Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
August 11, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
I have been reading a lot of Harry Potter lately. You know Harry Potter--J. K. Rowlingsís character in the wildly popular series of childrenís books (that are great fun for adults too), the first of which has now been made into a movie. (Why canít we just let books be books, especially books like Harry Potter that draw so vividly on the imagination? Why do we need to see how someone else visualizes them? Sorry. Just a pet peeve of mine.) For any of you who donít know, Harry is an 11 year old English boy (well, heís eleven in the first book. He ages through the series). His world is really two worlds because, you see, Harry is a wizard, a naturally very gifted wizard in fact. But he was raised to age eleven by his uncle and aunt who are, in Rowlingís wonderful terminology, Muggles. Iím a Muggle. All of your are Muggles too, or at least I assume you are. A Muggle, you see, is a non-magic person, a person without any magical powers. They inhabit one of Harryís worlds. Witches and wizards, the magic people, inhabit the other. In the magic world, all sorts of unexpected things happen. At least, they are unexpected to us Muggles. The magic people take them quite in stride, but to us Muggles they are weird and wonderful and totally unexpected. Like when we learn that they way you get to the Hogwarts Express, the train that takes you from London to the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, where Harry is a student, is from platform 9 ĺ at a London train station, that to us Muggles there is no platform 9 ĺ, and that the way magic people get there is to walk through an apparently solid brick wall. (You can also get to Hogwarts by flying car, but they tend to crash into big willow trees that defend themselves by whomping you and the car with their limbs.) Or when we learn that the most popular sport among the magic people is Quidditch, a three dimensional mixture of soccer, dodge ball, and capture the flag played in midair on flying broomsticks. Yes, the world of Harry Potter is full of wonderful and totally unexpected things.
Most of the time, for most of us, the worldís not like that. At least, my world isnít like that, not most of the time. For the most part, unexpected things donít happen. Even when unexpected things do happen, they arenít obviously magical. I didnít expect to be called as your pastor. I was, and thatís wonderful; but nothing happened in the process that was obviously supernatural (although I certainly do not mean by that statement to rule out the participation of the Holy Spirit in the process). Sometimes unexpected things happen that you wish wouldnít happen, but most of the time those donít seem magical or supernatural either; and they can as easily be tragic as wonderful. For the most part the things that happen in my world are things I expect. Magic rarely happens, and miracle hardly at all.
We Muggles have a real habit of projecting our mundane, totally predictable and expected ways onto God. We like God to be predictable, to act in the way we, from our petty Muggle perspective, expect God to act. The problem is, God doesnít act that way. At least, God doesnít act that way often enough that we need to change our expectations. Scripture is full of stories of God acting in ways people didnít expect. To cite perhaps the major one, no one expected God to born as a carpenterís son in an obscure, backwater town in Galilee; and surely no one expected God Incarnate to die on a cross. Yet thatís what happened. This foundational story of our faith alone ought to be enough to tell us to expect God to appear in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.
Today in our Scripture readings we have two stories of such unexpected appearances. They arenít as foundational for us as the story of the Incarnation and the Crucifixion, but they are instructive none the less. In the reading from 1 Kings we meet Elijah, the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. He is being persecuted by Godís enemies, so the Lord tells him to go stand on a mountain where the Lord will pass by. Now, Elijah knows his Biblical history. He expects here to have an experience like Moses had on his mountain--God descending in fire and smoke with accompanying earthquakes; but thatís not what happened. We read: There was a great wind, but the Lord was not in the wind. There was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. There was a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. What happened next depends on which translation you read. The NRSV says: "after the fire a sound of sheer silence." The King James and the RSV read: "and after the fire a still small voice." The New Jerusalem Bible has "a light murmuring sound." One reference work I have calls it a "slight whispering sound" or "a still small voice," without elaborating on the linguistic difficulty here. So either there was some sound, or there wasnít. For our purposes this morning, it doesnít really matter. God spoke to Elijah either out of sheer silence, or in a still small voice, or as a slight whispering sound. In any event, God didnít shout. God didnít put on a show in the heavens, or shake the earth. God came quietly, softly. Itís no wonder Cecil B. De Mille chose Moses on Mt. Sinai rather than Elijah on Mr. Horeb for his Biblical epic. Thereís nothing epic here. Just quiet, yet God is in the quiet. How unexpected!
Then thereís the famous story of Jesus walking on the water, our Gospel lesson this morning. It is one of the best known Jesus stories. From it we have the phrase "to walk on water," meaning to be God-like, to do no wrong. In the musical Jesus Christ, Superstar, I think it is, Herod taunts Jesus by singing: "Prove to me that youíre no fool. Walk across my swimming pool." We expect Jesus to walk on water; but thatís because we have this story. Thatís because this story has passed into not just our religious heritage but our cultural heritage as well. We need to realize, however, whether we take this story literally or metaphorically, that the disciples most certainly did not expect Jesus to walk on the water. Matthew tells us that when the disciples saw Jesus walking across the water toward them "they were terrified." They "cried out in fear." They were in a boat in the middle of a large and stormy lake. Jesus, as far as they knew, was back on shore with no way to reach them. Yet there he was, coming to them across the water. Doing the impossible. Doing the utterly unexpected. Being where no one expected him to be, or thought he could be.
God it seems, has a way of turning up precisely where you donít expect God to be. Jesus appears perhaps most especially in those places and in those times when you think he canít possibly be there. Iíve preached before on the notion that God is present in all the times and places of our lives. Iíve believed that for a long time; but as I stand here talking to you today I know that it is true in a way that before I did not. Once again perhaps at the risk of being too personal, let me tell you about an experience I had on the morning of Saturday, August 3, one week ago yesterday. It was three days after Francie passed away. I was in the shower, and as happened so frequently in those first days after Francieís passing I completely broke down. The pain of losing her, and the pain of having had to watch her suffering were (and to a large extent still are) so fresh that I would frequently simply be overwhelmed. I would break down weeping and feeling a pain so powerful, so deep, that to be honest I previously had not known that such pain was possible. That Saturday morning just over a week ago as I stood sobbing uncontrollably in the shower, I found myself leaning against the shower wall and slowly sinking down. I was about to end up on my knees. If I had, I donít know how long it would have been before I could have gotten myself up--probably until the hot water ran out. But I didnít have to get myself back up, because I experienced a miracle. As I was standing there sobbing, hurting like I have never hurt before in my life, sinking to my knees because I didnít have the will to stand, I muttered in despair: "O God. Hold me up." Thatís when the miracle happened. Instantly I felt myself lifted upright. Physically. Involuntarily. I was lifted up. I didnít lift myself up. I couldnít. God lifted me up. God came to me in that hour of deepest despair, put His arms of never-ending love around me, and lifted me up. Iíve never felt anything like it. I have never felt the presence of God so immediately, so powerfully, so physically.
And it was so unexpected. Just when I felt the most alone, the most abandoned, when I was feeling a pain you could not have convinced me anything could break through, when I was sure there simply was no comfort to had anywhere--just then, in the most impossible time, in the most impossible place, there was God. Not visible, but perceptible nonetheless. I didnít see Jesus, but I sure felt Him. I have no doubt of that. No one was home, but I wasnít alone. Godís Spirit was there--within me and all around me. It wasnít possible, but it was true. It sure wasnít expected, but it happened.
Thatís the way it is with God. God comes in utterly unexpected ways at utterly unexpected times and places. Elijah expected God to be in the wind, the earthquake, and the fire, but God wasnít in those expected things. Instead God was in the silence, speaking not with claps of thunder but in a still small voice. The disciples didnít expect to see Jesus out on that lake that day. They thought they were alone in that little boat on the storm-tossed sea, but they werenít. Jesus did what he had to do to come to them there, in their time of peril. I sure didnít expect God to be in the shower with me that morning, but God was there. God wrapped me in the arms of love that morning, and I will never forget it.
So, donít look for God where you expect to find Him. Oh, He may be there too. God is in the spectacular sunset, the snowcapped mountains, the sanctuary of the church; but donít limit your search to those places. We need to stop being such Muggles. Our God loves to surprise us. We need to open ourselves to the possibility of divine magic all around us. Learn to expect God in the unexpected. Thatís usually where God is.. Thanks be to God. Amen.