When I was in high school, I used to have a recurring nightmare. In my nightmare I would be standing in front of my locker staring down at the combination lock, trying desperately to remember the combination. All the books that I needed for class, all the binders that contained my carefully completed homework assignments, as well as the time-table that would tell me which class I was supposed to go to next, were inside my locker. The clock was ticking, the bell was about to ring, I was supposed to be sitting down at a desk somewhere, but I had absolutely no idea where because I couldn’t for the life of me remember the combination for the lock, that dangled before me, keeping me from the stuff I so desperately needed in order to be where I was supposed to be, doing what I was supposed to be doing. I would have this nightmare whenever my anxiety levels where elevated which when I was a teenager, used to happen quite often. The funny thing is, I never forgot my combination and even though the lock is long gone, confined to the garbage of history, I can still tell you my combination: 21,13, 27. You see whenever I find myself feeling totally overwhelmed and anxious, and not knowing what to do; when I know that I am in over my head and I’m almost paralyzed with fear, in order to get myself going again, in order to find the courage to do something, I will often repeat to myself the numbers of my high school locker combination: 21, 13, 27.
I learned this trick on a September morning standing beside a locker located not in my high school, but up on the second floor of Waterloo Lutheran Seminary. It was my first day at seminary as a student in the Master of Divinity Program. I was 36 years old; the oldest person in a class of a dozen students. I was standing in front of the locker that had just been assigned to me. It had an all too familiar lock on it. In my hand I held a small piece of paper on which the seminary office staff had written the number and combination of the locker that had been assigned to me. I stood there staring at the combination, and suddenly I was a teenager again, standing terrified in front of a locker, with absolutely no idea what to do next. I was 36 years old for crying out loud, I’d travelled thousands of miles to get to this locker, I was about to embark on a program that I’d been preparing to enter for the previous 4 years as an under-graduate. I’d left a good job, and a good life behind, and I was supposed to be headed to some classroom or other to begin a program that I was convinced I didn’t have what it takes to complete. I’d already met my fellow students and they all looked like children to me. I knew that it was only a matter of time before the faculty discovered that I didn’t really belong at seminary. I remember standing there and wanting with all my heart to run away and hide, I remember praying, “help Jesus, help, help, me Jesus, help, me Jesus, yeah, get me out of here.”
I was terrified, when all of a sudden, a well-dressed woman came up beside me and said, “Can I help you with anything?” From her age and the tailored suit, she was wearing, I assumed that she must be a professor and I knew that I should say something, but I was too afraid that anything I might say, would give me away as someone who really didn’t belong at seminary. So, I just sort of stood there. “I’m Marlene” she said, “It looks like we’re locker neighbours. Just take a deep breath you’re going to be all right. Do you feel like you’re back in high school?” I nodded. “Just breathe” she said. “You can do this.”
“I’m too old for all this.” I said. “Ha” she said, “I’m older than you and I keep waiting for the hook to come and drag me off the stage and outta here. But trust me,” she said, “this is way harder than anything you’ve ever done before, but you can do this, just pretend you’re back in high school and put one foot in front of the other and you’ll be just fine. If you need any help, my name is Marlene, I’m in my second year here, so I should be able to help you.”
And help me she did, over and over again, with a quiet word, a gentle touch, a look of encouragement, a smile, or a laugh, Marlene helped me over and over again. I was the oldest person in my seminary class and Marlene was the oldest person in her class; Marlene was a few years older than me. She had a master’s degree in psychology and had left a successful career to attend seminary. I can still hear her playing her flute in the seminary chapel.
Marlene was what they used to call a “God-send” somebody who was always there when you needed her most. I remember my first day as an Intern in Tavistock. I’d spent the day in the company of my supervisor, and old pastor who was set in his ways and didn’t entirely approve of female clergy. I thought that I was in way over my head and I felt like I ought to quite while I was ahead. I was sitting at my desk wondering how I’d ever manage to get through the next year. Suddenly, Marlene poked her head through the door. I was stunned to see her. It had been a year since I’d last seen her. She’d been off in Sault St. Marie doing her year of internship. She’d heard that I was doing my internship in Tavistock. She said she’d worked with my supervisor on a few committees and she thought that right about know I could use a friendly face. I told her that I was just going to write a letter of resignation. Marlene told me to hold that thought, so that she could take me to dinner. I told her I could sure use a drink. That’s when Marlene told me that the restaurants in Tavistock were dry. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, a whole year in a town where the local restaurants didn’t serve alcohol.
That night, although she had a thousand and one different things to do, I discovered that Marlene had made a special trip to Tavistock which was more than an hour from where she was living in Cambridge, just so that I would have a friendly face to meet me at the end of the day. Marlene listened to me go on and on about how I just wasn’t cut out for this internship that I’d gotten myself into as I confessed that after two years at seminary, I didn’t know what I should do when I got up the next morning. I mean what does an intern do? Marlene insisted that there’s nothing to it really, and she asked the waitress if she could find us a copy of the local paper and before we left the restaurant that evening, Marlene took the copy of the Tavistock Gazette and said, “Here start by reading this from beginning to end. And then just make it up as you go along!”
Three years later, I found myself sitting in the office of my first church. It was my first day as a pastor. I had absolutely no idea what to do. I mean what does a pastor do exactly? I remember sitting at the desk and wondering what I should be doing. When the phone rang. I was scared to death. I mean what if some one of you needed a pastor? “Help me Jesus, help, help me Jesus, help me Jesus yeah, get me outta here.” I needn’t have been so worried, cause on the other end of the phone, was Marlene asking me how I was doing on my first day. I told her that I didn’t actually know what I was supposed to be doing and that’s when Marlene asked me if I’d read the paper yet. “Just get a copy of the local paper read it from cover to cover and then just make it up as you go along.”
About a year after I, became a pastor, Marlene died. At her funeral there were all sorts of people who over the years Marlene had touched with her kindness. I used to think of Marlene as a God-send: someone sent by God at just the right moment to help you just when you need it the most. But these days, I know that Marlene was so much more than a God-send. I no longer think of God as some grand manipulator up there somewhere, listening to my prayer and sending me just what I need to get buy. I no longer wonder what went wrong when someone like Marlene dies way too young of a disease that’s far to cruel. When tragedy strikes, I no longer ask, why did God let this happen? I don’t believe that people get what they deserve or that what goes around comes around. I don’t think that DIVINITY punishes sinners or rewards the good. Unlike the Apostle Paul, I no longer believe that “God” tests us, but never with more than we can bear. I’ve lived long enough to know that the sun rises and sets on the good and the bad. I know that bad things happen to good people; that suffering is a reality in this world of ours and that the good they do die young. I also know that evil is all too often rewarded. But none of that do I lay at DIVINITY’s feet. There is suffering in this world, not because LOVE does or does not allow suffering. There is suffering in this world because there is a world. Suffering is part of the reality of creation. But suffering is not our lot in life.
Life is an amazing reality; your life, my life, every life, is an amazing reality that is part of the reality of creation. We are all intimately connected to one another. At the heart of the reality of creation, at the heart of all that is and all that ever shall be is the ULTIMATE REALITY that we call God. DIVINITY is not outside of creation. DIVINITY is not some other-worldly creature who sometimes intervenes to make things better. God is the very heart of all that is. “We are in God and God is in us.” The DIVINE ONE works in, with, and through creation.
LOVE finds expression in us. Each one of us is an expression of the LOVE that IS God. When we began our Lenten journey, I encouraged you go give up “god” for Lent – I asked you to set aside the idol we have made of God because in the end the idol cannot begin to contain all that God is. When we speak of God, we do so with metaphors. Meta phor literally means to carry beyond words. When I say that God is LOVE, I must recognize that the word love cannot capture the essence of God; for the word love represents only what we know of love and our God is so much more than we know of love. Our metaphors can offer us only a glimpse of the One who is beyond the beyond and beyond that also. Our metaphors about God cannot domesticate the reality that stretches beyond our human comprehension. Yet somehow each of us is called into relationship with that reality. Just because our language fails to capture the essence of God, doesn’t mean that we cannot fully engage in relationship with our God. It does mean that the way in which we talk about our experiences of God will need to change. Where once I would have talked about my experiences with Marlene as one who was sent by God to help me. I now understand Marlene as an expression or an embodiment of the LOVE that IS God. The LOVE that IS God comes to expression in each of us. Every atom in our bodies was created in a massive explosion in a star billions of years ago. The LOVE that IS God has been at work for billions of years working in with and through creation to bring human form into being out of the very atoms of the starburst. In you and in me the LOVE that IS God comes to visible expression in human form, when we love, when we touch, when we laugh and when we cry.
When we look back at the life of Jesus of Nazareth we see one in whom the visible expression of the DIVINE was so very tangible. Just as we look to Jesus to learn about the character of our the DIVINE, we can look to one another to see the ways in which the DIVINE is expressed or embodied here and now in this place and this time.
So, we must ask ourselves, what is it about the DIVINE that our lives reveal? What will people learn about the nature and character of the DIVINE from the ways in which we have embodied the DIVINE? Everywhere we look the Presence of the Divine comes into visible expression. Each one of us can provide opportunities for the LOVE that IS God to find expression in the world. We can live and love in LOVE, and the LOVE that IS God can live and love in us.
These days when I pray, “help me Jesus, help, help, me Jesus, help me Jesus yes, get me outta here.” I do so trusting that the expressions of God that are all around me will reach out and touch my life in ways I can only begin to imagine. Sometimes we fail to recognize the tender touch of our God, precisely because the idol that we have made of God, with our fixed metaphors, has set the DIVINE up and apart from us. This idol god is far to grand and glorious for us to ever approach intimately, and so we busy ourselves being humble, lowly sinners, in need of this idol’s redemption and we fail to notice the LOVE that IS, when she is standing right in front of us or when he opens his arms to embrace us. Our failure to recognize God at work in our sisters and brothers is one thing, but our failure to open ourselves to our own power to give expression to LOVE that IS God, is a deeper pain; a pain that pierces the very heart of our God. Each time we fail to reach out beyond ourselves to encourage, help, or hold one of God’s beloved, we stifle the ONE who is, was, and ever more shall be LOVE. DIVINITY weeps in, with, through, and beyond us just as surely as DIVINITY loves in, with, through, and beyond us.
The song we sung as our opening hymn, Only You O God, was sung to a familiar tune. I can still hear Marlene accompanying the hymn “Balm in Gilead” at the seminary chapel. The familiar words to that African American Spiritual insist that there is a balm, a soothing ointment, a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole: there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” I have always loved that hymn. But these days, as much as I love the idea of a soothing ointment in some far-off place that the Holy Spirit can use to sooth my very soul, I much prefer the way we sang it the morning. “Only you O God, and you alone the broken heart console. “only you O God and you alone the would world make whole.”
When we come to understand that LOVE finds expression in us, we know the power of LOVE working in, with, and through, us to console one another and we know that only when LOVE finds expression in, with, through, us, will is the world made whole again and again and again.
May the LOVE that IS the ONE we call God continue to work in, with, through and beyond each of us. May it be said of you and me, that in us the wounded encountered the ONE who IS LOVE. Be the answer to one another’s’ prayers. Let LOVE find expression in each of us.
May LOVE continue to work in with and through each of us.
May it be said of you and me,
that in us the wounded encountered the LOVE that IS God.
Be the answer to one another’s’ prayers.
Let LOVE find expression in each of us.
Be LOVE in the world.
Be LOVE’s peace in the world.
Be the power of LOVE in the world. Amen.
preached: March 3, 2013 Listen to the sermon here
Listen to Only You O God here