Given the title of today’s sermon, the latest in our Lenten series about reimagining life and the life of faith, you might think I’m going to talk about God. And surely there is much to say.
We could talk about the Holy as mystery. We could speak of God as Love. We might prefer a less specific term, something like Higher Power. We could list some of the many names of, or metaphors for God, everything from Yahweh, Jehovah, Lord, Allah, and Holy One to Almighty, Shepherd, Rock, Wisdom, and Sophia. We could consider what seems to be the essential relational aspect of God—not only Father, Son, and Spirit or Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer, but also that so many of our more intimate name for God are descriptions of connection: Father-Mother, Parent, Lover, and as we just heard from Jeremiah, spouse.
I realize some of us have trouble with the common tendency to anthropomorphize the Holy—to assign to God human traits or feelings or motives. To be honest, this doesn’t overly concern me; after all, it only makes sense that we would use ourselves as a reference point for things that are beyond our understanding. The problem, it seems to me, is when we put the Holy into any kind of box, whenever we say that God is this but not that.
Our God is, as one writer has said, too small.
But there is another, even more basic, issue, I think. And that is the matter of knowing or talking about God rather than simply knowing the Holy or relating directly to God.
The ancient Hebrews, for example, seemed to think they knew all about God. They studied the law, they tried to keep the law and the commandments, they worshipped and made sacrifices. But again and again we see in the Hebrew scriptures that they have missed the mark. They have gone through all the religious motions while treating God’s people unjustly. They have paid lip service to the Holy while going their own way. They have closed their hearts, crying “peace, peace!” when there is no peace.
And in all this they have mistreated one another, abused God’s good gifts, made a hot mess of things, and broken the Holy heart.
Time and again, the story goes, the Holy has tried to quit them.
And, time and again, the story continues, God simply cannot.
Time and again, the Holy tries again to create the conditions for a mutual, loving relationship. Time and again, God promises to make things right, to make it possible for humanity to know and love God and God’s love.
Again and again and again, until God says through the prophet Jeremiah, “Okay, so here’s what I’m going to do: I’m going to make a new covenant, a new bond, with you. Well, actually, the content of this covenant, my law, will be pretty much the same as ever, but I’m gong to give you more direct access to it. I will put my law within you; I’m going to write it on your hearts. I will be your Everything, and you will be my people. We will belong to each other. You won’t have to talk or learn about me because you—every one of you—will know me.
“Sure, you may not realize that you know me, and, okay, you may have different names for me. Many of you may not understand that the ache in your heart is for me, and you’ll chase a hundred different dreams and buy a thousand different things to try to soothe it.
“But I will be what you’re looking for—my steadfast love and faithfulness, my presence, my peace, my healing. I’m the ground and source of your being; I’m the missing puzzle piece of your life. And I’m everywhere: within you, around you, among you, and in all matter of things and people, especially the lost and the least and the left out. Know me.”
Now, I realize that you may not see where I’m going with this. And I won’t blame you for wondering what difference it makes.
And, I don’t know that I can explain it any more than I can say exactly who or what the Holy is, but here’s what I think:
If we are made in the very image of God, we are made for relationship. In the words of the great Jewish mystic Martin Buber, “all actual life is encounter.”
But that takes a lot of intention, a little time, and maybe a healthier sense of self than many of us have. And then there is much of human history, in which all kinds of powers have used all kinds of religion (as well as fear and greed and all manner of groupings) as tools of conformity, control, exclusion, and separation.
And separation—or alienation—is the problem.
When we view the Holy as something or someone separate from and apart from us—as an “it” rather than a “you” (again borrowing from Buber)—we are less likely to encounter the Holy in our neighbors and more likely to view other humans and all of creation that way, too: as objects, as something separate from and different from us.
It is this mindset, this way of objectifying and not-relating, that makes it possible for some human beings to treat other human beings as property. It is this transactional, rather than relational, worldview that has fed white supremacy for 400 years. It is this fundamental disconnect from the Holy within us and all people that leads us to discriminate against people of different races, genders, sexualities, gender identities, economic classes, and political views. It is this “othering” that leads us to scapegoat others, sometimes violently.
And yes, it is this separation, alienation, objectification, and projection that results in travesties such as racism, anti-Asian hate, and the murder of eight people in Atlanta last week, six of them Asian American women. It is this othering that reduces tens of thousands of Central American refugees—mothers and fathers and children and youth with names and histories and needs—to little more than a political problem or foreign menace.
“Sir, we wish to see Jesus,” the foreigners told the disciples. “Enough of this hearing other people talk about him; we want to encounter him ourselves. We want to know him.”
What a beautiful and pure expression of spiritual longing! There may be no prayer dearer to God’s heart than “I want to know you. Reveal yourself to me.”
If I had written the story, I would have had the disciples bring the spiritual seekers to Jesus, and Jesus would have asked them their names and where they were from. He might have asked them if they wanted to be healed or invited them to follow him. They would have listened to him speak of the Holy and life abundant for hours on end, until he begged his leave of them, saying it was time for him to go away to pray.
And as he walked away, they would have marveled to one another, saying, “We have encountered the Holy. We have been blessed by the Light. We have seen the face of God!”
But according to John’s account, the seekers find Jesus in spiritual distress. What they encounter in Jesus at that moment is the price of our separation from the Holy. All the alienation and separation of humans from God and one another, all the othering and objectifying of everyone and everything, has brought Jesus to what will surely be a violent end to his earthly life. His soul his troubled as he thinks about it.
But even in his anguish, Jesus speaks from the Holy law written on his heart. Here’s how it works, he tells them:
“You and me—all of us—are like seeds. It is not until we die to our self-centered ways and are broken open to Love that we bear the fruit of new life. If we love nothing more than ourselves, we will miss out on what life is really all about. But when we give ourselves to Love, even if we are killed for it, countless seeds of love will sprout and grow, and that community of love will live forever.”
Friends, can we reimagine our lives with the Holy? Will we take the time to get to know the God who is Love? Will we consider the love-note written on our hearts and into every cell of our being and each particle of creation? Will we follow Jesus, God’s love revealed in human flesh?
Imagine what a difference it would make—in our lives and in the life of the world.