FIRST LESSON: Isaiah 58:1-9a
SECOND LESSON John 14:11-27
SERMON: “When God Is Silent”
Today I’m remembering a story Laura Bush told when she was First Lady and went with her husband George W. to the home of his parents, the former president and Mrs. Bush. According to Laura Bush, on this visit her husband, perhaps the most powerful man on earth, woke up at 6:00 a.m. as usual and went downstairs to get a cup of coffee. As he sat down on the sofa, he put his feet up on the coffee table. All of a sudden, his mother yelled out, "Put your feet down!"
His father said, "For goodness' sake, Barbara, he's the president of the United States."
And Barbara said, "I don't care. I don't want his feet on my table."
The president promptly did as he was told, for as Mrs. Bush observes: "Even presidents have to listen to their mothers."
Today we honor our mothers as we conclude a series informed by Barbara Brown Taylor’s book Gospel Medicine. She begins the third section of her book with some questions about why it is we pray and pray and pray, when so often it seems that there is no answer. Why do we pray every week for peace and health and safety and every time we come back to worship we ask for the same things, perhaps in different ways and different words. We begin to wonder if God is even listening, and if God is listening, then why doesn’t he answer? Surely God must want peace among his creatures. Surely God wants us safe and healed of our injuries and illness. If healing and health and peace and safety aren’t God’s will for us, what does that mean? What does that tell us about God?
It is difficult, after praying repeatedly and not getting the results we want, or any results at all, not to wonder if God is even listening, or maybe God just isn’t there anymore. When I was a college student there was an issue of Time magazine that asked on its cover, “Is God Dead?” and included an article that dealt with the rise of atheism in America. It is difficult living in a culture that devalues faith in God, not to become disillusioned when prayers seemingly go unanswered.
Taylor suggests that being disillusioned may not be such a bad thing, breaking the word down into its parts dis – illusionment, the lost of illusions. Disillusionment may help us realize that God’s job is not to take orders from us. The point was raised in adult education several weeks ago, that it seems as if our prayers are always us telling God what to do: God, heal my child; God, give our government leaders wisdom; God, comfort the grieving. Sometimes we make it a bit nicer, and stick a ‘please’ in there. God, ‘please’ grant us peace. Sometimes we try even harder to line up our prayers with what God wants, adding the phrase, “if it be your will.” Still, whatever we pray comes out giving God orders.
It is not God’s job to take orders from us, or to reward us for our devotion. God’s presence is not something we can command.
God responds to the people through the prophet Isaiah who notes their frustration as they ask, “‘Why have we fasted,’ they say, ‘and you have not seen it? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you have not noticed?’” The big dis-illusionment for the chosen people was that God wasn’t made known to them where they expected. “They thought God was supposed to be with them when they prayed and fasted and studied the scriptures. They thought nothing pleased God more than to find them on their knees, dressed in sackcloth and covered with ashes. But they were wrong.”1
God’s job is not to reward us for our piety, and while most theologians would say that God is everywhere -- omnipresent -- , God is not so much about being present with us in the sanctuary for an hour or so on Sunday mornings. God is out there with the homeless, delivering food to the hungry, in the emergency room comforting the scared and the grieving. Through Isaiah God rebukes the people for fasting and at the same time exploiting their workers, for fasting that ends in quarreling and fights. If they think that kind of fast is going to get their prayers fast-tracked to heaven, they had better think again. “Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves?”
Then the prophet makes clear what does matter to God:
6 “Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke?(U) 7 Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter— when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?
This should not be news to us. Jesus told us the same thing as recorded in the 25th chapter of Matthew:
7“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
When asked by one of the legal experts what was required to gain eternal life, Jesus didn’t say, pray harder, fast longer. He didn’t say sing louder, faster, harder. He said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’ and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And when his questioner, wanting to justify himself asked “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus’ response was the parable of the Good Samaritan. – (The Jews hated the Samaritans (implies) everyone, even those you hate, are your neighbor.) We cannot serve God without serving our neighbor.
Have you ever been out walking with someone, you’re having a great conversation, but for some reason your walking companion gets a few steps ahead of you. Their voice projects forward and you know they are still talking, but you can’t hear what they are saying. When it seems that God is silent – it may just be that we are too far behind to hear him.
Where do you imagine God is active now? With the jobless, the sick, the hungry, the abused, the hurting and the grieving.
Jesus said to his disciples, “If you love me, keep my commands.” And what did he command? Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind be as good to your hated Samaritan enemy neighbor as you are to yourself. Isaiah is pretty clear that when we partner with God to loose the chains of injustice, share our food with the hungry, provide shelter for the homeless, clothe those who need clothing, that’s when our healing will appear – as a nation, as a church, as individuals, as the people of God.
These are the things that are pleasing to God.
As I said to the children earlier, if they want to give mom a great gift today – just do the things she asks. Want to please God? Step up and follow God’s lead in caring for others. As we do that we will get closer and closer until it no longer seems that God is silent, but instead you will hear God clearly saying, “Yes. Hello. Welcome home.”
1Taylor, Barbara Brown, Gospel Medicine, Cowley Publications, 1995, p. 68.