Go and SEE

Sunday, September 18, 2016

A sermon preached by
Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry United Methodist Church, September 18,
2016.

 Text: 
Psalm 27                                                                  

 

Palestinian-American Poet Naomi
Shihab Nye tells this story of an encounter with a Middle Eastern mother and
child:  “The little girl at the airport
gate in Cincinnati had a tuft of vivid pink ponytail sticking straight up out
of her brown-haired head.  I wondered how
hard she had to beg to get her mother to do that.  She was about five, wearing a lacy white
party dress.  When we boarded the plane
she turned up sitting right in front of me. 
She poked her cute little face through the crack between the seats.  ‘Do you
have a table that comes out of your arm?’…When the flight attendant gave
safety instructions over the loudspeaker, the girl chimed out loud
responses.  ‘You’re welcome!’ to ‘Thanks
for flying with us.’ ‘Hope you have a nice flight too!’ Her mother tried to
shush her.  ‘But you told me to answer
people,’ the girl protested.  The mama
said, ‘That lady’s talking to everyone. 
She’s not just talking to you.’ The plane took off toward San Francisco
and the little girl looked down on Cincinnati. 
‘Oh Mama!’ she cried. ‘We forget we live in a zigzag world.  Look how it’s shining!’”[i]

 

“We forget we live in a zigzag
world,” a shining world…  This little
Arab child had the eyes to see the beauty of the world, the light in the world,
she saw everyone as a friend.  Sometimes
we forget. Sometimes we don’t see.

 

Many months ago now, in a sermon, I
lifted up the opening prayer from our United Methodist Order for Morning Praise
and Prayer that begins, “New every morning is your love, great
God of light, and all day long you are working for good in the world.” I
regularly post the prayer on FaceBook and many of you have commented about how
helpful it is.  But something else I’ve
heard in response to the words of this prayer is:  “I have a hard time seeing God working for
good in the world.”  // So many people
struggle just to get by; the specter of violence haunts our streets, our homes,
even our computers; the earth is wrecked to line the pockets of the already
wealthy; bigotry, cruelty and injustice not only land upon human bodies with
humiliating, deadly force, but also become rallying cries to mobilize the very
worst of human nature.  And it feels
tiresome to have to keep acknowledging the vitriol and division and
polarization that seems so overwhelming in these days.  But this is the soup in which we are
swimming.  We can’t escape it.  I’ve been hearing how difficult it is for
those of you who are directly involved in the political fray in any way to keep
a sense of balance, kindness, and faith. 
I have been hearing painful stories about hateful, dismissive, words and
actions from family members and friends. 
When our own loved ones begin to treat us like an enemy we know that the
infection of this particular dis-ease has become pervasive indeed. We may wince
to think of the ways that we ourselves have contributed to the ugliness that is
determined to get its hooks in all of us. 
In the midst of all of this, our vision can get clouded by
defensiveness, hurt, self-righteousness, regret, fear, sadness, and more. How
can we see the shining, zigzag world, how can we see others as friends, how can
we see God in these conditions?

 

Jean Vanier is a Catholic philosopher and the founder of L’Arche, an
international organization that creates communities where people with
intellectual disabilities and those who assist them share life together. Vanier
himself has lived in this intentional community for more than 50 years. He talks
about seeing God through “signs” explaining that,
“A sign means ‘a great
event that is visible and reveals a presence of God.’”[ii]  Vanier isn’t just talking about things we
might associate as “miracles”—like walking on water or immediate healing.  Instead he mentions things like the 2010 film
Of Gods and Men, a movie that retold
the tragic fate of nine Trappist monks in Algeria. The monks lived in deep
harmony with their Muslim neighbors until 1996, when Islamic fundamentalist
forces ordered them to leave. The monks refused to leave the people with whom
they had formed such close bonds and paid dearly for their solidarity. Vanier
says that the film reveals God’s presence and, therefore, is a “sign.”  He also mentions things that certain people
do—acts of courage, of love, of humility, of service—and says that these are
“signs”—great events that are visible and that reveal God’s presence.  I imagine that many of us can get on board
with this understanding as an abstract concept. 
But is this the lens through which we actually look upon the world?  Are we actively looking for “signs” and, if
so, do we have the eyes to see them? 

 

As Naomi Shihab Nye’s story reminds
us, children tend to see signs with great clarity.  I am reminded of the moment here at Foundry
back in July when this truth was on brilliant display.  On July 17th, author Diana Butler
Bass joined us for worship with her family. She wrote about what happened on
her FaceBook page: “The pastor (Pastor Dawn) called the little ones forward for
the children’s sermon, about a dozen preschoolers gathered on the chancel
steps. The pastor asked, ‘Where is the candle? Do you see the candle?’ The
children looked around. One sharp-eyed boy said, ‘There it is.’ And the pastor
replied, ‘Would you get it?’ The boy retrieved the candle and handed it to her.
‘Where is the white bowl?’ she then asked. And the same happened. ‘Where are
the silver and gold beads?’ Repeat. ‘Where is something that reminds you of
Christmas?’ Again.  Finally she asked, ‘Where
is God?’  The children looked about.  Up, down, all around.  A few bewildered stares, some shrugged
shoulders. Then, a small blonde boy in a plaid shirt, about three years old,
said, ‘I know!’ The pastor said, ‘You do?’ The little boy looked excited
insisting, ‘Yes, yes!’ Then the pastor said, ‘Where?’ And the little boy
replied, ‘I’ll go get God!’  He jumped up
from the chancel stairs and ran down the center aisle. His father, obviously a
bit worried about the open doors at the back of the sanctuary, leaped out of
his pew to fetch his son.  Before he got
very far, however, the little boy had returned. He was holding the hand of a
kind-looking woman in her seventies, literally pulling her down the aisle. ‘Here!’
he cried, ‘Here’s God! She’s here!’ The pastor looked puzzled: ‘Miss Jean?’ And
the boy pointed, ‘There she is! God! God!’”[iii]

 

I received an email from Diana later
that day saying that her FaceBook stats revealed that her post of the story had
reached more than 100 thousand people. 
She said “I've never seen people respond so beautifully to something
I've put up on social media…People are hungering for goodness.”

 

The signs are all around us.  But, as Vanier writes, “to see signs, we have
to be alive to reality, to what is actually happening.”  Perhaps that tempts us to circle back around
to all the nastiness and struggle that pervades the world at present.  That, some
would say, is what is actually happening. 
True enough.  But it is not the
only thing happening.  New
every morning is your love, great God of light, and all day long you are
working for good in the world.”  Are we
looking upon our lives and the world with the expectation that all day long God
is working for good?  Do we have the eyes
to see? 

 

“Witness” is our guiding theme for
this next year and one aspect of that is seeing.
What do we witness?  What do we see?  I’m glad we have the year to explore these
questions because there is so much to think about.  But as a beginning—and way of framing this
piece of our reflection on the topic—I was drawn to Psalm 27.  It came to mind initially because verse four
of the Psalm is part of the daily office I pray from the Celtic Daily Prayer book: 

One thing I asked of the Lord,

    that will I seek after:

to dwell in the house of the Lord

    all the days of my life,

to behold the beauty of the Lord,

    and to seek God in God's  temple.

 

Having prayed this verse every
morning for over two years, I have come to understand “the house of the Lord”
not as a building—or a physical sanctuary—but instead as an enfolding in God’s
presence.  Where does God dwell, where is
God present?  I believe God’s “household”
is the created world.  Even so, I can
have the experience—does this happen to you?—where I become so caught up in my
own agenda and so familiar with my surroundings that I forget where I am and
can only see as far as the end of my nose. 
Therefore, an awareness of where I am—God’s household!—opens my eyes to
beauty and reminds me to look for God everywhere.  My experience is that, without the daily
reminder of how to fix my gaze—the reminder of what to seek, what to look for—my
vision shrinks and becomes distorted and fixed upon distractions, divisions,
destruction. 

 

When I went back to read the whole
Psalm, I was reminded that in this prayer we don’t find anything that could be
interpreted as a denial of the painful realities of the world.  This Psalm doesn’t suggest that if you just go
to church regularly all the bad things will go away and your life will get easy
and you’ll never get hurt or feel sad or angry.  Instead, we hear of flesh being devoured (v.
2), of war (v. 3), of parents’ abandonment (v. 10), of slander and violence (v.
12).  In the midst of all these
realities, the Psalmist seeks the God who is known as a light and guide for the
path, a teacher, a source of protection and help.  And finally, the Psalmist’s testimony is: “I
believe that I shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.”
(v. 13)  If the Psalmist is correct, seeing
God in the midst of pain and struggle gives us the courage to stand strong, to
resist the forces all around us that would devour us given the chance.  Seeing God even in the presence of injustice
and attack also allows us to recognize beauty in the world when it seems there
is no beauty to be found.  That is, an
awareness of God’s presence gives us the eyes to see the acts of kindness,
generosity, tenderness, courage, self-sacrifice, patience, creativity and the
like that happen right in the middle of tragedy and struggle.  Seeing God helps us see what God sees…because
if we are seeing God’s presence and activity, then we become aware of the
people God sees, the ways God is at work. 
And if we are seeing that, we will know where we can participate in what
God is doing in the world. 

 

There is a lot to unpack about the
process and practice and benefits of seeing God—and we’ll have opportunities to
do that in the months ahead.  But for
today, the invitation is to recognize how important it is to know what you are
looking for.  The Psalmist says, “One
thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after”:  to dwell in God’s household every single day
and to behold—to see—the beauty of the Lord. 
What do you seek?  What do you
look for?  Friends, today you are invited
to go and SEE God.

 

“We forget we live in a zigzag
world.  Look how it’s shining!”  Look!  “Here’s
God! She’s here!”

 




[i] Naomi Shihab Nye, “My
Perfect Stranger,” You & Yours, Rochester,
NY: Boa Editions, Ltd., 2005, p. 78.

[ii] Jean Vanier, Signs: Seven Words of Hope, New York:
Paulist Press, 2013, p. 45.

[iii] Diana Butler Bass,
FaceBook post, July 17, 2016.