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April 27, 2008 | 6:30 p.m. Vespers

Groping for God

John H. Boyle
Parish Associate, Fourth Presbyterian Church

Psalm 34:1–10
Acts 17:16–28

You may have noticed that children are often quite candid with one another, sometimes devastatingly so. Unencumbered by inhibitions and oblivious to the nuances of civility, they speak their minds. They tell it like it is, as we say. Children also can be quite competitive in their efforts to one-up one another. I remember a playground conversation, when I was a young boy, among a group of us who were trying to prove our worth and competence to one another by invoking our fathers and, as it were, riding piggyback on their worth and perceived competence. The conversation soon took the form of “My dad is stronger, bigger than your dad, or better, or more this, that, or the other.” Sometimes when words could not convince, fists were employed as persuaders.

There is a good deal of talk about God going on these days in the public square by preachers, politicians, and people on the street. Some of it is a serious attempt to foster respectful conversation among diverse religious groups in an effort to understand one another more fully and in the hope that by so doing we can learn to live together without killing one another. Regrettably, some talk takes on the quality of “My God is bigger and better than your God,” even though years ago J. B. Phillips authored a book in which he asserted that Your God Is Too Small. Like children on the playground, when words fail to convince, force is sometimes employed, but the stakes are higher and people die. Similarly, in political discourse among those seeking high office, some tip their hat to God while others go to greater lengths to persuade the electorate that they are people of faith, more religious, more spiritual than their opponents. And it seems that everyone signs off with “God bless America.” The controversy currently surrounding remarks made by Jeremiah Wright, pastor to Barack Obama, who is seeking to become our nation’s president, suggests yet another signature by some people.

Even some who don’t believe in God are getting into the act. A fringe candidate running for parliament in Italy, Giuliano Ferrara, former communist turned conservative and an avowed atheist, is urging Italy to get religion, even as he seems to be inching toward the church, declaring that his idea of reason now is reason that is open to mystery. On the other hand there is John Hagee, the pastor of the huge Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas, who preaches a gospel of quid pro quo guaranteed prosperity and an end-time theology that demonizes those who disagree with him and who seems to be committed to what the Washington Spectator newsletter calls “the cleansing power of apocalyptic violence,” all in the service of a prophetic belief that disobedient and rebellious Jews must return to Israel before the apocalyptic conflagration at Armageddon can take place, resulting in the second coming of Christ. Hagee is the one, you may remember, who declared that Hurricane Katrina was the curse of God on New Orleans because the city had planned a gay pride parade. Then there is the recent visit to the United States of Pope Benedict XVI, with his call for moral and spiritual renewal in the struggle against what he has referred to as the “dictatorship of relativism” and with his unprecedented efforts to open up dialogue with Islam and Judaism in order to foster a way to live with religious and political pluralism so as to become allies with one another in that struggle.

Yes, there is a good deal of talk about God going on in the world today. But who is the God people are talking about? It would be naïve to think that the talk is about the same God. Setting aside the likelihood that some of the talk is more self-serving than sincere, I wonder if the talk might indicate that many people are still searching, still groping, for God, trying to find and grasp and lay hold on God. For in times of great uncertainty, such as we are living in now, when the very foundations of life and society seem to be shaking as though struck by the shockwaves of an earthquake, we look for something sure and steadfast to hold on to. We too, as the people of Athens in Paul’s day, have our idols to which we cling.

These gods are not necessarily like the ones Paul noticed dotting the landscape of Athens and to which he referred as he addressed the Athenians on Mars Hill. They are not even the ones we may think of theologically or philosophically or metaphysically. Rather, they consist of the things we organize our lives around and direct our energies toward. They are the functional gods we worship and give our lives to, the attitudes, thoughts, and behaviors that are the objects of our obsessions and compulsions, such as nationalism, racism, sexism, war, greed, hedonism, pain, sorrow, hatred, things or, for example, in the case of a person addicted to alcohol, the bottle.

But it was the altar to the “unknown god” that caught Paul’s eye and got his attention. He had already gone to the synagogue in Athens to tell the Jews there about Jesus and how God had raised him from the dead. He had visited the marketplace to tell whomever showed up there about Jesus. Some philosophers heard him and concluded that he was a babbler, a charlatan, a phony. Nevertheless, they brought him to the Areopagus, where the intelligentsia of the city customarily gathered to listen to any new idea that someone might be offering.

Using the altar to the unknown god as his reference point, Paul proceeded to tell his audience that he had come to introduce them to the God who had been made known in the resurrected Jesus. He went on to tell them that the God about whom he was talking was the Creator God, the source of all life and the one in whom we live and move and have our being. Paul stressed here the sovereignty of the one Creator God over all the creation. On this Earth Sunday, we do well to recognize the important implication of his emphasis, namely, that God has entrusted into our care and the care of all people everywhere the preservation and responsible use of the creation for the good of all, not the exploitation of the earth and its resources for the good of a few. It is an important thing to keep in mind and to take seriously in the light of the global food crisis throughout the world, where, it is estimated, more than 180 million people are starving as I speak—not for the lack of food, but because of the lack of access to that food due to the profiteering of certain people and groups.

This God, who is the one true God, “the definitive divinity,” is higher, more transcendent, and more ultimate than all other gods or idols. God, stated Paul, cannot be limited or contained, not even by death itself. The resurrection of Christ showed that. In other words, God cannot be housebroken or domesticated so as to conform to the whims and will of human beings. God can’t be put in our hip pocket, taken out only when we need God to do tricks for us or get us off some hook we’ve been placed on by dint of circumstance or by decisions made and actions taken by us—and then either discarded or put back into our pockets until needed again. In other words, God is not at our disposal.

Furthermore, continued Paul, God has so ordered and structured life in creation that people will search to connect with God, grope for God, perhaps touch God in some way. As Augustine centuries later put it, our hearts are restless until we find our rest in God, until we know where our true home is.

Paul realized that what he saw around him in the city of Athens in the proliferation of idols, gods, even an altar to an unknown one, signified the deep longing and yearning of the human spirit to be in touch with the source of life and of that which gives to life its ultimate meaning and purpose. And in a final word of reassurance, Paul declares that our groping for God in the hope of connecting with God and thereby experiencing God’s presence in our lives can come to pass because God “is not far from each one of us.”

With these words about God’s nearness, Paul hints at another dimension of his message, which his very presence in Athens declared. Paul did not wait for the philosophers, the intelligentsia, to come to him. He went to them, entered their camp, spoke to them in the language of their belief system, and then introduced them to the one they had been groping for, their “unknown god.” He reached out to them in a way not unlike the grace with which God reached out to the world in Jesus Christ. In doing so, by introducing his hearers to the resurrected Christ as the one they had been seeking and groping for, Paul was inviting them to take the leap of faith that goes beyond the logic of nature, in which death seems to have the final word. Paul was making a radical and heretofore unheard of declaration that God does not wait for us to make the first move. Long before we seek God, even grope for God, God is already at work seeking us with judgment and with forgiving grace.

One evening recently I sat at the bedside of a very dear friend who is dying of cancer. I have known her and her husband for nearly thirty years. Both have had distinguished careers in their respective professions. Both are faithful Christians and have been actively committed in caring for and in service to those who have been marginalized by society and sometimes by the church. Now she is coming to the end of her life.

She had been registering some anxiety about what is happening to her and asking questions about dying and death. During the course of our conversation, I told her how grateful I am for her friendship and for what she is now teaching me about dying with courage and grace. When I asked her what it was like to be dying, she said it felt strange and, with a slight smile, observed that it was not something she got to do very often. She stated that she sensed she was going on an unfamiliar journey into the unknown and that she was somewhat frightened because of that and that it felt as though she was trying to feel her way along.

I then told her the story of a frightening experience I had as a young man in a foreign land facing possible death. It occurred during World War II in France, not far from the border with Germany, on an extremely cold and pitch-black night in early March 1944. I was a combat infantryman, and our unit was dug in on the side of a wooded hill. The enemy had infiltrated our lines and bayoneted, rather than shot, some of our people on guard duty, so as not to be detected as easily. Consequently, the order came down for us to evacuate the area and move to a new position several hundred yards away from the hill we were on.

We were to secure our gear, so as to eliminate noise, and move out single file down the hill over very uneven terrain. Since it was so dark and in order to keep together, we were instructed to hang on to the ammunition belt of the person in front of us, while the one behind us hung on to ours. We moved out silently, not uttering a sound, like a line of circus elephants walking single file, hanging on to one another. We had gone only a few yards when suddenly I stepped into a depression in the ground and lost my footing. Though I did not fall, I did lose by grip on the man in front of me and caused the one behind me to lose his grip on me. In a panic, I realized I was cut off from those around me. I dared not cry out, for fear of giving us away to any enemy nearby. Frantically, in the tomblike darkness that enshrouded me, I groped in vain to find the man I had been hanging on to, fearful that the others would have gone on and left me. Suddenly, a hand grasped my shoulder in a tight grip and another hand was clapped over my mouth to keep me from crying out. I was sure it was an enemy and that I would soon feel the cold steel sharpness of his bayonet put an end to my life. Then the whispered voice at my ear let me know that I had been grasped by the man who had been behind me and who had lost his hold on me. He too had been groping, reaching out, seeking once more to connect with me, and he had found me. Hanging on to each other we soon caught up with the column of men ahead of us and reconnected with them.

I told my dying friend that even though now she was feeling her way along and groping in the dark, God, like the man who groped and found me, had found her and would not let go of the hold God had on her.

This table before us, the Lord’s Table, at which we give thanks for the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is yet another reminder that God, in love for us and for all people everywhere, is seeking, reaching out, and, as it were, groping for us and for them long before we think to grope for God. At this table we realize that God has found us and has laid the hand of forgiving grace upon us all.

As an anonymous hymn writer put it long ago:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek him, seeking me;
It was not I that found, O Savior true,
No, I was found of thee.

Thou didst reach forth thy hand and mine enfold;
I walked and sank not on the storm-vexed sea;
’Twas not so much that I on thee took hold
As thou, dear Lord, on me.