The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost: October 14, 2018
Preacher: The Rev. Katharine Flexer, Rector of St. Michael’s Church
Lookin’ for love in all the wrong places…
Lookin’ for love in too many faces,
searchin’ their eyes and lookin’ for traces
of what I’m dreamin’ of.
Hopin’ to find a friend and a lover;
I’ll bless the day I discover
another heart lookin’ for love.
That song, from the soundtrack to the movie “Urban Cowboy,” is one of those random songs that pops into my head at irrelevant moments. It evokes the emptiness of life spent in bars, something I managed to escape in my own life. But I’ve always thought of it as describing our sometime quests for God. We want love, we want God’s presence – but we don’t always look for it in the right places. And we don’t always find it where we’re looking for it.
One of the questions we’re asking you in the God’s Call conversations is, Why do you come to church? I’ve seen some of the notes from groups that have met so far and the answers are wonderful. People come to church for a lot of different reasons, but at the core, it’s for the same reason – because they want to see God, and be with other people who want to see God. It’s great to see how each person articulates this. And one thing I’ve noticed: I remember many years ago asking people in a sermon here to turn to their neighbor and share why they came to church. Besides the surprise and shock factor of having to actually talk to someone during the sermon, it was clear that answering that question – why we’re here – didn’t feel entirely comfortable to everyone. I think there were a lot of ‘I don’t knows.’ But remember last year when we had you all do the spiritual life inventory for Renewal Works, where you had to answer questions about your faith and practice? We all started talking a lot more about spiritual growth and about our desire for God, why we come to church. And now, we all are talking about this more freely here now than we did before. So you see, there is method to our madness.
Church is one place we come lookin’ for love. And if we come back, it’s probably because we’ve found it, experienced God and the Spirit somehow in the midst of the worship and the community and service to others. But it’s not always the place where we think we’ve found it. God doesn’t always show up the same way every time for us, in church or elsewhere in our lives. Maybe you’ve felt the heartbreak of going back to a place or a situation where you felt really spiritually moved – only to have it feel kind of dead and stale the second time around. I know I have. It can be confusing, to say the least.
Early in my adult life, I began to have some sense of my longing for God. A priest gave me a Thomas Keating book on centering prayer. I went home and tried the practice outlined in the book, and was instantly enraptured. All my desire for God was met with this wonderful overwhelming sense of God’s presence…or at least it was for a few minutes or so. Then I got a little bored, but that was ok – the book told me I might. I came back to the practice day after day, but after some time went by, I started to realize I wasn’t having that great overwhelming wonderful sense of God, not in the same way, and the prayer became much less interesting. But that was ok, because then I rediscovered the beautiful outdoors, and the great overwhelming wonderful sense of God met me there. And so I would go outdoors to more and more places to find that feeling again…and after a while they were all still beautiful places but I wasn’t having quite that same big wonderful feeling. But that was ok, because then I went to seminary, and at first it was so great, and then…Well, you get the idea.
I wonder if something like this has ever happened to you before. It would be a lot nicer if God always came when called. Sometimes God – or our feeling of God – can seem hard to find.
I hear that kind of searching in what Job says in today’s Old Testament passage – in the midst of his struggles and suffering, sitting through endless well-intentioned lectures from his friends, Job longs to get an answer from God directly for why this is all happening to him. If I could just talk to God, sit down with him and have him hear me out, he says, then God would tell me what this all means. But I look and I can’t find him. Is he hiding? Of course, as we’ll hear in next week’s reading, God isn’t hiding – God speaks to him out of a whirlwind, and answers him – but God doesn’t at all give the answers Job was looking for. Instead of any explanation of why, God simply responds with, I am. I am God, and you aren’t. Job falls back, amazed, and says, I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear – but now my eye sees you. Job was looking for God for answers – and in the end, without the answers, Job sees God in a whole different way.
The man who approaches Jesus in the gospel story is also looking for answers. He longs to see God, and so he comes asking how to get there. But he doesn’t like the answer Jesus gives him. He has followed the rules all his life and he thinks he’s almost there. But Jesus tells him to give everything up and follow him, and he’s not ready to do that. He leaves disappointed not because he hasn’t seen God, but because he didn’t like what he saw. Finding God, he thought, would feel like getting everything right on the exam, checking off all the boxes just so. Not letting everything go and just following. Maybe too the poor man didn’t notice, or couldn’t see, how Jesus was looking at him, loving him. That wasn’t what he was looking for.
Sometimes we’re looking for God in all the wrong places. Sometimes we’re looking for God in all the wrong ways. We want God to be there where we expect to find God, how we have found God before, how it has felt before; we want God to answer our questions in the format in which we ask them. Of course we do. We can’t help it.
Theologians over the centuries have looked for God too, and sought to describe and explain God. We preachers do it too, of course. We all want to know what God is like and why God acts the way she does, and so great books and meager sermons and much ink has been spent on saying what we can say about God. We look at scripture and the person of Jesus, and we see what is revealed there about God, and we try to convey that. Sometimes theologians and preachers have gotten it utterly wrong; occasionally we’ve gotten it right. Stories like the gospels about people talking to and learning from Jesus give us examples of what we can say about God, because Jesus shows us something of God. Jesus is the revelation of God, so what is true of Jesus, is true of God.
But there is also a certain stream of Christian theology that says we can’t really say anything about God. The Eastern Orthodox Church in particular speaks of God’s mystery, God’s unknowability. God alone is uncreated, so we created beings by definition cannot describe God, who is beyond being. And if we try, we fail – we say and describe something that is not God, something that therefore can become an idol we worship rather than the true God. Stories like Job hearing God out of the whirlwind, not answering his question, are examples of this – seeing God, and yet God being utterly unlike anything we expected to see. Sometimes when we’ve grabbed onto a feeling or image of God that feels right for us, we find later that God is totally different than that, completely other.
Really these two schools of thought both tell us truth – God is immanent, knowable, revealed in the person of Jesus Christ, whom we can approach to ask our impertinent questions; and God is transcendent, other, mysterious and beyond our understanding. And sometimes when we experience God it’s the one way, and sometimes it’s the other. Sometimes it’s God felt in a friend’s embrace, kindness shown to us by a stranger on a rough day, the first taste of coffee in the morning. Sometimes it’s God when we catch our breath at the beauty of the sky, or are moved by a particular piece of music. And sometimes it’s God in those times when we are searching and searching, ardently, not sure where God is. God doesn’t stay put and come when called; when we seek after a feeling of God we might fail to look for the true God. God always seems to be drawing us further on, further in – through and with what we can see and know, and beyond everything we can understand.
Many churches have a little sign on the inside of their pulpit for only the preacher to see, quoting words from the Gospel of John when some seekers come to find the Messiah: We wish to see Jesus. A reminder to the preacher to show people Jesus, a reminder that what you’re all doing there sitting in church, what we’re all doing here, is seeking God. And here we find others seeking God too – others on a similar journey and yet each utterly unique. We’re looking for God here, and we’re looking for God in all of our lives – though often without even knowing that’s what we’re doing. Sometimes we’re looking in the wrong places, but we’re still looking for love. As the Thomas Merton prayer says, we can only hope that our desire to please God does in fact please God. We long for God, and God longs for us.
Bidden or not bidden, God is present, said the oracle at Delphi. The Spirit is present, moving and real. God is in all the right places and in the wrong ones too – always there to be approached. And ready to find and be found, to offer ‘mercy and grace to help in time of need’ as the letter to the Hebrews says. God is here, felt or not felt, known or unknown. Always calling us into more. May we seek, and be found.