Monroe Congregational Church, U.C.C.
July 15, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
Zach is a boy in a children's book who has gone to the zoo with his father. As the story unfolds Zach realizes that his father has become lost because he is no longer at Zach's side. Of course, Zach is no longer in the zoo; he has wandered into some other adventures. Nevertheless, in his mind, it is his father who is lost.
He proceeds to ask a variety of people how he might return to the zoo to find his father who is lost. A shopkeeper says, "Turn right, then left, then right, right, right, then left, then right and you shall be there. Zach sets out to follow these instructions but soon finds himself in an ice cream parlor instead. After he finishes his delicious ice cream cone he asks the woman behind the counter if she can guide him to the zoo to find his lost father. She says, "Turn left, then right, then right again, then left and left and left and you shall be there." Zach follows the instructions but at some point forgets if he is to turn left or right and so he goes into the toy store instead.
Eventually Zach does return to the zoo. He finds an attendant and reports to her that his father is lost and asks that she please call him over the microphone and tell him how to find Zach. They are reunited and his father says to Zach, "I have been looking for you, too."
There are moments in our lives when we feel like God is lost or we have lost God. We see no visible sign of God. The path to God seems so mysterious and complicated - so many different turns. We get distracted and wander in other directions and yet the yearning stays within us calling us to return home to the One who loves us.
Our reading from Deuteronomy this morning exhorts us to "Turn to your God with all your heart and with all your soul. The reading from Luke shares the words of Jesus: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind."
The writer in Deuteronomy continues that this commandment to turn towards God is not too hard nor too far away. "It is not in heaven, that you should say, `Who will go up to heaven for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, `Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us, and get it for us so that we may hear it and observe it?' No, the word is very near to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart for you to observe."
God's word is very near to us. We have only to turn towards it.
But is it the left turn or the right turn or two left turns? It would be
so much easier if we could just ask someone else to get it for us - whether
they had to cross the sea or just cross the street.
But the word is not "out there." It is very near to us; in our hearts. How do we turn towards our heart and open ourselves to an expansive experience of God's love?
"If a door is locked and you want to open it, you must put the key inside the lock and turn it towards the right. Then it will open. But if you turn the key to the left, the lock remains closed. It is the same lock and the same key. The difference is in the way you turn the key. Your heart is that lock and your mind the key. If you turn your mind towards God, you get liberation. If you turn it towards (other things), you remain in bondage." (Sai Baba Gita)
Turning towards God in our heart usually means turning away from something else. A heart that is full of fear hides the love residing there. A heart that is a constant flutter with anxiety and worry makes it difficult to hear God's word of comfort and assurance.
It is a bold thing to honestly ask ourselves what it is to which we give the primary attention in our lives; what is most in our heart; what kinds of words flow most often from our mouth. The focus can be narrow and limiting or an expansive openness to God's creation of our future.
An intention to have the love of God be what most fills our hearts will transform our lives. An expectation that God's word comes through the words we speak will change what we say.
The harsh reality is that often when we need God the most is when we turn towards other things. In moments of high anxiety we grasp the illusion that we are in charge and have to figure out the best thing to do all by ourselves. Our fears capture our imagination and we fill our thoughts with images of terror instead of the grand possibilities of God's grace.
"Just say no" has become a popular phrase in our culture. I've found it a helpful spiritual discipline to use that phrase when other "words" around me threaten to crowd out the word of God. When envy or pity creep around me I push them away with an emphatic "No!" And immediately the word of God, which is very near to me, comes closer. When I find myself sinking into despair with anxiety about the future I shout "No!" And rise up to be trustingly enfolded once again in the loving arms of my very near God. Drawn down a path of self-destructive behavior, I turn with a "No!" and leave it behind as I come closer to being a true expression of God.
Taking such action is something our reading from Deuteronomy stresses. Observing the word follows hearing the word. Listening alone is not enough. "Observing" in this reading means we act upon what we hear. As we discern God's word we put it into action; we live our lives based on God's truth not the seductions of other beliefs.
This can be a challenge because the honest truth is that most of us are more comfortable with familiar feelings of anxiety and worry than we are living out the powerful word of God. We may not enjoy the feelings but their familiarity hooks us into staying with them. It takes will and strength to burst through the chains created by such patterns of thought.
When Jesus, in the passage from Luke, talks of loving God with all our strength he knows the challenge it is to refuse to succumb to the temptations around us that would have us let other "gods" and other "words" guide our lives. Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness tempted by the Devil to turn away from God but he knew deep in his heart that loving God was more important than anything else he could be offered.
Both readings this morning draw attention to the heart. In Hebrew psychology the heart was understood to be the organ of mind (understanding) and will, together with a wide range of psychical emotions. A person's heart was the place where understanding could motivate the will to act. The commandment to love God with all of one's heart has implicit within it the responsibility to act on that love. Acting on that love happens when we monitor our thoughts as well as when we put that love into practical action.
There are those times where, deep inside, we know where the word of God is guiding us but we're fearful of the consequences of following that word. It becomes convenient to focus our energy on a continuing search for what we name as the mysterious and remote word of God. For if we are still looking then we don't have to act upon what we already know. The passage this morning reminds us there is no excuse for delay. The word is right beside us. If we make the space to truly listen we will know what to do. Now is time to apply that word to our lives. Pretending ignorance is no longer an option if we are to be faithful to God's call to us.
Turning towards God is our way towards hope for all that has gotten messy, hard and despairing in our lives. John Barich has said, "By turning towards God, we enter into a life-altering relationship. Something happens to us. We receive the presence of God as power, as gift, as revelation. Our lives become laden with meaning, a meaning, which is . . . palpable, reassuring. . . It gives us the strength and courage to confront the problems of our lives, of our communities, of our world."
As a church community we turn towards God. We need all of the voices in the congregation to help us do that. For we, as a community, are also susceptible to losing our way. And so we ask one another, "Do we go right, then left, then left?" We listen to those who say, "I think it's right, then left, then right." We also listen with openness to those who say, "I think it's right, then right again, then left." And we remember God is right there in the midst of that engagement with each other. Even in the moments of frustration when someone insists, "No, I'm sure it's left and then two rights!"
The challenge and the call to each of us is to continually turn towards
that which speaks out of the love and hope and promise that is God's word
to us. God's word is very near. It is in the midst of us all this very
morning. Turn towards it. Let it fill you with assurance and sustenance
for the journey trusting that where it leads will be a blessing on us all.