Based on the Scripture readings:
2011 October 16
It is said that when comedians get together, they don't tell jokes straight through but refer to them by number or name.
When some pastors get together they do the same. There are religious jokes that we all know so well that we hesitate to tell them at all, although we imagine sharing the best ones with new people by and by.
One well-known chestnut is referred to as the "two boats and a helicopter story." We don't tell it to each other for a laugh but to invoke its concept.
You've probably heard it before.
But in the event that you have not, this is its basic structure.
There is a man, or a woman, in the midst of a hurricane or flood or some water symbolizing chaos and danger. The situation is so serious that the person in question climbs to the second floor of their house to avoid the rising waters. And watching out the window, she sees a boat come by, and she's invited aboard to be saved. But she says, "No thank you, God will provide."
The waters keep rising, and the woman climbs to the roof and another boat comes by and offers assistance, but she says the same thing: "No thank you, God will provide." Before long she is hugging the chimney when a helicopter sees her and lowers its ladder, just like the one in the story about Jacob. But she calls out to the pilot, "No thanks: God will provide."
The water rises more. She drowns. And she goes to heaven. And she meets God and says, "What happened? You didn't provide!" And God says, "I sent you two boats and a helicopter. What more do you need?"
As I said, pastors usually quote just the last line.
In the last line of my last sermon, I made a pledge to return to the lingering bits of the Exodus story regarding how we perceive God's treasure amidst all our stuff and how we hear God's voice among so many voices. How we perceive Truth with a capital T and Life with a capital L. How do we encounter the transcendent in the temporal?
When I made that pledge I had not yet noticed that this week's scripture is the story of Moses asking almost the exact same question. He asks it in poetic language. He is about to undertake another journey in faith and a great risk in religious leadership. And he says to God, let me know who will send me… and, "Show me now thy ways that I may know thee and find favor in thy sight." (Exodus 33:13)
Moses asks a very human question: Can I see you, God? Can you tell me what you want from me? Or, can you give me a bit of a sign, God? A sign to help me to express my longing and vision and hope and not some diagnosable absurdity or arrogance.
I voice these questions because as a person of faith it is essential to me, fundamental to me, to perceive God's call in my life and God's way in our world.
It is also worrisome to me when I hear someone too certain that they've heard or seen God. Too certain that they know the absolute, perfectly clear voice of God. Folks like that tend to start crusades or witch hunts or political action committees or even sleep perfectly well after presiding over executions. It is worrisome to me when there is no humility or balance in perceiving the will of God.
Although I love St. Francis of Assisi with all his imbalance. I love Hidegaard of Bingen and Martin Luther King, Jr., too. So there are multiple dimensions to our search here. Nuanced dimensions to hearing, seeing, and applying God's voice.
Last week I said that there were some signals for how to know if the voice that we hear is God's voice. I quoted Richard Foster who says that the voice of God is always "drawing and encouraging." I like that. I added that to me it is always Life-giving, with a capital L. And I noted that Paul says it is characterized by love.
But I didn't mention that it can also be angry, judging, or even intolerant: redirecting the way that we want to be God's direction. "I hate, I despise your feasts," said God once upon a time. (Amos 5:21) To the prophets and sages, the voice of God can be silent, too, for a long time. I didn't mention that last week.
What makes it into the scriptures this week is not only the voice of God but the face of God. Moses is rather far out on a limb in his leadership, and he is concerned that this limb is going to snap without a safety net, so he voices the human desire for some sign from God. Let me know who will send me; "Show me now thy ways that I may know thee." Others seek the same. Jacob, Isaiah, Jesus, and Paul all long to see God. But God says, "No one can see me and live." So God only lets Moses see the divine back, only lets Isaiah sees the train of holy clothing, and Paul muses that we see only in a mirror dimly, though we long for God face to face.
So here I am: a person of faith. I believe that God provides. And I want to know how to live and even look upon the one who loves me. I want to see. Indeed, I need more than a here-and-there sense of God to make it through the week, the schedule, the economy, the unending series of global tragedies and injustices across creation, the judgment of some who call themselves Christian yet do not extend to me that same authentic identity. I need God.
What if the Bible is right? What if our ancestors in the faith are telling us the truth? That is, that we can see the back of God. We can see the robe of God -- hear the voice of God when we listen. By which I mean, we perceive God extremely well in retrospect. When we look back at our own lives, back at our collective history, we are pretty sure that God was involved with moments when we were on a journey and took the path toward life. God was involved with the legacy of our ancestors, such as the moments of justice demonstrated by Martin King, the expressions of pure bliss offered by Hildegaard of Bingen, and the passionate inclusiveness and environmentalism of Francis of Assisi. When we're looking back, it's pretty obvious, too, that using scripture to defend slavery, restrict women's rights, or condemn gays and lesbians were not true with a capital T and were not life with a capital L. I think we can see God's back, in retrospect, quite well. And while we may not perceive God's face or voice directly, we can see God's robe all around. Isn't the clothing of liberation decidedly divine? Isn't the mantle of equality, of devotion to the needs of the hungry, the exiled, the mourning, the broken unquestionably the fabric of Christian faith? Isn't welcoming children, hospitality for the stranger, music for the spirit, and repair for the breaches of creation the timeless quilt of our creator?
If the Bible is right, if this list is right, then I think we can see God in the present and the future, too, without being diagnosable or despairing over seasons of silence. We can search prospectively for what we see in retrospect. If we know God's back, we can see God ahead.
There have been a couple of times in my life when I have thought that I have heard the voice of God. As I've told you before, at least once when that happened I turned my back, because I was not at all comfortable with having a sense of God so near. But other times this sound has led me to the greatest comfort amidst pain, the greatest decision amidst confusion, and the greatest love amidst loneliness. Yet as I said, that was only a couple of times.
But there have been myriad times when I have heard something or seen something otherwise appearing absolutely normal, and I have realized that the transcendent God was in my material midst.
I wasn't here when this parish voted to be Open and Affirming, but I suspect it looked a little like that. I was here when we started our present bread delivery, and I know it looks a lot like that. I am here for healing Sunday each year, here for Christian Education programs every week, here when people bring food to our baskets, requests to our deacons, and voices to our choir. I'm not saying that we do everything right or even that we do everything that we might, and I am not saying that we are purely divine. But I am saying that I who so long to perceive God do so on a regular basis when I reflect upon the scriptures and notice God's back, God's robe, God's love, and then we observe them forward.
After worship today we'll talk about Bread for the World -- a wonderful mission program. This afternoon we'll gather for Confirmation, and tonight as a prayer group. For some of us these are just one more item on an already busy schedule. For some of us there may be little new in this cycle of activity. Even Moses stared at the same scenery for forty years. Yet he kept listening and praying and noticing that God was going ahead, was speaking aloud, and was personally involved with liberation and community building and hope. God was constantly present, which is at the heart of divine promise.
I wish I had more time on mountaintops and ocean sides where sunrise and mist and light and atmosphere make it possible to apprehend burning bushes and parting waters. I wish I had a week now and then to go to a retreat center or even monastery and clear my head and put down my wi-fi and restore my spirit. But I don't. And it doesn't worry me because when I look ahead to mission and community and worship and daily life, to teaching and sharing and delivering and deciding, here in this building, off in our families and at each of our workplaces, I believe that if we look back and take the Bible seriously we discover that we can see and hear God all about. So in a sense our invitation is to engage that and not turn our backs. To see the boats and helicopters and opportunities for service and nuances of everyday life as the robe and quilt and presence of God. The drawing and encouraging and life-giving journey that we all inhabit as the place where the divine chooses to dwell now and in the future. And in particular to see the manifestation of love in our midst, and that's what I'll return to at the start of my sermon next week. Amen.
Copyright © 2011 Kenneth F. Baily. Used by permission.