I started the sermon last week by telling you about a time in my life when I walked out of church.
I don’t generally advocate such behavior, but at the time I just couldn’t see any way around it.
That day I needed God so badly the pain in my life was palpable, and no human act of will could fix what seemed so broken. I knew I needed God, and I knew—years and years of Sunday School, you know—that the best place of all to find God was in church.
As I told you last week, I made it about 10 minutes into the service before I left. All those people yelling about God being good . . . all the smiley faces and pretty clothes . . . all the cheery music . . . all of that, but no sign of God at all.
Not one sign of God, anywhere that I could see.
You know that that feels like?
Our biblical character in today’s Hebrew reading, Job, certainly did. If you weren’t listening closely, take another look at the passage we read today from Job 23 on page 409 of your pew Bibles.
It wasn’t that Job was displeased with God’s actions. It wasn’t that he was angry with the way God was treating him. No, Job’s bitter lament was because he could not find God, anywhere. Oh that he knew where he could find God . . . if only he knew God’s address . . . well, then he would march right up to God’s front door and give God a piece of his mind! But Job couldn’t find God anywhere at all . . . he went forward and backward, to the left, to the right . . . God was just nowhere to be found.
And how can you begin to express your pain, your need for help, your utter desolation and devastation when you can’t even locate the person with whom you need to talk?
What do you do when it feels like God is hiding?
Where on earth might you find this God who is supposed to be in control of all the little details of this world, yet seems so very absent when we need him most?
I was walking out of church . . . that’s where I left off in my story last week . . . and this is what happened next:
That day in church I recall that I was sitting on the end of a row so I didn’t have to climb over anyone to get out. All I could focus on was the door and, like a homing pigeon, I headed straight in that direction. I felt desperate just to get out of that room where the music got louder and louder and the cheerful smiles on everyone’s faces made me feel like I could hardly breathe.
Finally, I made it to the hallway and I stood there, catching my breath and clutching my Kleenex, frantically trying to stop the tears that were running down my cheeks.
It was right then that a woman in the church I barely knew came barreling around the corner.
I could tell the moment she saw me that she felt extremely uncomfortable but there was no way she could avoid me. Though the memory is kind of a blur, I think she patted me on the arm and shot me a look of pity. “We’ve heard what happened to you,” she said. Then she went on: “All I could think of when I heard was: ‘there but for the grace of God go I'”, then she patted me again, smiled with pity and then went on into church.
I never set foot in that church again.
I’d come to find God, in utter desperation because, like Job, wherever I looked, God seemed terribly absent. I’d come to find God in church and was not able to find God at all . . . and when I felt that God’s Spirit was absent I looked around for any indication of God anywhere else. The comment of the woman in the hallway was almost enough to convince me there was no way I was finding God, ever, anywhere at all.
It seemed like everywhere I looked I was reminded of God’s absence . . . even in the words and actions of other people.
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When you read the book of Job you will find that, soon after the lament we read today, where Job cries with anguish over God’s absence, he has the same exact experience. Job, living through extreme pain in his life, receives a visit from a group of his friends: Eliphaz, Bildad, Zophar and Elihu. They want to be supportive, really, but their words are hurtful and critical. They cannot move past the idea that because of some cosmic law of judgment, Job deserved the pain he was experiencing; that he had somehow brought it on himself.
And Job’s response to the “help” of his friends? All he could think was that their words added to the quickly mounting body of evidence that God had checked out, gone away, taken a vacation, left the scene of the crime . . . just when Job needed God most.
Perhaps the same thing has happened to you. In fact, I’d guess that it probably has. The reason for that is because we’re all human and we all fail from time to time. The fact of the matter is, when confronted with the pain of human life, we recoil in fear because we know the very same pain could happen to us. And when we recoil, we flounder around trying to do the best we can to offer comfort, all the while fighting the demons of our own questions: is God out there, really? Would God abandon me if I were ever in a situation like this?
And in our inadequate attempts to offer comfort and compassion, like Job’s friends, we sometimes end up saying and doing things that add to the to the feeling that God is hiding, things like, “There but for the grace of God go I.”
But on the other hand, on the other hand . . . there’s something to be said for not being in this alone, even if the person with you can’t seem to find the right words of comfort to help in the least. We’re human beings and we let each other down. All the time. But we also offer something else, something so wonderful and valuable for the darkest times of the human experience, when it seems that God hides. We offer each other a tangible experience of the divine.
Rabbi Zemak, Rabbi at Temple Beth Shalom in Baton Rouge said it well last year after thousands of people in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast lost everything in the wake of hurricane Katrina and Zemak’s congregation was pressed to the limit to respond to the devastating needs flooding their city: “I don’t believe that God throws hurricanes at people, or that we can pray them away,” he said. “Hurricanes are a natural phenomenon in this part of the world. It’s not evil, it doesn’t have a will. It’s a tragedy. But where God is, is in the way we respond. We are moral beings, and people are God’s hands. We see people are God’s hands in the world.” And among the Jews of Baton Rouge, he said, “God’s hands are busy working.”
And that’s the key. See, God . . . God is holy, divine, transcendent, other. No matter how hard we try we won’t be able to fully understand the way God works. We won’t be able to tangibly experience the presence of God in our darkest moments. But we will . . . we will be able to reach out and touch another hand; to look into eyes that are loving and compassionate; to feel another wiping away the tears that do not seem to stop; to rest in the embrace of arms holding us up when we cannot stand one moment longer on our own.
Not the arms and eyes and hands and fingers of a divine, transcendent being. No, human hands . . . and eyes, and fingers and arms. But certainly and most assuredly, evidence that God is here, even when it seems that God hides.
1940 found the entire continent of Europe in desperate straits. The strong arm of the Nazi regime was stretching its reach and applying intense pressure as Nazi rule swept across the continent.
It was that year that France capitulated to Nazi rule and the terror in France began. There were 300,000 Jews living in France; 75,000 were sent to their deaths in internment camps run by the Nazis.
High above the Rhône Valley in France sat nestled a little town called Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. It was then and is now still a sleepy little village on a plateau above the valley. With its surrounding hamlets, the region consists of about 5,000 people. Right after France was taken over by Nazi rule the people of the village and surrounding areas suddenly found themselves faced with a decision.
The day after France surrendered to the Nazis the people of the village gathered for worship. It was Sunday. They heard their pastor loud and clear as he said: “The responsibility of Christians is to resist the violence that will be brought to bear on their consciences through the weapons of the spirit.”
In other words, he told them, what has happened to our country is evil. What is happening to Jews in our country and around the world is evil. This evil has spread over the continent and covered us all with a thick darkness, so dark and so evil that it feels like God is hiding.
None of them were at risk; they were all Protestant Christians. But it was in that moment that everyone in that community decided that, as representatives of God, they must immediately begin a strong and forceful conspiracy of goodness in the face of pure evil.
And they did.
Every member of that community welcomed Jews from all over France to live in their homes. They hid their Jewish friends from Nazi soldiers. They resisted in the face of violence and threats. They refused to give in to hopelessness they saw in the eyes of the refugees, who had begun to think that God was hiding at the very least and might not even really exist at all. The community effort snowballed to the point that local police, forced to participate in raids to arrest Jewish prisoners, would make a point of going to the local café for lunch and talking loudly about where their next raid would take place. They’d leave just enough time, of course, for their friends to hide their guests so they could honestly report they found no Jews in their raids.
And more than that, the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon opened their hearts and their homes to a suffering people who were often all alone, in despair, not convinced at all that God cared one bit. They took them in, fed them, welcomed them into their families . . . one picture from 1942 shows the whole community out on the lake, holding hands and ice skating, together.
At the end of the war over 5,000 Jews had passed in safety through the little town of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon. All of them were saved from death. All of them were saved from the utter fear that evil was ruling the day. And all of them were saved from the horrid, sinking thought that God was hiding so far away that God might never be found. They knew this definitively . . . how? By a safe place to sleep, a grateful hug, an afternoon of gliding along the ice holding tight to the hand of a real, live person who stood in the yawning gap of silence until God could be found again.
Sometimes people let us down. Sometimes they say and do just the wrong things at times when we feel desperately alone and cut off from God.
But sometimes—very often, in fact—we see God in the faces of those who walk beside us. Just when the darkness overtakes us and we can’t quite see which way to go next, someone holds out a hand to help us along. A human hand . . . not the actual presence and perfection of the divine . . . but a tangible, warm and comforting a reminder of God.
It was later that week, the same week I’d left church devastated by the darkness all around me, that Mark and I heard a knock at our door one night. We weren’t sure who might be at our door since we were new to the neighborhood and didn’t know too many people.
At the door stood a man who we’d met only briefly. He was the husband of an acquaintance I’d met at church. She was traveling, he said, and he’d heard what happened to us. He didn’t know how he could help, he said, but he wanted to bring us a box of candy and sit with us a little while.
We warily ushered him into our living room and he began an easy conversation about his work, our neighborhood, our children. He asked us about ourselves and he said he’d heard what happened to us. He wanted us to know that, while he wasn’t sure what he might do, that we were most assuredly not alone, and that we should call him if we needed anything.
Then he left.
I will never forget that night. I will never forget the face of a man I hardly knew, eyes looking into mine with compassion and concern. I will never forget a hand extended in friendship, an inconsequential box of candy offered with love. I will never forget that man, stepping into a place others found uncomfortable, not to solve a problem or find a solution . . . but to remind us we were not alone.
The 20 minutes he spent in our living room that night were just enough to remind me that, though I felt God was hiding, God was most certainly there . . . right there. That man reminded me.
There is someone in your life right now who cannot see God. No matter how hard they try, they cannot feel the presence of God anywhere near the pain of the situation in which they find themselves. God is hiding. This week we are challenged to be like the people of Beth Shalom, like the people of Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, to be the hands and feet of God in this world. We can give a hug, wipe a tear or hold a hand to remind each other that God is here, God is here even when God seems absent.
In your bulletin is a note card that reads: “When God hides, remember who walks beside you.” This card is a tool for you to put into practice this week the tangible presence of God . . . to be that for someone who may feel at this time in his or her life that God is nowhere to be found at all. Take a few moments this week to write a note and mail that card, to reach out a human hand on behalf of the Divine, to become a tangible expression of the promise that God will NEVER leave us or forsake us.
And if you are the one who looks out over a dark abyss in your life and, as hard as you yell for God, you can’t seem to get an answer, well then it’s time for you to reach out. Just reach over to the person sitting next to you and grab a hand.
Do you feel the warm grip of that hand? When it feels like God is hiding, reach out and feel the solid presence of another human being . . . for just that moment, we can be for each other the very presence of God.