2008-01-27

I WANT TO FIND GOD- BUT JUST NOT THERE

A Sermon For Year A, Epiphany 3
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on 1 Corinthians 1:10-17; Matthew 4:12-23; Psalm 139

You know, in my line of work, one of the questions that frequently gets asked of me is "Where do I find God?" It may be asked many different ways.

Some may say "I just feel so distant from God. I wish he was closer. I wish I knew where to find him."

Another may say "I want to know how this God-stuff is relevant to my life. I don't get the whole Christianity thing."

Yet another may say "What does God want from my life? I keep asking for direction, but it seems like nothing happens."

The question comes in a thousand varieties, but at the core there is a similar reality: There is a hunger for God, and awareness that God SHOULD be there... But at the same time there is a profound awareness of God's absence.

It is uncomfortable. There is a numbness. A hunger. A yearning. A sense that we are just not complete. That things are not quite right, no matter what we do, or say, or don't do, or don't say.

It gets to the point that you want to cry. Or get angry. Or blame someone. Or medicate yourself in a hundred different ways.

I do it. We all probably do it.

And people want to "fix" that feeling. Heck, I want to "fix" it in myself. And I want to help you "fix" it as well.

And in my position, people EXPECT me to fix it. The guy in all the robes in the pulpit ought to have all the answers, right?

After all, what DO we pay him for?

And this puts a lot of pressure on the guy (or gal) in the pulpit to simplify things into a laundry list of nice, neat, concise, black-and-white guidelines that are guaranteed to bring you intimacy with God, spiritual blessedness, and a sure end to the deadness inside.

Many look to "professional Christians" such as ministers, priests, pastors, and preachers, to feed them with religious goods and services, to give them the proper amount of God (just as long as they don't get too much God... They don't want to become zealots!)

If they don't get what they want from one "professional Christian", then they go "Church-shopping", looking for the best religious products and services offered for the cheapest price.

In our society, where everything seems to be dominated by market economics, it is easy to treat God like a product to be consumed, and God's Church as a spiritual Wal-Mart.

It is easy to assume that our spiritual problems are cured in the same way that all of our other problems are cured: By finding the right technique, or finding the right environment.

But I am afraid that finding the right technique will not be a sure fire cure for our estrangement from God. Sure, God can- and does- use our techniques to reach us. But God cannot be pinned down to a certain technique, as if it were magic.

We cannot magically mouth some words in prayer and expect God to appear like a genie.

We cannot magically follow four spiritual laws, or five purposes, or seven steps, and expect God to appear in our lives.

In short, we cannot summon God like a lap dog.

Listen to the prophet Amos:

God is radically free and unbounded. He is a lion roaring in the forest, not a lap dog to be summoned. He is a trumpet that sounds, and strikes fear in the hearts of humanity.

He loves us as a Father, but also as a Father he will discipline and punish our sins and iniquities, until he brings us to the point where we surrender, and turn from our sin.

As Amos says: "The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord GOD has spoken; who can but prophesy?"

And yet, in our consumer society, we want God on command. We want a technique by which we can summon God at will. And if one "professional Christian" cannot give that secret to us, we go to one who can.

But as soon as we are sold a God small enough to fit into our box, that makes him too little to be the real God... Too small to be the Lion of the Tribe of Judah who roars and makes the Earth tremble.

Don't get me wrong. I think technique has its place. I think we SHOULD learn to pray with the whole family of God by using Scripture and the Prayer Book. I think we SHOULD sing together and praise the Lord. I think we SHOULD learn how to meditate, and focus, and pray spontaneously and boldly.

God can and does use all of these techniques: But only when we realize that God is not bound by these techniques. As soon as we begin to think that by doing any technique God HAS to answer prayer, the Holy Spirit leaves the building.

And we become self-righteous Pharisees.

But, if we use techniques of prayer in humility and Love, seeking God for His own sake and not for the sake of what you can "get" out of God: That is when God loves to make himself known. But it is not automatic. Not like a genie.

But slowly- after days and weeks and months of seeking God in daily prayer, in daily Scripture reading, in fellowship with His Body, and in partaking of His sacraments- slowly you will realize that Christ is beginning to inhabit your life.

That may not be the answer you want, but it is the answer that is real.

Another thing that people think will "fix" the God-problem is not found in right technique, but in going to the right environment.

They think "I just don't FEEL God here, so I am going to go somewhere else." Hang around any religious community, and you will hear several forms of this complaint:

"I just can't FEEL God in that place anymore. The Spirit is just not there. It's dead. I gotta leave."

Or "I just don't FEEL God presence around those people. I don't get them. They don't get me. I gotta leave."

So, WE get caught- and let me be honest here, I get caught- in the paradoxical situation that we want to find God... But we want to find Him ANYWHERE other than the place He has put us. "God I want to find you- just NOT there!"

And then we usually practice our culture's two great escape mechanisms: We blame and we leave.

First we blame: We assume the problem lies in someone or somewhere OUTSIDE of us when the problem is often INSIDE us.

Second we leave: We assume the pasture is greener on the other side- whatever that side may be- and we go there. And after being there a little while we find that their grass has just as many brown and barren spots as the pasture we just left.

So, then we blame and leave again: Always figuring the problem is outside of us, and the solution is somewhere else.

You can see the blame-and-leave pattern in a person who always says it is someone else's fault. You can see it in people who are always "Church shopping", never happy with their parishes and pastors.

You can see it in Churches who blame everything bad on "them" (and if we separate from "them" we will finally have a pure Church that God will bless).

And is there ever any truth to this blame-and-leave philosophy? Well, yes. There are people who are wicked and abusive, and should be abandoned. There are Churches that are wicked and abusive, and should be abandoned.

But I am convinced that these cases are infrequent compared with the amount of people who want to blame-and-leave rather than doing the hard work of dealing with themselves.

In fact, I think that in our culture, perhaps the greatest spiritual barrier to having intimacy with God is our propensity to treat spirituality like a product we consume... a product we will blame-and-leave if it is inconvenient for us.

But what does God have to say to the consumer mentality of "I want to find God, just not there?" What does the Lord Christ have to say to the idea that "I want to find God, just not with them?"

Let's look at what God is saying to us through today's readings. Check out our passage from the Psalms. Did the psalmist say "If I don't feel God's presence, he must be gone"? Or did the psalmist say "If it makes me feel uncomfortable, God must not be there"? Certainly the psalmist must have said "There are just some places where God is absent".

But no. The psalmist said none of these things.

Rather, the psalmist considers all the alternatives: What if I go to heaven? What if I go to hell? What if I am surrounded by a chaotic sea? What if I am far away from home?

To all of these he says to God: "You are there! Even there your hand will lead me and your right hand hold me fast!"

What would happen if we cultivated the same awareness of God? What if- instead of worrying about what might be, or could be, or should be- instead of griping about how things don't match my consumer preferences- what if we devoted ourselves completely to the present moment with God.

What if we treated each moment in each place as a gift, like we approach the sacrament tonight. What if we committed ourselves to the "sacrament of the present moment", expecting God to be there, to be doing something, no matter how small or how big?

What if we treated each place in time as an opportunity to see God's creativity at work, rather than as a burden we have to slog through?

What if we played a game of "Where's Waldo" with God in every place we go, and instead of looking for Waldo, we look for Jesus at work in the situations and people we encounter?

How would practicing the "sacrament of the present moment" change the way you see your classes? Your job? Your worship? Your walking on campus? Your relationships?

I bet, if we all learned to invite God to be where we are AT, rather than where we WISH we were, it would be nothing short of a spiritual revolution.

And now, what of the idea that God can be found with anyone BUT THEM (you know, the people you can't stand). What does God say to that?

Well, did you notice the story where Jesus calls the disciples? First, Jesus called them right in the middle of what they were doing. He didn't call ideal pillars of virtue and education. He called regular people in the midst of doing regular things.

Second, he called people who were hard to get along with. He called sun-dried, work-hardened, peasant fishermen. Later in the Bible we find that James and John were called "Sons of Thunder", and I will guarantee it is not because they were kind, gentle, and thoughtful.

Elsewhere in the Bible we find that Jesus called tax collectors (who were in cahoots with the Roman overlords), along with Zealots (who were revolutionaries trying to overthrow the Romans). He called pious Pharisees alongside former Prostitutes.

Even as the Jesus movement grew it included on equal footing Jews and Gentiles, women and men, slaves and masters. Nowhere in the world had anyone seen anything like it. Nothing in the world could have been as potentially explosive.

And every now and then- as we read in Paul's letter to the Corinthians- it DID explode. "I belong to Paul," or "I belong to Apollos," or "I belong to Cephas," or "I belong to Christ" they said back then.

Now we say "I belong to the Conservatives" or "I am a Progressive" or "I am a Protestant" or "I am a Catholic" or even "I am a Democrat" or "I am a Republican".

So, I ask with Paul: "Has Christ been divided? Was the Republican Party crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Progressiveism?"

This thinking tries to assure us that God is the sole property of a group of people who think the same, and act the same. It is a sure-fire way to make sure that we only find God among those whom we want to find God.

But Jesus doesn't work like that. Jesus speaks through people we would never expect. Jesus says that those who accept His disciples accept Him. Jesus says that those who accept little children in His Name accept Him. Jesus says that those who accept the poor and needy and despised- the least of these- that in so doing we receive Him.

What if we not only practiced the sacrament of the present moment, but we also practiced the presence of Christ in people?

What if, in every relationship, we consciously looked for ways we could be Christ to that person, and see Christ in that person? What if, in every encounter, we prayed "Jesus, I know you have put this person in my life for a reason: Please show me what it is"? What if, in every conversation we invited Christ to speak through us?

You know what might happen... You might just find God.

And now may we all come to realize that God is not a commodity, a genie, or a lap-dog. May we all come to live in the sacrament of the present moment with God. And may we practice the presence of Christ in everyone we meet. Amen+
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.