Seeing The Face of God

A Sermon for Sunday August 6, 2017; Genesis 32:22-31 and Matthew 14:13-21

Shortly after graduating from seminary in 2005, American singer-songwriter and Grammy-award winning artist Tracy Chapman released the single, “Change”, a deeply moving song about what it would take for someone to make significant change in their lives. The song opened up my world to Chapman’s music and has helped inform my ministry for 12 years and counting. Ponder with me for a moment some of the lyrics:

If you knew that you would die today
If you saw the face of God and Love
Would you change?
If you knew that love can break your heart
When you’re down so low you cannot fall
Would you change?

How bad how good does it need to get?
How many losses how much regret?
What chain reaction
What cause and effect
Makes you turn around
Makes you try to explain
Makes you forgive and forget
Makes you change

When asked to discuss the song “Change” on The Tavis Smiley Show, Chapman said:

“Well, it’s a song that’s asking a question, really, about how do we make the best use of the life that we have… and how do we make changes that we often know we need to make but… for some reason can’t get around to it? And sometimes I think it’s extraordinary circumstances that kind of encourage people to get out of their day to day routine and do the thing that they know they need to do… Sometimes it’s love; sometimes it’s some sort of spiritual experience. … Sometimes it’s having something traumatic happen that really makes you see, ‘Oh, I need to adjust here and rethink my life.’”

A traumatic experience and extraordinary circumstances is precisely what leads Jacob to be changed.

When he is a teen, Jacob steals the family blessing meant for his older brother Esau and then runs away upon learning that Esau plans to kill him. Many years pass, and Jacob (now settled down in another land with a family of his own) yearns to make amends for deceiving Esau. Jacob sends a gift of animals to his brother in the hopes that he will be granted forgiveness. Esau sends a messenger back to Jacob saying that he is coming to meet him…with 400 of his men!

Concluding that Esau is still out for blood, a frightened Jacob asks God to spare him from death before sending more animals to appease Esau. Then that night Jacob takes his family to an area on the other side of the Jabbok River, presumably for safety in the event that Esau attacks while they are sleeping. And it is while Jacob is alone in the woods that a stranger appears and immediately wrestles him.

“Jacob Wrestling God”, illustration from The Holy Motion Story Bible. Published by Sparkhouse Publishing. 2017

The wrestling match between the mysterious man and Jacob lasts until sunrise, and afterwards Jacob asks his opponent to bless him. In doing so, the man tells Jacob: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”  The man seemingly disappears and Jacob names the site of the match Penuel saying, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.”

 

A few hours later, Jacob goes out to meet Esau, bowing down many times to show respect. In response, Esau runs toward Jacob and joyfully embraces him. Following a brief exchange, they go their separate ways with Jacob forgiven and at peace.

It’s a beautiful story, a testament to how encounters with God in the midst of the daily struggles of living can lead to redemption and transformation. Jacob experienced that “long dark night of the soul” over the divine call to reconcile with Esau; saw the face of God in the struggle; and was changed.

Like Jacob, many of us have wrestled with God into the wee hours of the morning—discerning the questions, problems, decisions and emotions that stir our soul.

We have wrestled with a God who draws not only us, but all people from the darkness of night into the dawn of a new day.

We’ve wrestled till our bodies were sore and our joints were out of place—marked with the painful and exhilarating truth that we can’t escape God’s call to practice reconciliation, mercy and love regardless of how hard we fight against it.

We’ve wrestled just as the disciples of Jesus once did when they were confronted with the dilemma of ministering to more than 5,000 people at sundown in a remote area.

The disciples were tired and emotionally drained. They were grieving the news that John the Baptist had been brutally murdered by King Herod, worried for their own safety, hungry, frustrated… and more than ready for all these flippin’ people to leave so they could go home, eat and sleep.

Send the crowds away so that they may go into the villages and buy food for themselves,” the disciples tell Jesus, thinking he might respond with a yawn and say, “Ok fellas, you’re right. Been a long day. I’m exhausted too. Let’s go home, get some grub and go to bed. These folks can fend for themselves.”

But instead, Jesus replies: “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” The disciples then hand five loaves and two fish, and per Jesus’ instruction, orders the crowds to sit down on the grass. Jesus then blesses the food and gives to the disciples to feed the people. And, according to Matthew’s gospel account, which we’ve heard read, “all ate and were filled; and they took up what was left over of the broken pieces, twelve baskets full.”

The disciples wrestled with Christ’s call to care for others; saw the face of God in the breaking of the bread and their feeding of the people; and they were changed.

When we wrestle, we come face to face with the living God who moves us to “make changes we need to make” and “get out of the daily routine to do the thing we know we need to do.”

Leaving our comfort zones and taking risks to help our neighbors who are suffering is a struggle. Patience and fortitude is needed if we are to hang on long enough to see God and be transformed by our encounter with the holy.

The high school youth and I have found this to be true during two separate mission trips we’ve taken with the DOOR Network over the last eight years. At one of DOOR’s five locations across the U.S., church groups Discover Opportunities for Outreach and Reflection by serving in various non-profits that assist the low income, the poor, the sick and the mentally and physically challenged; learn about issues in the community; and reflect on the experiences.

The DOOR Network’s motto is: “See the face of God in the city,” and at the end of each mission trip, volunteers are asked to share about where they saw God while they were serving during the week. In 2009, during our first trip with DOOR San Antonio (Texas), we were specifically sent out in our smaller work teams look for and interact with God for a half-hour.

That was a very exciting assignment for two of the three work teams whose destination was a large local park where there were a variety of God sightings: children playing games, families having a picnic, people walking their dogs, couples sitting on benches, artists painting the trees, and the homeless camped out on the far edge of the grounds.

But for the third team, who were told to walk down to the Texaco gas station and convenience store to find God, the undertaking seemed hopeless and lame.

Not even yours truly, an ordained pastor on his first summer youth mission trip at a new church, or Erik Mjorud, a long-time youth adviser and mission tripper who serves the “least of these” like most people breathe air, could manage to find the upside in the excursion.

How in the world would we see the face of God at the gas station? Gas stations are nothing like parks. Motorists slowly pumping gas. (Oh look, God buys premium.) Customers deciding whether to purchase a red or yellow Gatorade inside the store. (Cool, God loves red.) Fairly mundane tasks. And the thought of chatting up folks who were filling up their cars or shopping inside seemed awkward…and creepy. The scenario simply didn’t conjure up an inspiring example for Erik, four youth and I to bring back and share with the rest of the group.

“Ugh, a gas station,” we muttered as we proceeded to sit for nearly 25 minutes in the 98-degree heat on the sidewalk facing the pumps and the front door of the convenience store.

We were hot, tired, bored, antsy and irritable. Erik and I kept looking at each other and rolling our eyes as if to say, “When will this grueling chore be over?” We were wrestling with frustration over not being able to see the face of God and not having a story to tell the rest of the group. We felt like failures.

Then suddenly, as we were about ready to leave, a guy with dirty marks on his face, greasy hair, a scraggly beard and torn, stained, disheveled clothes walked from behind another building and crossed in front of us to go inside the store. We all exchanged wide-eyed glances. Erik volunteered to walk in and subtly find out the homeless man’s story.

A couple minutes later, Erik comes out and says to us: “Our homeless friend asked the clerk if he could give him a sandwich and some water. The clerk politely said he couldn’t help. I told him we might be able to do something.”  We pooled what cash we had in our pockets and gave to Erik who went back inside and bought God two sandwiches and a bottle of water.

This memory came to me about a month ago while three of our high school teens and I did mission work with two other church youth groups at DOOR-Atlanta. On our first evening, after dinner at Central Presbyterian Church, we were given bags of sandwiches, chips and water to distribute to dozens of people who sleep on the sidewalk outside of the building.

As we offered the food, we looked into each face—male, female; white, brown and black; young, middle-aged and old; a couple with cigarettes dangling from their lips, a few with cuts and bruises; some with wide smiles and toothy grins, and others with quiet demeanor—and we saw, to our surprise, the face of God staring back.

God always shows up in the most unlikely of places and people. We just need to open our eyes to see. Consider, for instance, this short video by Jewish filmmaker Meir Kay called “Eating Twinkies With God”:

In a description of the video on YouTube, Kay says:

“We don’t need to look far and wide for God. He’s in every one of us and in every thing that we do. Whether you believe or not, we all can agree that …each good act that we do makes this world a brighter place”

By seeing the face of God in others, especially the most poor and vulnerable among us, our minds and bodies are stretched and are eyes and hearts are open. We are changed, and we are forever determined to be the change for others—to be the body of Christ broken and spilled, remembered and shared.

We are reminded of this every time we come to the communion table and affirm that God is present with us in here and with all those out there whom we are called to serve with compassion. Presbyterian author and pastor Frederick Buechner (in his book Beyond Words) explains it this way:

To eat this particular meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need not just for food, but for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters. The next time you walk down the street, take a good look at every face you pass and in your mind say, ‘Christ died for thee.” That girl. That slob. That phony. That crook. That saint. That damned fool. Christ died for thee. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee.”

Amen.

God Be With You

A Sermon for Sunday August 7, John 14:27 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 12:1-3, 12-14

Two Sundays ago I was worshipping with six middle school youth and an adult adviser from Pleasant Hill (along with 600 other youth and adults from Presbyterian churches across the eastern region) on the last day of the Montreat Middle School Conference in Belk Auditorium at Presbyterian College.

Following the celebration of Holy Communion and just before the final hymn and benediction, I turned to the adult adviser and said, “Rachel, I’m going to move toward the front so I can immediately say goodbye to my friends who have been on the conference planning and leadership team after the service ends. Here are my keys so the youth riding in my car can have the A/C on while they wait; I shouldn’t be long.”

I got up from my seat and quietly made my way to the front of the auditorium. At that point I felt my heart up in my throat and a flood of tears making their way toward the corners of my eyes. I managed to keep the emotions at bay as the music leader played the conference theme song and the preacher gave the parting words to the congregation.  As church youth groups, including Pleasant Hill, began to pour out of Belk Auditorium and proceed to pile into their cars and buses to go home, I started giving hugs and saying good-byes to friends and colleagues that I (as the conference’s Community Life Director) had the blessing of serving with for a week.

I was holding myself together fairly well until I had to said goodbye to the Jones family—Chris, the conference pastor for the planning and leadership team; his wife Joan, the co-director of the conference and their daughters Sarah Diane, a rising senior who babysat for the children of some of the team members; and Catherine, a rising 9th grader who was attending her last middle school youth event.

 I had actually saved my hugs and good-byes for the Jones family last because I knew that after the conference, they would be moving away from their longtime home in Birmingham. Chris, formerly the senior pastor of a Presbyterian church in Birmingham for 14 years, had recently received a new call to be the senior pastor of a church in Jonesboro, Arkansas.  Saying farewell to Chris and Joan and their girls was particularly painful because they are dear friends whom I’ve known for many years—loving mentors who gave me an abundance of advice, affirmation and encouragement when I was struggling with “God’s call” to leave a successful career in journalism and enter seminary to become a minister of the Word and Sacrament in the PC(USA).  The Joneses kept in touch with me during seminary, and even came to visit me a couple of times in Decatur to make sure I was doing ok.

And although Elizabeth and I moved far away to Maryland for my first ordained call in ministry, I left with the comforting notion that the Joneses (as well as many other friends and family who shaped my faith and identity as a person and pastor) would always remain “at home” in Birmingham.  And when we moved to Duluth three years ago, I felt even more secure knowing that we were closer to friends and family in Birmingham like the Joneses, and that we also had good friends/seminary classmates with children Katie’s age living in the Atlanta area.  It didn’t matter to me that I was coming and going; as long as others stayed in their place, all was good. All was comfortable.

But as I stood there and sobbed like a baby while hugging Chris and Joan, I realized that none of us can remain comfortable.  To be completely honest, it’s a realization I keep having over and over and over again.  Ever since my first Montreat Youth Conference as a 15-year-old high school freshman, I’ve felt that lump in my throat and those tears collect in my eyes when the time together with friends in the faith comes to an end.

Regardless if I’m a participant in a conference or mission trip or if I’m part of the planning and leadership team for the event, those bittersweet emotions rise up in me every…single…time. I can’t bare to leave or be left by a group of people whom I have spent time with in deep conversation, silly chats, worship, recreation, Bible study, prayer, mission work, and general fellowship.

I get so sentimental and forlorn after those experiences, especially when I’ve been with folks who I know I won’t see again when I return to my home here in Duluth and my calling at Pleasant Hill.  And I certainly don’t like it when friends like the Joneses or even seminary classmates who live in Atlanta decide it’s time to leave as some did a few days ago.

The reality is that we never know who is going to be here from one day to the next. We’re never 100 percent or even 50 percent certain who is going to show up on Sunday from week to week.  Sure, most folks stay around and we grow accustomed to the idea that many people in our lives will be with us for years to come. But we don’t actually know that always as an absolute fact. Anything could happen between now and then. Anything could, can and… likely will change. Life is change. It’s transition. It’s movement. It’s coming and going.

One of the writers of a new Bible commentary series, published by the PC(USA) says that when we hear Hebrews 12:1-3, most of us are immediately filled with memories of the church and it’s members and all the life changes the congregation has gone through…

the people from days gone by, who still worship with the gathered assembly but from a different shore, the memory of both the church’s steeple moments and it’s drainage ditch moments, the memory of who you once were when you came to this church and who you are right now as you sit in the pews. The pooled memory of need, pain, and the well-rehearsed bravado designed to mask the need and pain. The loneliness, fear and gratitude, the anger at a wrong that someone can’t let go of, and boatloads of grace and despair and hidden agendas and sadness and joy.

And we are filled with the memory that, despite whatever life changes occur in this church and in our own faith journeys, we are always fundamentally the sons and daughters—the children of God…

no different than the people who have existed through the ages—the heroes of the faith (who are mentioned previously in Hebrews 11) like Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab and many more—all part-time saints and scoundrels. Ancestors who sit on the same pew in some great balcony or maybe in the pews we’re sitting in and cheer on the church in this age as we now travel the same course of faith they traveled.[1]

During the Adult International Mission Trip to Honduras in 2009, Mary G., received a note from her prayer partners that included a beautiful quote from the author and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner about the importance of memory and the sacred act of remembering:

When you remember me, it means that you have carried something of who I am with you, that I have left some mark of who I am on who you are. It means that you can summon me back to your mind even though countless years and miles may stand between us. It means that if we meet again, you will know me. It means that even after I die, you can still see my face and hear my voice and speak to me in your heart. For as long as you remember me, I am never entirely lost. When I’m feeling most ghost-like, it is your remembering me that helps remind me that I actually exist. When I’m feeling sad, it’s my consolation. When I’m feeling happy, it’s part of why I feel that way.[2]

Buechner’s words were particularly meaningful to all of us on that trip in Honduras because John King (active church member, Session elder and participant on past mission trips, and part-time saint and scoundrel) had died three months prior.  Several faithful members of this church have died in the last 25 years. Some of the names that come to mind are Michael Reinecke, Nancy Wren and Pops Lowry (the longtime church custodian who used to sit in that red chair in the corner of the breezeway and greet every member as they walked toward the sanctuary).

Other members who are very much alive (active participants and causual worship-goers) have left the church or faded out of sight over the past decade or so and even in recent weeks, months and years—for one reason or another:

a busy schedule

an increase in responsibilities at home and work

a sick relative

an illness that keeps them homebound

an out of state job opportunity,

a disagreement with a sermon or a decision made by the Session

a differing view regarding a the polity and theology of the PC(USA)

a broken relationship with a family member, spouse, or friend

a loss of faith

a bit of trouble with the law

a desire to convert to Judaism or Buddhism or Baptist

a pursuit of a higher education

a newfound love and a married life in a new city and state or country

a yearning to find another church in town where both spouses feel equally spiritually connected and involved

Whatever the reason, the act of leaving is guaranteed to be difficult in some aspect, a mix of joy and pain. Sometimes, the situation is nothing but painful for both parties—the one who is leaving and the folks they left behind. Maybe, in those moments, it’s helpful to look back over the experience we’ve had and consider ourselves blessed if we even occasionally made someone else feel a little better.  After all, it’s about the people that you let into your life[3] and the memories you have of friends, family, coworkers, teachers, neighbors, people in your church school class, or the elderly couple sitting two pews behind you. It’s about the shared experiences—the baptisms, the weddings, the graduations, the funerals, the first days of school, the trips to the beach, the mission trips, the youth conferences, the kid’s slumber parties, the children singing during Vacation Bible School, suffering the loss of a loved one, relationship or a job, celebrating the birth of a baby or the building of a new sanctuary.

Whenever we leave others or someone leaves us, we take those memories and shared experiences with us on the journey ahead.  That is probably no more true than today as we say good-bye (or to use the original phrase, God-be-with-you) to Kathe Cunningham who is moving with her family to Chicago for her husband’s new job. Kathe has faithfully served as the director of the older children’s choir, been an active member of the Adult choir and bell-ringers, and played the piano and organ on Sunday mornings with Hyoun Joo.

One meaningful experience that I have shared with Kathe is the imposition of ashes during the Ash Wednesday service that ushers in the season of Lent.  In the past couple of years, due to other circumstances beyond her control, Kathe was never able to get to the 25 minute service that usually begins at 7 pm. The best she could do was make it to choir practice which occurred at 7:30 pm. In the fleeting minutes following the ending of the Ash Wednesday service and the start of choir practice (when most everyone had left the sanctuary) Kathe would come up and ask me to take the ashes and make the sign of the cross on her forehead, saying something like: “Kathe, remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Know who you are and whose you are and that you are marked forever by God’s love.”

Kathe, I will treasure that personal moment for the rest of my life just as the congregation will fondly remember the shared experience of watching you and Hyoun Joo play Simple Gifts on the piano or witnessing the ways in which you empowered the young people of the church to express their love for God through music.

Know that so many faces and experiences go with you and your family as you journey to Chicago. It is, of course, in the comings and goings that each of us carries the faith, which “is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” And it is that same faith of “the great cloud of witnesses” (of the communion of the part-time saints and scoundrels) as well as the peace of God that Christ promises to us that helps us move forward in spite of the pain of leaving or the challenges of coming and going—a steadfast love that causes us to “lift drooping hands” and “strengthen weak knees and make paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.”

With those verses from Hebrews 12:12-13 in mind, let me offer in closing, the following illustration from the seventh and final book and film in the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling.

Harry has come to the realization that the only way to destroy Lord Voldermort is to leave behind his friends and beloved wizarding school to face the evil alone. As he is walking through the woods toward his destiny, Harry begins to feel the presence of people from his past, those who previously died at the hands of Voldermort—his parents James and Lilly, his godfather Sirius and his professor Lupin.  Rowling writes:

They were neither ghosts nor truly flesh, Harry could see that. Less substantial than living bodies, but much more than ghosts, they moved toward him, and on each face, there was the same loving smile.

James was exactly the same height as Harry. He was wearing the clothes in which he had died, and his hair was untidy and ruffled, and his glasses were a little lopsided.  Sirius was tall and handsome, and younger by far than Harry had seen him in life. He loped with an easy grace, his hands in his pockets and a grin on his face. Lupin was younger too, and much less shabby, and his hair was thicker and darker. Lilly’s smile was widest of all.

“You’ve been so brave,” she said.

“You are nearly there,” said James. “Very close. We are … so proud of you.” A chilly breeze that seemed to emanate from the heart of the forest lifted the hair at Harry’s brow.

“You’ll stay with me?”

“Until the very end,” said James.

“They won’t be able to see you?” asked Harry.

“We are part of you,” said Sirius. “Invisible to anyone else.”

 “We are always in your heart,” Lilly replied.

“Stay close to me,” Harry said quietly.

 And he set off… Beside him, making scarcely a sound, walked James, Sirius, Lupin and Lily, and their presence was his courage, and the reason he was able to keep putting one foot in front of the other.[4]

May we too put one foot in front of the other, assured that the peace of God in Christ and the faith of the “cloud of witnesses” is a part of us and stays close every step of the way.

God Be With You,

Amen


[1] The paragraph  that begins with “When we hear scripture passages” through the italicized text is adapted from the pastoral perspective on Hebrews 12:1-3, offered by Theodore J. Wardlaw in the new lectionary commentary series Feasting On The Word, published by Westminister John Knox Press.

[2] Beyond Words: Daily Readings In The ABC’s of Faith, Frederick Buechner, 2004

[3] Adapted from the series finale of Scrubs, appropriately titled “My Finale” in which the main character Dr. John Dorian (J.D.) reflects on his time at Sacred Heart Hospital as he leaves the building for the last time. Scrubs aired on NBC for eight seasons, 2000-2009.

[4] Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (p. 699-700) by J.K. Rowling, 2007, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, directed by David Yates, 2011. In the interest of time and continuity, I edited the full text from this scene and added the final words Lilly says to Harry, which only appear in the film. I hope that in doing so I’ve remained respectful of the author’s story.