The Long Journey Home

One of the highlights of my college experience was Spring Break 2002, when I got to spend 10 days in Romania on a student mission trip. While there, we led evangelistic services in churches and cultural halls, visited orphanages and psychiatric hospitals, played and prayed with the people who lived there, and handed out packages of gifts prepared by volunteers through an organization called Samaritan’s Purse.

The trip was sponsored by the church I attended at the time: a non-denominational charismatic church in western North Carolina. Our pastors told us they had seen some pretty amazing things happen on these trips in the past, especially as they were praying for sick people. The Bible calls them ‘signs and wonders’ while most modern people refer to them as ‘miracles’. They told us the kinds of stories we had only read about in the Bible: blind people suddenly being able to see for the first time, injured people throwing their crutches up into the air and then dancing home.

I thought to myself, “Hey, that’s something I want to see!” I wanted to have direct, personal experience with the kinds of phenomena I had only read about in the Bible. But then it didn’t happen. I watched, I waited, I prayed, but it still didn’t happen.

When I go back and read my personal journal from that week, I’m kind of embarrassed at how obsessed I was with the idea of witnessing a miracle. It’s pretty much all I wrote about, even though I was on the other side of the world, leaving my home country and seeing real poverty for the first time, hearing another language, meeting people whose lives were very different from my own. I got to drive around the back corners of post-Communist, Eastern Europe, far off the beaten-path carved out for tourists. I woke up to the sound of Orthodox monks chanting in a church across the lake from the hotel where we stayed in Bucharest. I got to spend St. Patrick’s Day in Vienna, visiting a Gothic cathedral and drinking really good, dark beer with a bunch of singing old men in a hole-in-the-wall pub that had first opened its doors in 1435… decades before Native Americans discovered Christopher Columbus lost at sea.

I met a Baptist family in the city of Galati, who had transformed their home into a refuge for young men who had been turned out of the orphanage on their 18th birthday with no educational or occupational prospects for the future. This family welcomed these guys into their home, helped them learn enough to get a job, and incorporated them into the life of their church. This same family welcomed us as well and put out a delicious spread of hors d’oeuvres for our group of loud, whiny, and tired American college students who had driven in from several hours away and hadn’t had much to eat that day. We sang Amazing Grace together around that table, in English and Romanian… I think that moment the closest to heaven I’ll ever get in this life.

I even flew over the Alps, for crying out loud, the ALPS: one of the most majestic mountain ranges in the world. If it was miracles that I wanted to see, I was surrounded by them; I just didn’t have the eyes to recognize it the time. I was too obsessed with a particular idea of a miracle as a supernatural event that violates the normal laws of physics or biology. What I think I was looking for during that week was some kind of absolute assurance for my faith. I wanted to know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is real and God loves me.

I think a lot of people are looking for that kind of absolute assurance these days. I think it’s one of the main reasons why people get caught up in cults or other kinds of religious fundamentalism. There is so much to be uncertain about in this life; they just want something to hold onto, so they look for it in paranormal phenomena, mystical experiences, sacred texts like the Bible or the Qur’an, theological systems like Calvinism, religious institutions like the church, or authoritative leaders like the Pope or David Koresh.

Faith is hard. It’s a long journey home. Just like Moses and the Israelites leaving Egypt and traveling to the Promised Land through the barren wilderness, it’s a winding journey that takes a lifetime.

People naturally look for something to hold onto in that journey. We’re looking for something to help us keep going when the going gets tough, which is why we so often stumble into problems like cults, fanaticism, and fundamentalism. We’re looking for something concrete that we can put our faith in, some kind of absolute assurance that God is with us and will be faithful to love us all the way home.

That was the inner need that drove the Israelites in the book of Exodus to build a Golden Calf. They had already experienced God’s presence and power in their lives: God had already led them, by the hand of Moses, out of Egypt, across the Red Sea, and into the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.

But now they were at a crossroads, camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai. Moses had disappeared over a month ago in a thunderstorm at the top of the mountain and, by Moses’ own orders, they weren’t even allowed to send a rescue mission to go look for them. After 40 days with no contact, they didn’t know if he was alive or dead.

So they said to Aaron, Moses’ brother, “Hey, we’ve been patient but enough is enough. We need to face the fact that Moses is probably never coming back. So, we want you to take command and the first thing we need you to do for us is give us some kind of absolute assurance, something we can believe in, something we can hold onto while we make this long, hard journey to the Promised Land.

So Aaron did what he could, given the circumstances. Someone in my profession might say that he was just trying to be a good pastor and meet his people’s spiritual needs. He took up an offering of gold, the very best they had to offer, and melted it down. Then he constructed the image of the Golden Calf from it and presented it to the people saying, “Here! This is your absolute assurance that we will make it to where we’re going… These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.”

And the people were delighted. They were unified, inspired, and motivated. Even Moses, with all his signs and wonders, hadn’t been able to give them something so clear and concrete. This was a God they could understand; this was something they could look to in the hard times, not some mysterious presence that could never be seen or touched. This was their “blessed assurance.”

The problem is that it was all a lie. In the eyes of God, their assurance, their absolute certainty, was nothing more than an idol: a graven image, made by human hands, to which they were bowing down in place of God.

God gives us many things, but certainty isn’t one of them. Absolute certainty, especially when it comes to the divine mystery, is idolatry. As it says in the Ten Commandments:

You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I the Lord your God am a jealous God.

God had no desire to fit inside any box that can be made by human hands, be it a literal box, a statue, a building, an institution, a book, a theological system, or any other Golden Calf we can imagine with our minds and construct with our hands. The basic motivation behind religious fundamentalism, whether it leads people to fly airplanes into buildings or picket funerals with offensive signs, is idolatry. These people, who often have the loudest voices calling others back to “worship the one, true God,” are the very same people who have bowed their knee to a graven image: a god who fits inside of a box, a god we can wrap our heads around, a god we can see and touch, and ultimately a false god who is not worthy of our worship.

Whether the format is Pagan, Muslim, or even Christian, any God we can fully understand is unworthy of our worship.

But this divine mystery doesn’t leave us much to hold onto. Once again, we find ourselves with the Israelites: camped out at the foot of Mount Sinai, facing a long and difficult journey that we don’t expect to complete in this lifetime. We need something to hold onto. We need some kind of assurance, even if it isn’t absolute assurance. And Moses (who is not dead) knows this about us. And so he pleads with God on our behalf.

In today’s reading, God gives Moses two things: a mission and a promise. The mission is simple: “Bring up this people.” God wants Moses to guide his people home, to the Promised Land (which is always referred to as ‘up’ in Israelite geography). And God’s promise to Moses is this: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.”

These are good words, powerful words, and they reflect the truth of God’s reality and God’s disposition toward Moses and the people. But Moses follows with a very reasonable concern: what might be an appropriate alternative to the Golden Calf? What kind of assurance can we, as God’s people, hold onto in this journey? Moses says, “Now if I have found favor in your sight, show me your ways, so that I may know you and find favor in your sight.”

He’s saying, in essence, “God, I believe that what you’re telling me is true, but how will I know?”

God replies, “My presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.”

And again Moses puts the question to God, “But how will I know?” He says, “For how shall it be known that I have found favor in your sight, I and your people, unless you go with us?”

And God repeats again the very first thing he said to Moses, “You have found favor in my sight, and I know you by name.”

And Moses says, “Okay, God. Show me… Show me your glory, I pray.”

And God says, “I will do the very thing that you have asked… I will make all my goodness pass before you.”

“But,” God says, “you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” God gives Moses what he asks for, but also doesn’t give it. God’s face, the fullness of divine mystery, is too big for anyone to handle. We can’t wrap our minds around it… our heads would explode. Moses has asked the impossible: he simply can’t see God’s face. But that doesn’t mean he gets nothing.

Moses has a direct experience of God, just not the one he asked for. God says, “I will make all my goodness pass before you… See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen.”

Moses doesn’t get to see God’s face, but he does get to see God’s back. He has an experience, just not the one he asked for. It’s something less than the full experience of divine glory (which he couldn’t handle anyway).

Moses seeing God’s back reminds me of a parable that originated somewhere on the Indian subcontinent and is told and retold in many different religious traditions:

Six blind men decide to find out what an ‘elephant’ is, so they set out to examine one by feel. One touches the trunk and says, “An elephant is like a great snake.” Another touches an ear and says, “An elephant is like a great flap of leather.” Another touches the side and says, “An elephant is like a great wall.” Another touches a leg and says, “An elephant is like a great pillar.” Another touches the skull and says, “An elephant is like a great boulder.” And the last one grabs the tail and says, “An elephant is like a great rope.”

Now, which one has it right? All of them. And which one has it wrong? All of them. Each blind man is having some kind of true experience of an elephant, but none of them is experiencing the full reality of ‘elephant-ness’.

Just as it was for these six blind men and the elephant, and as it was for Moses seeing God’s back and not God’s face, so it is with us and our experience with God.

Just like Moses on the mountain, God’s back is all we get to see in this life. The only thing that spiritual experiences, the Sacraments, the Bible, theology, and church can do is, when they are at their best, express God’s reflected glory in an indirect and incomplete way. These things are all good as means to an end, but they are not ends in themselves. They point us to God, but they cannot replace God.

There is no such thing as absolute assurance or certainty in this life. We cannot see the face of God, but only the back. Faith does not come with a money-back guarantee, there is always a risk. We will always have to take that ‘leap of faith’ in order to believe.

When we do (take that leap), it changes the way we see the world. The brilliant physicist Albert Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Through the eyes of a faith that dares to risk believing, everything becomes a miracle. The whole universe is able to reflect the glory of God’s back. Everything can be a metaphor for God.

In church, we tend to use the most well-known biblical image for God, “Our Father,” but did you know that the Bible also refers to God as a Mother? Also in the Bible:

  • God is honored as a king, yet humble as a shepherd;
  • God is powerful as a warrior and weak as a baby;
  • God is bright as light, yet ‘cloaked in darkness’;
  • God is one and God is three;
  • God is a rock, God is the wind, God is a river, God is a fire, and God is a star.

All of these are valid, biblical images for God, but none of them captures the fullness of the divine mystery. To paraphrase Rev. Forrest Church, “God is present in each of these things, but is also greater than all of these things.”

Anything and everything communicates something of God to us. Not the fullness, but a part; not the face, but the back.

Can we see it? Do we choose to see it with the eyes of faith?

If we let them, all things can point us back to God, their Source. In order to see it, we must trust (have faith) in the promise, God’s word to Moses: “I know you by name, and you have found favor in my sight.” In other words, “I’m here, I’m with you, and I love you.”

This is all the assurance we have in this life. Indeed, it’s all we need for the long journey home.

Serious as a Heart Attack

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Jesus’ Baptism.  Photo by David Bjorgen. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons

Click here to listen to this sermon at my church’s website.

I’d like to begin this morning by stating three tragic facts:

  • First, while you were sleeping last night, around the world, 30,000 children died of starvation or malnutrition.
  • Second, most people sitting in church today don’t give a damn about it.
  • Finally, more people will be upset at me cursing in church than they are at the death of 30,000 kids.

Now, I realize that I just dropped a bomb in your lap a moment ago, so let’s press pause and step back to look at what’s going on.

First, I have to cite my sources.  This little stunt comes from a guy named Tony Campolo, who is a Baptist minister and college professor in Pennsylvania.  Believe it or not, I actually toned the language down from Campolo’s original version!

Second, I want you to pay attention to what happened inside of you just now.  Your heart probably skipped a beat and your adrenaline started pumping.  You might have been angry at what I said or fearful that a lightning bolt might strike me dead.  I certainly hope that it led you to a moment of insight and self-reflection.

What I just did here is employ the rhetorical technique of hyperbole.  Hyperbole happens when you overstate something in order to make a point.  In this case, the point I was trying to make was a point about our moral priorities.  Which issue is more important: mass starvation or bad language?  Starvation, obviously.  But which one is more likely to cause a ruckus in church?  Probably language.  Maybe we church folks need to rearrange our priorities?

Spiritual masters of many religions often use hyperbole as a favorite teaching technique.  For example, Lin Chi, a Zen Buddhist teacher from the ninth century, is thought to have said, “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”  This is another example of hyperbole.  Obviously, a Zen master would not want his students to assassinate the founder of their religion.  The point he was trying to make is that they shouldn’t idolize or attach themselves to anything in this world, even a religious figurehead.  They should exist in a position of openness to reality, willing to let go of their most precious possessions, ideas, and beliefs.  That’s what Lin Chi meant when he said, “Kill the Buddha.”

Don’t we all sometimes use hyperbole to make a point?  How about this one: “I’m starving!  I could eat a horse!”  Are you really?  Is your life actually in danger of ending due to malnutrition?  Probably not.  If someone barbequed up an entire horse and served it to you for lunch today, could you finish it?  Probably not.  You were using hyperbole to get people’s attention and let them know that you feel hungry and would like to eat food as soon as possible.

I’m giving you this crash course in the art of hyperbole because I think it’s essential to understanding the point that Jesus was trying to get across in this morning’s gospel reading.

In the second half of the passage, Jesus says some pretty offensive stuff to his would-be followers in three separate conversations (that have been conveniently condensed into one by the author of Luke’s gospel).

In the first conversation, the would-be follower says he’ll follow Jesus anywhere and Jesus replies, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”

The second person requests permission to attend a parent’s funeral, but Jesus says, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.”

The final person just wants to say goodbye to loved ones, but Jesus says, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”

Now, that’s some pretty harsh and offensive stuff!  In fact, it’s downright rude!  We imagine Jesus to be a person of great compassion, so why didn’t he ease up on someone whose father had just died?  This is anything but the “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” we used to sing about in Sunday School.

Well, Jesus is using hyperbole to make a point.  He is being intentionally offensive and overstating his case.  What’s his point?  That discipleship is hard but it’s also the most important thing in the world.

Think about it: what could be so important that it would cause you to miss your father’s funeral?  It would have to be something pretty big, wouldn’t it?  You would pretty much have to have a heart attack in the car on the way to the funeral itself.  Well, that’s exactly what Jesus is saying: he’s as serious as a heart attack.  Following Jesus and proclaiming the kingdom of God is a drop-everything scenario: stop the presses, hold the phone, and pay attention.  You’re on your way to your dad’s funeral, you say?  Forget about it, this is too important, even for that.  Discipleship is hard and it will cost you everything you have, so you’d better be ready to let it all go.

Do we relate to our Christian faith like that?  I kind of doubt it.  Unlike most of our fundamentalist neighbors, we mainline Protestants don’t tend to use guilt and fear to manipulate people into faith.  For the most part, I think that’s a good thing.  Real faith should be an honest, authentic response from the heart, not something people do because they’re scared of punishment.  But we sometimes adopt a rather casual relationship with Jesus and we don’t always take him seriously.  The things he says should offend and disturb us.  Jesus is supposed to make us extremely uncomfortable.  If we’re not troubled by the things he says, then we’re probably not really paying attention.

Real Christian faith cannot be reduced to an institution, a tradition, or a system of beliefs.  Real Christian faith requires a total commitment of one’s whole being to the service of God as revealed in Jesus Christ.  Real faith, as theologian Paul Tillich put it, is a matter of “ultimate concern.”  To the Christian, everything else in life becomes secondary.  You have to let it all go, let the dead bury their own dead, put your hand to the plow, and never look back.  It’s as serious as a heart attack.  It will cost you all you have.

Many of us are already familiar with the idea of total sacrifice.  We would gladly give all we have, including our lives, for the sake of spouse, kids, or country.  We realize there’s a payoff that makes the sacrifice worthwhile.  In this case, when you let go of everything and commit your whole being to following Jesus, what you get back is your true self.  Bit by bit, you let go of your false identifiers (e.g. property, money, job, politics, nationality, religion, etc.), you get underneath them and discover who you really are.  This is frightening at first because we have been so thoroughly trained to identify ourselves by these things (e.g. I am an accountant, a mother, a son, a Republican, a Presbyterian, an American, etc.).  We think we are these things.  We’re terrified that if we let go of these things and they are swept away, there will be nothing left of us.  But Jesus shows us that this is not true.

Jesus said, “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.”  In other words: when we let go of our egos and our false identifiers, we discover who we really are.  This wonderful paradox is illustrated so beautifully in the sacrament of baptism: you go down into the water, where all that extra stuff gets washed away and you are left standing there: naked, wet, and shivering, just like the day you were born.  You are now born again.  And it is then (and only then), as you come up out of that water, that you are given your first glimpse of your true self: the heavens break open, the dove descends, and the voice speaks to you as it did to Jesus at his baptism: “You are my beloved child.”

Jesus knew this truth about himself.  That’s how we was able to walk so freely, securely, and courageously across the face of this planet, unbound by the fetters of attachment to stuff, status, religion, or nationality.  Jesus was free in his true self and he lived to show the rest of us the way to freedom.  He knew that journey would be long and difficult for us.  That’s why he was so urgent and serious as a heart attack.  He knew we have a long way to go and a lot to let go of: all that stuff that keeps us bound up and wound up like bedsprings.  But he also knew what waits for us on the other side of that process: freedom in the knowledge of who we really are as God’s beloved children.  This is the freedom to which Christ calls us.  This is the promised land, the kingdom of heaven on earth, the state of being where we can finally hear the words that the Spirit of God is eternally speaking into our hearts: “I love you and there’s nothing you can do about it.”