We are “head” people. As a general stereotype, Episcopalians and Presbyterians are men and women who value logic, analysis and order. Whatever our Christian tradition, our families and churches have introduced each of us to God. Our traditions are generally good at introduction and teaching about God. Helping us cultivate and grow our relationship with God is a different matter. We pray to God, we make requests. We have faith that God is real, and that God hears us. This is a relationship, but it’s a somewhat distant relationship. God wants more for us. God wants us to experience him.
A few weeks ago, just before the turn of the year, you invited me to lead your service. It was a difficult time for me. I had just learned that the woman who for almost thirty years had been our housekeeper and helped raise our children had just died. She’d retired almost twenty years ago and was living in Culpeper, VA with her family and friends. My adult son Will and I wanted to be present at her funeral, so we day-tripped down. The service was at the Antioch Baptist Church of Culpeper – in the heart of southern plantation country. Her family greeted us warmly.
As we sat waiting for the service to begin, a keyboard softly riffed on familiar old gospel tunes. A voice occasionally joined in. Some folks, after viewing Mary Lee, sat in the pews. Others moved up front, to the choir section. More voices sang quietly as the church slowly filled. People walked in, silently greeted others, took their places and seemed to blend in. The service less started than continued. The movement from entering the church to the service itself was an experience of connection between life, daily ordinary life and worship. It felt as if the service had been going on all week. Soon, psalms were read; we heard readings from scripture. Prayer was prayed as the spirit led. At the right time in the service people were invited to stand and share affection and sentiments, and they did, recalling and re-experiencing events with Mary Lee. Will and I each stood and spoke of our deep love, gratitude, and admiration for Mary Lee.
At the right time, a square-jawed, salt-and-pepper bearded senior Pastor took the pulpit. He asked our patience, and to give him just 12 minutes more. He said, “I am an old-fashioned Salvation Preacher.” And, he confessed, “Jesus is my All-in-All.” The service was powerful, the choir sang call-and-response and the Spirit of God rocked the church. You get the idea. The 12 minutes stretched to much more, but no-one minded.
Later, on the long trip home, Will reminisced about some of the churches we’d been in over the years and how this service reminded him of our days at the Assembly of God Church in White Plains. You know, an evangelical Bible-oriented church, where the people freely experience the gifts of the Spirit, an emotional church, unembarrassed to express their love of Jesus. Will and his wife Lisa brought up their two children, Sam and Greta in one of the independent churches, one of our local churches that caters to contemporary worship styles. But over time Will has found the “fire” of his earlier faith dimming. As Will and I talked, the idea of experiencing a “relationship with God” came up — I don’t remember how. I do clearly remember Will asking, “Dad, how do you have a relationship with God?”
A relationship with God. Experiencing God’s presence here and now …. In Old Testament times people were just as happy to keep the relationship distant. The experience of God was scary. At Sinai, people fell on their faces at the thunder, lightning, the very frightening presence of God. They were more than happy for Moses to be their intercessor. They pleaded with Moses to deal with God. And, at first God spoke only with Moses. Over time, God spoke with others whom we call Judges or Prophets; but God speaking with individuals was rare and very special. An early example is young Samuel. In the time before the prophets, Samuel’s mother had sent him as a boy to live with Eli the Priest. One night the Lord called Samuel. Samuel thought it was his mentor, Eli calling. He ran to Eli to ask what he wanted. “No, I didn’t call you. Go back and lie down.” The third time this happened, Eli realized Samuel was hearing the voice of the Lord, and he instructed Samuel to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” Samuel needed this teaching, this instruction to help him understand that God wanted him to hear the voice of the Lord, that God wanted to establish a relationship with him.
Our readings today give insight into experiencing a relationship with God. In our first reading the Prophet Isaiah tells how God spoke to him. In turn, Isaiah instructs us to pay attention today. “Listen to me, O coastlands, pay attention you peoples far away. The Lord called me before I was born, while I was in my mother’s womb, he named me… Then, King David in Psalm 40, responding to the Lord with praise writes; “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.” David heard and listened to the voice of the Lord.
And, as the Old Testament converges with the New Testament, St. Paul - still called Saul - hears directly from the Lord. He was travelling on the road to Syria with arrest warrants for the Jewish heretics following Jesus. God spoke to Saul, and it was not in answer to Saul’s prayer. The sudden voice of the Lord knocked Saul flat on the ground. Maybe Saul needed this dramatic introduction to a relationship with God since he had had no instruction or expectation that God was interested in speaking to him. I sometimes wonder if God might have tried previously to attract Saul’s attention and gotten no response. But now there's Paul flat on his face. It’s probably not a good idea to ignore God when God wants our attention.
Our second reading this morning is from First Corinthians. Saul, now the apostle Paul, is more attentive after his knockdown. In his opening greeting to the church at Corinth, Paul gives the short version of this story, “From Paul, apostle of Christ Jesus by God’s call and by his will...” God called him with a voice heard by the intended hearer. Paul now pays attention.
In those days, hearing the voice of God wasn’t ordinary, and people weren’t taught or trained to hear the voice. Yet the Psalmist, the Prophet, the Apostle all heard and recognized the voice of God. God still speaks to us. God speaks to us all the time, but most of us haven’t been taught or trained to hear or how to respond. In our reading from John’s gospel we’re given a lesson in hearing, experiencing and responding to God.
We have a picture — of Jesus, John the Baptist and two of John’s disciples at the Jordan by the south shore of the sea of Galilee. It’s the day after Jesus baptism, John the Baptist is standing with two of his disciples. Jesus walks by. John points Jesus out as he passes, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” One of the disciples is Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother. When Andrew hears this, he and another disciple follow after Jesus. They say nothing, just follow him. Jesus turns, sees them and asks, “What are you looking for?” In answer, they ask; “Rabbi, where are you staying?” Jesus answers; “Come and see.” They came, they saw, they stayed. They stayed a while, getting to know Jesus.
In this exchange we see how the disciples started a relationship with the Lord. Someone they trusted pointed Jesus out and told them who Jesus was. They followed after Jesus. Andrew must have had a thousand questions for Jesus. But he didn’t let his thoughts, or his questions get in the way. He didn’t ask Jesus if he actually was the Lamb of God. He didn’t fall at his feet and worship him. Andrew and the other disciple didn’t ask for help or healing or even a blessing. They waited on the Lord to speak.
Jesus asks, “What are you looking for?” What are you looking for? In response Andrew acknowledges Jesus as teacher, master, Rabbi. “Rabbi, where are you staying?” By his answer, Andrew signals he is ready to leave his place, leave his "self" behind and come to the place to which God is calling him. He wants to come where Jesus is, and get to know him better. To start a relationship.
Jesus’ invitation was and still is just that; to leave where you are, the path you are travelling on, and come and sit with him. Get to know him. Experience his presence. Learn of him by sitting with him, sharing daily experience with him. The apostles-to-be did so. They heard Jesus’ invitation. They came to Jesus and sat with him. They came and saw and stayed awhile with Jesus that day. The time they spent with Jesus changed their lives. Hearing Jesus’ invitation, they sat with him and began to develop a friendship with him.
I reminded Will this is how any relationship begins. First, we are introduced; then we become acquainted. Then, as we get to know a person, we become familiar. Familiarity may blossom into friendship as we continue to pay attention to each other, and friendship deepens as we spend time together. We talked about the difference between learning about God and getting to know God. Relationships aren’t studied; relationships are experienced. Developing a relationship requires attention, it requires openness, it takes time.
There isn't just one single method of building a friendship with God. Each of us has different ways we'll experience God. For some, we meet God in the experience of quiet ritual. For others, it may be in music, particularly playing or singing. For others it may be reading or hearing scripture, experiencing the presence of God beyond the written or spoken words. Contemplation, where we sit in silence and wait on the presence of God is another way that goes back to biblical times. God is also present in the daily rising and setting of the sun, the smell of fresh cut grass and summer heat on a growing corn field. It’s up to us to notice and respond and experience.
The congregation of the Antioch Baptist Church of Culpeper, Virginia were on friendly familiar terms with the Lord. They didn’t just say hello on Sunday. Life and worship flowed together. We, too, have chances all during every day to deepen our friendship with the Lord. When you open your eyes in the morning, there’s God. We can notice what he created and thank him for another sunrise. Every mealtime, whether formal grace or just plain appreciation for the miracle of good food, we can notice and enjoy the meal with the Lord. He sits by us as we work, as we crochet, as we watch a movie. All we have to do is notice, pay attention, and savor the experience. God really did make all of this and all of us. And it’s friendly to enjoy it with God.
We’re taught to Ask, Seek and Knock, and the door will be opened to us. The door is open. The open door is an invitation to “Come and see and stay awhile.” God wants an ongoing loving relationship with each of us.
Permit me a final word, — I promise less than 12 minutes. I was brought up in a Conservative Jewish family. Worship was not a once a week experience. We kept Kosher. Kosher is a 24/7 experience of God. The dietary Kosher laws were designed to keep us constantly aware of God. We couldn’t open our mouth to take a bite of anything without reflecting on whether this would be trayf, a sin or mitzvah, a blessing. God was a constant presence and experience.
But while 24/7, this was a distant and one-way relationship. As a Jewish child I felt my relationship to God was more “prisoner to warden” than friend-to-friend. Jesus coming into the world changed that. Now we Christians have a relationship that is loving friend to loving friend. Not just with God, but a loving relationship with all believers.
Waiting for our plane home, Will and I had a leisurely dinner together at National airport. We spoke as loving friends. I will always be Will’s father, and he my son. But spending those hours together, listening, paying attention, experiencing life together, sharing emotions, helped both of us realize that our friendship is a precious illustration of the friendly relationship our loving God wants with each of us. Let’s not be shy about letting God into our daily lives as a friend, spending time together, experiencing the ups and downs together. The best relationship. The best of friends.