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.

The Hour Has Come

Today’s sermon from Boonville Pres.

The texts are John 12:20-33, Jeremiah 31:31-34, and Psalm 87.

Click here to listen to this sermon at fpcboonville.org

Whenever my friends and acquaintances find out that I’m a minister, it usually opens up some very interesting avenues of conversation.  This will sound weird, but the very first thing that most people do is apologize.  I haven’t quite figured out why they do that, but it happens about seven times out of ten.

Once that’s out of the way, the conversation usually gets interesting.  I don’t know of any other job that generates the kind of small talk that this one does.  When accountants meet people at parties, I doubt that folks immediately start talking about their bank account balance.  When teachers meet people in public, I doubt that folks immediate start talking about their high school GPA.  However, when I meet people out in the world, I find that many folks almost immediately want to talk about their personal beliefs and practices.

I get to learn a lot that way.  I learn about peoples’ individual life stories.  I learn about the way they see the world.  I learn about the importance that spirituality holds for most people, even those who don’t go to church.  Most of all, I learn about the way we Christians are perceived by the rest of the world.  I find that a lot of people admire us for our commitment to a particular way of faith but don’t want to limit their own spiritual journey to such a small circle of beliefs and morals.

We Christians have done plenty of things throughout our two-thousand-year history to establish the idea that ours is a small-minded and judgmental faith.  Even today, in the twenty-first century, those who most loudly and proudly broadcast their Christianity to a national audience tend to be rather one-sided in their view of the world.  It makes me sad sometimes that the incredible depth and diversity of our tradition seems to have become lost in all the hubbub.  I really can’t blame people who reject Christianity on the grounds that being Christian (from their point of view) means being like these big-time televangelists or members of the Religious Right.  I don’t blame them.  If I hadn’t met certain people or read certain books at just the right moment in my life, I would probably think as they do.

More and more, I’m also finding Christians within the church who operate with a similar mentality.  They value their Christian faith but wish there was some way they could practice it that is more thoughtful and less judgmental.  They hate feeling like they have to close their hearts and minds to the world in order to be faithful believers but don’t know of any other way to be truly Christian.  Some of these folks slog it out, longing for something better.  Others eventually give up and just leave altogether, thinking there’s no place for people like them in church.

I want to tell you today that I think there is another way.  Whether you’re sitting in church this morning, hanging on in quiet desperation, or listening to me on the radio at home, thinking the roof would cave in if you ever tried to walk through the door of a church building, I want you to know that, whoever you are, there is room for you to be you in Christ’s church.

If the church has failed to send that message clearly, it’s our own fault.  We need to learn how to be more like Jesus and do the kinds of things he did, like the one we heard about earlier in this service in our reading from the gospel according to John.

The story opens as Jesus is visiting Jerusalem with massive throngs of pilgrims on their way to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover.  Mixed in with this group are a number of Greek people.  They weren’t Jewish by blood, but they had come to believe in and respect the monotheistic faith of Judaism rather than the many gods worshiped by their own people.  These Greek folks wanted to take part in the Passover festivities as well, but they were only allowed to go so far.  Jewish law prevented them from entering the great Jerusalem temple because of their race.  There was one, single area set aside for them at the very farthest back end of the temple.  We would call the nosebleed section.  They called it the Court of the Gentiles.  Unfortunately, even this one distant space had been taken away from them and filled up with all kinds of vendors exchanging foreign currency and selling animals for the ritual sacrifices.  Feeling like the odd ones out, these Greek folks were definitely getting the message that there was no place for people like them in the “church” of their day.

In the midst of all this going on, these Greek people somehow managed to hear that there was this remarkable new rabbi named Jesus who happened to be in Jerusalem for the festival.  They were intrigued by what they heard and wanted to meet him, so they tracked down someone from Jesus’ entourage.  They found Philip and said, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”  I can’t imagine what the look on Philip’s face must have been in that moment.  Why would these foreigners want anything to do with Jesus, the Jewish Messiah?  Philip was confused enough that he thought he needed a second opinion, so he went and talked to Andrew, another one of Jesus’ disciples.  Even together, they still couldn’t figure out what was going on, so they decided to bring the issue to Jesus himself.  Jesus’ reaction to this news probably shocked them even more.  He said, “The hour has come.”

What does that mean?  Well, there’s a lot of talk about Jesus’ “hour” in John’s gospel.  Early on, when Mary asks Jesus to show his power by changing water into wine at a wedding, Jesus refuses (at first) saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  Later on, when people try to get Jesus to use another Jewish holiday as a publicity platform, Jesus again refuses (at first) saying, “My hour has not yet come.”  Finally, when he had enraged one crowd to the point where they tried to kill him, the text notes that they were unsuccessful because “his hour had not yet come.”  It was like the whole book had been building toward something big that was about to happen.  What would it be?  Maybe when his hour came, Jesus would finally confront the corrupt religious and political leadership in Jerusalem.  Maybe when his hour came, he would go kick Pontius Pilate and his Roman thugs out of the holy city once and for all.  Maybe when his hour came, Jesus would restore the nation of Israel to the glory of its golden age under King Solomon.

But no, it turns out that Jesus’ hour came when these no-account foreigners came looking for him.  Greek people.  What’s the matter with Jesus?  Didn’t he realize who he was?  Didn’t he remember where his loyalties lay?  He was Jewish.  He belonged to his own people.  His mission, as the Jewish Messiah, was to be with other Jews and help them, not these foreigners.  Yet, when these Greek people seek him out, Jesus says, “This is it.  The hour has come.  This is why I’m here.  This is what it’s all about.”

Huh?  Don’t be ridiculous, Jesus.  What about us?  What about our people?  Our security?  Our prosperity?  Our survival?  When times get tough, human beings tend to think like that.  We want to batten down the hatches and circle the wagons.  We instinctively want to protect what’s ours.  Look out for number one.  Be responsible.  This is how evolution has hard-wired us.  Truthfully, it has allowed to survive as long as have.  But, Jesus says, there comes a time, a moment, an hour, when all of that needs to be set aside.  There is an hour for opening up, reaching out, and taking risks.  These are the moments when evolution actually happens and we take small steps or giant leaps toward our destiny.  In such moments, ironically, it is our evolutionary instinct for survival that may actually be killing us.  Jesus said it like this, “Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

We, as individuals, churches, institutions, communities, countries, a planet, are meant to be so much more than single grains.  We are meant to bear much fruit.  We are meant to grow and evolve beyond what we have been.  For Jesus himself, this meant pursuing a vision of the kingdom of God as a spiritual community that was multi-national and multi-ethnic.  Even though he was a faithful Jew, he realized that God’s activity in the world was bigger than Judaism and the special interests of his own nation.  We take it for granted today that God’s “got the whole world in [God’s] hands,” but that was still a relatively new idea in Jesus’ day.  It got him and the early Christians in a lot of trouble.  Some, like Jesus, even paid for that vision with their lives.

Jesus said, “I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.”  He didn’t say all Jews, Presbyterians, Protestants, Americans, or Christians.  Jesus said all people.  This meshes pretty well with what we heard earlier today in our Old Testament reading from the prophet Jeremiah.  Jeremiah talked about his vision of a new covenant that God would make with people.  He said, speaking in God’s name, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.”  Jeremiah said that, under this new covenant, we will all know the Lord and the essence of the Bible will not be carved in stone or printed in books but written on our hearts.  Whose hearts?  The hearts of all people, from the least to the greatest, for we will all know the Lord.  Christians have believed for thousands of years that this new covenant is exactly what Jesus came to accomplish.  This theme also appears in Psalm 87, which we read from this morning as well.  That poem describes how all kinds of foreign nations, like Egypt, Babylon, and Ethiopia will one day be counted as citizens of Zion and included among God’s people.  You could say, based on these prophetic visions, that the kingdom of God is meant to be an all-inclusive trip.

So, this is why I think, as I mentioned earlier, that there is another way to be Christian in this world.  We are not obligated to sell out to narrow, one-sided interpretations of our religion.  There is room in this church for everyone.  Whoever you are and however you are hearing this today, I want you to know there is room in this church for you.

I think there’s also a challenge for all of us in Jesus’ words.  I think it’s worth continually asking ourselves whether our “hour has come.”  Are we currently, in our personal or collective lives, at a point where, in order for evolution to happen, we need to let go of our evolutionary instinct for survival and takes risks?  Back in Jesus’ day, it was a moment for reaching out beyond one’s ethnic and national identity to grab hold of a religious vision for a spiritual community that was open to Greeks as well as Jews.  During the millennia since then, the Christian church has continued to wrestle with other issues.  We have worked to build a church where people of different races are welcome to worship side by side as equal partners.  We have opened our doors to acknowledge members of other churches and denominations as friends in Christ.  We have opened our pulpits for women to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments.  Each of these developments involved a certain amount of risk in its day, and there were those along the way who resisted, often citing Scripture to justify their fear, but I think we can all agree that each leap of faith was one more positive step in the direction of evolution and we are a richer church today for having taken those steps.

What challenges are we now facing as a church?  Once again, we’ve fallen on hard times.  It’s true that church attendance in this country is not what it used to be.  Many churches are tightening their belts and trying to do the best they can with shrinking financial resources.  A lot of folks are worried for our future and our survival.  They think we should circle the wagons and batten the hatches.  Some think mission and service projects should take second place to institutional survival.  Some have shut their ears to new ideas or new interpretations of ancient truths.

There are two particular areas where I think the hour has come for us as Christians in this generation.  In these two areas, I believe we are being called to open our hearts, minds, and doors just as Jesus opened his to those Greek foreigners who came looking for him in Jerusalem.

The first is one you’ve heard me mention before and will hear me mention again.  I don’t mind admitting that I am personally passionate about this issue.  I’m talking of course about the full-inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the life of our church.  Last year, the Presbyterian Church voted to open the doors for these folks to be ordained as pastors, elders, and deacons in our denomination.  This summer, our General Assembly will decide whether or not these same people are allowed to get married in our churches.  I think this issue, in particular, holds a key to growing our little congregation here in Boonville.  For lack of a better term, I think we have a niche market here.  There are plenty of churches in Boonville who have bigger budgets and flashier programs than we do, but there are not very many who share our convictions about the full and equal inclusion of people of all sexual orientations.  Believe it or not, there is a gay community in our neck of the woods and there are people in it who are longing to find a spiritual home where they know they will be fully loved and accepted for who they are.

The second area where I think our hour has come is in our relationship toward people of other religions or no religion at all.  We live in a society of unparalleled diversity and interconnection.  Our neighbors aren’t just Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish anymore.  They’re Buddhist, Hindu, Atheist, Taoist, and Muslim.  We have the opportunity to learn and grow by listening to one another and casting our neighbors in a positive light.

For the last ten years, we’ve struggled with a particularly strong bout of Islamophobia in this country.  The fear and anger generated in the wake of 9/11 has spread beyond the fanatics of Al Qaida and tainted our perception of all Muslims.  We need to unstop our ears to the voice of progressive Muslim clerics like Feisal Abdul Rauf of Cordoba House (aka the Ground Zero Mosque) in New York.  Leaders like him are calling for peace among their own people and opening the doors to dialogue, respect, and learning.  When we hear the Muslim call to prayer from the minarets, let’s respond by adding our Christian ‘Amen’ to their ‘Allahu Akbar.’

The way to fuller and greater life for ourselves, our church, and our country does not lie in circling the wagons and battening the hatches.  We need to realize that the hour has come for us to take risks and reach out in the name and Spirit of Jesus, who has promised to draw all people to himself in the all-inclusive kingdom of heaven-on-earth.