Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Discerning God's presence


General Douglas MacArthur had a reputation as something of a “cold fish.” After World War II, his public relations people came up with an idea to help him improve his image. MacArthur would review a contingent of veterans. In the middle of the review, he would stop and suddenly recognize an enlisted man who had served with him during the war. “It will be a tremendously moving and human moment,” his advisers told him. “Out of hundreds of men lined up for your inspection, you suddenly pick out a single individual, call him by name and recall past campaigns.” MacArthur agreed to the plan.

The lucky soldier would be unaware that he’d been singled out for the honor. They searched Army records, found out everything about the fellow, and figured out precisely where he would be standing when MacArthur marched through the ranks. Just to be safe, they arranged for an aide to nudge MacArthur discreetly when he was directly in front of the proper soldier.

The plan worked perfectly. MacArthur saluted the veterans; the veterans saluted MacArthur. The General began his inspection. At the right moment, the aide nudged MacArthur. He halted, turned, and looked at the man standing stiffly at attention in front of him. “Jones!” he boomed. “We were together on Corregidor. You are Corporal Jones. I remember you.”

For a moment, Jones looked startled. Then he peered quizzically at the General. Finally, he blurted out somewhat uncertainly, “MacArthur?”[1]

Do you recognize God’s presence and activity in your life? In the world? Those questions capture the essence of today’s gospel reading.[2] Those questions are also central to the spiritual struggle of many Christians and non-Christians.

Consider these two metaphors that are useful for discerning God’s presence and activity in one’s life and in the world.

First, as our Presiding Bishop constantly emphasizes, God is love. This metaphor is a prominent New Testament theme. Critically, love is non-substantial – has no being – but relational. God is present in loving relationships that liberate and give life. These relationships call us to love one another and all creation. Furthermore, loving, liberating and life-giving relationships are works in which we see God, a point the 23rd Psalm and today’s first reading[3] memorably illustrate.

Tangentially, Christians have tragically cited this morning’s gospel to justify both displacing the Jews as God’s chosen people and anti-Semitism. A literal reading of the text is nonsensical. Jesus was a Jew. His disciples and other followers were all Jews. Christianity emerged only after Jesus’ resurrection. John’s gospel was written to appeal to Gentiles, including Romans, during Roman persecution of Christians. The author crafts his appeal by implying all Jews rejected Jesus and that the Jews were responsible for his death. That line of reasoning leads to an absurd conclusion: Jesus, a Jew, would have been filled with self-loathing and partially culpable for his execution.

A better interpretation focuses on Jesus and his command to love everyone, Jew and Gentile, male and female, Democrat and Republican, the 1% and the 99%, and so forth. We follow Jesus when we love unconditionally, choosing the path that leads not to perishing but to life abundant.

A second common biblical metaphor for God is light. This metaphor reminds us of God’s unknowability. Light has some characteristics of waves and of particles, but is neither. Similarly, the metaphors of love and light help us to discern God’s presence and activity without our being able to describe God's actual nature.

Light, like the gospel’s anthropological metaphor of listening to Jesus’ voice, points to God giving us wisdom. Even as light illuminates a path, a road, or a darkened room, so does God nudge or lure us in a particular direction. Jesus most famously sought this wisdom in the Garden of Gethsemane when he prayed for God's guidance about whether to face execution in Jerusalem or to take a different direction.

Light also gives us courage. Think of the child – or even adults – who are afraid of dark places, moving shadows conjuring up evil images. Generations of authors have written about scary things in the dark. Turning on the light banishes those images and imbues even the faintest of heart with some degree of courage.

Light warms, or as physicists would tell us, energizes that upon which it shines. Solar power and solar heat are green alternatives to carbon-based fuel sources. Analogously, God's light, which illuminates our way and gives us courage to take the next step, also gives us the strength to take that next step.

Neither metaphor – love or light – is comprehensive or sufficient to fully describe God's presence and activity in a person’s life or in the world. However, the two metaphors helpfully point to the living God’s presence in the warp and woof of the fabric of the cosmos. We experience God relationally, God calling us to love one another and to care for creation, showing us the way ahead and then filling us with the courage and strength to journey along that path. Unlike Corporal Jones struggling to recall General MacArthur, we can with confidence acknowledge God’s presence and activity when we walk in love and light. Amen.

Sermon preached the Fourth Sunday of Easter, May 12, 2019

Parish of St. Clement, Honolulu, HI



[1]James Dent, Charleston, West Virginia, Gazette, 2 July 1991.
[2] John 10:22-30.
[3] Acts 9:36-43.

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