we handle our anger, our fear, our hatred and how we might do all of that differently. When there is more and more violence and more and more hatred and anger and disagreement and political polarization we may find ourselves asking again and again, where is God?  When will God show up?
                        (from Chicken Soup for the Soul):     One cold evening during the holiday season, a little boy about six or seven was standing out in front of a store window.  The little child had no shoes and his clothes were mere rags.  A young woman hurrying by to get home to her own family was none the less caught by the needs of the little boy and the longing she read in his pale brown eyes.  She took the child by the hand and led him into the store.  There she bought him some new shoes and a complete suit of warm clothing.
            They came back outside into the street and the woman said to the child, “Now you can go home and have a very happy holiday.”
            The little boy looked up at her and asked, “Are you God, Ma’am?”
            She smiled down at him and answered, “No, son, I’m just one of God’s children.”

            The little boy then said, “I knew you had to be some relation.”
Larry Green wrote: "When I go through a drive-thru the person taking my order says something like, "does that complete your order?" I always respond by saying, "unless you would like me to buy you something." Usually they will giggle and say they appreciate it, but decline. The young lady today asked, "are you serious?" I told her to add her meal to my order. When I got to the window, there was this young lady with tears streaming down her face. She thanked me profusely and began to tell me her story. Folks, you never know what others are going through. The people taking your order at the fast food place are often working 2-3 jobs just to get by. This young lady was working 3 jobs, pregnant, and was evicted from her apartment yesterday. She now lives in her car. All this info because I bought her a salad ... yes, she ordered herself a salad.”  Larry spent 45 minutes with her, giving her community resources, listening, feeding her in spirit as well as body.  And I am certain that in that time, Larry was God showing up for this woman.
So it seems it can be when God shows up: unexpected beauty in the midst of what can feel like chaos and confusion. Sometimes it can also feel like chaos and confusion in the midst of what has become “normal” for us as well, though.  For when God shows up, is it ever in the way we expect?  Is it ever with the message we expected or thought that we hoped to hear? 
Today we have two biblical stories.  Both of which show us God showing up in unexpected and unsought ways.
In the first story, Elijah is running away. And when he finally stops and faces God, he asks for God to end his life.   He says - “It is enough.  Now, O Lord, take away my life.”  But instead of God answering his death wish with a “yes” God tells him instead that he has a long, hard journey ahead of him. Just what Elijah wants to hear, I’m certain. But Elijah does what he is told - he eats to prepare for the journey and goes to the place where he is to meet God. And then we are told again, that God does not show up in the way we might expect. Do we expect God in the noise, in the rush, in the moving around? We are told God was not in the wind. Do we expect God in the big shakes, in the natural movements? We are told God was not in the earthquake. Do we expect God in the fire that guides us, giving us heat, energy, light, warmth, passion? We are told God was not in the fire. Where does God show up?  In the sheer and complete silence. In the stillness. In the calm after the storm. 
This story in 1st Kings reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ book, “A Grief Observed.”  C.S. Lewis, as many of you know, was a remarkable Christian author who wrote both novels such as the Narnia series as well as theological conversations such as “The Four Loves” and “Surprised by Joy”.  In 1945 he experienced the death of a close friend.  About this death he said, “The experience of loss (the greatest I have yet known) was wholly unlike what I should have expected.  We now verified for ourselves what so many bereaved people have reported; the ubiquitous presence of a dead man, as if he had ceased to meet us in particular places in order to meet us everywhere...” he continued, “No event has so corroborated my faith in the next world as Williams did simply by dying.  When the idea of death and the idea of Williams thus met in my mind, it was the idea of death that was changed.” 
But 15 years later, in 1960, his wife of very few years, Joy, died. And that experience was also unexpected for him - but in the complete opposite way. As he said in the journal he kept following her death, “After the death of a friend...I had for some time a most vivid feeling of certainty about his continued life; even his enhanced life. I have begged to be given even one hundredth part of the same assurance about Joy. There is no answer. Only the locked door, the iron curtain, the vacuum, absolute zero.” And in contrast to the experience of the presence of his friend’s death changing his faith for the better, after the death of his wife, his faith was tested beyond measure.  As he continued, “go to (God) when your need is desperate, when all other help is vain and what do you find?  A door slammed in your face, and a sound of bolting and double bolting on the inside.  After that, silence.  You may as well turn away.  The longer you wait, the more emphatic the silence will become.  There are no lights in the windows.  It might be an empty house...not that I am in much danger of ceasing to believe in God.  The real danger is of coming to believe such dreadful things about Him.  The conclusion I dread is not, ‘So there’s no God after all,’ but, ‘So this is what God’s really like.  Deceive yourself no longer.” Deeply disturbing words of pain and despair from a deeply faithful man.  Have any of you ever felt that way?
God’s coming, or seeming lack of coming is very rarely what we expect. 
And so it was in the second scripture we read for today, of the Gerasene demoniac.  For the people around the healed man, God’s coming was nothing less than terrifying. They didn’t, perhaps they couldn’t, understand or know how to take the change that had come over the man healed of the demons. Before he had been naked, an outcast, sometimes so strong with his infirmity as to break the chains that people put on him to bind him, to confine him. While the people may have feared him before, at least they felt they understood him. They knew what to expect. They knew of his violent and odd behavior and they knew how to deal with it: bind him or let him live away from them among the tombs. But Jesus’ healing of the man threw all that they knew into confusion. The man seemed normal now. Would it last? The man was changed. Would Jesus change them as well? Not only was the man different, but a herd of pigs had gone crazy, and gone into the water and died. Scary things were happening, things they didn’t understand and they were afraid. 
And how much more so for the man himself, for the man possessed by the demons.  He had cried out to Jesus for Jesus to leave him alone. For the only thing he knew was his demons, how to live with them, how to survive with them. Never mind that his existence was miserable and that he went between being tied up with chains and being isolated and living naked without protection in the tombs. This was what he knew. But just as God did not agree to Elijah’s request for death, God did not agree to this man’s request to stay stuck with his demons. He healed him, and again, while we can only imagine and trust that the man’s life was better after that, just like for Elijah, this man was invited in his healing to enter a long hard journey. He wanted to go with Jesus after he was healed. But that would have been safe. He could have hidden his past, hidden his change behind Jesus’ loving protection.  But Jesus called for something else for this man, something more.   Instead, this prayer, too was turned down with a “no” and he was told he was to stay.  He was called to the hard, hard challenge of staying and telling his story and trying to live his life amongst those who had known him, starting again, starting anew. 
I think we can probably relate to the fear of having our demons healed.  For we all have demons.  Some are more serious than others - alcoholism, and other addictions, mental illness, these are the serious ones.  But there are others that aren’t as obvious, or don’t feel as serious. 
A “victim” complex, a struggle with low self-esteem, a struggle with food addictions or a bad relationship with spouse, child, sibling. As much as we may experience those demons as burdens, we also depend on them. What would it be like to live without them?  How would we reenter the world, changed, if they were suddenly lifted, suddenly gone?  How do we live without our crutches, without that which is most familiar?  But God comes.  And God comes unexpectedly.  And sometimes, we are asked to be different, to be healed, to live without the demons and situations we know.
If we are willing to live through the hard times, to accept the gifts of change that God brings, if we are willing to take the risk of healing and being new in God’s way, God’s coming is always better than we can imagine.
C. S. Lewis, too, got through his “dark night of the soul.”  He got through the confusion and struggles with his faith that he had after his wife’s death.  His faith was never the same: for it had entered a new level and reached a depth he never dreamt of before.  It had been tested, and it had come out new.  As he said, “I have gradually been coming to feel that the door is no longer shut and bolted.  Was it my own frantic need that slammed it in my face?  The time when there is nothing at all in your soul except a cry for help may be just the time when God can’t give it: you are like the drowning man who can’t be helped because he clutches and grabs.  Perhaps your own reiterated cries deafen you to the voice you hoped to heard.”  And from that place of reconnection he continued simply but powerfully, “I know the two great commandments, and I’d better get on with them.” 
So where is God when refugees like the Syrians are feeling their homes?  Where is God in the earthquakes that have rocked Japan and Ecuador? Where is God when people are beaten up or killed because of their skin color or their faith beliefs or their sexuality? And where was God last weekend? We have to look for God in the unexpected. With the escaping Syrians, God is with those families who have taken them in, who have offered care and love and home and support.  Where is God in Japan and Ecuador? Also with the people coming to help with their resources and their love and their thinking through how to make communities safer in the face of earthquakes.  And last weekend, God was with the communities that came together after the tragedy, hundreds of folk lining up to donate blood, to grieve together, to support each other, to plan, and to imagine the possibilities of a world that functions differently, without the violence of hate and anger and fear. Where is God? God is wherever love is. God is wherever that love becomes an active verb, working for the good of the other, sometimes at our own expense. God is wherever people are willing to take risks to care for those who are rejected by the larger world, just as Jesus cared for and loved the Syrophoenicians and the Samaritans and the women with bad reputations and the tax collectors. God is wherever we dare to love in that same way. We are called to follow Jesus and go out to love God and love one another. After each meeting with the unexpected God, we will enter life in a new way, but still with the call to love.  We, too, know the two great commandments.  And we, too had better get on with it. Where is God?  Where we are doing God’s work. That’s what it’s all about.  Amen.