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Where in the World is God?

Sermon – 2/27/05
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

We're in the 3rd Sunday of Lent.  As I shared in the first service, I just learned this week something new, a little nuance that I'd never quite picked up on before, that we properly speak of the Sundays of Lent, not in Lent.  Did you know that?  We're so liturgically naive (!).  Something I learned, and the reason is because Lent is 40 days, we all know that -- 40 days prior to Easter.  And they do not include Lent -- now that I knew, I just never thought through it.  The historical background of that is Lent, 40 days, is a time of fasting but you didn't fast on Sunday.  Sunday was a time you celebrated, had a feast of the Lord, etc, so you fasted during the week but not on Lent.  So the Sundays during Lent are not actually part of Lent.

Just a little insight that I'd never learned before.  The Sundays of Lent, not in Lent.  So here we are, in that 3rd Sunday of Lent, and once again we are in the wilderness.  Journeys in the wilderness.  And this particular text comes after Moses has led the people out of Egypt, out of bondage, into the Sinai peninsula on their way to Mt. Sinai, also sometimes known as Mt. Horeb (that's important because we'll see that in the story this morning), where they receive the 10 commandments on their way to the promised land.

And they have been under way for several weeks in the hot Sinai peninsula in the wilderness of sin it says.  I just love that phrase, it's an interesting idea, sometimes I've felt myself caught in the wilderness of sin.  But it's not that kind of sin, rather sin here is most likely a shortened version of Sinai, and hence a wilderness of sin could have been anywhere in Sinai, we don't know specifically where that reference refers to.

This particular text provides an interesting kind of reflection on the John text that Judith read (John 4:7-30) because it also deals with water and wells, although I'm not going to talk about the John text this morning.  Reading then from the 17th chapter of Exodus:

Exodus 17: 1-7

From the wilderness of Sin the whole congregation of the Israelites journeyed by stages, as the LORD commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2The people quarreled with Moses, and said, ‘Give us water to drink.’ Moses said to them, ‘Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the LORD?’ 3But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, ‘Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?’ 4So Moses cried out to the LORD, ‘What shall I do with this people? They are almost ready to stone me.’ 5The LORD said to Moses, ‘Go on ahead of the people, and take some of the elders of Israel with you; take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6I will be standing there in front of you on the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it, so that the people may drink.’ Moses did so, in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7He called the place Massah and Meribah, because the Israelites quarreled and tested the LORD, saying, ‘Is the LORD among us or not?’

Lack of water, of course, in a semi-arid region like the Sinai could be life threatening.  Hence when the water supplies began to run low the people complained, and rightly so.  'Why have you brought us out here to die of thirst?  It was better back in Egypt -- even in our slavery at least we had water.'

And the fascinating thing about this story is that it is not remembered so much for the presumed miracle of the water coming from the rock, as it is for the complaints and the quarreling.  The names here, Massah and Meribah are actually in Hebrew derived from the words to test, and to quarrel.  And that's what is remembered.  

The question that comes at the end -- 'Is the Lord among us or not?' -- is the universal cry of distress in the midst of crises and tragedy.  Where in the world is God?  And hence ending this particular story on this question is an invitation for us to ponder -- where is God present in those times of stress and difficulty?

Last Sunday, Paul Jeffery, the Methodist missionary, shared with us in our Week of Compassion luncheon of his experience.  He said that he was a 'disaster junkie'.  That's because he goes around the world to wherever disaster has occurred, not to document the disaster so much, but to document the response to the disaster, especially the response of churches.  And so he shared with us of his experience in Sri Lanka during the tsunami and most importantly how the church was responding to that with the dollars that we provide.  And I was struck by his comment that he does not refer to such events as the tsunami as a 'natural disaster', because that implies that all the death and destruction is the result of nature and hence in the minds of some an act of God.  Whereas he pointed out that probably 80 percent or more of the deaths were the result of human decisions.  For instance, allowing homes and entire communities to be built within those tidal zones.  Decisions of governments not to invest in the kind of tsunami warning system that hopefully we have in place here on the Oregon coast.  Not to engage in the kind of education and preparedness, providing routes for fleeing for safety and educating people on what the signs were, etc.  

Therefore we should not blame nature, and certainly not God, for this kind of disaster.  And even more striking was Jeffery's take on the presence of God in that terrible event that I mentioned 4 or 5 weeks ago, when he said in the Register Guard article that 'God is not on high somewhere, rather God is present with the people who are suffering.  God is under the rubble.  God is washed out to sea'.

And I think that that is fundamentally true.  That God's presence is perhaps most powerfully felt precisely in those times of greatest crises.  I know that has been true in my own life.  That in our darkest moments, God reaches out to us, stands with us, comforts us, supports us.  And if God is there with those who suffer, then God must be present all the more in those who work to relieve suffering.  In the emergency personnel, in the firefighters climbing the 40-50-60 flights of stairs in the Trade Center, in the rescue teams, the doctors and nurses, the sanitary workers, the people who come to rebuild, the EMTs, etc.

Prior to the tsunami, perhaps the greatest on-going crises in the world by far was in the conflict -- still is -- in Darfur.  With over a half-a-million or more refugees.  Long before any of us heard of the Darfur region in Africa, in the Sudan and Chad, the Week of Compassion was already present, responding with the dollars that we provided last February, and the February before that and throughout the year.  Providing essential health services to 50,000 children under the age of 5 that have been left stranded and have become refugees.  So the money that you provide has enabled the work of God to occur in that place.  

This month's "Disciples World" newsletter has some wonderful articles about this whole tragedy in Darfur and how the church is responding to that, so I'll simply refer that to you.  They refer to it as the tsunami of Africa except that the world has hardly noticed the tragedy that is occurring there.

Too often we expect God to be the rescue worker when the reality is the reverse.  God expects us to be the rescue workers.  And I think our problem is that typically we think of God's way of acting in the world in Newtonian terms.  That is, we think of God as a being apart from our world who interferes in it to use his physical force to cause things to happen.  Like the ultimate pool player who can take that cue stick and strike the ball just in the right way that will cause all of the other balls to fall in the hole.  Or the puppeteer who can move the right strings in order to make the players do what he wants.

And as you know, I hope by now, I would like to take that kind of notion of God and crumple it up and throw it into the wastebasket.  Because I think it is harmful, it is counter to the way in which God works in this world.  So I want to give you once again another way to think of God.  I did this a few weeks ago in my reference to God as "Eyegore", in the movie Young Frankenstein.  So here's another concept as a way of thinking of how God works in the world.  And this comes from a book from a friend of mine, Robert Brizee, entitled "Where in the World is God?", published by Upper Room (unfortunately out of print, but I checked Amazon.com and there are used copies that you can purchase if you're interested in more), and he borrows this concept from the work of Alfred North Whitehead, in what is known as process theology if that's familiar to you.

Brizee uses the images of a council meeting to talk about how God works in our world.  Think of a city council.  Now maybe Eugene's city council isn't the kind of place you'd think of where God is active in the world (!), but that might make it all the more effective of an analogy, actually.  And there are 5 members of this council:

The first member represents our body.  This is the council member who says "I am sick, I'm hungry, I'm tired".  And if someone suggest that we take up jogging at 6:00 a.m. in the morning, kind of like Ernie Kent, we want to get out there early to enjoy the quiet and peacefulness of the morning -- this is the council member who says "Over my dead body!".  This council member carries a lot weight in our decisions.  Some people carry more than others J.  But the council member is very influential -- that's our body.

Second, is our past.  This is the council member who says "I remember when", "Mother always said".  And if someone makes the suggestion to do something we've never done before, this council member of course says "well, we've never done it that way before".  The famous last 7 words of the church.  This council member makes all decisions solely on the basis of the past.

Then there's the council member who represents the outer world.  The environment, other people, our society.  This is the member concerned most about how our decisions affect everyone else, and least about how it affects us.  Sometimes we refer to this council member as our 'conscience'.

Then there is the council member that represents the immediate situation -- the now, the present moment.  And this is the one who typically calls the meeting to order, who says "We have to respond to this situation, what do we do right now?".  

And finally is the council member Brizee calls our caring friend.  This is the member who focuses on what we can be if we make the right choice.  Who emphasizes the greatest possible good that can come out of any situation.  And this caring friend, Brizee says, is the voice of God.

And all 5 of these members (and there might be more, you can come up with your own kind of council make-up) are active within us at all times in every moment, influencing the choices we make.  And different ones have greater influences at different times.  And they consider each and every situation, reviewing the past, contemplating the present, contemplating all of the other factors before making a decision.  And note that no 1 member of this council controls the council.  It's up to us to decide how much influence to give to the voice of that caring friend.

And thus God is present in each and every moment.  Every decision, God is there whether or not we choose to listen to that advice given by that caring friend.  It's up to us, then, to listen and to be responsive to God's persuasion in order to make God's will be done here on earth as in heaven.  

Now I want to just share a story that kind of illustrates a way in which this works.  Kathleen Baker is a hot-air balloonist.  And ballooning for her was a way to get away from the world.  To rise above her problems back on earth.  To be by herself to contemplate.  And she was north of Albuquerque on her final flight to receive her full pilot's license.  And on this particular morning, drifting silently save for the sound of the propane heater going on and off, a thousand feet above the mesa there in New Mexico, she was pondering life and beauty and all these wonderful things when suddenly the reality of the outer world hit upon her in a very forceful way.  She saw in the distance a balloonist's worst nightmare:  a dust devil.  And we see those things in the field, twirling the straw and dirt, and they look fun.  Well, to a balloonist, that twisting, turbulent, very fast-rising thermal air is the greatest threat because it can literally lift the balloon thousands of feet in a matter of seconds.  She knew that she needed to bring the balloon down as quickly as possible, from her training, and began to do so in a controlled descent.  Signaled to her ground crew that she was coming, to get ready, for them to catch the balloon when it landed.  Found a nice level spot, was within seconds of touching down when she heard the pick-up horn blasting.  And she looked down and saw the crew waving wildly at her and pointing behind her -- she turned around and sure enough to her horror, saw that violent, ugly mess of this twisting wind right there about to engulf her gondola.

In desperation, the only thing she could think to do was to grab the rope that holds the deflation panel at the top of the balloon -- a piece of fabric held by Velcro that when you pull away releases all the hot air.  Something you normally, of course, only do when you're on the ground.  Because you can't put it back into place once it's down.  In desperation she pulls, thinking at least I'll get down quickly, and tugged with all of her might and the flap began to give way and she braced herself for that inevitable hard crash coming to earth, when instead suddenly she was pulled to the bottom of the gondola as it shot up into the air.  And the gondola bouncing and twisting and turning violently, striking herself against the propane tanks and drawing blood from her mouth.  And pulling herself back up to try and gain some control of the balloon she saw in horror the altimeter reading 4,000 feet and rapidly climbing.  She looked up above, and even worse, saw above her blue sky where the flap was partially torn away and she could see the hot air being released as the balloon began to collapse and she realized that she was doomed.  There was no way out.  As soon as the air subsided, she would fall to her death.

And in desperation she cried out, much as the people did here in this story, "God, where are you?  Help me, God".  And there in the bottom of the gondola, for some crazy reason, a sense of calm and peace came over her.  And she knew that she wasn't going to die.  And she felt this urge in her, that made no sense.  It was contrary to her training.  Her past had no information to help her.  The environment around her was totally helpless.  Her body said 'just hunker down in absolute terror and fear'.  But this urge kept tugging on her.  Until she felt it lifting her up with some new strength.  It said to her 'Turn on the burner'.  And it made no sense, because she didn't want to go higher and faster than she was already going.  But that urging kept saying 'turn on the burner'.  And so she did.  And as she did, she saw the balloon began to fill up again, and the fabric grow taught, and that one loose flap that was flapping around also grew taught and ceased to tear away as the tension held it in place.

And she came out of the top of the dust devil and the balloon began to stabilize.  And she was able now with increased burning to compensate for the air that was still being released to bring the balloon back again to the earth -- miles away from where she had first intended to land.  And she writes about that experience:  "I had faced death, and now I felt I was ready to face life straight on.  Yes there were problems in my life, some of them I don't know how to solve.  But flying away in my balloon and expecting God to solve them for me availed me nothing.  That morning God showed me that God was there.  There to give me strength when I most needed it.  But it was I that had to struggle to my feet and open the burner valve.  I was the one that had to act, who had to have faith."

Where is God in the midst of tragedy and disaster?  Right where we expect God to be -- in the midst of it.  Urging the victims to stand up on their feet.  To hang on for life.  To climb to higher ground.  To fight off the attacker.  To call for help.  And even as God is at work in each tragedy and in every life impacted by it, God is also at work in us, calling us to open our hearts, to be compassionate as God is compassionate.  To do all that we can, which with God, is quite a lot.  To provide shelter and food.  To provide comfort and hope.  For the persuasive, urging love of God is the most powerful force in the universe and it can accomplish a tremendous amount of good when we work with it.

We are all called this morning by our caring friend to act on faith.  And when we do, I believe that we will find the Lord is indeed there in our midst.

 


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