September 14, 2014

Unperceived Proximity


Text: Ps. 85:9: “Truly his salvation is very near to those who fear him...”

have been away from this place for awhile, a longer while than I’ve ever been away from Saint John’s since coming here as the parish priest. Things happen when you’re away, both in the parish and in the community, and I’ve been trying to keep up with all of that even though I was away; and I suppose the most important thing I need to say on returning, especially to all of you who live in Newton, is this: I know that many of you, I suppose most of you, wish you got better sermons here, and that maybe once in a while I might make use of scripture commentary or one of those subscription sermon services, or something; but at least I can always say with great conviction that the words you hear here are my own, and no one else’s, and the good news about a preacher who never refers to reference works is that there is no danger anything said here has been plagiarized from anyone else.

It might be ironic to follow that introduction with a sermon about words, and the idea of words, but that is pretty much where we are headed. I have taken for my text this morning not the idea itself, but a clue to the idea­—this line from the eighty-fifth Psalm; “truly God’s salvation is very near those who fear him.” The nearness of God is the theme this morning, and particularly the nearness of the word of God, an idea we sort of nod at but don’t really credit too much.

After all, for us God is an externality. God is something outside of us. That is not surprising. The way we see the world is divided between subject and object; between ourselves and everything else in the world. The only thing in here with me is me; everything else is out there.

That sounds perfectly obvious; but it is very different from the way our ancestors understood the world. The gulf separating this thing we call the self from all other things was not just smaller, it was essentially not yet invented. People understood themselves as far more enmeshed with family, with community, with society, and certainly with God. It is a kind of paradox that as the self has become more important it has also become less connected. It has taken up more space in our consciousness, but created more space between us and everything, and everyone, else.

So that old John Donne poem turns out to seem quaint, but not very accurate. Remember “No man is an island”? We are islands, every one of us; or at least that is how it feels. We go to the store to get more of an externality called food, and don’t really understand ourselves to be part of a system linking earth and work and farmers and harvest. We go to school to get more of an externality called knowledge, and we see it primarily as something we do for ourselves, not for our society. We go to the mall to get the externality of goods, and we go to church to get more of an externality called “God.”

And in each case we put ourselves in the place of evaluating the quality of this thing, this outside thing, that we acquire. We stand apart from these things and evaluate goods, and food, and knowledge, and even God. We hold it separate from ourselves. We never truly open the boundaries that separate this idea we have of our selves to admit or include this externality.

This is another way of saying that we want things on our own terms; we want to set the terms under which we admit anything else into our lives. We don’t accept labels, associations, identifications, or anything else that others might use to reduce us to a category. We are not prepared to allow anyone to associate us Republicans or Democrats, liberals or conservatives, pro-this or anti-that. We are not even that ready to be associated with Christians, because we don’t wish to be lumped in with all the errors the church has abundantly made.

These things are all words, and for us words are exactly that same kind of externality. They describe things, or ideas, or causes, or groups, from which we insist we are independent. We get to decide whether or not we are willing to associate ourselves with any of the things those words signify, and by and large we would rather be free of any of them.

The problem is, it can get sort of lonely in here inside our sovereign selves. In our anxiety not to stoop to accept anyone’s label, we end up being—meaningless.

But of course there is a different kind of word. It is word that does not describe so much as announce; it is a word that does not connote so much as it brings into being.

It is the word by which God speaks and brings into being; it is the word that creates a new reality simply by being uttered. It is the word that God says on the first day, and the second day, and the third day, that brings forward the creation.

It is the word that was in the beginning with God, and that is God.

And it is a the word spoken of by Paul this morning in his letter to the Romans, where he reminds them of how this same word was spoken of back in the Torah.

This is a case of the bible quoting the bible, and that is almost always a clue that something very interesting is going on. You can tell what’s up because right in your own bible, if you look at it, you’ll find in the eighth verse of Romans 10 these words set off in quotation marks: “The word is very near you, on your lips and in your heart.”

What Paul is quoting here isn’t a popular song or a well-known play; he’s quoting to the Romans from the Book of Deuteronomy, the last book of the Torah, something they would have known very well.

They would have known the original meaning of those words. To the Jewish people those words came at the end of the summation of all of the covenant code, all of the laws and rules that we had to follow in order to be with right relationship with God.

And they were meant to be reassuring. It wouldn’t be so hard to follow all of these rules because God had written them in our hearts. God had created us in such a way that we would tend toward wanting to fulfill the law, wanting to live by its precepts. We would do it naturally.

Except what Paul knows, what centuries and generations of the Jewish people had learned since the covenant code was given to them, was that it really wasn’t easy, and it didn’t come naturally.

Paul is saying that there is still truth in these words, but it is a truth the Christian idea uniquely reveals. It is that the word that is very near us, on our lips and in our heart, is not a set of laws; it is a personal relationship. It is something that does, in fact, come very naturally to us.

It is something that breaks down the gulf between the internal self of feelings and fears and thoughts and plans, and the external world of things and ideas and causes and consequences. And it is something we cannot even separate ourselves from, although some of us, anyway, sure do try mightily to.

That word is presence of the living God in our lives, not just once in history in the person of Jesus, but for all time and all life in the continuing presence of the Holy Spirit as it is enfleshed by God’s community, the church.

That is not a thing separate from ourselves, though we often make ourselves more comfortable, or more products of our own day and age, by imagining that it is. It is so close to us that it is exactly what we are experiencing when we feel the power and pull of love, or the presence of the possibility of grace, or the undeniable reality of the sacred breaking through into this existence.

It is so close to us that we actually could not exist without it, because it is the source of what we feel as hope for a better world, as a longing for peace and a passion for justice.

It is so close to us that we might imagine it as taking up the space between the coiled strands of DNA that make each of us uniquely ourselves and yet all of us equally human.

It is, in the end, the very presence of God so close to us, so proximate to us, that often we think we cannot see it. And of course that is the truth; because it is so close to us that by the grace of God we can never see God’s presence as something separate and apart from ourselves. Amen.