A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Sermon (March 10) - "Unbinding Your Soul: God Sightings"

I read about a woman named Annie who backpacked around Greece a few summers ago. When she arrived in Athens, she was ready for a break. She started sizing up the hostels near the ancient market. She was looking for someplace to lay her head for the night, not too expensive, with a clean bathroom.

Ahh, heaven, she thought. One particularly dingy-looking option had an old Greek merchant standing outside, hawking his place. “Come and see!” he pleaded with her. “I, George, will show you the view!”

Annie looked up at the vintage 1950s sign, flashing the hostel’s name: “Parthenon Paradise.” “Suuure,” she thought to herself. But George was quite persistent: “Come, come and see! I show you the view!”

So Annie followed George up the rickety, winding staircase of the place. George burst open the doors of an attic room at the top of the staircase.

He proudly displayed a room that looked as if it hadn’t been dusted in years.

Annie shifted on her heels to turn and get out of there. She was on her way to more sanitary conditions. Then, George peeled back the dust-laden curtains of the room and triumphantly proclaimed, “The view! The view!”

Annie stepped over to see what could possibly redeem this dump. And then, she saw it: The view.

Just out the window was the Parthenon. Laid out before her eyes were the ancient ruins of Greek worship. A perfect blue sky was the canvas for this wonder of the world. Annie could have reached out and touched the statues. It took her breath away.

Annie figured she could sleep on top of the sheets. “I’ll take the room,” she whispered.

What if we could actually see God? What if, in the dust and dimness of this world, we could glimpse God? Moses did. He was out sweating, taking care of somebody else’s sheep one day when it happened. Moses was looking around, counting sheep’s noses – is that 98 or 99? – when something caught the corner of his eye.

Was something on fire? Moses looked more closely and there it was. Right there in the middle of the field. A bush was on fire. But more than that, the bush wasn’t burning. It was just blazing.

Now Moses didn’t just move on, thinking, “Wow, that was weird. Must be getting dehydrated out here. Better go get some Gatorade.” Instead, Moses thought, “I need to check this out!”

And the Bible says that when God saw that Moses stopped to look, God started talking to Moses! God called Moses by his name. Then God told Moses to take off his sandals. Apparently you’re not supposed to wear shoes when you’re standing on holy ground. You need to be able to actually feel the holiness with your toes.

Then God started telling Moses God’s name. God started letting Moses see something of who God is … giving Moses more. All the while, Moses is standing there, in his bare feet. Moses is standing there, toes a-wrigglin,’ looking at this amazing flaming foliage. And seeing God.

In his book, Unseen Footprints, Sheridan Voysey writes that in one vast and lonely desert lies a secret. As winds sweep along the parched soil of the land – kicking particles of dust into the air, ruffling the fur of the few animals scavenging for moisture, an unseen reality lies beneath its surface: Water. Trillions of litres of water.

Some years ago, an underground basin was found in Western Australia’s Great Victoria Desert. Beneath the red sand, sticks and scrub of that desolate land lay a reservoir holding a potential 2 trillion kiloliters of slightly saline water.

In Perth, the state’s capital city, the media compared the find to one of its well-known dams, the Mundaring Weir. The basin’s capacity was equivalent to 31,000 Mundaring Weirs. That arid desert may have looked like death from above, but underneath flowed a river of life.

A giant lake in the desert – what an unexpected surprise. Stories like that remind me that unseen does not equal unreal. I wonder how many trekked across that dusty land oblivious of the life beneath them. I wonder how many still do.

The poet Emily Dickinson wrote, “"All the earth is crammed with heaven and every bush aflame with God, but only those who see take off their shoes."

As Christians we believe we did, and do, see God. Especially through this human being named Jesus. We believe that God showed up in Jesus. And God could be seen clearly by anyone willing to notice.

Anyone who stopped to look at a baby in a manger,
or a carpenter teaching children
or a man touching another man’s blind eyes
or a person dying on the outskirts of town.
Anyone willing to look could see God in Jesus.

This is, actually, what Jesus invited people to do. The very first words Jesus says in the Gospel of John are: “What are you looking for?” Jesus said it to two potential followers. They said, of all things, that they wanted to see the room where he was staying in town.

So Jesus simply invites them. He says, “Come and see.” Come and see, Jesus said.

Sometimes I’m afraid people who don’t go to church think we Christians just want to get them to believe a certain thing. Or, make them act a certain way. I wonder if they think we are going to try to cram a bunch of doctrine in their heads. Or try to get them to quit watching Mad Men and change the channel to religious television.

I hope that’s not true about us. Jesus didn’t say “come and believe.” He didn’t say “come and get your act together.” He said, “Come and see.”

What if you started looking out of the corner of your eye for burning bushes in the yard? What if you lived life on the lookout for views of the Parthenon out dusty windows? What if you looked for God in your house? At work? What if you looked for God in the homeless guy you always pass by? Or in the faces of those who say ‘hi’ to you at church?

What if church were a place where we opened ourselves to “come and see,” where we actually looked?

Let’s conduct the “God Experiment” this week. Let’s allow ourselves and others the space and time to experiment, to test out, to taste, to see God.

A member of one of our adult Sunday School classes called me a couple of weeks ago. He told me that his Sunday School class felt led by God to give out little crosses to the people who receive lunches at our church during the week. He said, “It’s a simple thing. We just want others to know that Jesus loves them and that our church is reaching out to them.”

And then he said, “We heard about our new welcome stations where worship guests can receive a gift bag from our church to let them know that we are glad they came. And we thought that it would be good to include a cross in each of these gift bags just as a little reminder that God loves them.”

He said, “And then we got to thinking that these crosses would be nice for patients in the hospital to let them know that they’re not alone and that God is with them.”

Can you sense the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in our church during this Season of Lent? People are noticing the burning bushes. They are pulling back the drapes and seeing the beautiful view of God’s presence. And they want others to see the view too.

Laura Hall is best known as the pianist on the comedy show, “Whose Line is It, Anyway?” She didn’t grow up in church. But she married a guy who did. He didn’t push her about coming with him. He just invited her occasionally and that was it.

So, one day, to put a smile on her husband’s face, Laura came to church with him. She was impressed that people spoke to her warmly. And she liked the music. So she came back.

She liked it more, so she came back again. Pretty soon, Laura was going to church. But she still wouldn’t receive communion. And she certainly wasn’t going to be baptized or join or anything like that. The church people told her that was completely fine. They said they were just glad to see her.

And they meant it.

She could hang around as much as she wanted. Check out anything she liked. They were just happy she was there.

Seven years later, seven, Laura saw the communion tray coming for her. Something shone extra brightly about it that day. It was kind of, well, blazing. She was compelled to hold it for a while longer than was normal. But no one yanked it away from her or looked at her funny. The usher just stood there, quietly, gently waiting.

Laura touched the bread. She deeply breathed in the scent of it.

And she could see God.

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