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.

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Wrestling With God

A Sermon for Sunday August 3, 2014, Genesis 32:22-30 and Matthew 14:13-21

We live in a fearful, violent and broken world:

The rising death toll of children killed in Gaza amid the war between Israel and Hamas.

An outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa that has claimed 729 lives and infected more than 1,300 people.

 War in the Ukraine that has already resulted in the killing of nearly 300 people aboard a commuter airplane.

Strife in Syria, Libya, Nigeria and China where numerous civilians have been attacked and slaughtered by terrorist groups.

The hundreds of thousands of children and youth who have fled to the U.S. border to escape atrocities in Central America only to be met by armed and angry protestors.

Drug addiction, domestic and child abuse, gun violence, murder, teen rape, racism, homophobia, sexism and political bickering runs amok in our towns and cities.

All of this turmoil around us (in addition to our own personal worries and struggles) is enough to make us lock our doors, shut our blinds and curl up in a ball underneath our beds.

There are many people who attempt to lead a safe, secure and insulated life where no harm can touch them or their loved ones.

Some believe that if it is not happening directly in their own back yard, there’s no point bothering with what’s going on anywhere else.

Others focus on wealth and an accumulation of things to distract them from the pain that is consuming their neighbors.

Most of them, however, are just plain scared as they tip toe through every moment of life, constantly wondering when the sky might literally begin to fall into pieces.

But tiptoeing is not a luxury for people of faith, especially ones who are called to follow Jesus.

Treading softly through life or retreating into a dark corner wasn’t an option for the people of the Book and neither is it an alternative for us, the ones responsible for sharing the Book and living out God’s story.

When birthrights have been stolen and you’re on the run for your very life from a brother who has sworn to kill you, there is no tiptoeing or hiding.

In the midst of conflict and chaos,

fear has to be confronted,

violence has to be transformed and

brokenness has to be healed.

Like Jacob, one must wrestle with God who draws people from the darkness of night into the dawn of a new day.

One must grapple with God’s call to practice reconciliation, compassion and love.

And that wrestling with God and God’s call—the gut-wrenching, mind-bending, heart-aching discernment of the soul—changes a person and the world.

That deeply profound struggle dislocates the joints and marks a person’s body with pain, making it impossible to run away from or ignore the agony of others.

In the blood, sweat and tears that comes with….

tending a garden that provides fresh produce for low-income families;

spending time with homeless veterans;

cleaning a homeless shelter;

talking to the homeless on the streets,

learning about poverty issues, and

playing games with underprivileged kids in Asheville, NC;

and

digging the foundation of a Pentecostal church;

leading Vacation Bible School;

assisting with a medical clinic;

making friends with folks who’ve never been in relationship with white Americans;

worshipping in a different tradition in San Pedro, a province of the Dominican Republic

…one sees the face of God and recognizes that life is a blessing to behold.

It is not to be dreaded or taken for granted as senior and elder Lauren Borders (who spent a month in the DR before joining the mission trip team) explains:

Sometimes we like to glorify mission. We like to pose with children like Disney World characters and convince ourselves that happy people could never be as poor as they are. And it makes us feel a lot better about the need we stand in the midst of.

I spent six weeks in the Dominican Republic, which was just long enough to move past the “glory” stage. When you’ve been swinging a pick-axe and shoveling on a work site for two straight weeks or someone tells you that you cannot hold a crying child because she’s covered in scabies, you tend to wake up. Waking up saved my life. I have found that now that I’m back, I can’t live on the surface. It’s a lot harder to take blessings for granted.

Working for God is really hard, especially when it seems as if everything is caving in around you. But one of the most important things that I learned on this trip was that most people don’t really care. I met youth and adults, including our own, from all over the country who are up for the challenge. And I found out, to my surprise, so was I.

God has a habit of signing unsuspecting people up to do his will. And when I held a small boy whose stomach is severely distended in my arms, I realized that I was tricked into coming here. I was tricked into loving on a Dominican child who probably is in desperate need of affection. I was tricked into swinging a pick axe. Because when I take a step back from both of those situations, neither of them really sounds like they were originally on my summer to-do list. God has a habit of signing unsuspecting people up to do his will.

I am so thankful to have been called to spend my summer in the Dominican Republic. I am so grateful to have been woken up to the reality of the hurting and I am so grateful to have seen the determination of my church family. I am so grateful to have been tricked into experiencing a deeper love. And I look forward to being tricked in the future.

The fear and violence and brokenness of the world can be so overwhelming that it is tempting to dismiss the trouble all together and remain in our own protective little bubbles.

Like Jesus’ first disciples, we sometimes want to ignore the bedlam and dump the problem on someone else so we don’t have to take responsibility.

But there is no ignoring or tiptoeing or retreating.

When the hour is late and the world seems bleak, we can’t demand that the crowds of people in pain be sent away.

Even when there are hecklers—people who say it’s foolish to serve the poor or go to another state or country to serve alongside others—we can’t give up and walk away dejected. Nor can we expect someone else to fix things.

We can’t even put it all squarely on Jesus for him to do it all by himself either.

Not that Jesus can’t do it by himself; he most certainly can. It’s just that Jesus would prefer that we be a part of what he is doing.

That tricky Jesus says to us: “They do not need to go away. You give them something to eat.”

And we must give those in need something to eat, something to drink, something to wear, something to heal, something to protect, something to trust—something that acknowledges their worth as human beings created in the image of God.

We must provide love, mercy and hope that is always abundant, never scarce and eternally satisfying.

Once we do such challenging things, we see the presence of God among us and we are instantly and forever changed by the encounter.

There is no going back. There is only forward.

Jacob didn’t return to his outlaw ways. Jacob persevered through his hardships and helped bring forth the 12 tribes of Israel.

The disciples didn’t resume lives of apathy. They kept following Jesus and doing difficult ministry, inching ever so closer to Jerusalem and the cross.

Similarly, the youth and adults who attended this summer’s mission trips haven’t gone back to being the people they were before their experiences in Asheville and the Dominican Republic.

They have wrestled with God and God’s call. Their minds and bodies have been stretched. Their eyes and hearts have been open. They have been changed.

And they are determined to be the change for others, even if they have to tussle with that calling for the rest of their lives.

At the close of their eye-opening trip with Asheville Youth Mission, the Middle School Youth devised a mission action plan they would like to implement in this congregation and community very soon. Over the next year, they want to:

  • start a clothing drive competition between adults and children & youth to see who can collect the most clothes for the low-income and homeless
  • create a community garden on the church’s grounds to feed the poor and hungry in Duluth
  • clean up and take care of the church’s labyrinth
  • volunteer (more) with Family Promise, Rainbow Village and Duluth Co-Op, and
  • participate in the Atlanta Community Food Bank’s Hunger Walk/Run in spring 2015 

After spending 10 incredible life-changing days in the Dominican Republic, the High School Youth desire to continue helping the community they grew close to in San Pedro by

  • sharing their stories and raising $20,000 in funds to complete the church building project.
  • returning to the country next summer to work on the project with their Dominican brothers and sisters and build stronger and deeper relationships with them.

In the meantime, they plan to be more involved with mission work in their church and community and to practice more humility, compassion, love, tolerance and peace toward people who are vastly different from them.

And both the Middle and High School Youth want nothing more than for this congregation to join in the grueling but amazing work God has called them to do.

They want you to lift up your head and raise your hands, 

They want you to open up your eyes to the needy ones 

They want you to stand out…oh you know that’s how we gotta live

They want you to stand out…just like ones that came before us did

They want you to stand out from the rest

And wrestle with God’s call to make this world better.

The only question is: are you ready to rumble with them?

Amen.