Sermon – February 7, 2016

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyTheophany [1]

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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We find these words in the work known as Exodus: “On entering into the presence of Yahweh, God, on entering in the Tabernacle, Moses would remove the veil. On coming out, Moses would place the veil back on and tell the Israelites what had been instructed.” (Exodus 34:34) and we find these words in the work known as Luke: “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Own, my Chosen; listen!’” (Luke 9:35).

It is sometimes said of the Hebrew language that all the words contained therein change meaning even as we look at them. They live, they breathe, they move, they transform. That kind of behavior for Hebrew words is very unlike the behavior of words in English. In English words tend to be relatively static [the pastor taps on the side of the pulpit to indicate the static state of words in English], stable in meaning.

Now, there is a term, a Hebrew word— Midrash— which contains many meanings. The word Midrash has its origins in the Hebrew Scriptures and in ancient commentaries on the Hebrew Scriptures. As I suggested and as is typical for Hebrew words, Midrash has a multiplicity of meanings. Indeed, to delve into all the dimensions of the word Midrash would take quite some time.

And I could do that. You see, my Master’s Thesis was on Midrash. But I will offer a fairly narrow explanation and concentrated on one area.

Midrash can be defined as Rabbinic story telling by and through which the narrator, the teller of the story, looks at the witness of Scripture and asks, “what might be present here but has been left unuttered?” What story, true to the underlying theology being expressed, might be offered to help people better understand not the story but the theological point the story makes? It is hence, and for lack of a better way of saying it, an additional story which is also a commentary.

That having been said, a Rabbi friend of mine tells this Midrash, this story, this commentary about Moses and God. (Slight pause.) Moses, when in the presence of God, asks one of the big questions, a question we all want to ask. ‘Why do bad things happen to good people?’

God is silent. God does not answer with words. Instead God shows Moses the otzar ha’tov— the “storehouse of goodness”—the otzar ha’tov— all the good things God gives the world. And it is this vision of good which empowers Moses to continue the work to which God has invited Moses. (Slight pause.)

Often the commentary of Midrash has a simple lesson. The lesson given to Moses here is the same for us, says my Rabbi friend. Despite all the brokenness we see— and there is a lot of brokenness in the world— despite all the brokenness we see we still need to understand the presence of God has touched the world. The presence of God does touch us personally.

In fact, says this Rabbi, when we are filled with awe and wonder, when we find the places where God has been and is, we are close to God. But perhaps that still says little about how can we recognize the presence of God, know when God is close at hand.

Well think about this— and this was said in the song lyric we just sang— think about this: when the prophet Elijah tried to explain an experience of God, the explanation said God was not in the great and mighty wind, not in the splitting mountains, the shattering rock, not in the fire. God was in the small, thin voice… of silence. [2] (Slight pause.)

We find these words in the work known as Exodus: “On entering into the presence of Yahweh, God, on entering in the Tabernacle, Moses would remove the veil. On coming out, Moses would place the veil back on and tell the Israelites what had been instructed.” (Exodus 34:34) And we find these words in the work known as Luke: “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Own, my Chosen; listen!’” (Slight pause.)

I want to first suggest we worry way too much about finding God, about seeing God, about tangible evidence. I have a friend whose favorite saying when nearly anything happens is, “That must be a sign from God!”

I want to suggest, second, that God is not in the big deals, high places of exhilaration. God is not in the “special effects.” In short, God is rarely found in signs. Rather God is often present in the still voices of the silence, in the tender touching of hearts, the slow shaping of souls.

During both good times and challenging times we need do to keep our eyes on our otzar ha’tov— on the good things that grace our lives every day— the breath of our lips, the touch of fingertips. We may never know exactly why things fall or even fall apart the way they do. But I am convinced the simple, elegant goodness we see all around and I am convinced this helps us find the strength to move on.

All this leads to an obvious question. What is an experience of God? If we have an experience of God, what does it feel like? If we have had an experience of God, how do we describe it? (Slight pause.)

I hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to speak very personally, from the heart, for a moment. In part, it has to do with the fact that I am a pastor and I have been doing this now for over 21 years now.

You see, in this vocation I often feel the presence of God, the reality of the presence of God. Those times do tend to be the quiet times. But they also can be stressful times. When are these times? What are these times?

When I officiate at a Baptism and see the smile on the face of the newly Baptized. When I officiate at a wedding, when hope, trust and love intertwine and become perceptible.

When I am visiting someone who is sick, when I pray with them and strive to give support. When I meet with a family about a memorial service and talk about, remember their loved one. You see, one of the privileges of this call in which I am involved is to regularly be with people in times of transition.

Times of transition are often times when God is with us. Please note: I am not suggesting we always know God is with us in these times. But I would insist God is always with us, even when we do not know it, even when we cannot name it.

So, to be clear: I, myself, cannot put into adequate words— and as I think we all know I have a reputation as a wordsmith— I cannot put into adequate words an explanation of what the presence of God feels like. All I can do is affirm that the presence of God is real, tangible, with us.

Further, to proclaim the reality of God in no way diminishes difficult times. We all have difficult times. We all have times when we question the presence of God, the reality of God.

And that brings me back to the readings from Exodus and from Luke. How hard is it to explain an experience of God and put an experience of God into words? Very hard. You see, I think if we look at these two passages as trying to put an experience of God into words, that can help us understand what they are really about. And they are not about signs. They are not about “special effects.”

These passages are a testament to the idea that God is with us. Indeed, I think the message of Scripture can be reduced to one simple truth: God is present among us, now. God is present, with us, among us forever. And that is the message of these stories in Exodus and in Luke. God is with us. Well, and maybe God is with us but that presence is beyond description. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York
02/07/2016

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is a précis of what was said: “Have you ever thought about the so called ‘New Testament’ in this way? The New Testament is, largely, a commentary, a Midrash, on the ‘Old Testament.’ Let me say that again: The New Testament is, largely, a commentary, a Midrash, on the ‘Old Testament.’ Nearly every paragraph in the New Testament contains references to the Hebrew Scriptures. If you do not know the Hebrew Scriptures, you cannot begin to make sense of the Christian Scriptures. And not only are they are throughly intertwined. They are both about the experience of God. And what are the stories we heard in Exodus and in Luke about? They are about an experience of the presence of God— nothing more, nothing less.”

BENEDICTION: God heals and restores. God grants to us the grace and the talent to witness to the love God has for us. So let us live in the light God offers. And, therefore, let us be ready as we go into the world, for we are baptized in the power of the Spirit. And may the peace of Christ, which surpasses understanding, keep our minds and hearts in the companionship and will of the Holy Spirit, this day and forever more. Amen.

[1] When the Exodus reading was introduced this was said: “Theophany— and theophany is the title of the sermon today— theophany is a $64 word for an experience of the real presence of God.”

[2] The hymn offered after the Luke reading was Dear God Embracing Humankind. One of the lyrics reads: “Let sense be numb, let flesh retire; / speak through the earthquake wind and fire, O still, small voice of calm.”

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