Sermon: 5 Questions We Ask in the Dark – What do I do when I can’t feel God near me?

[Sermon preached on Sunday, March 5, 2017 at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Kansas City, Missouri]

Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Away with you, Satan! for it is written,
“Worship the Lord your God,
and serve only him.” ’
Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.

Matthew 4:9-11 (NRSV)

O Lord, take our minds and think through them;
take our lips and speak through them;
and take our hearts and set them on fire with love for you. Amen.

Good morning.

The first Sunday of Lent focuses specifically on the Temptation of Jesus, the event right after his baptism where scripture says he was “led up by the Spirit into the wilderness.” His forty day sojourn is where we get the forty days of Lent. If engaged with creativity and openness, this season presents each of with an opportunity to mine our spiritual resources and to deepen our relationship to God.

We also begin a sermon series today – 5 Questions We Ask in the Dark. When Fr. John, Mtr. Anne, and I gathered to discuss the idea of a sermon series, we realized that Lent presented us with an opportunity to survey a different set of questions. Just as Jesus was led – one translation says driven – into the wilderness, there are times in our own lives when it feels like we leave the heights of glory and enter, often reluctantly, into the depths of despair.

Each of us has been there, whether we admit it or not, each of us has had to shoulder grief, or disappointment, or anguish, or discontentment. Each of us has had to enter the wilderness and wrestle with some hard questions of life.

Biblically, the wilderness was always a place of testing and trial, of purgation and impending newness. The Hebrew people left Egypt after centuries of slavery and entered the wilderness for 40 years. David spent time in the wilderness after he was anointed King of Israel but before he actually took the crown. After the prophet Elijah was hunted by Ahaz and Jezebel, he spent time in the wilderness to wrestle with the nature of his calling before coming back with his “thus saith the Lords.” The wilderness is a place of testing and trial, and it also a place that can feel devoid of the presence of God. By wilderness, we’re not talking about lush forests and ample grasslands – we are talking an arid, and rocky place, a place more like the Valley of the Shadow of Death than the green pastures and still waters we so long for.

One of the questions we might as in the dark is – what do I do when I can’t feel God near me? What happens when I am going through this wilderness, the very place where I need God the most, and I can’t feel God, I can’t see God, I can’t hear God, I can touch God, and God seems to be unconcerned about me?

The first thing we must remember is that God’s god-ness is not contingent upon our ability to feel it. God is God independent of whatever it is we might encounter and God chooses to be concerned about each one of us because each one of us is created in the very image and likeness of God and formed in the womb of love. In her book Learning to Walk in the Dark, Barbara Brown Taylor puts it like this:

Here is some good news you can use: even when light fades and darkness falls – as it does every single day, in every single life – God does not turn the world over to some other deity. Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers your call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone. There is a divine presence that transcends all your ideas about it, along with all your language for calling it to your aid, which is not above using darkness as the wrecking ball that brings all your false gods down – but whether you decided to trust that witness  of those who have gone before you, or you decide to do whatever it takes to becomes a witness yourself, here is the testimony of faith: darkness is  not dark to God; the night is as bright as the day.[1]

Here, Taylor is highlighting a part of our faith that we must refuse to surrender even in the face of the deepest adversity – God is God no matter what. In good times and bad, in happiness and sadness, in times of plenty and in times of little, God is God and, in the words of an old Negro Spiritual, “he don’t never change.”

The wisdom book of Ecclesiastes says it this way:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and to die; a time to plant, and to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and to heal; a time to break down, and to build up; to weep, and laugh; to mourn, and dance; to throw away stones, and to gather stones together; to embrace, and to refrain from embracing;  to seek, and to lose; to keep, and to throw away; to tear, and to sew; to keep silence, and to speak; to love, and to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.[2]

Life happens. Nothing remains forever. Nothing is stagnant. There is a time for everything in our lives including darkness and light, including coming and leaving.

Many of you know that this is my last sermon as an associate priest at St. Andrew’s. I will be here next week to celebrate my final mass at this altar, but this is the last time I will stand in this space and preach. In a few weeks, I will assume the rectorship of St. Paul’s Church on Lake of the Isles in Minneapolis, Minnesota, a charge I am greatly anticipating, but a task I am also a bit anxious about. Change is always hard, as is saying goodbye.

When I came 3 ½ years ago, I wasn’t quite sure what God was doing. I had never expected to be in Kansas City, and yet here I was. There have been incredibly great moments, like celebrating Confirmations and Baptisms, or riding a ski lift with Natalie and Andrew, talking about life and what it meant to be a high school senior on the cusp of adulthood, or taking two dozen parishioners to a masjid to learn about Islam.

There have also been incredibly hard moments. Long hours spent planning projects that never got off the ground, or hard relationships that never seemed to thaw, or realizing the number of people who sat in the pews 3 ½ years ago who now sit in the grandstands of heaven, or times when it looked like my best effort simply wasn’t sufficient to the awesome size of the task.

And yet God was still God – in good times and in bad – and God don’t never change.

What kept me amidst all of those changes in life was simple: spiritual practice. Each of us, if we are to courageously enter our dark valleys and joyfully celebrate our green pastures, must develop a spiritual practice. Whether it is prayer, cultivating silence in meditation, or praying bodily through yoga or running or walking, we must develop a spiritual practice that grounds us in the spirit of God even when we can’t feel God. Mine is running and baking, two things that, when done prayerfully connect me to the God “in whom I live, and move, and having my being”[3] and who said “I am the bread of heaven. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again.”[4]

If you look at what Jesus did in the wilderness, his whole journey was one of fasting and prayer. He entered the wilderness rooted in spiritual practice.

The forty days of Lent present each of us with an opportunity to discover anew ourselves in relationship to ourselves and others, and particularly in relationship to God. I encourage you to take time in the next few weeks to find a spiritual practice that sustains you. Now, to be clear: every time you pray will not blow your socks off. But each time we pray, or run, or read, or sit in quiet mediation, we set up an intentional altar upon which may descend the fire of God’s grace. That’s why we do it – because each opportunity is pregnant with the possibility of God.

Instead of spending time this Lent giving up trivial things, try finding what connects you to God and grounds you in the Spirit, and go do that. Lent is not about saying “no” for the sake of “no,” but about saying “yes” to God. As a sister-friend from social media, Candice Benbow writes:

It matters how we think about ourselves in relationship to God particularly when we are in tough, dark emotional spaces. Fasting may not be what we need right now and that is okay. What matters – more than anything – is that we find and remain in spaces where we can rest in the fact that we are the beloved of God. Holding steady in that truth may not require saying no to things right now but saying yes.[5]

When we enter spaces where we can’t feel God, we need to set the stage anyway: say the prayer, read the scripture or devotional, bake the bread, run or walk the trail, practices that can provide some stability and structure to what can feel like a wild ride.

It would be nice to feel God near us all the time, but that just is not a part of life. We will enter the wilderness, and when we do, our regular spiritual practice can help us believe in faith what we cannot see with our eyes, that God is with us providing stability and sustenance for the journey ahead, wherever the road leads, so that we may go boldly, armed with the blessed assurance that “God is God, and he don’t never change.”

Amen.


[1] Barbara Brown Taylor. Learning to Walk in the Dark, 9.

[2] Ecclesiastes 3.1-8 (paraphrased)

[3] Acts 17.28

[4] John 6:35

[5] Candice Benbow. “For Sisters With Nothing Left To Give Up For Lent.” http://www.candicebenbow.com/blog/lent2017

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