30 October 2009

The Eyes of Experience

Job 42:1-6(10-17) & Mark 10:46-52
Reformation Sunday/ 25th October 2009

Preached at Nassau Presbyterian Church, Princeton, New Jersey

Somewhere along the way, I wish scribes had etched in the text of Job, right here at the start of chapter 42, in big, bold letters: STOP: SILENCE. When we consider Scripture, obviously full of words, and think of our Presbyterian world, also full of words (you have to admit, we really are a wordy bunch), it’s easy to read past, speak over the silence, fail to dwell in the silence before the word. The mystics tell us all wisdom flows from silence and all wisdom leads to silence. Job is all about wisdom; which means silence can’t be far away. Yet, we find a seamless transition from the end of chapter 41 to these extraordinary six verses of chapter 42.

What’s in 41? The culmination of Yahweh’s wild sermons out of the whirlwind, Yahweh’s answer to Job’s unyielding demands for an explanation regarding his suffering. Earlier, Yahweh says to Job: “Who is this that darkens counsel by words without knowledge? Gird up your loins like a man, I will question you, and you shall declare to me. Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding (Job 28: 2-4).” Yahweh cross-examines Job with question after question. The Voice graciously shakes Job’s foundation, shatters everything he assumed – of himself, of his neighbors, his precarious hold on reality, his place in the universe, even his image of the God he thought he knew. On and on Yahweh graciously assaults his sensibilities and his reason, questions everything Job thought he knew about just about everything. And then Yahweh stops at the end of 41. It’s here, just before 42, in this liminal space, I believe, we need silence: hold your tongue, listen, consider, behold. I imagine Job at that point speechless, breathless, gasping for air, in shock. Here before him out of the whirlwind is the voice of the Unnamable One, the Holy of Holies, what Rudolph Otto (1869-1937) called, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans, this mystery that evokes both frightens and fascinates. (1) What do you say in such moments? What would you say? What is there to say?

Then…when the time was right, out of the silence, with humbled conviction born of experience, Job begins to speak. Here is the goal of this wisdom tale, the theological nerve-center of the text, it’s wild and electric like the voice of God. “I know you can do all things,” Job says, “and nothing you wish is impossible.” Then Job verbalizes, as if mumbling to himself the earlier question posed to him by Yahweh: “Who is this whose ignorant words cover my design with darkness?” Job continues: “I have spoken of the unspeakable and tried to grasp the infinite.” Again, he remembers what Yahweh said, “Listen and I will speak: I will question you, please, instruct me.” Then Job finally gets it and says: “I had heard of you with my ears; but now my eyes – my eyes – have seen you. Therefore, I will be quiet, comforted that I am dust.” (2) From silence to silence.

It might be easy to miss the significance of Job’s confession. Many turn to the book of Job searching for answer to the theodicy question, of why the innocent suffer and how can a just God allow it. Sure, in the epilogue we see Job’s life is restored, but if we expect some resolution to these questions we will leave grieving, feeling unsettled. We will leave disappointed and troubled with an image of God who likes to cuts deals with Satan to test us.

But it was the wise William Blake (1757-1827) who centuries ago offered a different perspective that warrants our attention. Blake spent a lot of time with Job’s story, eventually producing those marvelous engravings of scenes from the book of Job. For Blake, the text is less about theodicy than it is about transformation. (3) It’s about the transformation, change, metanoia that occurs when we come to the limits of our knowing and find ourselves confronted by the face of the living God.

You see, prior to the whirlwind, Job’s world revolved around a clear understanding of right and wrong, individuals were rewarded appropriately with blessing or punishment within a retributive system administered by a just God. “Job’s case against God assumes not that the system is wrong …but that God has failed to govern the created order justly.” And so he questions God’s justice. (4) But Job is searched and questioned by God and in the process discovers there is more going on around him than meets the eye.

Then, at the point of exhaustion and desperation Job hits a theological wall. He discovers that the religious view of his community, his friends, his tradition – what he was taught in Sabbath school, as it were – are not equal to the existential challenge facing him. Job’s theological perspective is insufficient to speak to the complexity of his trauma, this man who has been to hell and back, who has seen into the face of the void, lost family, friends, the flesh on his bones, body full of sores and grieving in ashes asking, Why? Why? Why? His trauma calls into question everything. He gets to a point where his understanding of God can no longer yield meaning in the face of such tragedy. While Job never gives up on God, although his wife said, just curse God and die (Job 2:9), and his friends weren’t much help either, in the end he had to give up his old understanding of God and God’s justice in order to yield to something new. He couldn’t do that alone.

There comes a time when we must yield to a “higher intelligibility,” a wider frame of knowing. (5) At one point or at many we all hit that theological wall, when we admit that our perspectives are too narrow and limited. Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) once described the work of poetry as “purging the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being.” (6) Something of the same is involved when we “see” God. The “film of familiarity” is wiped away and we are transformed and we see something new. Job confronts the inadequacy of his former way of seeing the world. His experience of God then yields a wider, more comprehensive view of reality, of justice, of God. It’s the gracious reframing of the world, the self, even the God he thought he knew for something far more profound and grand and expansive. Job discovers that, “The world is a manifold of intensities each with its created integrity, mystery and even untamable wildness, not to be humanly comprehended or controlled.” (7) It’s the vision that changes everything.

I believe it’s still possible for us to have visions – yes, even Presbyterians (believe it or not). Whether gradually over a lifetime or in the moment, moments of extraordinary insight, numinous, religious experiences like this, of significant power, and terror, and even beauty, when the Holy helps us see what we could not see before, to learn anew. Giving us new “spectacles,” as Calvin (1509-1564) would have said, that allow us to see more clearly in the “theatre” of God’s glory.(8)

To see; that’s the critical point. “I had heard of you with my ears, but now my eyes see you.” More than hearing about God, Job has seen God for himself. After the whirlwind, Job also discovers the inadequacy of a faith that comes only by hearsay, passed on, received passively. It’s been said, “The person who hungers and thirsts after justice is not satisfied with a menu. It is not enough for [one] to hope or believe or know that there is absolute justice in the universe: [one] must taste and see it.” (9) Sure, Job heard all about God, heard about what God was like, and he lived assured in that world until everything fell apart. What he graciously received in the end was not the inherited faith of family or the pious platitudes of well-meaning friends, but something that came through his own existential encounter with God, face-to-face, a journey that only he could take, yielding a wisdom that came not from a distance, but from, through, and within his gut, his heart. It was something of God that couldn’t be taught, it had to be evoked, experienced, encountered.

For those of us in the Reformed tradition, talk about personal experience generally makes us uneasy. There is an ongoing struggle for us between the authority of revelation – that is, God’s insight, wisdom, and grace that comes upon us, that comes from above, that breaks into our lives – and the authority of personal experience. We tend to talk about revelation, maybe it’s safer. Now, I know this is tricky and complicated theological ground. We are right to be skeptical of anything that smacks of individualism or subjectivism. Yet, I fear we’re losing touch with the individual, the personal. Every experience is not of God. Every voice we hear is not of God. Just this week I received a seven-page, single-space letter from someone claiming to be, “The ONLY True Prophet of God,” writing to tell me the “Truth about Muslims, Jews, Catholics, Homosexuals, and Dinosaurs.” Yet, there are people in the church and outside it who want to take their experience seriously, as valid, but don’t know how. There are folks in the church who have had profound religious experiences, but never say a word about it. There are people who want to share what they are learning, like Job, through their ongoing encounter and relationship with God, particularly through Christ, and want to be faithful to it.

I’m particularly sensitive around this issue. Here’s why. In my middler year at Princeton Seminary I took a class on Calvin; I wrote my final paper on the opening sentence of the Institutes (1559), “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (I.1.1)” Calvin goes on to say, determining “which precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern. (I.1.1.)” Knowledge – for Calvin, an existential apprehension – of ourselves leads to a knowledge of God and from knowledge of God we turn to a true knowledge of ourselves. (10) Well, I was in a state of existential shock when I opened the envelope with my paper in it and saw the red-penciled grade: D-. Now, I had pretty good grades at the seminary, but was struggling in this class, with others (I might add), with a C+ going into the final. So, yes, this means I have a D+ on my transcript from Princeton Seminary in Calvin. What doctoral program would ever admit me? What presbytery would ever ordain me? – I thought my life as a Presbyterian was over! The professor said I didn’t place a sufficient emphasis on revelation in the knowledge of God. Personal knowledge alone is incapable of knowing God. I had another professor look it over and he said it definitely wasn’t a D paper. But, I decided not to fight it.

It was humbling, to say the least. Revelation now plays a significant role in my theology! But after twenty-one years (yikes), I’m still not thoroughly convinced it’s that simple. My own journey has brought me back to this again and again. How we know anything in this mysterious universe is far more complicated than Calvin ever could have imagined. As Stacy Johnson says in his recent book on Calvin, “knowledge of God and knowledge of self are intimately linked.” (11) A true knowledge of ourselves means being real and honest about who we are and aren’t, what we can and cannot know. But our experience still has to count for something: what our hearts know, deep in our souls, all our losses, our traumas, our sufferings, our relationships, our gifts, our personalities, all get caught up in the mix in what we know of God and how we know God. Augustine (354-430) asserted, “To know myself is to know you,” O God. (12) Sure, theology is not biography, but we can’t totally disconnect them. Theology is not anthropology, but we can’t completely sever them in human experience. For what else do we have except our experience, limited as it is?

Sometimes experience of God is prior to dogmatic formulation, experience grounds conviction. In one of her letters, Flannery O'Connor (1925-1964) wisely wrote, "Conviction without experience makes for harshness." (13) We run the risk of becoming exceptionally harsh in emphasizing conviction and ignoring, if not silencing the experience of many sisters and brothers who want to tell us something of Christ's love and what the Spirit is doing in their lives. In my ministry I find that far too many people fail to honor their experience. I have, regrettably, far too many times discounted the value of mine. In his recent book, theologian David Ford suggests in his reading of Job this amazing gift, that God might actually be “pleased with those who refuse to fit new experience unquestioningly into traditional teaching about God, who ask radical questions about God, their experience and their traditions, who never let their desire for the truth of God and God’s justice be quenched, who are open to new possibilities and surprises even in the sphere of their core convictions, and who above all cry out with integrity before God and resist all attempts to misinterpret, marginalize, or stifle that cry. (14)

One person for whom this was powerfully true was Carl Jung (1875-1961), the depth psychologist. I’ll close with this account. Jung’s father was a Swiss Reformed pastor near Basel, but he did not find any life in his father’s faith. Jung was told his First Communion would be a great experience. Instead, nothing. “For me,” he said, “it was an absence of God and no religion. Church was a place to which I no longer could go. There was no life there, but death.” Yet, early in his life he had profound encounters of the Holy that forever changed the course of his life; even though they overwhelmed and scared him, he knew there was power to heal in them, they offered hope, and he spent the rest of his life trying to be faithful to those experiences – despite considerable resistance. He said they were moments of an immediate, “direct living God…,” the God that his father lacked and could not give him. As Jung put it, “God alone was real – annihilating fire and an indescribable grace.” (15) Annihilating fire; indescribable grace. I love that.

Job’s story says: this is what it’s like to encounter the living God, to know God, not know about God. Not someone else’s encounter, not someone else’s story, not someone else’s experience, not a dead tradition, but a living faith. It looks something like this: a life-changing, frame-bending experience of earth shattering significance, radical insight, insight of cosmic proportions that comes over, around, in, through, and to us and opens our eyes – our eyes, not someone’s else’s eyes – and allows us to see reality transformed and transfigured; to see a new world which despite all the pain and suffering and sorrow of our lives still has the capacity to yield meaning; an experience of the Living God that grounds all of our theological claims and creeds, that sets our hearts on fire and fires our imaginations, that sends us down new roads, wherever the Lord wants to take us, following him, like Bartimaeus (Mark 10: 52), with eyes that now can see.

Prayer: Holy One, give us more to see, give us ever more to see. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Image: William Blake, "Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind," Plate XIII, "Illustrations of the Book of Job" [1823].

1. Rudolph Otto, The Idea of the Holy, trans. John H. Harvey (London: Oxford University Press, 1958), 13-30.

2. Stephen Mitchell’s translation, The Book of Job, trans. and with an introduction by Stephen Mitchell (HarperPerennial, 1992), 88.

3. Mitchell’s helpful essay on the meaning of Job, xxix.

4. David C. Hester, Job (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 88

5. James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment, second edition (Colorado Springs, CO: Helmers & Howard, 1989), 216.

6. A Defense of Poetry (182), cited in Paul Bishop, Jung’s Answer to Job: A Commentary (Brunner-Routledge, 2002), 50.

7.David F. Ford, Christian Wisdom: Desiring God and Learning in Love (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 114.

8.John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (1.6.1; 1.14.1); Commentary on Psalm 104:31, cited by William J. Bouswma, John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 135.

9.  Mitchell, xxvii.

10. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill; trans. by Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 1n., 36. On this seeming ambiguity in the relation between divine knowledge and self-knowledge, see Serene Jones, “An Apology for Divine Wisdom,” in Calvin and the Rhetoric of Piety (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995), 87-120.

11. William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformer for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 51.

12. Viderim me, viderim te, quoted by St. Teresa of Ávila [1515-1582], The Interior Castle, The Complete Works of St. Teresa, vol.2, trans. and ed. E. Ellison Peers (London: Sheed & Ward, 1957).

13. Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, Selected and Edited by Sally Fitzgerald (New York: Farrar, Strauss & Giroux, 1995), 97.

14. Ford, 129.

15. C. G. Jung, Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Recorded and Edited by Aniela Jaffé; trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Vintage Books, 1973), 57, 73. C. G. Jung, The Red Book (Liber Novus), ed. Sonu Shamdasani, preface by Ulrich Hoerni, trans. by Mark Kyburz, John Peck, Sonu Shamdasani. (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 2009). See Shamdasani’s Introduction, 194.

12 October 2009

The Face(s) of God

1 Peter 4: 7-11
28th Sunday in Ordinary Time/ 11th October 2009

“The end of all things is near; therefore be serious and discipline yourselves for the sake of your prayers.” This is an odd juxtaposition. Isn’t it? “The end of all things is near,” Peter believed. Then he tells his church how to live in the interim. What he suggests is really remarkable. It’s not the end of the world ethic we might expect. There’s no, “the end of all things is near,” so go out and enjoy yourself: eat, drink, for tomorrow we die. This is not a command to hunker down in a monk’s cell to get your spiritual house in order, or to remove yourself from the cares of the world. In fact, all the things he directs his church to do are actually the kinds of things one might expect in people who are going to be around for a while.

Instead, this is the ethic Peter gives his community. When Peter says, “be serious,” it’s another way of saying, “Preserve your sanity.” Protect your mind. In other words, knowing that God’s day is coming, use your mind to make proper decisions. Know what’s important, necessary, and know what isn’t. Know proper proportions. Know what you need and what you don’t need. Know how much is enough and how much needs to be given away.

When Peter says, “discipline yourselves,” it’s another way of saying, “Be sober.” In light of the coming day of God, be alert. Don’t be drunk (which is what’s implied in the Greek here). But be responsible, not frivolous and certainly not gloomy. But serious in the sense that everything we do matters to someone, particularly God.

Sanity and sobriety are required for the sake of prayer. For how else can we pray? And, without prayer how else can we discern God’s will for our lives? How else will we be empowered to live the Christian life? Without prayer, how else can we, “maintain constant love for one another,” as Peter urges us then in the text? The word “constant” here implies a love outstretched, reaching out, ever taut with tension, like the muscle of an athlete that is perfectly stretched, as in a race. It means every muscle in one’s body is stretched in a constant expression of movement, of activity – for the Christian, a constant love that even covers and stretches over a multitude of sins. It’s all for the sake of this new kind of love. This is the kind of ethic Peter gives to the community. The end of all things might be near. But then he sends them out.

Be hospitable to one another – without complaining about it (in other words, stop wining). Open your doors, open your hearts to the world, to strangers, because one time you were not part of the church of Christ, expand your heart; one time you were not part of the household of God, one time you, too, were a stranger to Christ. Be responsible to and for one another. Share.

Indeed, “Like good stewards of the manifold grace of God, serve one another with whatever gift each of you has received (1 Peter 4:10).” Thus, we have the context for the text our stewardship committee selected for this year’s stewardship season. This is the text we’ve invited to reflect upon, pray about, and discern what it means for us individually.

We probably need to draw out the meaning of this phrase, “like good stewards.” We can only be good stewards when we realize that it means to be a steward. Peter says to the church: think of yourselves as stewards.

In Peter’s day a steward was very important. He might be a slave, but his master’s goods were in his hands. He was trustworthy. There were two types of stewards, the dispensator, the dispenser who was responsible for all the domestic arrangements, all the household supplies. And the vilicus, the bailiff, who was in charge of his master’s estates and acted as landlord to his master’s tenants. “The steward knew well that none of the things over which he had control belonged to him; they all belonged to his master. In everything he did he was answerable to his master and always it was his interests he must serve.” The implication here is obvious: “The Christian lives under the conviction that nothing he or she possesses of material goods or personal qualities is his own; it all belongs to God and one must ever use what one has in the interests of God to whom one is always answerable.”

We’re even asked to be stewards of our words. “Whoever speaks must do so as one speaking the very words of God; whoever serves must do so with the strength that God supplies (1 Peter 4:11).” Would we talk to each other difference, even the daily internal dialog we have with ourselves, if we considered it God’s word? How would we spend our time differently, if we considered it God’s time? How would we share our hearts, gifts, our resources, our money, if we thought of them as God’s gifts, God’s resources, and God’s money which we are saving and investing in order to do God’s work? Remarkable, this is the ethic Peter presents to us.

The “end of all things is near,” is not language we usually hear in Presbyterian circles. Another way of getting at what Peter is saying here is to say, when the end of time comes, when the end of our time comes, when we die, we can say we’ve been happy if we lived our lives in a certain way. Happiness is expanding our love and widening our hospitality and deepening our generosity and strengthening our service and sharing our gifts, all for the glory of God. Happiness is not a life of selfish gain, of hoarding and greedy accumulation, but of joyfully, cheerfully sharing all our resources, our gifts, not as if they belong to us, but as if – because they do – belong to God, entrusted to us, to be shared.

Why? So that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ! We live this way all for the glory of God. Why? Because to live this way is happiness. When we live this way, to the glory of God, we get a glimpse of the very face of God. Because this is God’s way and when we live this way we get glimpse of the face of God in the people we love and welcome and are generous toward and serve.

We all want this kind of happiness. When scripture says, “God loves a cheerful giver (2 Corinthians 9:7),” the Greek is literally, “hilarious.” There’s a part in our souls that really wishes we could live and give this way. We all want to see the face of God. But, there’s a little bit of Ebenezer Scrooge in all of us –fearful, angry, anxious. Like, old Ebenezer, we’re not really happy living this way, not proud of this part of ourselves. We’re not really happy living this way, we want redemption, and we want release. Our souls long to live God’s way, our hearts desire not constriction, but expansion in love, to grow into a new way of being. But it’s just so difficult for us, I’m not sure why. We’re fearful of change. We’re fearful of giving. We’re fearful of not having enough. Maybe we’re unable to really trust, maybe even trust God to provide.

My friend, Carlos Wilton, a Presbyterian minister in New Jersey, tells this story. “In downtown Seattle a few years back – though it could have been any city in this land – a man was walking down the street just a few days before Christmas. He came upon one of those Salvation Army kettles. As he approached the volunteer, an old woman ringing the bell, he felt an unaccustomed spirit of generosity wash over him. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out all his change. He dropped every last coin into the kettle with a smile.

The man turned to leave, but then he stopped. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet and emptied everything last bill into the kettle as well. Grinning like an idiot, he walked away with a bounce in his step. But about two blocks later, the bounce wore out. Suddenly it hit him! “What have I done?” he asked himself. The man turned around, walked back to the old woman and asked for his money back. He got it, and left again, walking very quickly this time, head down, looking neither to the right nor the left.”

“For two blocks…that man walked in the Kingdom of God. For two blocks he was free of the burden of his possessions. For two blocks he put other people above himself. For two blocks he was self-giving and generous. For two blocks he was blessed; but like most of us, he could not stand the uncertainty that goes with that much blessing. He wanted to continue to think he is in control. He walked back, out of the realm of God and back into the well-worn grooves of his weary world.”

Sometimes it’s scary walking into the Kingdom of God, living the life of Christ, being self-giving and generous. But when we do, we get a glimpse of God. “God is known,” John Calvin (1509-1564) said, “where humanity is cared for.” The face of God is revealed in how we serve one another. When we serve and share we get a glimpse of the face of God.

“…that God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ.” This seems to imply that God’s glory is mixed up in all things, in all the stuff of life, in people and all the things that people do. When we are stewards of God’s various forms of grace, then God’s glory is being revealed all around us and in us. That’s what I mean by seeing the face of God – we see God there. And when we are serving one another with all of this grace that’s entrusted to us, we come to see the many faces of God upon all that we do.

The face of God emerges when we’re generous, when we share, when we love – and it emerges in the faces of people who receive what we give and share, in the face of the people we love. I wish I had to power to deprogram that part of our brains that equates stewardship with fundraising and collecting money. Stewardship is not about financial figures on a ledger, but faces. It’s not about not fundraising and budgets, but about faces. It’s about the faces of people whose lives are transformed through the sharing of what’s been entrusted to us. It’s about the faces of people who encounter the face of God when we’re generous.

Think of the faces: Where do you see God’s face in this congregation? Where do you see signs of God’s compassion? God’s face is all over this congregation.

o I see it in you. We see it in one another;
o Read the ‘thank you’ notes on the Mission bulletin board and think of the faces of people whose lives have been changes because your support of this ministry;
o I wish you all could see the face of the children who come down and sit up front for the children’s message, to see the joy on their faces, who hear the gospel and get it;
o Can you see it in the compassion and love found in this community? As we suffer with those who suffer and rejoice with those who rejoice? Personally, I don’t know how people get by without the love and support of the church family.

This week, before you determine your pledge for 2010, before you look what you gave this year and decide what you will give, I invite you to sane and sober prayer. And as you pray, conjure up the faces: the face of the people in this church, over the years, the faces of the people sitting beside you, the faces of our children, try to envision the faces of people around the world who see the face of God in our mission giving, and imagine the faces of people who will become part of this community. It’s about the people – and lives touched and change for the glory of God. Give more than you have in the past. Before you pledge, ask: “Is this gift given to the glory of God?” Then fill out your pledge card – make it a commitment, be bold. It’s your covenant between you and God. Then make your pledge – do it to the glory of God.
William Barclay, The Letters of James and Peter, revised edition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1976), 251-255.

Carlos Wilton’s sermon, “Hilarious Giving,” in William G. Carter, ed. Speaking of Stewardship: Model Sermons on Money and Possessions (Louisville: Geneva Press, 1998), 72-73.

Calvin’s Commentary on Jeremiah 22:16, cited in William Stacy Johnson, John Calvin: Reformers for the 21st Century (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 13.

05 October 2009

Going Global

Psalm 8 & Hebrews 1: 1-4, 2:5-12
World Communion Sunday/ 4th October 2009

As I read over the lectionary text from Hebrews for this morning, I found myself drawn toward certain phrases and images. First, know that this is a very difficult text to preach on because there’s so much going on behind the scenes, so much which needs to be known before one can attempt to interpret it. Scholars think the opening verses are derived from an early Christian hymn known by heart to the first readers. It’s a hymn that makes substantial theological claims, staking out a strong Christology – that is, who Jesus is – not unlike our opening hymn this morning, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” You can almost hear the earliest believers singing something like, “All hail the power of Jesus’ name!/ Let angels prostrate fall;/ Bring forth the royal diadem,/ And crown him Lord of all!” Lord of all – that’s the image that seems to surface for me reading through these days.

There’s an ancient ritual called lectio divina. It’s a way to read scripture devotionally – not as a scholar, but as someone who goes to scripture in order to hear the Word of God, to listen for what God might be saying. It goes something like this: read out a passage aloud or silently and then be attentive to the words or phrases in the text that seem to speak to your heart, or invite your attention, that strike you, that jump out at you. You can do this alone or in groups. It’s a remarkable way to pay attention to what the Spirit might be trying to say to you through the text. It’s a way to listen for God.

On a Communion morning, in a full service, Hebrews is a text that lends itself to lectio divina, a kind of free-association. Indeed, I found my eyes, my heart drawn to a portion of these verses,
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”

Or this verse, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”

Or this verse, “when he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

Over and over again, we have this image of Christ who lives with God and reigns over our lives. He’s the same Christ who existed with God at the creation of the world, the same Christ through whom the worlds were created.

This is an extraordinary image of a cosmic Christ whose very presence sustains all things by his powerful hand. Not sustained all things… Not will sustain all things… But, sustains all things by his powerful word – the creative, dynamic, life-bringing Word of God that is spoken through Jesus, the very articulation of which sustains the universe and the very substance of our second-by-second existence in God’s world. This is the Christ who reigns on high over the world, this world in which we live and move and have our being. Highfalutin theology, to be sure.

But is it true? We have a grand, global vision of a universe that is sustained by the benevolence of God, full of the glory of God, as John Calvin (1509-1564) tirelessly tried to show us. How did Calvin do it? In a world such as his, rife with violence, disease (like the plague), and destruction, how could Calvin see God’s glory? How do we? Look at the world around us and what do we see? There’s greed on Wall Street and in the marketplace, violence in the streets (such as Derrion Albert who was beaten to death by a gang of kids this past week in Chicago), deception in the halls of government. It hardly seems like the Son of God is running the show. Think of the tsunamis that devastated Samoa and American Samoa this week. On this World Communion Sunday when our eyes turn from our local congregation to our bonds with the global church, to sisters and brothers around the world who share our love for Christ, many of whom suffer at a level we cannot even begin to imagine. So often peace and justice do not kiss (see Psalm 85:10), but extends fists of defiance. From global warming to the torn fabric of society to the broken places of the human heart, all creation seems to be under the sway of tragic evil.

The author of Hebrews was not oblivious to this apparent contradiction. A mature faith lives with contradiction. He wasn’t blind to the political and social circumstances of his day. He could affirm that nothing is outside God’s control, and yet, at the same time, realistically confess that everything is not the way it will be. “But we do see Jesus,” the text says. “But we do see Jesus (Hebrews 2:9).”

And what have we learned, we who have seen Jesus? As royal subjects of the one who reigns in love, we have a special place in God’s world or kingdom (as Jesus would have said) or realm of God. We are children of God, crowned with glory and honor. And so my eye was drawn to this verse, “It is fitting that God, for whom and through him all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctified and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters… (Hebrews 2: 10-11)”

Where do we know that God is present in the sufferings and sorrows of the world? When we see Jesus – the Pioneer of our faith one who defeated death and sat down in Majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3).

We don’t say this lightly or as pious platitude. Jesus’ experience of human sin and suffering, because it is God who knows our suffering, paved the way for God to be present to us, God’s children, even and maybe especially when we suffer. Why doesn’t God just remove all the suffering? I don’t know. We don’t know. There’s no answer to that question. But what we do have is the knowledge that God, through Christ, is present to us in our suffering. The resurrection and exaltation of Christ on high means that suffering will never have the last word in God’s kingdom, death will not have the last word. For the sake of God’s children, God is working through the suffering of the world, through our pain and our sorrow, in order to redeem and save.

And so my eyes were drawn to this text: “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters, in the midst of the congregation I will praise you (Hebrews 2:12).” We join arms with our brothers and sisters here and around the world, united in our sufferings, sharing our sorrow, but also sharing our praise and united in our affirmations.

Later on in Hebrews, the author tells us, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1).” Yes, the needs of the world are immense and it might appear to our eyes God is not providentially caring for us. But “we do see Jesus” and see in him the promise, God’s promise, that God will never leave us or forsake us – or this beloved world that Christ died to save.

We come to the Lord’s Table on this World Communion Sunday with the hope that we do see Jesus – will again or for the first time – to meet him here in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup, to meet him here in one another, and then we will be sent out to see him at work in the world.

We do see Jesus and through him can see the world anew; not as others see it, but as Christ sees it; not the world as it is, but the world, by God’s grace, as it shall be – as it shall be.
Thanks be to God.
Hymn text: Edward Peronet (1726-1792) first published in the Gospel Magazine in England, 1779.