Sunday, March 23, 2014
Texts: Exodus 13: 1-7; John 4: 5-15
So far this Lent I’ve given up the God of Power, the God of Prosperity, and the God Who Shares My Enemy List. Today I’m giving up the God Who Is With Us—although I do so reluctantly and temporarily. Because I will always long for Emmanuel: God With Us. I will continue to sense the sacred in the chatty high school student who bags my groceries and in the simple bread I offer you at Holy Communion and especially in that moment when you take the bread and your eyes meet mine in a true communion. I will still expect to hear the God Who Is With Us in bird song and poetry and the outrageous satire of the Stephen Colbert Report. God breaks through to me in ordinary ways.
But in my daring—or dire—moments, I see that God is actually way out ahead of me. I don’t feel this elusive God has abandoned me exactly, though I suppose I’ve felt that, too. I’m talking now about the possibility of being too glib about God. I just can’t pretend that God is my BFF, or deny that holiness is tinged with terror, or speak in Christian clichés used like passwords to a private club. God is wild, as was said of the lion Aslan, the Christ figure in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. But we’ve domesticated God and pulled God around on a leash. As a preacher, I catch myself at times speaking about God with more familiarity and certitude than any human has a right to. So I try to live in that paradoxical experience of the God Who Is With Us and even within us and also the God Who is Way Out Ahead of Us. Theologians like to say it this way: God is both immanent and transcendent, both intimately knowable and completely unknowable.
Here’s why I believe in the God who is out ahead of us.
1. First, I see this God in scripture—in today’s Hebrew Bible reading, for instance. You’ll recall from the larger Moses story that God, in the form of fire and cloud, led the Israelites to the Promised Land. This God told Moses to likewise “go ahead of the people” even as God was going ahead of Moses to the rock at Horeb where Moses would find water (Exodus 13:6). The God imaged in the Moses story as a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day is not easily embraceable or knowable. Moses’ God is shrouded and clouded in mystery and cryptically, evasively named “I Am.” This “I Am” God, unlike the Canaanite fertility gods, for instance, could not be imaged. I mean, how do you create a visual representation of “I Am”? How do you, if I may borrow words from The Sound of Music, “hold a cloud and pin it down”? In fact, the “I Am” God later forbad graven images, making it less likely the Israelites would put their god in a box.
Hearing Jesus’s words to the Samaritan woman about water that gives eternal life reminds us that even glimpsing the divine in ordinary human encounters—as this woman did in a Jew whom she’d been taught to distrust—the mystical remains. The woman at the well tried to literalize the water of which Jesus spoke. But she began to imagine a God as an unfathomable font of living water, something essential that slips through our fingers and which we can’t control. Appreciating the mystery of God is a healthy corrective when we are prone to believe we know the mind of God.
Westboro Baptist’s pastor Fred Phelps had, for decades, damned gays to hell. Fred Phelps died this week. Many, including a few former followers, believe he is now encountering a God whom he may not at first recognize, so certain was he of God’s hatred. But we believe and hope, even for the sake of Fred Phelps, that if the Reverend Phelps did not know God in this life, he knows God the Merciful now.
We preachers, by the way, have a difficult job speaking both with conviction and humble circumspection, of sharing what we believe is a God word while recognizing our limitations and the limitations of human language to express the ineffably Sacred. I’ve considered printing this disclaimer in our worship bulletins: “This preacher tries her best to listen to the holy and preach words of goodness and truth, but you are responsible for your own spiritual discernment. Listen to this sermon at your own risk.” I love what Rhoda has said and which we quote on Open Table’s website: “I love my church because my pastor doesn’t tell me what to think but encourages me to think!” I love that y’all get that and I think you are also aware that I hit different theological notes in different sermons. Over time I try to play a range of notes as corrective emphases because good theology is nuanced and paradoxical.
For today this preacher is asking you to consider two problematic postures before God: at one extreme we cower before an imperious God like fawning subjects – and at the other we cozy up to our personal friendly God who’s there to do our bidding. Scripture pictures God as both the Pillar of Fire—and the Loving Father. Today’s scripture leads me to emphasize God as not entirely approachable.
2. The God Who Is Out Ahead of us is also confirmed in a basic Christian disposition that is forward looking. The Christian gaze is on the horizon of the new dawn, which is our Easter posture. Traditionally and ideally churches were built, like this one, oriented toward the East, into the dawn of the new day. Each Sunday you are facing the direction of the next day with the past behind you. We are oriented toward hope, and the word “oriented”—think about its root in the word “orient”—literally means “to face into the sunrise.” For Christians, our truth North is actually East. Our very orientation should be a hopeful stance, an “East-er” stance, with Easter newness as our defining event and disposition. Although Christians are rooted in traditions and stories from the past, our “orientation” is toward resurrection and potentiality and change—toward evolution, I might say. Which brings me to my final and maybe most challenging point.
3. While scriptures affirm a God who is way ahead of us and Christian disposition points us forward, this future orientation toward the God Up Ahead is also hard-wired into our species and in the cosmos itself. A God who is light years beyond us is supported by evolutionary science. Evolutionary Christianity attests to a God whose ongoing creativity must permit accidents, randomness, unpredictability, novelty, a God who has not, therefore, scripted your life and mine. Science proves that the ongoingness of life requires diversity and chance. Evolution follows some predictable laws of science as well as randomness, mutations, some false starts on the evolutionary tree and some accidents, some of which lead to heartier creatures that can survive by evolving as conditions change. Individual creatures continue to grow, adapt, and change or they die. This cosmos continues to expand and change. So how can a God consistent with evolutionary science who does not contravene the order of the universe, be at work in your life and in this world?
Through love, which on the atomic level might look like simple attraction between atoms to create a new molecule, and which on the human level might create families and cooperative societies for their flourishing. But love cannot be exerted through compulsion and manipulation. On a very simple, personal level, you know that real love does not force or coerce or control. Therefore, if we believe God is Love, we may have to give up the God Who Is a Puppeteer Pulling the World’s Strings. You may have to give up the God Who Has a Detailed Plan For Your Life. Moses’ God did not hand him a map. In fact, the journey that should have taken only weeks took the Israelites 40 years of wandering, of detours and accidents. Growth of the species and the human heart is not programmed for uniformity or efficiency; it’s programmed for connection and diversity, which help us survive and adapt and evolve. The God of Moses and Jesus offers us a vision rather than a plan. God is a dreamer, not an architect. God is the point out on the horizon, not a GPS.
And from that point out on the horizon, God exercises the power of love through allurement, not coercion. For more than a century, evolutionary science has prompted theologians to revisit the claims that God loves a world that seems brutish and cruel. However, since love does not annihilate or force itself upon the beloved, then God’s loving grace must also mean “letting the world be itself” Because God’s essence is love and God’s work is the continuation of creation, any manipulation of the creation is counterproductive. God’s alluring love can operate in our lives only to the extent that we desire and appropriate it (39-40).[i]
So the God Who Is Ahead of Us is not a God who scouts out the smoothest path or clears away any obstacles. God is out ahead of us to open up potentialities. God is in the ever enlarging possibilities for creation. God is out of ahead of us in terms of the height and depth of the love that is ever expanding.
But God is also with us. The whole world is shot through with sacred moments and God-lit people and holy places. God is right here, right now. In the smoothness of the polished wooden pew you can run your hand along. In the play of light and shadow in this room. God is in the next breath you take, which may be the most sacred and ordinary thing you can know. God, another name for the powerful flow of love and life, is the active ingredient in our relationships.
But consider that God may be at work in your life and in our galaxy by enticing, beckoning, attracting us—like an electron attracting a proton, like the pull of gravity, like the waft of a lovely fragrance. God’s influence is here but God—whatever that might mean—is always just up ahead.
God lures us into the future, entices us with hope, urges us to do a new thing, think a new thought, encounter a new situation, understand a new friend, hear a new word.
God works by tuning our hearts to an elusive melody playing up ahead.
I close with this prayer of Thomas Merton, which captures a beautiful tension between the unknowable God who leads us from up ahead—and the God who companions us and never leave us:
My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I do not know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself. And the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I may never do anything apart from that desire. And I know if I do this, you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always. Though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death, I will not fear for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. Amen
[i] Haught, John F. God After Darwin: A Theology of Evolution. Boulder: Westview Press, 2000.