The Stuff of God
August 7, 2016
I can imagine some of you might be wondering who I am and what I'm doing here. So I'll just take a moment to introduce myself. My name is Alex DeMarco. I've been a parishioner here since last December. I'm usually a 9:00er, but occasionally I'll come to 11am. My wife Jenna and I moved to Chicago last summer from Princeton, New Jersey, after I graduated from the M.Div program at Princeton Seminary. Last month I was facilitating the Pub Theology discussions we were having at O'Shaughnessy's, which was a lot of fun. And I'm very excited to be with you all, having the opportunity to preach this morning.
Today I would like to talk about how we locate God. Where is God? That's our driving question.
It's an important question to ask, I think, because a lot of us (and I count myself in this group too) have a tendency to divide up our lives into two categories. We have our spiritual, or religious, life—where we deal with God, Jesus, mystery, transcendence, ultimate meaning, and all that fun ethereal sort of stuff. And then we have our worldly life—where we deal with more day-to-day things: like Netflix, political conventions, friends, family, neighbors, work, and play— the more concrete, tangible things.
For most of us, it's very natural to operate with this implicit distinction—between our spiritual, or religious, life on the one hand, and our worldly life on the other. I think we operate this way because we haven't quite figured out how to locate God.
And so we're asking this morning: where is God?
We'll be taking some clues from the prophet Isaiah, and from Jesus himself—and I think we're going to find that we encounter God a lot more than we realize. And that perhaps there isn't such a clean distinction after all, between our spiritual life and our worldly life.
That was certainly the case for the people of Judah and Jerusalem in our reading from Isaiah. God was livid with these folks. God had had it with their formal worship—with their sacrifice and their Sabbath, because outside of that time, in their "worldly life" (so to speak) they served only themselves.
"Everyone loves a bribe," it says, "and runs after gifts. They do not defend the orphan, and the widow's cause does not come before them."1 What the people didn't realize (or at least didn't acknowledge) was that their God had a claim on all of life.
This was not a God who could be served in the temple and just ignored in the wider world. God was there in the world too—and expected to be served in the world, too.
And where is God specifically? The almighty God and Creator of the universe is with the oppressed, the orphans, and the widows—with the humblest and most vulnerable members of the community. And by turning their back on these people, the leaders of Judah and Jerusalem had effectively turned their backs on God as well. For Isaiah, there is no such thing as a clean distinction between spiritual or religious life, and life in the world.
And that brings us to Jesus.
In John's gospel it says that the One through whom all things came into being became flesh and lived among us.2 That means that, somehow, in a particular, unassuming individual, born to a poor Jewish family in the first century, heaven and earth have, mysteriously but definitively, been brought together. This is what theologians call the incarnation.
The one writer who's probably had more influence on me than any other, both spiritually and intellectually, is the German theologian and pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bonhoeffer insisted that, "Whoever looks at Jesus Christ sees in fact God and the world in one. From then on they can no longer see God without the world, or the world without God."3 This is why Jesus tells his disciples that when they feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, and clothe the naked, they are in fact feeding, welcoming, and clothing him.4
Practically speaking, the incarnation means that there are no merely worldly occurrences. God and the world have been brought together, so that there is now a divine dimension and significance to our every interaction and relationship.
So, in answer to our question, where is God? On one level, we have to say that God is here! We don't serve some kind of remote, other-worldly deity. We encounter God right here in our worldly life.
As Bonhoeffer says: In Christ, we can no longer see God without the world, or the world without God.
But this alone isn't enough. We need to consider the crucifixion as well. If the incarnation tells is that God is present in the world, the crucifixion tells us that God is present in a special way in and with the persecuted, the oppressed, and the vulnerable. If we want to locate God, this is where we have to look.
We have to look at the car with the broken taillight on the side of the road in Falcon Heights, Minnesota.
We have to look at the desecrated night club in Orlando, the blood-stained promenade in Nice, and video footage of a police chase on the south side of Chicago. That's where we find the crucified God.
And yet, the God who has become one with the world, and who identifies with the suffering, is also the God of resurrection. And therein lies our hope—our hope that for ourselves, and for the world we inhabit, despite how things might sometimes appear, death will not have the last word.
Now, with all this in mind—Incarnation, Crucifixion, and Resurrection—I want to talk a little bit about the results of our Congregational Assessment Survey. This might sound like an odd shift, but bear with me.
We scored so well in so many areas. Our scores in Morale, Readiness for Ministry, Governance, Conflict Management, Educational Engagement, and Hospitality were all off the charts!
But when it came to Spiritual Vitality, our score was abysmal! We were in the 2nd percentile!
This Spiritual Vitality index is designed to measure the extent to which we feel that our faith is central to our lives, and the extent to which we feel the presence of God in our lives. We love our church, we're committed to and enthusiastic about its ministries, but we often don't feel that we're connecting with God.
I find this kind of ironic, frankly, because from what I've seen, this is a church full of folks who are very much connected to God. This church is full of folks who feed God every Tuesday night right here in this sanctuary and over in our parish hall, and who line up in the hot sun, year after year, to welcome God at the Chicago Pride Parade.
Perhaps it just hasn't sunk in for us yet.
We encounter God all the time, because we serve a God who shows up in the world, an incarnate God, who has embraced creaturely being, human being, in all its ambiguity, frailty, connectedness, and dependence—embraced it as God's very own being.
Which means that there is now no such thing as a merely worldly occurrence, a merely human interaction. In Christ, the breaking up of our lives into spiritual and worldly is completely undermined.
The individuals and occurrences we encounter in the world, in all their beauty and brokenness, in all their pain and their potential—they are now the stuff of God.
It takes the eyes of faith to see this, but it's important that we do learn to see it.
When we learn to see that the stuff of the world is the stuff of God, that God is here with us, present to us in suffering, and in the suffering of our broken world, promising resurrection, we'll not only begin to feel a stronger sense of connection to God, we also will be given the strength to persevere for the long haul—to continue the fight against the systems of oppression, and the forces of inequality and injustice that are too big for us to take on alone.
We will be relentless in our struggle, because when we can no longer see the world without God, we can no longer see the world without hope.
1 NRSV, Isaiah 1:23
2 John 1:3, 14
3 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Ethics, DBWE, vol. 6 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortres Press, 2009), 82.
4 Matthew 25:40