January 18, 2015

2nd Sunday after the Epiphany Year B

"Where can I go from your spirit?Or where can I flee from your presence?"

God seeks us and finds us, and there is nowhere we can go that will take us away from God’s presence and mercy and care.

Psalm 139 is an intimate confession of a person whose life-long relationship with God was a result of God’s persistence, God’s search and pursuit, and God’s ultimate finding of that person. Instead of the human pursuit of God, the psalmist talks about how human beings respond to God’s initiative. That is a theme that appears throughout the Bible.

God comes to a young boy, Samuel, as a voice in the dark. Only Samuel doesn’t recognize the voice. He thinks it is the voice of the old priest Eli, with whom he is living and apprenticing. ‘Samuel,’ the voice says, and Samuel gets up from his bed and goes to Eli. Three times it happens: the voice says his name, Samuel thinks it is Eli calling. The third time Eli, who now suspects that the voice is actually God, tells Samuel to answer.

The initiative is all God’s and God is wonderfully persistent. It takes four tries to get Samuel’s attention, and the sense of the story is that God will stay at it as long as it takes. Old Eli’s role, the priest’s role, interestingly, is not to be the voice of God, but simply to suggest that Samuel might try listening to the voice calling his name, an interesting paradigm for us, helping people hear the voice of God calling their names in the middle of their lives.

Psalm 139 suggests that our relationship with God is, in fact, a process, and that God has been pursuing us since the moment we were conceived.

The contemporary writer Anne Lamott describes it in terms of a slow, gradual return to faith out of a life that was falling apart at the seams, standing outside a little church like Grace, looking in, listening to the singing, one day stepping through the door and acknowledging that God had been pushing, nudging, prodding. Finally she said simply, " ‘I quit.’"

"I took a long breath and said out loud, ‘All right, you can come in now.’"

Kathleen Norris, raised in the faith, but self-exiled from it for years of seeking, searching, dabbling here and there and finally, returning to her family’s farm and to church in Lemmon, South Dakota, writes: "I came to understand that God hadn’t lost me, even if I seemed for years to have misplaced God." Kathleen says that suspicion of religion ran so deep in her that she feared what it might do to her. But her observation that God had not forgotten her even though for years she seemed to have misplaced God, sounded familiar.

Frederick Buechner tells his story in a book entitled, The Sacred Journey. Life, according to Buechner, is a sacred journey into which God speaks and comes. That’s what makes it sacred. After college, he taught English for a while, joined the army, and ended up in New York trying to be a writer and discovering that he could not write a word. He tried a number of options, but everything failed. He writes, "Every door I tried to open slammed on my foot. It all sounds like a kind of farce when I try to set it down . . .Part of the farce was that for the first time in my life that year in New York, I started to go to church regularly, and what was farcical about it was not that I went, but my reason for going, which was simply that on the block where I lived there happened to be achurch . . . and I had nothing all that much better to do with my lonely Sunday . . ." Sunday after Sunday Buechner went. He writes: "It was not so much that a door opened as that I suddenly found that a door had been open all along which I had only just then stumbled upon." "Where can I go from your spirit?Or where can I flee from your presence?" 

And so, just on the outside chance that you may be living your life in what seems to be a normal, ordinary way, but is actually a way of holding God at arm’s length, this idea of God’s persistent pursuit might be at least tantalizing.And if your life is so full; of job and family and complicated relationships, professional demands and tight schedules, the expectations of your life which regularly exceed the number of hours in the day, with no time for leisurely lunches or even pleasant conversation, not to mention praying, you just might find intriguing the ancient suggestion:

"You know when I sit down and when I rise up,You discern my thoughts from afar.” And: "If I ascend to heaven, you are there.If I take the wings of the morningand settle at the farthest limits of the sea,even there your hand shall hold me fast."

And when you fall exhausted into bed, you might be intrigued by:

"You search out my path and my lying down."

And if your life can only be described as if nothing is working, if it all seems tragically empty and lonely, if relationships are sour and work is boring—and there is no light on the horizon—no promise, no hope—And if you find yourself thinking a lot about your own finiteness, about what someone called "the insult of our mortality," listen to these words:

"If I say, ‘Surely the darkness shall cover meand the light around me become night,even the darkness is not dark to you;the night is as bright as the day,for darkness is as light to you.’" 

Frederick Buechner says:

"What I found was what I had already half seen, or less than half, in many places over my twenty-seven years without ever clearly knowing what it was I was seeing or even that I was seeing anything of great importance. So here at the end I am left with no other way of saying it than what I finally found was Christ. Or was found."

 I love the Gospel reading for today—John’s version of the call of the disciples, Philip and Nathaniel. Nathaniel is, apparently tending to his own affairs, living his life, going to work, taking care of business—and Jesus sees him and approaches him, and Nathaniel says—"How do you know me?" and Jesus says simply, "I saw you under the fig tree."

That, I submit, is how it happens and how it is. Into our lives Christ comes. Into our lives God speaks our name, doing what we do, sitting where we sit . . . and waits, doesn’t force the issue; speaks our name and waits as long as it takes . . . for our response, our faith, our trust, our love, our ‘yes.’