Sunday, April 24, 2022

Phil Kniss: The God who wants to be found

Easter 2 – “Peace be with you”
John 20:19-31

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“Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas Deus ibi est.”

Thanks for helping start this sermon on the right note,
literally and figuratively.
Whether you knew it or not,
you sang the essence of my message this morning.
“Where charity and love are, there God is.”

I want you to know something about that song—
that pairing of an ancient Christian text,
with that particular melody.
That song grew out of a monastery
purposely built near the front lines of a long battle
between France and Nazi Germany during WW II,
in a part of France that was defeated and decimated,
and maybe looked like Ukraine does right now.

A Swiss young man with a deep spiritual burden,
decided to move away from his safe community
in neutral Switzerland,
and traveled into the heart of France in 1940,
as the war was raging.
He bought a house near the demarcation line,
and started taking in war refugees and helping them.
The Gestapo took over his house and occupied it for several years,
but as soon as France was liberated,
the man moved back into his house,
resumed his ministry to war refugees,
and established a monastic community
that included, from the beginning,
both Catholic and Protestant monks,
and whose mission was to build a community
that demonstrated reconciliation and peace.

That man was called “Brother Roger,”
and that community was known as the Taizé community.
It attracted young pilgrims from all over the world.
And developed a unique style of worship and music,
that influenced church music and worship
in nearly every Christian tradition.
22 of their songs are in Voices Together,
including the one we just sang:
“Where charity and love are, there God is.”

Now why would I start with this song,
on this last sermon from John’s Gospel?
In our story the risen Jesus appears to the disciples, then to Thomas,
in the room where they were hiding in Jerusalem.
This is a story about believing . . . or not . . .
that the living God is present with us in Jesus,
still, even after crucifixion and resurrection.

Jesus showed up for the disciples at their point of need.
They were hiding, fearful, behind locked doors,
afraid they would be found by the same authorities
who had just killed Jesus.

Jesus showed up, said “Peace be with you.”
And again, “Peace be with you.”
And then, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
And, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”

Now, a lot is made of this text, drawing attention to Thomas,
the so-called “doubting disciple.”
Completely unfair nickname, as I’ve said many times before.
Because all the disciples—every one of them—
received exactly the same evidence,
before they came to believe.
And Thomas’ belief was then accompanied
by a statement of faith more robust and profound
than any other disciple had spoken—
“My Lord and my God!”

Despite any lesson you ever heard
from a preacher or Sunday School teacher,
this is not a story about condemning doubt,
or looking down on people who ask questions and seek answers.

This is a story that highlights a God who comes to us on our turf,
who enters our space, and our time,
and says, here I am, to be with you.
Now. And in a way that you can see me.

This is a story about God moving in with us,
full of love and grace and restoration and healing and forgiveness,
and lots of other things we don’t deserve.

God does not try to make it difficult for us to have faith.
God does not play a cruel game of hide and seek.
God wants to be found.
God wants to be seen and recognized.

Yes, it is a fact that some of us do have a hard time finding faith,
some of us struggle with God’s apparent silence or absence.
But that is not a spiritual shortcoming on our part.
Maybe we are looking for evidence in the wrong places.

God is generous and gracious, and comes to us where we are.
God is now and always ready to provide what we need for faith.

So why do so many of us, so much of the time,
struggle to find a sense of God’s real presence with us?

Could it be that part of the reason
is our shallow definition of faith, of belief?
We’ve been formed by a faulty assumption
that faith happens in the head—
that it’s intellectual agreement with some
doctrinal formula or proposition.
No, faith is about trust. It’s about loyalty.
It’s about whole-bodied allegiance
to the way of Jesus in the world.
It’s about choosing to go where Jesus goes,
to follow God into the world,
and participate in what God is doing,
with our whole being.

If we get hung up on having to
sign-off, intellectually, on all the right formulas,
and perform all the necessary rituals, in just the right way,
in order to encounter God in Christ,
then we will have been defeated by duty-bound religion.

Sure, there are spiritual disciplines that many people find helpful.
There are some tried and true pathways
many have discovered that get us in a good space,
in an open frame of mind.
I’m not knocking any of that.

But as soon as we start thinking it’s up to us
to conjure up God’s presence in some deep devotional moment . . .
as soon as we start assuming that
30 minutes of daily meditation,
or contemplating the writings of ancient mystics,
or reading through the Bible in a year,
or praying the Lord’s Prayer in a certain way,
is the ticket to unlock the secret passageway
into God’s presence,
then let’s admit it.
We just invented another sophisticated form
of works righteousness,
trying to earn God’s favor with our good deeds.

Let me repeat.
God wants to be found.
God does not try to make it difficult.
God does not have a code we need to crack.
We can skip days of devotions,
weeks of worship,
go long periods without prayer,
miss months of meditation,
or (gasp) even break from our Bible reading habit,
and God will be no farther away from us,
than when we were doing all those things.

Not that I’m recommending we neglect spiritual disciplines.
Not at all.
I’m just saying,
let’s get over the idea that it’s up to us to
make God appear in our Upper Room, wherever that may be.
We don’t have to get it all right.
And we don’t get a prize
for having devotions five out of seven days.
God does not issue a Frequent Flyer Rewards Card.

We already know where God is, and we know what God is doing,
because God has told us and shown us,
in just about every page of scripture.

God is love.
God is mercy.
God is justice.
God is healing.
God is about whatever it takes to reconcile and restore and save.
So naturally, God moves toward those who suffer.
Where there are wounded people,
you will nearly always find someone
showing love and compassion.
Therefore, you will find God.
Maybe Brother Roger didn’t put it these terms,
when he left Switzerland in 1940 to head into a war zone,
but what he was doing was helping people meet God—
both the war refugees and himself.

And when Jesus showed up in the middle of room
of traumatized disciples, and said, “Peace be with you,”
he was helping those people he loved to meet God,
and to have faith.

So you want to meet God?
You want to have faith?
You want to move past your doubt?
Then don’t memorize a formula.
Don’t go through any contortions.
Just go to where there is suffering,
where there is woundedness,
whether they are the wounds of others . . . or your own.
And if you show love and mercy in that place,
to others, or to yourself,
God will be there.
Believe it.
Trust it.
Whether or not you see it or feel it.

Because where charity and love are found, there is God.
Join me in the confession, printed in your bulletin,
and on the screens.

one God beyond all knowing, we sometimes wonder where you are.
        In the shadows and pain of this wounded world, 
        we feel lost to your sight; and you seem lost to ours.
all We confess our fear of being left alone in this world.
one Help us rest in your promise to never leave or forsake us.
all We confess we depend too often on tangible evidence,
we fail to grasp that you want to be found,
we fail to notice signs you place in our path daily.
Forgive us.
one Friends, we are loved and sought by God, the Hound of Heaven,
        We are fully seen and fully known 
        and fully in God’s gracious presence,
        when we realize it, and when we do not.
        The Risen Christ is with us. Alleluia!

“Ubi caritas et amor, ubi caritas Deus ibi est.”

—Phil Kniss, April 24, 2022

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