February 21, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
To See God: Faith Locked Up
One of our greeting songs has this refrain: “The Spirit in me greets the Spirit in you. Alleluia.” I once knew a pastor who encouraged us to say during the Passing of the Peace, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.” There is something so lovely and true in this greeting.
Deep calls to deep, says the Psalm (Psalm 42:7). Light speaks to light. Love listens to love. And the Christ in me greets the Christ in you. Alleluia. So lovely and true.
Indeed, one of the core beliefs of my faith is that there is something of God in every person. God is in Jesus, but not just in Jesus. God is in those who believe, but not just in those who believe. My faith is shaped by the understanding that every person carries in their being the presence of God, just like every person is created by God and called beloved.
One story that has led me to this belief is the popular rendition of the parable found in Matthew twenty-five. It’s kind of an ugly story about separating the sheep from the goats, but it shows how two groups of people get roundly surprised by the king.
The first group asks him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, and thirsty, naked and a stranger, sick and in prison and help you?” The king says, “When you did this for the least of these, you did this for me.” The second group of people asks him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and thirsty, naked and a stranger, sick and in prison and refuse to help you?” And you know what he said: “Whenever you refused to help those who are most vulnerable, you refuse to help me” (my paraphrase of Matthew 25: 31-46).
As though Christ, himself, is hungry and thirsty, naked and a stranger, sick and in prison. As though Christ is a refugee, or an undocumented immigrant, or a kindergartner, or a criminal. As though Christ is in a nursing home or a shelter.
It is such a compelling idea to see God in every person. It’s so lovely and true, and exactly what I believe and what I mean to do, because the Christ in me greets the Christ in you. But it is one thing to believe in this idea. It is another thing to actually look with our own eyes. Because actually seeing God? That’s the kind of thing can take your life, or save your life, and have we really considered the risk that’s involved…
Back in Old Testament times, the people in the Bible were much more sensible about the dangers of seeing God. When Moses asks to see the face and glory of the LORD, God won’t show him because seeing this would kill him; so instead God shows Moses his back (Exodus 33:20-23). Then there was that night in the wilderness. Jacob and the angel wrestled all the way until day break. The angel demands that Jacob let him go; and Jacob demands that the angel give him a blessing. Then Jacob names the place Peniel, because it is where he sees the face of God and lives, and notice, he’s appropriately surprised by this outcome (Genesis 32:30). If only we were so surprised!
Today we continue our Lenten series which takes up the question: What does our Christian faith have to do with the U.S. criminal justice system? In these weeks leading up to Holy Week, our scriptures come from those who were behind bars, or in today’s case, from a fiery furnace.
What happened was that King Nebuchadnezzar found himself in the wilderness, the place between life and death. He began having unsettling dreams, the kind that come from that place between waking and sleeping. (Last Sunday, we heard about Joseph who interpreted dreams for a different king, and today Daniel is the one who interprets the dreams of King Nebuchadnezzar.) The LORD has given Daniel this gift, and Daniel responds by saying, “Blessed be the name of God from age to age… God reveals deep and hidden things; the LORD knows what is in the darkness and light dwells with God” (Daniel 2:20 and 22).
Turns out, King Nebuchadnezzar had been dreaming of a golden statue representing the rising of the kingdoms. The king was grateful to Daniel; he took his advice and appointed Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego over the affairs of Babylon. Then he decided to construct this golden statue which he commanded the people to fall down and worship once they heard the royal music. Then everything is fine, until it isn’t.
Before long, the king is informed that Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego refuse to bow down to the golden statue because they worship the LORD. So he calls them into his court. Maybe it was just a misunderstanding. Here’s one more chance for them to save their lives and to save his authority. But no. They won’t bow down nor defend themselves, so they force his hand.
This sends the king into one of his signature rages. It seems he was always flying into a rage and ordering executions here and there, and this time he had the furnace seven times hotter than it needed to be. This time his staff members who threw Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego into the furnace were killed from getting too close to the heat. This time the king was so full of rage that his face was distorted, so that if you looked at him you wouldn’t even know it was him.
And so the three men were thrown into the fire and the royal officials fell down dead, and what the king did next changed everything. King Nebuchadnezzar looked at the furnace. When he did that, he was shocked by what he saw. What the king saw was God.
“How can there be four men walking around in that fire?!” Quick! Get them out! Which is a remarkably brave choice if you ask me. Shadrach, Meschach, and Abednego emerged unharmed, and King Nebuchadnezzar issued a decree proclaiming praise for the LORD our God.
As the story continues, the king returns to having wild dreams and relying on Daniel to make sense of them; the king learns to praise God, and I wonder if there is ever a moment when he turns to God and doesn’t see the LORD standing in the flames looking right at him. I bet that’s something he could never unsee.
When LORD, did we see you in the fiery furnace? When did we see you about to be executed, then rush to get you out?
I don’t know what made the king turn and look into the furnace after he issued the order with a wave of his hand, after his own staff were killed. But I think it’s my job to warn you that whatever made him turn and look is something that could happen to us. To see God might take our lives, or save our lives, but it will not leave us unchanged. God reveals the deep and hidden things, and seeing God exposes the truth, then that’s something we could never unsee.
A few summers ago, I was on a mission trip talking with the man who was hosting our group. We’re just standing around the table with the basket of cookies when he says to me, “You know Beth don’t you?” “Yes of course.” (Beth was a woman from our church who had come down a few months earlier with another group). He says to me, “I was standing over here, when I looked at Beth and saw Jesus. I saw her talking to some people, and I saw Christ.”
When he told me this, the first thing that struck me was that he’s exactly right; he was not mistaken about what he saw. She was standing there, and he was standing here, and he saw Jesus, no kidding. The second thing I realized is, this could happen to any of us. And then what…
It is one thing to say as I do, oh I believe God is in everyone, you know somewhere. It’s another thing entirely to actually see the LORD. To turn and look at Beth, or Sue, or Bob and see Christ. To watch the news and see the mug shots of the man who was arrested over the weekend, to remember that he was a baby once who may have been carried around a sanctuary like this thirty years ago, to actually look at his eyes in those terrible photographs, and see God. To look at Kellyn and see not just her sparkling cuteness, but see the promise she is expecting from us.
Friends, I have come to believe. We can’t just see God and go back to whatever we were doing a few minutes ago. Maybe we can try… But years later, I remember the stranger who welcomed me into her home on the day I was in trouble. I needed to get off the street, and she let me stay in her living room, and she made us scrambled eggs. Now every time I think of her, I see her face and I see the light of God, and that’s something I could never unsee. And maybe this has happened to you.
Seeing God might take our lives and save our lives because what it does is expose our truth. And seeing God is really what could happen when we turn and look at each other.
Now that cheerful greeting song, those words for the Passing of the Peace are still so lovely and right. But sing them enough while saying Good Morning and we could forget their danger. So fair warning. It might not get us killed, but you can believe it will get us called out on our deepest truth:
The Christ in me greets the Christ in you. Alleluia. Amen.