Sunday, August 11, 2013

Sermon: August 11, 2013 - Seeing the Unseen

2 Corinthians 4.16 – 5. 10
Rev. Andy Ferguson

            Well, it is time for the children to go back to school. This means that the teachers have already been working, getting ready for the kids to arrive. This means that parents have been making trips to the store to find clothes that fit, backpacks big enough but not too big for all the books, and the perfect lunchbox. We place great weight on educating our young; the beginning of school is one of the occasions when we celebrate this commitment.
            People of faith should be in daily prayer for children who learn and teachers who teach them. We can hold our children and their teachers up to God in prayer each day.
            Next, consider the responsibility of church and home to teach our children about the God who listens for prayer, who watches over us, who loves us unconditionally. If our children are going to learn that there are realities beyond the subjects taught in school, then we must teach at church and home what is missing at schools.


[I. A History Lesson on Thought]
            In the ancient times, certainly in the time of the Old Testament and earlier, people saw no separation between the earthly and heavenly OR the physical and spiritual. The boundary between these two aspects of thought was so ill defined that it hardly existed at all. Questions about the existence of God were unthinkable; people assumed a whole pantheon of gods and spirits which filled the world around them. Using the scientific method to prove a theory or the existence of some *thing* was equally irrelevant – overkill really. If it hurt to step on something with your bare feet in the dark, it was real enough. And, that was enough.
            Only later, in the time of the N.T., it is Paul who gives clear voice to the idea that there are things that are seen (houses, people, soil, and such) and things that are unseen (spirits and the Holy Spirit). We hear this separation in 2 Cor 4.18:
18 We look not at *what can be seen* but at *what cannot be seen*; for what can be seen is temporary, but what cannot be seen is *eternal*.

In the O.T. such a separation was unthinkable. By the time of the N.T., Paul can ask his readers to distinguish between what is seen and what is unseen.
            Roughly concurrent with Paul, Jesus gives voice and evidence to the idea of a difference between seen and unseen realities in Luke 8 in the double *Healing of Jairus’ daughter with the healing of the Woman with the Issue of Blood* (Lk 8.40-56). Jesus was delayed on his path to help Jairus’ daughter by the woman who touched the hem of his robe, and, as a result, Jairus’ daughter died before Jesus arrived. A messenger came to Jairus to say, “Your daughter is dead, do not trouble the teacher any longer. Logic of the time said: no human power can reverse death. The story goes on to report that Jesus said to Jairus and all those listening: “Do not fear. Only believe, and she will be saved” (Luke 8.50). In other words, death, which can be seen, may be final in *almost every situation* – except in the presence of Jesus. Clearly, Jesus brings a power to the ordinary events of human life that go far beyond human powers. As a result, people began to think of seen and unseen realities occupying the world – in the history of thought, they became distinct realities.
            Still later, in the Age of Enlightenment, human thought took the distinction between seen and unseen realities further. The Enlightenment divided all reality into that which is seen (the focus of science) and that which is unseen (the focus of faith and religion). This separation set science free to explore the universe without the burden of explaining the implications for religion in every finding. This set the stage for the explosion in scientific understanding in every area. In contrast, religion was left to its own methodologies and area of study. We are children of the Enlightenment.
            The result of this separation is that we no longer live in a world which assumes the presence of both seen and unseen realities. Now, we have to remind each other and teach our children about unseen realities:
+      about God in Trinity,
+      about prayer that is heard and even welcomed by God,
+      about the God who still intervenes in human affairs,
+      and about the presence of the holy among us.

II. What could it mean to live with unseen realities? I’ll give two examples:
            A. Twenty years ago, Janet Wolf told a story out of her experience with unseen realities. She said that…
            Her Wednesday night Bible study group had become a rather odd community of sorts. They gathered about 5:15 pm to share whatever food people were able to bring. While they eat, they share joys and sorrows, celebrations and concerns and all the stuff that falls in between. There are usually six to ten of them:
·       two or three people who are struggling with mental health problems,
·       three men who are homeless,
·       several dealing with time in prison,
·       and others wrestling with emotional and physical scars.
Folks come with a hunger for healing, wanting food for the body and soul, and a place to be at home.
            After eating, they take turns reading one or two of the lectionary passages and sharing whatever comes to mind as they try to discern words of challenge and comfort, words that might feed them anew.
            John, one of the men who is currently homeless and staying, as the others who are homeless do, at the downtown mission, started out one night: “I got to tell a story on my own self. Happened this morning. See, I been trying so hard to live this new life. To stay clean. I just am really trying, for the first time, to live this stuff out. Some of you don’t know how I used to live – drinking, drugging, knocking folks around. I always did read the Bible, but I just did it to put other folks down – quote stuff I wanted and go on about my business. It didn’t mean nothing then. But, it does now. And it’s hard. It really is hard to live this stuff out. And sometimes, it seems the more I try the harder it gets.
            “Stayed down at the mission again last night – house of pain for real. Woke up this morning and my shoes were gone. Somebody stole my shoes. I didn’t even have to think about what to do – I pulled out my knife and I went looking. I was walking all up and down the dining hall, table by table and I meant to get my shoes back. Kept thinking: in the old days wouldn’t anybody tried to touch my shoes – 'cause they’d know I’d get ‘em ‘fore they could ever put ‘em on. O yeah. I was mean and folks knew it. Didn’t care. And that’s how it was this morning. It’s one thing to give up drinking and drugging. It’s another thing when they steal your shoes.
            “And I’m hollering, threatening, and walking up and down with my knife out where everyone can see. I’m going to get my shoes. Then old Jim here (points to another homeless man in the group) started hollering from the other side of the room. “Bible says if they took your cloak give 'em your other one. If they took you shoes, give ‘em your socks. Put that knife away and give ‘em your socks.”
            “And I’m swearing and gettin' madder. Ain’t givin’ nobody nothin’! I want my shoes! And Old Jim, he just keeps hollering, “Give ‘em your socks, John!” //

            “Folded up my knife. Took a long time doing it, too. Walked barefoot to the service center this morning – and got me some more shoes – but sure is hard to live this stuff out!” (2)
           
What homeless John realized in the mission that morning is that there is another law across this land. No cop can enforce it; no judge can rule on when it must be applied. But, as the Law of God, it points us to a higher way of living. It points us to the day when we will live in the Kingdom of God. It is a Law that speaks of an unseen, not-yet full reality. But, it is a Law that can turn this world toward God. It is a Law to which we point every time we tell the world that Jesus Christ came to bring a different way. It is an unseen reality that is turning this world in a new direction.

B. Anthony Bloom told of his experience teaching a woman how to pray. He was young, just ordained and appointed as chaplain to a retirement home. This is the way he tells the story:
            At this retirement home lived an old woman who came to see him after his first communion service. She said, “I would like advice about prayer.”
            So, he said, “I’m sure one of the other chaplains can help you.”
            She responded, “All these years I have been asking people who are reputed to know about prayer, and they have never given me a sensible reply, so I thought that as you are so young and probably know nothing, you might by chance blunder out the right thing.”
            So with that beginning, he asked, “What is your problem with praying?”
            The woman said, “These 14 years I have been praying the *Our Father* prayer almost continually and never have I perceived God’s presence at all.”
            Anthony said, “If you talk all the time, you don’t give God a chance to speak.”
            She said, “What shall I do?”
            He said, “Go to your room after breakfast, put it right. Light the little candle that sits beside the cross on your table. Then, take stock of your room. Just sit, look around, and try to see where you live, because I am sure that if you have prayed all these 14 years it is a long time since you have seen your room. And then take your knitting and for 15 minutes knit before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit and try to enjoy the peace of your room.”
            She didn’t think it was very pious advice, but she took it. A month or so later, she came to see him and said, “You know, it works.”
            He asked, “What works; what happened?”
            And she said, “I did just what you advised me to do. I got up, washed, put my room right, had breakfast, came back, made sure that nothing was there that would worry me, and then I settled in my armchair and thought ‘Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes during which I can do nothing without being guilty!’ When I looked around for the first time, I thought, ‘Goodness, what a nice room I live in.’” Then, she said, “I felt so quiet because the room was so peaceful. There was a clock ticking but it didn’t disturb the silence; its ticking just underlined the fact that everything was so still. After a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God, and so I began to knit. And I became more and more aware of the silence. The clock was ticking peacefully. There was nothing to bother about. I had no need of straining myself.
            “Then, I realized that the silence was not just the *absence* of something but the *presence* of something. The silence had a density, and richness, and it began to pervade me. The silence around me began to come and meet the silence in me. I perceived that the silence was a presence. God meets me there while I knit before Him.” (3)

For that old woman, the unseen reality in her time of morning quiet was the coming of God.

[CONCL:]
            Though the world may not see, may not get it, may not care, there is a reality that surrounds us. It is the living God who comes, waiting nearby, listening perhaps for whispered prayer, watching with love in those great eyes. God is that reality unseen but active. God is that reality that bids us to still our strivings.
            My invitation to you this morning is to wait. Be still. **Do not fear; only believe**. God fills the unseen reality. My invitation is to wait in gentle silence for the coming of God.


Notes:
2. Wolf, Janet. “Shoes and Socks,” Alive Now!, Mar/Apr ’95, pp. 45ff.

3. Bloom, Anthony. “Finding God’s Presence,” quoted from Beginning to Pray in Alive Now!, Jul/Aug ’91, pp. 16f

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