August 21, 2016: Jeremiah 1:4-10, Psalm 71:1-6, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
Reverend Melissa Hall, St. James’ Episcopal Church
Where is God?
There were two brothers nine and seven years old and from all accounts they were a pair of holy terrors. They were always up to mischief in the neighborhood, always throwing rocks at passing cars, getting in trouble at school and impossible to control at home. More than once they were brought home in the local sheriff’s car. The parents tried everything to get them to behave: cajoling, bribery, screeching, threats, tough love…nothing worked.
At their wits end they appealed to the local Baptist minister to talk to the boys. The minister agreed and hauled the two into his office. Peering down at them he asked them gently. “Where is God?” The boys didn’t answer.
The preacher thinking they hadn’t heard him asked it a bit more forcefully, “Where is God?” No answer from the boys. They stared hard at the floor.
Not accustomed to being ignored the preacher asked a bit louder, “Where is God?”
No answer once again. The preacher is now furious with this rebellion of silence and rude behavior and bellows at the top of his voice, “WHERE IS GOD!!!”
The two boys terrified by this behavior bolt from the room. They run the entire way home straight into their bedroom, where their parents find them cowering in the closet.
“Shut the door mom,” yelled the older brother, “We are in really big trouble this time. God is missing and they think we did it!”
We are in big trouble. God is missing. As a priest I often hear that sad lament.
God is missing! People, who are scared or challenged by life’s knocking them around, tell me I have asked for God’s help but God seems to be missing.
I have had people tell me I prayed for my marriage but it failed. I prayed for a negative mammogram, it wasn’t. I prayed that my job was safe and lost it.
I prayed my children would be spared from any grief, they have not been.
I prayed that my loved ones would find and hold onto their sobriety, they didn’t. I prayed that peace would come to the world, and it hasn’t happened yet.
Why won’t God help me?
Asking for God’s help is as ancient as our awareness of God’s existence in the universe. Our need for God’s presence and protection resonates in the our psalm this morning that was first prayed over 3000 years ago:
In you, O Lord, have I taken refuge;
Deliver me and set me free;
Incline your ear to me and save me.
Be my strong rock, a castle to keep me safe;
Deliver me, my God, from the hand of the wicked,
From the clutches of the evildoer and the oppressor.
And in our present day we still cry out the same words: Help me God.
Keep me safe God. Deliver me from awful things God. Help, Help, Help.
And does God answer when we cry out to God? Sometimes!
There are those who comfort themselves with a silent God by saying that God always answers us, but sometimes the answer is no! Really, that’s your answer God? NO?? How come no, God? If I am in despair you don’t get to say no!
When I ask, you cannot go missing God; there is too much at stake here.
When I was a nurse down in one of the toughest wards in Newark, a neighborhood cop once told me that if I was on the street and I was threatened in any way, I shouldn’t scream for help, but rather I should yell “FIRE” at the top of my lungs.
“Yelling help falls on death ears in this neighborhood,” he said, “ but ‘fire’ gets everyone’s attention.” He was right and unfortunately I got the opportunity to test out his advice.
As a clergy person I have pondered this question a fair amount.
Why do I keep yelling fire and God doesn’t seem to hear me? I finally figured out why God occasionally seems unreachable: it’s football. Not the game itself, but those moments during the game when the big catch happens and the runner charges across the goal line. He immediately drops to his knees makes the sign of the cross, kisses his fingers and points them up to God.
I get it; God likes athletes better then me.
Its good to know that God is at the big game making sure that the home team is victorious, but it does seem frivolous and a distraction away from a world in desperate need of Godly intervention! We need real help in this world God, there are floods and pestilence and violence and poverty and war and genocide. So how do we get your attention to fix this miserable and broken world?
The success rate for Godly intervention in light of all that we have been through seems low. And reality begs the question, “Are you there at all God?”
Or are you just a hope and a dream? Maybe you are not missing; maybe you never were at all! Have any of you felt that way?
Now this is a dismal and dangerous preaching corner I have painted myself into… questioning the existence of God. But I can feel God’s answer right here in my heart. This is what God says to me:
“You silly woman, I heard you, and I already have answered you in the most perfect way, I sent you Jesus. He will be your teacher, your comfort and your redeemer.
He will show you the way to the kingdom of God, so you must listen to him, learn from him, and love him.”
God told Jeremiah, I gave you life, I knew you from the womb. But we don’t get to stay in the womb; we must come forth and live with others and by Jesus’ example do for others.
In the Gospel this morning Jesus is worshipping in the synagogue with the devout leaders of the congregation when a woman crippled for eighteen years walks by unnoticed by anyone, except Jesus. We are told this woman has suffered with her affliction for a lifetime and it makes you wonder how many times she called out to God in prayer asking for help, healing and comfort. Clearly her prayers were to no avail, she is bent in two and unable to stand up straight. Her affliction makes her a non-entity in the community; she is an outsider.
But Jesus calls out to her and brings her into the center of the community and heals her with a laying on of hands. Jesus tells her that God has heard her and she is set free. And she knows what has happened, that God has listened and that God has acted, and she does the only thing she can do, she praises God.
These miracle stories are powerful stuff. They inspire me to look up to God and Jesus in heaven and ask for a few miracles for myself. And then I realize I am looking the wrong way; that shouting out into the universe to God is not going to help. I need to go local.
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” When two or three are gathered in my name there I AM. So in other words, Jesus is telling us that God is not missing but has been here the whole time.
Everything we need is right here because God happens between us around us and through us. We find God in community. That is where we find our strength. That is where we can find the help and the peace we need. But don’t get too comfortable, because Jesus taught us that in that peace comes a lifetime obligation that we are responsible for one another and all our neighbors no matter who they are.
In the Gospel this morning Jesus, answered his critics in the synagogue that when someone is in need you must help. That is the only rule and we don’t get to turn on and turn off that responsibility when it is inconvenient. The donkey and the oxen are fed when they need feeding, Jesus says, because ultimately it will benefit the community, and a brother or sister in need of our help overlooked or neglected will only diminish us a people.
Today as a community we gather with Jesus’ words on our hearts in our minds and on our lips, as we enlarge God’s community by baptizing these two beautiful children into the household of God.
Martin Luther said that baptism takes ‘just a moment to perform, but a lifetime
to fulfill.’ I say to the Godparents you are not just here for the show. This is a lifetime commitment to these children to affirm that when two or three are gathered that God is in the midst of us. And to the members of Saint James’ church, I say that by gathering together to witness the baptizing of Warren and Pamela, and by promising to support them in their life in Christ we become the 24 hour roadside assistance for these children in the good times and when they need help.
By our unwavering presence in their lives, by our acceptance of who they are just as God called them forward, we will create for these two children a surround of Christ, assuring them that no matter what the challenge, hardship or pain that may come into their lives, that God will always be there.
Because WE will always be here for them. Amen