Sermon: Longing for God (2/28/16)

“O God, I seek you.  My soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.”  Is your soul thirsty today?  Does it feel like you’re wandering around an arid terrain, parched, fainting, with no hope of finding water?  Does it ever feel like you might just die if can’t get some sign that God is alive and present with you?

George Caywood worked for many years at a rescue mission on Skid Row in Los Angeles.  After some time, George became deeply depressed — his work was hard, his marriage was dying, they hadn’t found the right combination of meds yet for his depression.  George was a person of faith, but he hadn’t felt God’s presence in a long time.

In an interview for the Storycorps Project, George spoke of that dark time.

“I was in my office.  I wasn’t fully out of my depression; my wife and I were well on our way to divorce.  Working like crazy, exhausted, probably 8:00 at night.  I was so lonely.  I used to get a haircut once a week just to have someone touch me.  And I’m sitting in my office and I said, ‘God, I need you to touch my arm.  I need you to physically touch my arm.’  And I just sat there praying, hoping something would happen–but of course nothing did.”  (143)

Have you ever longed for God like that?  Have you ever ached to feel God’s touch?  If you have, then the reading from Isaiah probably annoyed you.  “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and labor for that which does not satisfy?  Seek me while I may be found,” God says.  “Call upon me while I am near.”

Yeah, right.  Whatever.  God is present; all we have to do is wake up and say, “Hi, Holy One!”  Been there, done that, have the abandonment issues to prove it.  Sometimes, no matter how hard we try, no matter how wide we open ourselves, we still can’t feel God’s presence.  We seek God…and find nothing.  We search for God, and end up feeling even lonelier than we started.  Desperate for God, we reach out, but our hearts return to us empty every time.

So…it makes sense when we experience God’s absence to “spend our money for that which is not bread, and labor for that which does not satisfy.”  We just want something to fill up the emptiness–and those non-bread, non-satisfying things do satisfy for the moment.  All we’re trying to do is to find a little happiness, right?

But once the moment passes?  Yeah.  That’s the hardest.  That’s when we feel truly alone, when God feels farthest away.  So what do we do?  How can we slake our thirst for God when all the wells have dried up?

Reading the Psalms, you discover that the ones that begin with the negative almost always end by praising God.  That’s what happens in Psalm 63.  It begins with “My soul thirsts for you, God.  My flesh faints…” then ends with, “Because your steadfast love is better than life, I will bless you as long as I live; I will lift up my hands and call on your name.”

How does the psalmist move so quickly from a sense of God’s absence to all this praise?  Well…they don’t.  Words of praise at the end of Psalms of lament are basically stated wishes.  It’s kind of like something we did on the Council retreat.  At the retreat, we imagined what Pilgrimage would look like in five years.  Instead of speaking from the present and saying, “I hope we’re doing this in 2021,” we spoke in present tense, as if what we hoped already were a reality.  “It’s 2021, and look what Pilgrimage is doing now!”

That’s what words of praise at the end of lament psalms are–It’s standing in the future and speaking as if the thing for which we hope already has happened.  Sometimes we have to act ourselves into the reality we want to inhabit…even the reality of God’s presence.

So what does the psalmist suggest we do when we long to reconnect to God?  After confessing how thirsty for God he or she is, the psalmist says:  “So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.”

I have looked upon you—where?– in the sanctuary.  One of the good gifts of being part of a faith community like this one is that we never have to go searching for God on our own.  We have all these people to help us.  During those times when we struggle to feel God’s presence, we’re surrounded by people who do feel it.  With their presence, they remind us that God is near.

There’s also something about being in the sanctuary and doing what you do in a sanctuary–worshiping God together with other people—there’s something about worshiping together that actually helps us to experience God.

Poet Kathleen Norris happened on a community of monks during a period of intense doubt.  She writes, “I was surprised to find the monks so unconcerned with my weighty doubts.  What interested them more was my desire to come to their worship… I had thought my doubts spectacular obstacles to faith and was confused when an old monk blithely stated that doubt is merely a sign that faith is alive and ready to grow.  I am grateful now for his wisdom and grateful to the community for teaching me about the power of liturgy.  They seemed to believe that if I just kept coming back to worship, things eventually would fall into place.”  (Amazing Grace, 63)  And, eventually, they did.

The thing I think the “spiritual but not religious” folks are missing is just how healing liturgy can be.  Except for cheering at sporting events, where else in our lives do we say or sing the same things at the same time with other people?  Okay.  Sporting events and Indigo Girls concerts.  J  Where else in our lives do we confess our faith together?  Where else in our lives do we share with each other our struggles, hopes, fears, brokenness?  Except for 12-step groups, I can think of no other place where this sort of thing happens on a regular basis.

How easy it is to neglect the gift of community, perhaps especially when we’re feeling hurt, abandoned by God, broken.  And yet, community—this worshiping community—can be the source of our healing.  This community of friends can help us reconnect with ourselves and with other people.  These people, the very people in this room, can help us find God again.

Today is our third Sunday of bringing our brokenness to the cross.  I am not a crafty person.  I’ve had this idea for a mosaic cross for a while, but didn’t have a clue how to make it happen.  Then I talked to my friends Jaime and Bill.  And look!  It’s happening.

One thing that happens with craft projects—we learned this last summer with our Growing Deeper into Community banner—as we work together on the project, the layers of meaning build and deepen.  That’s been happening with this project, too.  Last Sunday, one person noted how the glass on the cross is starting to mirror the glass in the baptismal wall art.  Then I posted a picture of the cross on FB this week with the caption, “Bringing our brokenness to the cross.”  I was struck that the two people who “loved” the picture have within the last couple of months, lost loved ones to tragic accidents.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that—while a few folks are placing their broken glass pieces in open areas — most are fitting their glass right up against other pieces of glass.  It’s like we’re trying to figure out how we can come together in our brokenness.

I certainly could have commissioned Jaime and Bill to create this cross and we could have presented the finished product to you with great fanfare on Easter Sunday saying “This cross represents the brokenness of all humanity.”  But if we did that, we’d miss the experience of bringing our own brokenness to the cross…and to do so alongside our friends who are doing the same thing.  There’s something about coming to the sanctuary, coming to worship with these friends, that helps to heal our brokenness, to renew our hope, and to reconnect to God.

The invitation today, as you come to glue a piece of glass onto the cross—symbol of your brokenness, of your soul’s thirst for God—is to be aware of your neighbors.  Take in the reality that you are not coming to the cross alone, but with these friends.  As you share glue and negotiate for space around the table, be aware of those who come with you.

After his desperate prayer for God to physically touch his arm, George Caywood says, “I walked down this huge flight of stairs and out the front door.  I’d spent a lot of time walking in the streets, just talking to people, including women who were prostitutes.  I never hugged the women because they had been so abused by men they didn’t want to be touched.

“So here I am, my heart broken.  And I look up the street, maybe 25 yards away, there’s this woman I knew to be a prostitute.  She took one look at me and started running towards me and threw her arms open, hugged me, kissed me on the cheek, then just went on.  I was so shocked.”  That was the person through whom “God chose to physically touch me.”  (pp.143-4)

Sometimes the only thing that can reconnect us to God is another person.  And so, as you come to the cross today, be aware of the people around you.  Look at the cross and see how all the broken pieces are fitting together.  See how beautiful all that brokenness becomes when it’s shared.  As you come, be aware of those who come with you.  It could be that today, your longing for God will be met by one of them.   (Bringing pieces of glass to the cross.)

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In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.  Amen.

Kimberleigh Buchanan  © 2016

About reallifepastor

I'm a pastor who's working out her faith...just like everyone else.
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