Passage: 1 Sam. 3:1-20
Date: August 23, 2009
Preacher: Rev David Hutchinson
Guest Preacher:

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1 Kings 8:27-30, 41-43; John 6:66-69

Rev. David Hutchinson

Sunday, August 23, 2009

            What would it take to make you feel like God was with you?

            Would a feeling of inner peace do it?

            Does looking at the stained glass - make you feel like God is here?

            Does the music?

Maybe experiencing some piece of good really fortune…like winning the lottery?

                        But if that does it, then what about some piece of really BAD fortune…

…what then?

            How about an answer to prayer?

            The question that emerges out of the Old Testament reading for this morning for me is this: what is the connection between prayer, and God’s presence?

            When I was working as a hospital chaplain before I was ordained, we would meet as a team to debrief our experiences.  At those meetings we had in hand, copies of our verbatim reports that we had written up describing our interactions with patients in the hospital.  A commonly used phrase, that we wrote to briefly summarize an encounter was, “prayer and presence”.  We would write about the condition of the patient, and then, that we offered, “prayer and presence”.

            But what is the connection between prayer, and presence?

                        And between prayer, and God’s presence?

            The Old Testament reading for this morning comes in the midst of Solomon’s prayer of dedication of the temple.  This is the end of a long, long saga.  If you have been with us all summer, we have been reading through the accounts of King David and have now moved to Solomon.  Long before the events described in the reading this morning, young David danced before an ark that was brought into Jerusalem.  The ark contained God’s holy law, and symbolized God’s presence.  In fact it had a golden seat on top: the mercy seat.

            Bringing the ark into Jerusalem was like bringing God back.

            Prior to that, the people had been in exile.  And the ark had resided in a tent.  A temporary dwelling that had accompanied them in exile.  Just as God - had accompanied them as well.

            Now that ark - could again reside in a temple.

            This temple - dedicated by Solomon in the reading for today.

            God finally, finally, come home.

            But even at this dramatic culmination, the question emerges:

            Can God really dwell in one place?

            Can God really dwell on earth?

            If heaven can’t really contain God, then how could God dwell in a temple?

            And yet this temple is a reminder that God DOES dwell with us.


                                    But how?

            The text for today pleads with God to listen to prayers.

            All these prayers prayed toward this temple, where God is said to dwell.

                        “Listen to these prayers, O God”, pleads Solomon.

                                    Listen and forgive.

            Even the foreigners.

                        Wait a minute, what?

            Solomon goes on to make this remarkable plea: even when a foreigner who is not of the people of Israel comes to this temple, if they come with a heart for God, then listen, and answer their prayer.

            The temple becomes a symbol of inclusion rather than exclusion.

            A symbol of embrace of the foreigner.

            Through - - - the vehicle of prayer.

            It seems that the connection between our prayers and God’s presence is in the hearing.  Or in the listening.  At least in part.

            Does God really hear the prayers of everyone.

            Even the foreigners?

            Lewis Black is a fairly irreverent comedian.  He has appeared on Comedy Central, and has recently written a book called, “Me of Little Faith”.  Rather than, “Ye..”  “Me..”.  Me of little faith.  While I do not endorse the opinions of this man, nor recommend his bold angry language to you as a model, he is really, really funny.  And he wrestles with some of the most basic questions.  So I turn to him not really for answers, but for questions.  With that said, he wrote a little piece in the book called ‘an airline traveler’s prayer’, some of which goes, more or less, like this:

            “O Heavenly Father, who in your wisdom created airplanes so that man could be like unto a bird with a broken wing, please move things along, and give to us the miracle of teleportation.  I don’t know how much longer I can take this.  Once I enter the doors of an airport, Heavenly Father, I fear that there will come a time when I will no longer be responsible for my own actions.  Am I making myself clear to you, who maintains order in the universe, except in airport baggage claim, so I can be certain that the wait for my luggage is actually longer than my flight time?  As I stand here wondering if I will ever see my hair gel again, I try to have pure thoughts.  Thoughts that will lift me above the base animal urges I feel…but higher thoughts don’t come, O Lord.  The conveyor belt is empty O Lord.  It is empty.  It isn’t even moving.  Please move the conveyor belt.  The one that rises up into the heavens and brings me closer to you.  Amen.”

            Indeed what would bring us closer to God?

            And does God hear prayers like that one?

            From people who - barely believe?

            Or from people who are “foreigners” in one way or another?

            And does God do - as the Old Testament reading pleads - and forgive?

            I have been thinking a lot lately about forgiveness.  What is the relationship between a prayer for forgiveness and God’s presence?  And in what way does forgiveness involve forgetting?

            At the Lords Table we receive communion, “in remembrance of Jesus”.  We remember, and we come into the presence of the Holy Spirit.  But we also ask for forgiveness.  And we proclaim that the broken body is made whole.  And so what is the relationship between forgiving and forgetting?

            What I have come to is that prayers about forgiveness are strongly connected to being present.  We can’t forgive and reconcile if we break relationship.  We have to stay in it.  And we have to trust that God stays in it as well.  In fact without the assurance that God stays in it with us and those we are trying to forgive, there is no way we can do it alone.

            Miroslav Volf has written a book about his struggle to forgive, called the “End of Memory”.  Volf is Croatian, and he was imprisoned and interrogated in the former Yugoslavia.  He is now a professor at Yale University.  His book is set in the context of his thoughts about his interrogator who he calls Captian G.  The central question of the book is what does it mean for him as a Christian that God’s offer of forgiveness extends to even this prison guard that abused him.  How does one take seriously the call to love one’s enemies?

            At one point in the book he describes an imaginary communion service.  He writes, “Imagine what would happen if during Holy Communion I participated in the communal celebration of the lamb of God, now seated at the right hand of the Holy One, who both suffered with those who suffer and removed the guilt of their transgressors!  In such a liturgical setting, both Captian G. and I would participate in the worship precisely in our capacities as the wronged and the wrongdoer.”

            So far he has never had the opportunity in real life to meet with this prison guard.  But at the end of his book he imagines a scene in which they meet in a pub.  The first time they meet the conversation breaks off as he attempts to accuse, and Captian G. defends his actions.  But then a second meeting, this time, with God present as mediator.

            Volf imagines saying this to his former interrogator: “I know very well that you don’t think religion is a force for good.  But even if you don’t believe in God, I do.  And for me, the presence of God – a giving and forgiving God – might make a difference in our encounter.”

            With that said, he is able to enter more deeply into the process of reconciliation.  Ultimately though, all his attempts came up a bit short without a vision of God’s presence in the process and the ultimate Final Day.  As he writes, “I had been pulled from ahead by the hope that God’s reconciliation would be complete…on the Day of Final Reconciliation, the Day of Judgment and Embrace…and…Reconciliation that has been partial and fragile now will be complete…”

            Imagine meeting with someone who has hurt you in a pub.

            What would you say?

            Would God’s presence in the room make any difference?

            I know this is really difficult stuff.

            The reading from the New Testament, from John’s gospel, reports that the disciples struggled with the difficult sayings of Jesus.  Jesus had come to the end of a long description if his presence with us in bread and in the flesh.  And it says that many of the disciples drew back and didn’t stay with him.  They withdrew their presence.

            And Jesus responds with a question:

            “Do you ALL want to leave me?”

            But Simon Peter stays with him in it:

                        To whom shall we go?

            This is difficult, but where else can we talk about it?

            Where else can we go?

            Desmond Tutu puts it this way in his recent book, “God has a Dream”:  The God we worship doesn’t tell people to wear fireproof suits before going into the furnace.  God goes right in there with them.  And then he tells this story from the Holocaust:

            A Nazi guard was taunting his Jewish prisoner, who had been given the filthiest job, cleaning the toilets.  The guard was above him looking down at him and said: “Where is your God now?”  the prisoner replied: “Right here with me in the muck”.

            So how do we stay with one another.

            How do we stay present?

            This past week, on Monday night, I went to a gathering at Concordia University.  Dozens of people showed up to listen.  Two of the organizers of the Restorative Listening Project on Gentrification had recently written editorials in the Oregonian about the so called ‘beer summit’ held by President Obama, following the incident wit Henry Louis Gates, Jr.  What is remarkable about the responses on line at Oregonlive.com is that there is apparently some question in the minds of some people about whether there still is racism in American culture.  People wrote stinging criticism of the African-American man who expressed his disappointment that we still have a long way to go.  He was accused of living in the past.

            Nevertheless, an invitation was given to that person to appear at the meeting Monday night and talk about it.  The person did not show up at the meeting.  But a lot of other people did.  And they stayed with one another in the conversation for hours.

            Was our presence Monday might a prayer?

            I can’t speak for the others.

            I know it was for me.

            Mostly I just listened.  Which is sometimes difficult for me as I like to talk.  But sometimes doing the difficult thing is what we need to do.

            The disciples said to Jesus:  This is difficult!

                        And he did NOT deny it.

                                    But instead he simply asked: so do you wish to go away?

            Or will you stay in it with me?

            Maybe a question for us to ponder as well….