We Encounter God In This Mysterious Conversation

This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 6/11/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was:  Genesis 12:1-9 & Matthew 9:9-26. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)

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There is a song that has been with me while I’ve been preparing this sermon, and I hope that sharing it with you will help preach the sermon in a different way. This song is from the greatest Christian band of all time: U2.

In this song, U2 says, “I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.” This song is striking, because it is one of U2’s greatest hits, and it was played on radio stations and heard all over the world. And it’s basically a gospel song: I’ve been hot, I’ve been cold; I’ve been high, I’ve been low. I’ve traveled all around. And I believe. I believe in Kingdom Come. I believe in what’s coming. I believe in this gospel. But I still haven’t quite gotten it yet. I still haven’t found what I’m looking for.

And I, for one, can say that I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. I’ve found glimpses of it. I’ve found moments. I’ve found times and places, but I haven’t been able to rest there, yet.

In our reading this morning from the book of Genesis, I see Abram – later Abraham – having the same experience. God calls Abram and says “Go. Uproot yourself. Leave everything you have and everyone you know and go to a land that I will show you.” And God pretty much immediately takes Abram to Canaan, which is the promised land, which 500 years later his distant descendants will be entering and taking as their home. And when they arrive at a certain spot in Canaan, a place called Shechem, God appears to Abram and tells him: “To your offspring I will give this land.”

We don’t get a lot of details from the story, or insight into Abram’s reaction, but it seems clear that he was impressed. Abram built an altar to God at Shechem. It must have been a powerful moment, to arrive in this place and have God tell you that this would be your family’s home.

But then, without further comment, it says that Abram, Sarai, Lot, the whole household, just kept moving; first to the hill country near Bethel and Ai, and then on by stages toward the Negeb, the desert region to the south.

So God took Abram to the Promised Land, showed it to him, but then kept him moving, as if on pilgrimage. And, after showing Abram the good, green land of Canaan, and promising it to his descendants, God takes Abram far away from there, to a desolate, desert region of all places. Why? Why didn’t God want Abram and his family to settle in Canaan right then? Why was the promise for his descendants rather than for Abram’s own generation? This is mysterious. And for Abram, I imagine it might have been frustrating.

There is a reason God chose Abram, of course. Abram is an example to all of us, in the way that he moved as God directed him. He trusted in God and his goodness, even in the face of incomprehension. Who can imagine a greater faith? It’s as if you showed a child his Christmas present, and then asked him to wrap it. I’m trying to imagine myself as Abram. Would I have the courage, the patience, the sheer faith in God, to move on?

This kind of faith resonates with our gospel reading this morning, when Jesus called the tax-collector Matthew to come and be his disciple. It says that as Jesus was walking along he said to Matthew: “Follow me.” And Matthew did. He left his tax-collection station behind, abandoned everything – his income, his station, his guilt and his shame – and followed Jesus.

God called Abram; Jesus called his disciples. The Lord said, “Go.” And those whom God called responded with faith that is nothing less than miraculous.

There are those who are called, like Abram and Matthew, and that’s amazing enough. But then there are those who do the calling, who seek God, who pound on the gates of heaven and don’t wait to be asked. People like the woman who had been suffering bleeding for over a decade. She saw Jesus, and she made a decision. She didn’t have to be asked; Jesus never said to her, “follow me,” but she sought the blessing all the same. She went looking for her own promised land – her un-promised land, the land that God never promised – and she found what she was looking for. As Jesus said to her: “Take heart, daughter; your faith has made you well.”

I think of the man who had just lost his little girl and went to Jesus for help. His daughter had just died, and for most people, that would have clearly been the end of it. But rather than staying where he was, mourning with his daughter’s body, he went to Jesus. “Please,” he begged, “come and lay your hand on her, and she will live.”

“Follow me,” says Jesus to Matthew. “Please come,” says the desperate father to Jesus. Nothing, says the woman, who takes matters into her own hands to seek God’s grace, come what may. Grasping for the promised land; wrestling with the angel; seeking the wholeness that she knows in her bones that God had created her for.

When I was first becoming a Christian and beginning to discover what I believed about God, I was first beginning to get a glimpse of what my own promised land might look like. During this time, my journey involved a series of personal encounters with God. I was having these experiences of what I believed – and still do believe – was the Holy Spirit, and I had to ask myself the question: “How do I know any of this is real? How can I know that God really exists, and isn’t just a figment of my imagination? How do I know that my experience of God isn’t just what I want to experience, because of my own hopes and fears and psychological needs?”

It’s a hard question to answer; God isn’t a math equation that can be definitively proved. But, for me, an important clue that I was on the right track – that this whole Jesus experience might actually be real, is that the God I was encountering showed no signs of being deterministic. I have never had any sense that I could control God. I can’t make God do what I want him to do, or appear when I decide he should show up. I can’t press a button and “make God happen”. And even if I could, when God does “happen”, I can’t predict what he will say to me, or what he will do in my life and the lives of those around me. I believe God is real because my mind cannot contain him. The universe itself cannot contain him.

Life is complicated, and the fact that my experience of God is complicated is a sign of authenticity. If God were simple, if God were easily knowable, if God were predictable, I’d have a tough time believing. But the God of Abraham is mysterious.

God is contextual. There isn’t just one right way to interact with God; it depends on the person, place, and moment. Sometimes, I’ve got to get really still; to pay attention and listen. Other times, I have to act and move without waiting for permission. In this dance with God, I’m expected to respond, but I’ve also got to initiate. Sometimes I’ve got to be Abram and Matthew, answering the call; other times I’ve got to be the woman and the father, banging on the gates of heaven, demanding to be let in. And sometimes, well, sometimes I’m just surprised.

That’s the God I know. This is the God of Abraham and Matthew, and the woman with bleeding. The God of the father of the little girl who died. The God who can’t be pinned down and controlled. He is a God who meets us in the moment, with the challenge we need. A God who leaves room for us to challenge him. A God who loves us and wants us to grow.

To grow. To go. To obey and cry out. To learn patience and take big risks.

I still haven’t found what I’m looking for. Abraham died without finding some kind of permanent what-he-was-looking-for. Even the woman with bleeding who was healed, or the father whose daughter was brought back to life: What about next week? What happened then? Or next year? Or next decade? Lazarus died again, right? Jesus raised Jesus from the dead, and Lazarus died again. Did Lazarus find what he was looking for?

But we continue on in stages: Towards the desert. Into the desert. Through the desert. We catch glimpses. We build altars. We remember. We encounter God in this mysterious conversation of our lives.