A major thank you to Rev. Julia Fritts McWilliams for sharing these words with us this past Sunday, July 15, The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10.
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of all our hearts, be acceptable to you, Our Lord and our God.+
Good morning, my friends! What a gracious welcome, and what a beautiful place. Thank you so much for your good work here with mother Sara+, who is having a much needed rest after General Convention and who has given me this joy of serving with you today. My name is Mother Julia Fritts McWilliams, and I serve the diocese of Western Oregon as a sort of “free range priest,” leading worship and offering programs in spiritual nurture on the east and west coasts.
My work requires that I preach a lot – an honor, and a joy. And my husband, Michael, has learned the rhythm of a preacher’s life. Every week he asks, “How is your sermon coming?” and then just smiles when I tell him it’s almost done. He’s learned that what almost always happens is that I will spend the first twelve hours or so working away on what I think is the message, only to wake up knowing there’s something else entirely that needs to be said. Michael smiled that smile the other night.
You see, it seemed to me that this Gospel account of the brutal beheading of the beloved prophet of God, John the Baptist, called for an exploration of that hardest thing: The Big Question. The Big Question… How do we explain the reality of suffering and evil in the presence of God, whom we believe to be almighty, all knowing, all good? The Big Question seemed to require an exhaustive, step by step process that began with examining our assumptions, considering the presence of evil and divinity, exploring the nature of humankind and the nature of God; describing a way to hold it all, and then fitting all of that into one sermon, for a wonderful group of people whom I’ve never met, and who’ve never met me. This is tender territory; it’s important work, and best done with someone you’ve had a chance to get to know and trust. Twelve hours into it, I started to wonder if grappling with the Big Question was too big a question for us today.
But then it dawned on me that this Big Question about the presence of God in the midst of suffering is nothing new. It’s not something special, not something particular to the inconceivable beheading of John the Baptist. It’s the same question raised all throughout scripture; all throughout history: where was God in the midst of that? It’s the question we ask in the depths of our hearts when we are in times of desolation; it’s the very question we anguish over on Good Friday, isn’t it. No one: not me, or you; not John the Baptist; not even Jesus, gets through life without anguishing, “My God, my God, where are you in this?” It’s not The Big Question. It’s always the question.
There’s something so perfect, I think, about the way we are designed to long for God, designed to seek out God’s presence. It seems to me that we human beings are hard-wired to long for home, for return; it’s like we know in our bones that this wheel of life-on-earth is a temporary assignment, fraught with trouble. There’s some relief to know that it’s not forever, and that home awaits us. Every lifetime has that circular pattern, doesn’t it – there’s the miracle of birth; the rising up of new life, then the maturing, then a natural decline, then death, and release into larger life again to God, from whom we came. And there’s nothing broken in that. God is with us through all of that. But what about the suffering, and the evil, that we witness in our own lives, or in the lives of our loved ones, whose wheels of life go around way too fast, or way too slow, with way too much suffering? What about the suffering we’ve inflicted on each other throughout the Bible, throughout history…what about the suffering of John the Baptist, alone in that cell when the executioner raised his sword…what about our beloved Lord Jesus, suffering on the cross? Where is God in the midst of all that? We come from God, we return to God, and all along the way, through the stumbles and disasters born of our free will, or the free will of others, we cry out for God – “are you there?” “Are you here?”
It turns out, this is always the question. It turns out, this is always my sermon. My sisters and brothers, God is in the midst of us, present through everything: omnipotent, omniscient, unlimited in goodness. But big!! God is so very big, it’s almost no wonder we can’t grasp it. The people in the Old Testament couldn’t grasp it. The people in John the Baptist’s time couldn’t grasp it. We couldn’t get it, and so out of that limitless love, God tried a new thing, and sent Jesus: God With Us, to circle around the wheel of life with us. God in human form; God in human size; God we could grasp: this was what John was crying out in the wilderness about: “Prepare the Way of the Lord!,” he said. Insisting “He’s coming! Make ready!,” John ushered in the turning of the wheel of Jesus’ life. Jesus’ ministry began, and the world will never been the same.
You see, no longer is God too big for us to find. God in Christ is with us in ways we can grasp. God through Jesus partners us around the wheel: glad for our little triumphs, sad for our mistakes, hopeful that we will someday learn to use God’s gift of free will wisely, and lessen the suffering and evil that we bring on ourselves, and on each other.
God is in the midst of us in several ways, I think. God’s own limitless self, I believe, is as wide as the cosmos, and as near as our breath. But this holy presence is with us in other ways too: through the partnership of Christ, which we as Christians are so very blessed to know – but also through something else that struck me in a new way the other day.
I was sitting with two Vietnamese people, a grandmother and a son, who were talking with each other. I couldn’t understand their words, of course, but I was marveling at the musical quality of their language, the softness of their gaze, the lilt of mutual understanding. I was struck by the clear presence of love – kindness, mutual respect – that I could hear in the quiet cadence of their speech, and the clear compassion in their eyes. It hit me in a new way how beautiful this design is: that no matter our language, or culture, or creed, love is universally recognizable. We all have this mutual capacity for love, and that is God’s design. Love – universal; transcending every boundary and division.
God is present in love. Yes – love: that overused word, so common that we sort of go blank when we hear the phrase “God is love.” But what a brilliant design! Love – that universal power – is not bound by language, or culture, or custom. Love reaches everywhere. Love is recognizable and understandable by everyone. What a design to help us find God in the midst of us!!
God’s love for us, huge and ever- present as it is, still can seem remote at times. Jesus’ love, limitless, given for all, is the Good News we hope to share with those who don’t know him yet. And human love, our capacity for kindness and compassion, is this universal force. How we choose to treat one another in our homes, in our schools, in our cities, and countries – the choices we make when we respond out of compassion, make God’s presence known, and the great wheel of life evolves: suffering eases; hope grows.
Life on earth is full of suffering, and no one is spared. Not you, or me; not John the Baptist; not even Jesus. But God is in the midst of everything, reminding us of larger life, and welcoming us home. God is in the midst of us: in the expanse of the night sky; in the glory of a sunrise, God’s ever-presence and power is palpable. God is in the midst of us in the presence and partnership of Christ. God is in the midst of us in our capacity to love one another. And this is where our work as Christians is made clear.
Every person longs for God, whether they can name that longing or not. Every person suffers, and wonders where God is in the midst of it. Not everyone knows the goodness of God, or the presence of Christ. Not everyone knows kindness or mercy. We as Christians are accountable for these things: we are to be bearers of the good news of God, and Christ, and love, into the world. This is our work, and I love most the way St. Francis of Assissi, that man of palpable love, went about it: he said, “Preach Gospel at all times. If necessary, use words.”
The wheel of life always comes to its’ completion sooner, or later. It is our mortal nature to be finite, and there is nothing broken in this. The answer to The Big Question is yes: God is right here in the midst of life with us, in all our joys, and in all our sorry choices. But suffering a sense of the absence of God, the absence of Christ, the absence of love, is suffering that we can change. But we never know how long our wheel will turn, or how much time we have to do this good work. So in closing I offer these words adapted from the poet Henri Frederic Amiel, who reminds us of the urgency of our work as bearers of this Good News. He says this:
Life is short, and we don’t have much time
to gladden the hearts of those who make this earthly pilgrimage with us.
So be swift to love. Make haste to do kindness.
Shower abundant hospitality on friend and stranger:
Walk in love, that you may follow the path of justice and peace.
And may the blessing of God,
who comes to us unbidden, who for our lives was broken,
and in whose Spirit we are guided into wholeness and holiness of life
be with you and with those you love this day, and forever.