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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

When Did We See You?

Matthew 25:31-46
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church PCUSA
November 20, 2005

Each month at Session meeting, I ask the following question: Where have you recently seen God at work in the church? Sometimes we get a lot of responses. Things like – at the Thanksgiving Dinner, or, in Mike Kirkland’s mission work to the Gulf Coast, or, in the mentoring program at Mt. Olive School. Sometimes there’s a lot going on that has touched peoples’ souls or hearts or hands. But a lot of the time, when I ask, “Where have you recently seen God at work?” we kind of just sit there in uncomfortable silence. And, because I’m the one asking the question, it seems like a LONG silence.

Now, I know God is at work in this church. And I know the Session members – the members of our governing board – are very much aware of God being at work in the church. I think good, Presbyterian modesty prevents them from trying, or even appearing, to take credit for the work of the Almighty. But I think something else is also going on during those times of uncomfortable silence. The truth is, we’re – and by that, I mean all of us – we’re just not used to being asked where we think God is at work in our own lives, right now. Oh, if we’re looking back at the past, we’re probably all able to pick out one or maybe two really big “lightening bolt” kind of times when we know God had to be doing something behind the scenes, or maybe even in front of the scenes, right in our faces. But when we’re asked, “Where is God working right now in your life?” we’re uncomfortable presuming on behalf of God.

I can’t get over the idea that in the story Jesus told about the kingdom, the sheep – the ones the king in the story tells, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” these sheepish people respond by saying, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” In other words, they did the good works of the king, without realizing what they were doing. They were just decent folks doing what they figured all decent people did. They didn’t feed the hungry because they thought it would get them skybox seats in heaven. They didn’t visit the sick because they thought God would keep them healthy in exchange. They didn’t give clothes to the Salvation Army because they thought it would earn them a golden robe in the sweet by and by. They just did the right thing because they wanted to do the right thing. If you asked them, “Where is God at work in your life, right now?” they’d probably say, “I don’t know. All I know is that I’m late to my kid’s school program.” Or, “I don’t know. Can I get back to you after I go work at the Volunteer Ministry Center?” Or, they might even just sit there, staring back at you, waiting for someone else to talk, because they don’t want to presume on behalf of the Almighty. It’s one thing for me, as your minister, to stand up here and tell you, “God is at work in your life.” It’s quite another for you to say, “God is at work in my life, right now – and I want to tell everybody about it.” That kind of bold, public witness just isn’t very Presbyterian. But being sheepish isn’t a bad thing. If you’re a sheep, and all you ever do is quietly and obediently go where you think the Good Shepherd Jesus is telling you to go, you’re doing alright. In fact, in terms of the story Jesus told in today’s scripture, you’re doing more than alright.

I had a conversation this past week with a minister from a different denomination, one of the other thirty-one flavors of churches God gives us or humans just naturally gravitate into because they like the hymns better over there. And this minister was telling me how tired he had become of having members of his congregation come up to “witness.” He said he got tired of hearing the members “witness” because almost every single one of them talked about the past. They talked about what God had done – ten, twenty, fifty years ago. So this minister told his congregation that if they wanted to witness they had to do it differently. They had to limit their “witness” statement to three minutes – kind of revolutionary – and, they had to talk about what God was doing in their lives, right now – this past day, this past week, maybe this past month, but nothing previous to that. And, this minister said, something changed. At first, it took some work and some encouragement. But then, suddenly, people started telling each other really important things. Really relevant things. Really personal things that people in the congregation could really, really relate to. It made God come alive. Now, God wasn’t limited to what God had done in a galaxy long ago and far away. People started talking about how God was present in the carpool to school. They started talking about how God was with them at physical therapy, this past week. They started talking about how God was at the PTA meeting, or in a conference room, or at the bottom of a deep pile of dirty clothes. God came alive for this congregation in the here and now – not just in the past, and not just in the sweet by and by. God was at work right now. And, once people started talking about it, they were surprised. Very pleasantly surprised.

Marshall McLuhan, the author who wrote the book, The Medium Is The Massage, that a lot of us had to read in the late 60’s or 1970’s because of some nutty professor – McLuhan had one sentence that I still remember. Probably because there was also a picture of it on the page. Books with pictures are good. He said that we’re like people who are driving a car into the future, with our eyes glued to the rear view mirror. That’s so true. We don’t know what’s coming in the future. We can’t see the future. The best we can see is where we’ve been. So, we drive on our merry ways, sometimes just flooring the pedal to the metal, applying mascara, talking on the cell phone and listening to a CD, and all we can see is where we’ve been. We have to guess how the road’s going to turn by looking at how it’s turned in the past. You, me – we’re all trying to figure out how to behave by thinking about what’s worked in the past. Check the rear view – no bodies laying in the dust? Must be doing OK. So far, so good.

That’s how most of us think about God. We see God in the rear view mirror, if at all. “When, Lord, did we see you?” If we can’t answer THAT question, forget about, “When, Lord, where are we seeing you, right now?”

There’s this Old Testament idea about God that gets carried over into the here and now. The Hebrews believed that no one could look at the face of God and live. They’d burst into flames like the Nazis in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” But then, God made a New Covenant. Not that the Old Covenant was gone. But in the New Covenant, God wrote new chapters in the story. In the New Testament, Jesus comes along. And guess what? You CAN look Jesus in the face. You CAN look Jesus in the face, and live. You can see God at work in the here and now, and not only can you live after seeing God’s face, you can begin to live like never before BECAUSE you’ve seen the face of God.

When we see God in the here and now, that’s sacramental. We call the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, sacraments. They’re sacraments because not only did Jesus tell us to “Go, do” these things; they’re sacramental because we believe that they’re like mysterious gateways that open up the real, live presence of God, right before our eyes. We don’t know how they work. We just believe they do. When we take the cup and taste the bread, when we hear the water pouring into the font, we believe we’re looking into the face of God. And, we believe this one other, totally amazing thing: we believe God’s looking back, right at us, right here. And not only is God looking back, God’s smiling. God’s saying, “Yes,” to us. God’s giving us license to see God not just here, in the official Sacraments of the church, but in sacramental events of every daily life. At the PTA meeting. In the conference room. At the bottom of a deep pile of dirty clothes. Because what we believe is that God’s not limited by the past. And God’s not resigned to the future kingdom come in some distant tomorrow. We believe God’s alive and at work right now. Wherever we feed the hungry, or clothe a stranger, or care for the sick, the forgotten, the imprisoned. Whenever we open a gateway to the here and now, you know who we’re going to find on the other side? Surprise! It’s Jesus.

So we can drive ourselves into the future, and take our eyes off the rear view mirror. Because there’s more to see than just what happened in the past. We might not be able to see very far into the fog ahead, but we can see far enough to know God’s in front of us.

You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

That’s how the writer of Psalm 139 said it. If we just open our eyes and look around, we’ll see God at work in our lives – in front of us, behind us, and in the seat beside us. God was there all along, and we barely even knew it.

“When did we see you, Lord?” we ask. “Well,” says the Lord, “when did you look?”