Monday, December 01, 2008

Straining for the Whisper

Sermon preached on the First Sunday of Advent in the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene, Rochester, New York: Isaiah 64:1-9; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Mark 13:24-37

For you have hidden yourself from us…

There is a great longing in the readings today. The prophet Isaiah gives voice to the people:

Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!

And the psalmist repeats the cry:

Stir up your strength and come to help us.

And then there is Jesus’ own prophecy,

They will see the Son of Man coming in the clouds with great power and glory.

And his followers, ever since these words, have asked, “When?”

Those voices may have all been in response to a particular moment in time, but they are also timeless, they echo into our own day and our own experience, as we wrestle with the hidden God.

If you read the Hebrew Scriptures, even in a cursory way, you will notice that as they progress, God becomes less and less obvious. There is a reason the people of Isaiah’s day longed for God to act, to intervene in history as he did in the days of their ancestors, because there was a point at which he stopped doing so in any obvious way.

Israel’s first impulse, and perhaps ours, is that we deserve this hiddenness. We have done something wrong and continue to do something wrong, and so God remains hidden to us.

But both Isaiah and the psalmist seem to being saying quite the opposite. Isaiah says

Because you hid yourself we transgressed…no one…calls on your name, or attempts to take hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us…

It is God’s doing, this hiddenness. And the psalmist agrees:

How long will you be angered despite the prayers of your people?

We are doing our part, God, why aren’t you doing yours?

This, by and large, is our experience. In nineteen years of ordained ministry, the vast number of people who come to me wanting to talk about God are wondering why God is not talking to them. Why can’t I get a word from God?

And, frankly, all I can do is commiserate. I don’t have an answer. It is my experience as well. Ordination does not mean that I get direct words from the Lord. People want to believe that people like me have a special connection to the Almighty. I do not, and I have never met a colleague who does.

Even the great mystics throughout history have known this to be the truth. The great 17th century mystic Blaise Paschal once said,

Every religion which does not affirm that God is hidden is not true.[1]

This is a dilemma for us. Like Isaiah and the psalmist, we want to believe it is not true. And frequently our words and our deeds seem to say that it is not true. It is possible to understand the act of thanksgiving that this family and their friends are making today to be saying that we know God has acted in their lives, broken into their history.

We do not in any way want to deny that this may be true, but we also must be very careful, because we certainly don’t mean to say that the next person whose cancer was not overcome is being ignored by God. All that we can do, all that we are doing in this act of thanksgiving is thanking God for being God and giving thanks that, in this case, illness has been overcome. We dare not say more than that. We dare not pretend that we know more than that.

As much as it frustrates us, the hiddenness of God must be protected, because in the end, that is the only way we have of letting God be God, outside of our control. It just may be that God stopped acting in Israel’s history because the people were acting to familiar with God, acting as if they had God under their control.

One of the reasons I am an Episcopalian is because I think, at our best, we are wise enough not to say too much. We are wise enough to protect God’s hiddenness.

But we also must acknowledge how painful this is, how frustrating, and even how it causes some of us to let go of God altogether. If God does not act in history, our history, than he must not exist. Why bother believing at all? Maybe it is why our churches are not full while those who boldly claim that God is doing definitive things in their life are.

How can we make sense of the hidden God? Well, of course, we cannot make sense of him, and that is partially the point. But I do think we can say something, something restrained and reverent and even, if you will, courteous to God.[2]

We can affirm that God is frequently, mostly, silent, but we long for it to be otherwise. We cry out with our ancestors, “Oh that you would tear open the heavens and come down!” And that crying out is itself an imperative of our faith. We have to do it.

We have to do it because in this cry is our faith, and it is only in this cry that we might get an occasional whisper from God. We must be in constant straining to hear this whisper, because in that straining lies our hope.

Over the centuries that is what the great mystics have taught us, that the only to experience God is to long for God, to want with every fiber of our being God, a wanting that, in this life, is never fulfilled. In this life God is in the seeking, God is in the journey not the destination. There is no destination in this life. Our steadfast hope is that there is in the next, that our ancestors who have gone before us are, in fact, there.

It is the great mystery of our faith, the paradox that we only find God when we seem to have lost him altogether in our death. That was true, though, even for our brother Jesus, who died thinking he had been abandoned. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

But it was not the last word for him and so we believe that it will not be the last word for us.

In the meantime we have our longing and we do have the occasional whisper, when we think we can hear God, faintly, on the wind. It is why we gather week by week around this Table and share this bit of bread and sip of wine. It is our experience that here, among all other places, we hear the whisper of God, enough so that we can cling, sometimes by our fingernails, to belief in spite of the overwhelming silence.

As people of God we cannot, must not, pretend that we have any answers. To do so is, I believe, actually blasphemy. Our only answer is our hope. We can only cry out. We can only say thank you to the mystery. We can only hope that Jesus was right, that this God we seek is for us, that this God who is silent is, nevertheless, love itself.

[1] Quoted by Barbara Brown Taylor in When God is Silent (Cowley, 1998), p. 88.
[2] Barbara Brown Taylor uses these words to describe how preachers should approach their task in When God is Silent.

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