No One Has Ever Seen God (1 John 4:12)

I wish someone would write a book about not seeing God in scripture.  Perhaps someone’s already done it.  I’m not talking about blindness or feeling the absence of God.  There are plenty of those reflections, stories, and sermons.  There are blind beggars, blind preachers like Saul, and leaders blind to God’s purposes (like Pharaoh or King David).  At other times we encounter people who can’t see God they also feel God is absent.  I am thinking of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane on the night before his execution, Job, or Jonah in the belly of the whale.  The God they believe they know and should be able to find or reach has vanished.  As outside observers, we know this isn’t the case.

God is still there.  God hasn’t changed.  Perhaps, they’re looking for the wrong kind of God or worse yet, a God who doesn’t exist.  They are worshipping a God who’s not there.  As such, they’re not seeing the real God.  We can call it idolatry or create your own God.  The point is, we’re looking for something meaningful and this supposed God-like other thing isn’t delivering, even though we’ve attached all sorts of God-like powers, qualities, and ideas to its being.  Yet this thing we think is God or God like isn’t God.  God remains unseen and hidden, waiting to be acknowledged in other ways.

This is why I think we need to think about the places in the Bible where we don’t see God.  Yes, I mean not seeing God.  I’m thinking of passages like Exodus 3:6, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.”  God was not seen.  In Acts 9:4, Saul was riding with his companion to Damascus.  Intent on arresting and bringing some early Christians back to Jerusalem for trial, he was knocked from his horse.  “He fell to the ground and heard a voice asking him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you harassing me?’”  He fell to the ground and heard a voice.  He did not see a soul nor did the people with him hear the voice.  Saul did not see Jesus or God.  God was unseen.  In fact, after this encounter, Paul was physically blinded.  There is something about going onward with God, totally sight unseen, that we regularly miss, when reading our Bibles.  In our visual, image driven culture, we are not hearing God.

I’m also thinking about today’s verse from the epistle reading in 1 John.  1 John 4:12 states, “No one has ever seen God”.  John, the beloved disciple and purveyor of “I am” statements, communicator of who sees who through the son, tell us “No one has seen God”.  Yes, I think there’s something to be said for these passages saying God has not been seen.

At one level, encountering (seeing) God would appear to be the defining feature of Christianity.  Whether figuratively, literally, metaphorically, or spiritually, we shape or faith around seeing the risen Christ in the world around us.  Easter begins with Mary Magdalene seeing Jesus in the garden.  There are subsequent resurrection encounters where the disciples see Jesus and the physically touch the wounds on his body.  Others, like Paul have metaphorical or more spiritual encounters with Jesus.  Thanks to John’s language we group these under the broad heading of “seeing God”.  We understand Jesus to be the second person of the Trinity.  From John we learned if we’ve seen Jesus we’ve seen God.  These ideas are passed down to us.  We see God at work in people and in the world around.  The disciples saw one way and now we see another.  Yet, this is hallmark of our belief for two thousand years.  We see God or the evidence of God’s presence in people and their actions.  When I was a child, I was convinced that the diffusion of sunlight around a cloud was what God looked like. That was evidence of God’s presence above my backyard.

John wants to change the rules.  He says, “Let’s go back a step”.  Is it possible to alter the working assumption?  What if no one sees God?  What if no one has ever seen God?  How does that change our faith experience?  Is our faith stronger or weaker? If God isn’t seen, where do we find God now?

If God’s not a visual thing, confirmable by our eyes and rational senses (because that’s what sight means, particularly in the ancient world), where (and how) do we affirm the divinity around us?

Here is what I know.  The Christian faith is a shaped by hearing, listening, and feeling.  If we cannot trust those truths, those senses other than sight, then we cannot trust the very idea of God.  Paul didn’t see God, nor did Moses, Job, or Jesus.  Yet each person heard, listened, felt, and encountered the living God.  Visual appearance did not matter.

If we don’t see God, what happens?  Is it possible to be Christian, especially Christian as we’ve come to know and define “Christian” in the early 21st century? If Jesus isn’t on a billboard or bumper sticker, how do we make God tangible?  How do we talk about God with turning God into an idol or a watered down version of our own personalities and priorities?

Here’s what 1 John 4 is telling us:  God can be anyone.  God can be black, white, Latino, Asian, Native American, or Middle Eastern; it doesn’t matter.  If God can be seen, God will likely resemble a template we’ve created.  Our God will be white, middle class, and be more like Santa Claus than the actual God John’s describing.  When God is unseen, it’s much harder to create a God in our own image.  The ability to create visual stereotype is removed.  Hearing, listening, and feeling God changes our faith in unspeakable ways.  We are listening for who God to speak and act; not who we expect to see.  Remember what John says, “No one has ever seen God”.  We see idols and things we shape into our own versions of Gods.

It is helpful to remember that God is an emotional response.  God is felt, confirmed, and observed in emotion.  You probably think that sounds like psychological double talk.  Try this on, “God is Love”.  Is that hard to grasp?  God is an emotion.  In fact, John says if we loved each other the way God loved us, our problems would be solved.  We can’t.  Our ability to love is hampered by our humanity.  In the paper rock scissors game of life, our flawed humanity beats God’s gracious love every time.

John acknowledges the difficulty of living a love infused life to the level God loves us.  However, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t look for God’s love made manifest in lives we can see.  Our limited ability to love doesn’t absolve us from participation in God’s kingdom.  We are not off the hook.  Or we will find ourselves like the Apostle Paul, knocked to ground level, and forced to listen to God’s penetrating questions.  So often, we come to God with petitions and requests. When we’re listening to God, there are probably going to be questions posed to us.  What is God asking you?

Richard Lowell  Bryant

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A Political Prayer for the Poor

Gracious God,
Today,
we pray for the poor,
those without,
marginalized,
forgotten,
pushed to the edge,
left behind,
Those who have no health care,
dying at home,
with no go fund me friends,
or investment options on which to retire,
they who live hand to mouth,
those who sleep unsoundly,
and are surrounded by fear and violence,
isolated,
lonely,
beaten,
and most of all,
I pray for those
made uncomfortable,
by praying this prayer.
May these words remind them of your teachings.
Gracious God,
be with the haves,
to seek mercy,
be with the have nots,
who need mercy.
In the name of one who became poor for our sake, Jesus the Christ,
Amen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

A Prayer for Today

God,
Save us from ourselves.
Save us from others.
Save us from visions of grandeur.
Save us from the soft bigotry of low expectations.
Save us from seductive lure of apathy and self-righteous indignation.
Save us from our sinfulness.
Forgive us when we speak hollow words dressed in the guise of the prophetic language.
Forgive us so we may forgive others.
Forgive us for seeing the worst in others.
Forgive us for missing your point to focus on our agendas.
May our witness stand in contrast to evil,
May we give until we are empty,
Until we are completely dependently upon you,
For our joy and hope,
Compassion and empathy,
Reason and being,
Vision and movement,
Life and death.
As Resurrection People we pray,
Amen.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Will We Be Here in 50 Years?

This past weekend, I attend a family reunion and homecoming on a nearby island.  This island is uninhabited.  No one has lived there permanently since the early 1970’s.  The last person born on the island died in 2010.  However, every two years, descendants of the families who once lived there, both black and white, return for a day or worship and fellowship.  This unique place is called Portsmouth Island.

Since the National Park Service took control of the land in the 1970’s and the island became part of the Cape Lookout National Seashore, a local historic preservation group has worked to keep the island’s traditions and memories alive.  These “Friends of Portsmouth” arrange the biannual reunions and plan the celebrations.

Portsmouth Island is only accessible by water.  There are no bridges.  Cars aren’t allowed on the island.  It’s about a 15 minute ride across the open water south of Ocracoke.  Saturday was a beautiful cold, sunny morning.  If I could start the day with that level of fresh air blowing in my face, I can’t begin to imagine how different my life would be.

Of the structures remaining on the island (Portsmouth has suffered its share of hurricanes like all of the Outer Banks) the one building which dominates skyline is the Methodist Church.  The former resident and their relatives all tell of lives center around their participation in the local Methodist Church.  On an island which never had electricity (even after the WPA), existed on subsistence agriculture, and practiced a level racial equality unheard of in the south; the church was the center of their lives.

For most of its history, the Portsmouth church was the other half of the Ocracoke Charge (my current appointment).  I’m not certain how often my predecessors boarded much slower boats than the one I took to go over and lead worship in the old church.  I’ve been told once or twice a month.  In the late 1950’s, as the Portsmouth population dwindled and Ocracoke began to grow, the Portsmouth church was closed.  Just as America was experiencing the height of post war growth and productivity, their doors were shuttered.  That’s always struck me as sad.  Someone always gets left behind when the country is told, “We’ve never had it so good”.

As I went inside the church on Saturday, I tried to see building as anything other than a relic.  It wasn’t so much a time capsule as it was any church between Sunday services.  This could have been my church a few miles across the water, empty but waiting on the people to return.  People could file in any moment and we would have regular worship.  That’s not what was happening.  We were having a biannual nostalgia service where people talked about what it was like to have church in this building.  Our worship service for this day was going to be outside.  The church wasn’t coming back to life.

I wondered if someone asked the members of the Portsmouth Methodist Church in 1956 what they thought the Methodist church would look like in 52 years, what they would say.  Would they be surprised to know that their sister congregation, just across the water and about to celebrate its 75th birthday, looks just like they did the day they closed?  Our hymns are the same, our pews are arranged the same way, the red carpet is identical, the organ is in the same place, and our picture of Jesus is identical.  Might they be amazed to know that most of Methodism looks just as it did the day denomination closed their doors?

That scared me.  Is this what I’m in ministry for?  So the churches I serve can become moderately maintained government run museums?

After 52 years, we’re all doing maintenance ministry in form or another, for a denomination or congregations that will all end up like Portsmouth.  Portsmouth is a wake-up call for where we’re headed as the United Methodist Church.  People will return and gather and tell wonderful stories about the work and memories of the places we ministered.  Methodists are great at reunions and covered dish meals.  But that’s not church.

What is to be our legacy?  Given our current bent toward self destruction, the churches we built to be outposts of the kingdom and spent so much money to maintain will look just like they do today.  The sad part, our apportionment dollars will have vanished and our Federal tax dollars, through the National Park Service will be maintaining churches (as with Portsmouth) that people gave offerings, year after year to support.

The fifty year decline of sameness and the embrace of status quo frozenness happened long before anyone started talking about people, regardless of their gender, getting married in a church.  The people on Portsmouth were forgotten by Eisenhower’s America and missed the greatest growth churches witnessed since the Great Awakening.  Methodism closed its doors on a dying community with no apparent economic prospects.  Perhaps that’s a bigger issue and a trend we ought to examine over the next few years:  the left behind, the marginalized, and the poor.  It sounds very Biblical, doesn’t it?  I believe this to be a better set of priorities.  Because frankly, I don’t think Jesus cares about who anybody marries, as long as they love each other.

Richard Lowell Bryant

 

It’s a Kingdom Parable about Sheep (Psalm 23)

The Utopian image of the 23rd Psalm is comforting.  When we read of God’s constant provision for our physical and emotional needs; we are reassured in ways that other Psalms fall short.  These words have a power that other verses and poetry will never possess.  However, there is an important contrast.  The 23rd Psalm presents an idealized view of humanity’s relationship to God it seems hard to picture this level of peace and security occurring within the bounds of physical space and time.  Where but eternity could God guarantee total protection from one’s enemies, unlimited food and water, and perpetual rest? Heaven seems like a natural conclusion.

The Lord is my shepherd.  I lack nothing.

He lets me rest in grassy meadows;

He leads me to restful waters;

He keeps me alive.

He guides me in proper paths

For the sake of his good name.

Is this the reason this Psalm is so often called upon to provide comfort to those near the end of their lives?  It could be.  Maybe it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.  We’ve read this Psalm in funeral services for centuries.  Here’s the irony:  Psalm 23 doesn’t offer a sign, marker, or directions pointing toward the afterlife.  Instead, it’s a simple declarative statement about the poet’s relationship with God.  He compares his nearness to God as being similar to the manner a shepherd relates to a sheep.  The agricultural metaphor is the basis for the emotional comparisons that follow.  Once the poet has made the initial declaration, “the Lord is my shepherd”, we’re no longer talking about a sheep and its shepherd.   As the first verse ends, “I lack nothing,” that’s you talking, me speaking, all of us mumbling about how God loves us.  The 23rd Psalm is one person going on the record about what God has done and is doing in this world.

If the church treats these words as a travel guide, describing the afterlife, we’ve forgotten that God is at work in the present tense, building tables in the wilderness, feeding people, and reconciling those who were once enemies.  The 23rd Psalm is happening right now in our communities and around the world.  There has never been a better time to be a people who live the 23rd Psalm on a daily basis.  Putting this Psalm on the “wait until I’m on my death bed shelf and read it at my funeral” is the equivalent of saying, “that part in the Lord’s Prayer  about thy will be done on Earth as is it Heaven is a dumb idea.”  If we ignore the 23rd Psalm and use it as solely as a comfort blanket, we’ve missed the point about bringing the kingdom of God to Earth.

Richard Lowell Bryant

There’s Only One Loyalty

Former FBI Director James Comey’s new book, “A Higher Loyalty” frames the question of loyalty in the singular, as if there is only one loyalty.  We may live in a world of multiple (lesser) loyalties which demand our fealty but there is singular “higher” loyalty.  What is the source of such loyalty? It is clear from his early interviews and book excerpts that Comey’s idea of loyalty is hierarchical.  Loyalty to country precedes loyalty to a particular person, office of state, or political party.  While this may be true or is his version of the truth; his description of a higher loyalty should ring hollow for disciples of Jesus Christ.

Christians have no other loyalty than to God.  Competing secular loyalties, those which launch cruise missile strikes and live behind the partisan double standards of fear rarely acknowledge God as a being to whom they offer loyalty.  Lip service, yes.  Loyalty, never.  Yet, despite the media driven competitions for our loyalty, even those who come bearing such anxious phrases such as “the future of the republic” and the “inevitability of impeachment” must be reminded that our loyalty remains with God, not the metaphysical idea of the United States of America.

Christians, because of their higher loyalty to God, are empowered to call into question the assumptions underlying every other loyalty struggling to be heard in the marketplace of philosophical and intellectual ideas.  These ideas are the infrastructure of modernity and like the bridges, roads, and highways that link our nation; the loyalties that once tied us together are also crumbling at the seams.  Because our loyalty lies beyond the public spectacle, we can see when something’s wrong.  This is our witness:  find common ground to preach the Gospel in the world’s wrongness, even when everyone’s singing “Happy Days are Here Again”.

The Body of Christ doesn’t simply call the world’s loyalties into question.  Antagonism isn’t our mission.  We offer alternatives to misplaced loyalties.  Our lives become witnesses to the higher loyalty.  This is accomplished through unapologetic, confessional worship and witness grounded in the historic Christian expression of loyalty to God, community, family, and neighbors.  The people around us and the word they inhabit become divine space, the yet to be immanetized kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven.  This is who we are and what we do.

The former director is known to be a student of the late theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  James Comey views himself, to paraphrase Niebuhr, as THE moral man in a immoral society.  Aren’t we all, Jim?

As Mr. Comey knows, there’s more to Niebuhr than rational critiques of society, social order, economics, and power.  I’m reminded of one of Niebuhr’s sermons on Jesus’ parable of the Wheat and Tares in Matthew’s gospel.  In it Niebuhr says, “Because we are both small and great, we have discerned a mystery and a meaning beyond our smallness and our greatness, and a justice and a love which completes our incompletion, which corrects our judgments, and which brings the whole story to a fulfillment beyond our power to fulfill any story.”  Mr. Comey, there’s only one loyalty tying everything together.  Everything else is just fancy rhetoric.

Richard Lowell Bryant

Your Piety Ain’t Worth A Hill of Beans (Acts 3:12-19)

There are always two sides to every story.  It’s a dictum as old as time itself.  As we’re learning in on our era, there are actually multiple versions to every event.  There’s the truth, versions of the truth, fiction, multiple fictions, what we’re told is fake news, that what we want to believe is true, and that which we’re convinced is false.  Does any of this sound familiar?  I long for the quaint era of a two sided debate when persuasion, facts, and reason might convince someone of a particular position or idea.  However, here’s my observation.  I’m not certain such a time ever existed.  I know American history has always been marked by a diffuse brand of debate.  Then, when I read the stories of the disciples, especially in the contentious days and weeks after the resurrection, I see the same patterns.

No one expected Jesus to die.  Even fewer people believed he’d live.  As such, the common ground the community shared following the resurrection was contested in every imaginable way.  Going into the crucifixion, life was fraught and unsettled.  Now, after it was all over, the disciples were still faced with the unresolved religious and social tensions that remained from prior to Jesus’ death.  Their message of Jesus’ resurrection was going to exacerbate the threats that hadn’t gone away (and quite possibly continued to endanger their lives).  Surely, the best approach wouldn’t be to stride right back into the temple with Jesus proclaiming, “See, we told you so!”  Guilt is a wonderful to build a healthy relationship with God.

Some people wouldn’t believe that Jesus was back no matter what they said or showed them.  Others would be too fearful to listen.  So you see, just from this overview, how we think preaching, teaching, and establishing the church would have become much simpler following the resurrection.  That’s not true.  If anything, it became harder.  In a conflicted world, a culture that’s got a snappy comeback for everything, reasons not to believe in anything, and will doubt the blue sky right over the head; the disciples have their work cut out for them.  Nothing simply fell into their laps.

What was the best way to be church in such a convoluted world?  The disciples had to tell their story (our story) in relation to the most indisputable facts anyone else might muster.  In other words, how could we respond to and tell the Christian story around the points of the story that everyone agreed to, witnessed, and saw over that long, horrific weekend.  If someone was in the crowd (and many people were) at Jesus’ trial before Pilate and then they’d witnessed the crucifixion, how would you put that in a larger, more meaningful context?  How can they give that common experience of sharing in collective brutality meaning?

Remember, the two disciples are preaching within the gates of the Temple.  So the scenery and the grounds are familiar as a backdrop to where the events Peter is describing.  Peter’s not talking about ancient history.  This is yesterday, last week, fresh gossip, and tension still lingering in the air.  As any good storyteller knows, with the right words, you can take the audience back in time, even to yesterday.  They have the gift of a backdrop.  When combined with their word pictures, their congregation can see the contrasts they want them to begin to notice.

Peter, speaking from a place called “Solomon’s Portico”, was in a spot he’d been known to frequent before.  I like to imagine it was one of Jesus’ favorite hangouts.  Teachers and rabbis had their places.  People would know where to go to find the teacher they like to explicate on the scriptures.  Jesus was probably found over by the “Solomon Portico”.  Jesus wasn’t available this morning.  So he and John went instead.  Like clockwork the people who came to hear and see Jesus came to see them.  They started to spread the news.  “You’re not going to believe this but he’s alive.”  People were being healed, they were jumping up and down; it was just like the good old days.

Some people outside the portico heard the rumors and they certainly didn’t like to see the Jesus of people having fun.  They were loud, rowdy, and generally disruptive to the public order.  Luke doesn’t come right out and say it but somewhere between verse 10 and 11, a message got back to the goody two shoes higher ups that ran the place.  “The dead guys followers are back and they are creating a disturbance over in Solomon’s Portico.  What are we going to have to do get rid of these people, kill them all?  Send someone down there to see what’s going on.”

Enter verse 11.  “While he clung (a guy they healed) to Peter and John, all the people ran together to them in the portico called Solomon’s Portico, utterly astonished.  When Peter saw it, he addressed the people.”  Here’s Peter’s chance to put everything into context.   You’re all having fun.  The power of Christ is great.  We’re doing some wonderful things.  How did it go all wrong and lead to his murder and execution?  Why did you kill him? How did we get here?  This is the direction Peter’s message begins to take.

Here’s what Peter says, “Why are you amazed at this?  Why are you staring at us if we walk by our own power of piety?  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob-the God of our ancestors-has glorified his servant Jesus.”  I love his first line.  Why do you stare at me and look at me like I’m crazy?  I want to say that nearly every week.  Peter says, “We’re not saying or doing anything under own will.”  We’re here because of Jesus.  Jesus makes all of this possible.  The same goes for church this morning.  I know we say and do some crazy things up here. No one is up here of our own power or volition.  We do what we do, when we are here, for God.  This is an act of worship to bring glory to Jesus.  It shouldn’t be amazing, what God can do.  As the old hymn says, it is so secret, what God can do.  When miracles start to amaze us, it means we’ve lost touch with God’s amazing grace.  Peter says we should not be dumbstruck and amazed at what God can do

This is the one you handed over and denied in Pilate’s presence, though he had already decided to release him.  You rejected the holy and righteous one, and asked that a murder be released to you instead.”

No one likes to be confronted by the failures and mistakes.  Nonetheless, regardless of what side of the Jesus debate you called home, Jesus was handed over and denied (by the guy preaching, he’s a little culpable here).  A murder, by the name of Barabbas, was also released instead of Jesus.  This all happened.  We all play a role in the denial and share in the guilt.  As Peter goes on to say, “Brothers and Sisters, I know you acted in ignorance”.  None of us knew what we were doing.

Peter and John want us to hear the Good News despite our ignorance and unwillingness to acknowledge God’s grandeur.  Rather than alienate those who haven’t encountered the risen Lord, Peter ask us to connect to the story of the resurrection in ways that deemphasize guilt and shame.  Instead, we are called together to see who we are and where we were in relation to Jesus, the cross, and the promises of life; post-Easter.

It is frustrating when people are amazed at what God can do and stare at us and say, “who are those Christians, praying, fasting, and doing for others?”  That’s when we say, as Peter reminds us, don’t look at us.  We are not doing these things.  None of the actions any of us take are by our own power.  That last mile work (giving, caring, baking, praying, and visiting-whatever we do) is not by our power or piety.  If it were, it wouldn’t be worth a hill of beans.  We do what we do as mainline Christians and ignorant sinners; because thank God, Jesus believes in giving everyone a chance.

Richard Lowell Bryant