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Saturday, January 19, 2013

This Sacred Romance

This Sacred Romance
Delivered at Madison Chapel
Madison, Mississippi, January 20th, 2013
The Second Sunday of Epiphany

One of the things often brought up in conversations I have with lapsed or lapsing believers is about God’s love in the midst of circumstance. Pick a tragedy: the Newtown shooting; the Aurora shooting; Hurricane Sandy; Hurricane Katrina; mom dying of cancer; brother dying of AIDS. All of them usually bring out an editorial or three about the goodness of God and as how a loving God could possibly cause, allow, or permit such an atrocity to happen.
Just this past week a prominent atheist writer offered an editorial on how her particular non-belief system could offer comfort to the families of the dead children and Sandy Hook Elementary School.[1] She says, in part, that “When I try to help a loved one losing his mind to Alzheimer’s, when I see homeless people shivering in the wake of a deadly storm, when the news media bring me almost obscenely close to the raw grief of bereft parents, I do not have to ask, as all people of faith must, why an all-powerful, all-good God allows such things to happen.” She goes on to argue that hers is a non-faith that allows her to “concentrate on the fate of this world — whether that means visiting a friend in a hospital or advocating for tougher gun control laws — without trying to square things with an unseen overlord in the next. Atheists do not want to deny religious believers the comfort of their faith. We do want our fellow citizens to respect our deeply held conviction that the absence of an afterlife lends a greater, not a lesser, moral importance to our actions on earth.”
Ultimately, though, I fear that the editorialist’s argument offers little consolation to the grieving families and traumatized school and community. Her conclusion, a quote from Robert Ingersoll, is that “the dead do not suffer.”

Where is God? Where is the Love of the one we worship? Even in the absence of tragedy and horror we are often want to wonder at the feeling of plainness and normality of our lives; we live, it seems from one moment of dejected horror, crying out to God for mercy or a sign of purpose, to the next moment of joy and celebration at our achievements.
This call-and-response rhythm is exhausting. Just when we allow the wounds of one moment in our lives to stop bleeding, an arrow of outrageous fortune strikes us afresh. It is no wonder that we are left calling out to God for proof of his love – this life we live is hard and cruel and dangerous.

            Where is God? Where is his great Love? Is it helpless against the darkness of our lives? Is the love of God in this world a poor image of the lives we hope to live when we cross through to whatever is next? Are we practicing, faking, hoping, dreaming about a God whose love actually has flesh and heart, hands and hope?
            We get so close sometimes. With every wedding I perform I see just a glimpse of the love of God – when people touch something beyond their natures to give of their identities, their future, their very names to another person in that most intimate moment of hope and love and expectation. I feel it when I miss my daughter – unfamiliar sensations of want and longing and care – there is something like the love and longing of God in these new experiences.
            How interesting that we frame our visions of God’s love in terms of weddings and in the powerful parent-child relationships of Scripture. God calls Ephraim his child, whom he takes by the hand and teaches to walk; Israel is the bride that is showered with affection, presented to the world as a beautiful bride and as a crown for other nations; Jesus himself, the manifestation of God’s love, makes his miraculous ministry public with the water-to-wine moment at a wedding in Cana.
            There is no theophany here – there is no Job-like wrangling over whether God is really loving and present or whether he’s the “unseen overlord in the next [world].” This is not the image of God we have when children lay murdered or communities are washed away or when there’s an empty chair at Christmas. This is Love in the Raw – when we see that our own constructions of Love at its best are not enough – the wedding in Cana could have overcome the scandal of running out of wine – but it was at that moment when Jesus launched his journey of Love and reconciliation between the God who spoke the universe into being and the people who speak of love as though they have a clue. The contrast is so sharp – our moments and events of love and sorrow are the frames through which we understand God’s love. But yet the very activity of Jesus at that wedding, the very nature of Isaiah’s description of God’s love for the apostate Israel as a bride to His divine Groom makes our notions of real love seem too limited and colorless to allow us to speak of God’s.
            So where is God and his great Love? Is it too far beyond us to see? Is it only made manifest in the man Jesus? Are we just wasting our time fighting over the scraps of divine intent and interest when we argue over who can marry whom? Where can I find some of that pure, uncut, divine Love in the midst of Newtown and Aurora and Columbine and Pearl?

            I think of Jesus’ miracle at the wedding in Cana to be something of an inside joke. Good scholarship calls this the first of Jesus’ Signs in John, the inauguration of a program of ministry meant to confirm that Jesus is the Messiah, the Christ, the savior, and that the reader, too, may become convinced and believe. When Jesus underhandedly turns the water held in the stone jars of Jewish traditionalism into the new wine of God’s love, he lets us in on a secret – God’s love is not found in the event of the wedding, not at the reception any more than the opposite of God’s love (whatever that would be) is found in the events of tragedy we live through. Jesus whispers to us through this story – “psst…over here; this is just a party – God’s love is not found here.”

            Then where? Where is God’s love?

            Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the life and words of Martin Luther King, Jr., a preacher who saw a vision of God’s love. His life and name have been used, referenced, and abused even this last week in a ridiculous argument about gun regulation.[2] When people celebrate his life and words, they often end with the tragedy that was his murder. Enter the gun control nuts and the gun rights nuts and the racist nuts and all the other nuts, using the life of a man fighting for his right to be considered a human being as a cudgel for their own vision.
            They miss the point. In the life of MLK we see God’s love at work. We see in his words, his dreams, his celebrations that there is a better, a holier, a more Godly way to love one another not based on the color of skin – nor the content of character – but based on the fact that humanity, God’s own created humanity, is worth living and dying for. We can so easily see his murder as another moment when evil, in one moment, one event, cut short the life of someone who was making a difference. But here, in the life of this man we can see God’s love!
            Here! Over here! I found it! It is not in the event of his preaching or in his speeches or even in his marching – it’s in HIM! God’s love is not found in events any more than events are proof of his non-love! God’s love is in the people who believe and are filled with the Holy Spirit and act out of that relationship! Neither MLK’s immortal words nor his documented deeds are proof of God’s love – the love is in the man!
            Where is God’s love? It is in the gifts we receive from the Spirit. It is in the services we are led to do in His name. It is in the one who utters wisdom and the one who utters knowledge; it is in the one who has astounding faith; it is in the one who can heal; it is in the one who works miracles; it is in the one who can prophesy; it is in the one who can discern the spirits; it is in the one who can speak in tongues; it is in the one who can interpret these tongues.

            Where is God’s love? It is in us. We must stop looking to externals to see the love of God made manifest in our world. God’s love is not a wedding, or a birth; the absence of God’s love is not in Sandy Hook Elementary or Aurora or on the devastated East Coast – God’s love is in the people who live and act and speak and pray in the name of the One who IS LOVE.

God’s love is not made true in events. It is not made un-true by events. It is made true in the people who love him and live in his Spirit. It is made true in people. It is made true in me. It is made true in you. Amen.

[1] Susan Jacoby, “The Blessings of Atheism.” The New York Times, January 5th, 2013.
[2] Larry Ward on CNN NewsRoom, January 11th, 2013. “I think Martin Luther King, Jr. agree with would me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.”

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