This sermon, preached yesterday, is largely based on the Introduction to Dean Nelson’s book God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World.
Last week, in my final sermon on Ruth, I raised precisely the question that Nelson raises in his book. Coming across Nelson’s book this past week, it struck me that it would provide a great interlude before we move on to other themes in the weeks ahead.
Let me begin this morning by sharing a simple, personal story that I shared with the Elders of the congregation at our meeting this past week.
Last weekend, Becky participated in a triathlon down at the Olympic Basin on Ile Notre Dame. It was what’s called a sprint triathlon – it is a shorter triathlon that involves a 750 meter swim in the Olympic basin, then a bike ride, and then a run. I was there with our kids to watch Becky and to cheer her on.
You may have watched the start of a triathlon before – the horn sounds and all of the swimmers walk or run down into the water, en masse, and begin their swim. In Becky’s group there were around 100 women who all began that swim together.
After the race had begun and as all of the swimmers, including Becky, had made their way out into the basin, I made my way with the kids to the end of the swimming course – where we would watch for Becky coming out of the water – where she would run to where her bike was stationed for the next stage of the race.
We came to the place where the swim finished to watch for Becky. And we watched as the first swimmers came out of the water. We stood for a while watching swimmers exit the water, all the while keeping our eye out for Becky. But we didn’t see her. By the end of the swimming course the women were all strung out in a long line, the stronger swimmers first to exit and the weakest swimmers taking up the rear. As the last few swimmers were approaching the exit point, I began to worry.
Becky shouldn’t have been that far back. I knew she had been a little nervous, since she’d never done a triathlon before – the swim is in a sense the most daunting part. Was she okay? We saw the last two swimmers coming toward us in the water, but I could see that both of them were wearing wetsuits – Becky wasn’t wearing a wetsuit, so she wasn’t there. What happened to her? Did she get a cramp? Did she have to quit the swim? I was a worried. Didn’t know quite what to do… While the swimmers had been exiting the water I had looked away a few times to check on Esther, but didn’t think I had missed anyone coming out of the water.
At this point, as I was wondering aloud what had happened to Becky, Tabea piped up. At one point while we were watching the swimmers come out, she Tabea said that someone had touched her shoulder. But Tabea was right next to the exit path, so it would have been easy for any one of the swimmers to have brushed against her shoulder.
But now she piped up, again: “Maybe it was mommy who squeezed my shoulder.” Now she was saying that it wasn’t just that someone brushed against her – someone had squeezed her shoulder. I asked Tabea – well did you see who it was. Yea, she said, but I couldn’t really see. I think the swimmer was wearing a blue swimsuit like mommy’s.”
So maybe I had just missed her – I felt like that was impossible. I was still worried, but now there was some assurance. Someone had squeezed Tabea’s shoulder – maybe it had been Becky. So now instead of going back over the swimming course to see if we could find Becky, we walked quickly over to where the swimmers had stationed their bikes for the next stage of the race. Becky’s bike was gone. We had missed her coming out of the water (I still don’t know how), but she was fine.
A question… Is it possible that the squeeze on Tabea’s shoulder was a gift of God? Is it possible that that squeeze was both a hello from mother to daughter, from Becky to Tabeaa, but also and a gift of assurance from God to me? She’s fine – go find her.
This week I began reading a book that has the same title as our sermon for this morning. The title is this: God Hides in Plain Sight.
We tend to think that if we are going to encounter God, it is going to be through what we might describe as a ‘wow moment’ – a moment when there is a choir singing beautifully, with sunlight streaming in through a stained glass window – or a moment when we are standing on top of a windy mountain we have just climbed and the clouds are blowing by just out of reach. A moment not unlike Moses in front of the burning bush. It is dramatic. It is out of the ordinary (described in our OT lesson this morning).
Last week we concluded our series on the book of Ruth. And as we did so we talked about how God intervened in the life Naomi to bring her from bitterness to sweetness, from emptiness to fullness. We are moving on from Ruth this week, but we remain with a theme we raised last week – the theme of God’s involvement in our lives.
Again, the title of that book I’ve been reading, and of this sermon, is God Hides in Plain Sight. That title comes as a reminder that
God is ever at work among us,
God is ever moving in and out of our lives,
God is ever beside us – blessing us and leading us, and reminding us of his grace,
and all we need to do is to open our eyes and see what God is doing.
St. Augustine in his Confessions has this to say: “God is always present to us and to all things; it is that we…do not have the eyes to see.”
Similarly, the writer Frederick Beuchner says: “See your life for the fathomless mystery it is… There is no event so common place but that God is present within it, always hiddenly, always leaving you room to recognize him or not to recognize him.”
That squeeze of Tabea’s shoulder – was that simply a mother offering a quick and loving hello to a daughter on her way past. Or was it also for us, looking for Becky, a grace-filled message from God – don’t worry, you just missed her. Go find her.
Within most denominations and traditions of Christianity, stretching all the way back to the first followers of Jesus, we have paid attention to what we call sacraments. Within the Reformed and Presbyterian Church we have embraced two sacraments – the first being baptism, the second being the Lord’s Supper.
What is a sacrament? A sacrament is a gift of God to his people – a ritual event that Jesus himself gave to his disciples. When Jesus was gathered with his disciples for a meal, shortly before he was executed, he invited them to share in bread and wine as a remembrance of his body broken for them, his blood poured out in love for them. After his resurrection, when Jesus gathered his disciples together to say good bye to them and to send them out in his name he invited them to make disciples and baptize them.
But sacraments for us aren’t simply about remembering something that happened a long time ago. As water is poured out into a bowl, and water is poured onto a forehead in baptism, we don’t simply remember Jesus as one who brings us healing and forgiveness. Rather, in baptism we trust that God is present in a special way – forgiving, touching, blessing. Through water poured into a bowl, and water poured on a body, we are drawn close to Jesus in his life, his death, and his resurrection.
As wine is poured and bread is broken in the Lord’s Supper, we likewise trust that God is present in a special way. At that communal meal, the risen Jesus Christ is present – embracing us, nourishing us, strengthening us as we live as his disciples in the world. Everyday things – wine that we can taste, bread that we can chew, water that we can see and feel – become the vehicles of God’s grace through his Son Jesus…
So if we’re talking about our everyday lives and the ways in which God encounters us – the sacraments can’t be forgotten.
But just like we started to think away from those Wow moments, those burning bush moments, we also have to think away from these church moments – away from the sacraments. Yes, God encounters us there in a decisive way, yet we want to see this morning that in the everyday gracious God is graciously present also.
Our New Testament lesson for this morning was from the Gospel of John, chapter 9, verses 1 – 12. In those verses we observe Jesus healing a man who was born blind. But unlike in many of the other astonishing stories of healing we read in the gospels, in this story Jesus doesn’t simply make a declaration with words. In other healings, Jesus simply speaks a word, and the miraculous occurs. In this story, Jesus takes dust from the ground and, with a little spittle, forms clay. And he places the clay on the man’s eyes and invites him to go to the pool of Siloam to wash.
When the man arrives at the pool and washes his eyes, his blindness is also washed away.
In this story of restoration – this story of encounter with God – it is everyday dust and spittle that help to convey grace and healing. It’s not to say that Jesus couldn’t have simply spoken a word of healing, but in this particular story the mercy of God is conveyed through such everyday elements – and through such an everyday exercise as washing.
The point for us is a simple one – that through the events and activities and materials of our everyday, God continues to touch our lives.
Becky’s hand squeezing Tabea’s shoulder – such an everyday event – became a gift of God to communicate his care for us and for Becky.
While it may not be right to refer to these everyday events as sacraments, they are sacramental in nature. Meaning, they are very real encounters with
the God who is alive and at work in our world,
the God who is everywhere even before we get there,
the God who is at work whether we see it or not.
In his book, God Hides in Plain Sight, the author Dean Nelson offers a wonderful quotation from C.S. Lewis, the British scholar and author and even theologian:
“We may ignore, but we can nowhere evade, the presence of God. The world is crowded with him.” Isn’t that beautiful – “The world is crowded with God.” He goes on: “The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”
Of course, being assured of God’s constant work in our lives, and becoming attentive to God’s presence in our everyday, will no mean that we are suddenly exempt from all of the grief of life, or that we are exempt from suffering. For example again, some moments after we saw that Becky had indeed made it to her bike, and that she was safely on the bike course, we saw that her knee and arm were bloodied from a fall on the bike. Someone in front of her had dropped a water bottle, and Beck had crashed when running over it.
That God is at work in our lives does not mean that our lives are free from the falls and scrapes and pain that seem to be our lot. Yet, that the fabric of our lives includes
these darker colours,
these rough threads,
these more difficult moments,
also does not imply that the God who has embraced us and renewed us in Jesus Christ is not there, not a constant presence.
“The world is crowded with God. The real labour is to remember, to attend. In fact, to come awake. Still more, to remain awake.”
In his book, Dean Neilson tells a story from his own life.
Shortly after he moved to San Diego some years ago, Dean Neilson began sharing in a weekly breakfast meeting with two friends. They would read materials and discuss them; they would just share about what was happening in their lives. Sometimes they would leave their meeting laughing – other times it was so painful that the drive to work was clouded by tears. The members of the group changed over time.
One of the original members of the group named Dana became very sick. And after he had a significant surgery, the group moved their meeting to his living room, where a hospital bed had replaced the furniture. It became clear over time that he was not going to beat this illness. Through the time his friend deteriorate, Dean Neilson visited his friend.
Let me quote Neilson’s own words, as he meets with Dana on one occasion:
I knew his life on earth was nearly over. I told him I would be gone for a few days for a speaking engagement in Detroit, but that I would come over as soon as I got back in town. With great effort he whispered, ‘I’ll see you when you get back.’ As I drove away, I wondered if I would ever see him again, and tears began flowing from my eyes. I stopped my car at a traffic light, and tried to tell myself to pay attention. I heard bells from the Presbyterian Church at this same intersection. They played a song I hadn’t heard in probably thirty years, so it took me a few moments to remember the words. Finally, the words came: ‘Blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred hearts is like to that above.” It was a moment where I sensed God telling me, ‘I understand. I got to this intersection before you. I’m weeping too.’ It didn’t take the pain away. It gave the pain a new dimension of meaning – God’s mysterious presence preceded me, and he was with me. And with my friend.
The ringing of those church bells – just a coincidence?
Becky’s hand on Tabea’s shoulder – just a bit of good luck?
A friend calls just when you most needed someone to talk with – the stars were aligned?
You receive an unexpected word of correction that makes a difference for the course of your life – just happenstance?
Or is the world crowded with God.
The God who created us, who gave us the breath of life, who has given us a share in the hopeful, new, resurrection life of Jesus, is alive and at work in the world.
This God is alive in the everyday – in the everyday God speaks words of comfort, invites us to service, offers correction – God has not left us alone to muddle through on our own.
The world is crowded with God. May we receive grace to open our eyes, and see…