Where is God? by Rev. Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd June 6, 2021

II Corinthians 4:13-5:1                                                 Loraine MacKenzie Shepherd

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our God.

The stories that are emerging about abuse, violence and death of children at residential schools have been very difficult to hear. When you walk down to the legislative grounds and the Odena Circle at the Forks, you will see the displays of shoes and toys. You may hear drummers singing their songs of mourning. There is deep grief being expressed throughout our country. This very weekend, Indigenous ceremonies are being held across Canada. Elder Dave Courchene from Sagkeeng First Nation is calling for a national Day of Prayer for today. Although the Kamloops school was Roman Catholic, the United Church also ran some of the schools. We can’t point fingers, for we, too, are responsible. It is only a matter of time until unmarked burial grounds will be found beside United Church residential schools.

How could things have gone so off track? Our theology may have contributed to it. In 1843, Karl Marx wrote, “Religion is the opium of the people.” By this, he was referring to Christian teachings that we simply need to endure the suffering of this world and wait for the promised joy and peace of heaven. He argued that this teaching removed any motivation for Christians to change the current systems of injustice. Karl Marx did have a point. In times of slavery, the white masters told their slaves that their Christian duty was to obey their masters with long-suffering and their reward would be found in heaven. Almost universally, churches now understand this interpretation to be in error. But even today, there are many churches that use the same argument to encourage women to stay in abusive relationships. “Your duty is to your husband, they say. Be faithful to him, endure your suffering and God will reward you in heaven.” I wonder if the children at the residential schools were told that if they were obedient and didn’t complain, jewels would be added to their heavenly crowns?

The United Church’s Methodist roots have challenged this belief in a heavenly reward for long-suffering. Going back to the gospels, the Methodist church has followed Jesus’ example of challenging systems of power that oppress people. Jesus never told those who were suffering to simply endure it and wait for heaven’s reward. Rather, Jesus frequently challenged authorities who were abusing their power. In fact, he paid the cost of his very life for his radical challenges of oppressive beliefs and practices.

Our lectionary reading from II Corinthians is one of those passages that has been used to numb people to their present suffering by telling them to keep an eye on their heavenly reward. But is this what it really means? It does talk about how our bodies—our earthly tents—are wearing away, and that we are not to lose heart for God’s eternal house awaits us. However, a close read of the text will take our eye to verse 16: “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.”

The apostle Paul is not telling the Corinthians to be complacent in their suffering and simply wait for their heavenly reward after they die. He is telling them that God’s peace is available to them right away as they develop spiritual attributes and put them into practice on a daily basis. The realm of God’s justice and peace is not a far-away, post-death dream, but a reality that we can live into right now, in this current life, as we allow the Spirit to renew the core of our very being day by day.

This verse reminds us that every day, we are each dying in small or big ways. With the death of our bodies’ cells or abilities, our habits or relationships, we are also being renewed with healing of body, the discovery of new abilities and possibilities, the forming of new relationships. Paul encourages us to focus on our inner strength, fortified by the in-dwelling Spirit. As we daily renew the core of our inner being, we are better able to absorb mini-deaths and disappointments, grief and loss.

This is where we find God—right here, in the middle of grief and loss. When we find the support of others to help carry us through, we find God’s hands lifting us up. And we find God in offering our hands as Christ’s for healing and reconciliation, advocacy and justice-seeking. In the end we will enter into eternal peace with God in the heavens—which might very well be in the spaces between the atoms above, beyond, and all around. The Celts call these the thin places.

Bede Griffiths is a Benedictine monk who travelled around the world asking people of various faiths, “Where is God?” He found that Hindus and Buddhists would usually point to their hearts, while those of the Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam would usually point to the heavens. If Griffiths met the Apostle Paul and asked him this question, Paul might well have pointed first to his heart and then to heavens.[1] Where do you find God?

One of the most common answers I have heard is in nature. Others will answer in their close relationships. Yet others will answer in random acts of kindness. And still others will answer in their social justice partnerships. We find God where there is love and beauty, peace and forgiveness, justice and right relations.

A disciple once asked their teacher, “Where shall I find God?”

“Here,” the teacher replied.

“Then why can’t I see God?”

“Because you do not look.”

“But what should I look for?”

“Nothing. Just look.”

“But at what?”

“At anything your eyes alight upon.”

“But must I look in a special kind of way?”

“No, the ordinary way will do.”

“But don’t I always look the ordinary way?”

“No, you don’t.”

“But why ever not?”

“Because to look, you must be here. You’re mostly somewhere else.”[2]

My neighbour always teases me about walking right by him, not noticing him, because I am mostly somewhere else.

Karl Marx, you gave a good critique of the church’s preoccupation with elsewhere, but you missed the central teaching of Christianity. It is very much concerned with the here and now, with relationships of justice, with the care of Creation, with truth, confession and repentance when we sin, and with forgiveness and healing when we take responsibility and don’t blame others.

To see God, we must be fully present and willing to see everything that is around us—the good and the bad, the disappointments and the renewal of hope. We must be willing to see the effects of climate change. We must be willing to see the bones of 215 Indigenous children. We can’t shut our eyes. And we must be willing to see the hands of compassion that are stretching forth across racial divides. We must be willing to see and receive the healing balm of nature that soothes us even in her distress.

Wendell Berry’s poem “The Peace of Wild Things” helps us to be present to one of the strongest sources of inner renewal:

When despair for the world grows in me

And I wake in the night at the least sound

In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

Rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come in the peace of wild things

Who do not tax their lives with forethought

Of grief. I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

Waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

May the grace of the Creator keep you present to this world to fully see and receive new life as you pass life on to “all our relations.”

[1] Mark Barger Elliott, “Homiletical Perspective for II Corinthians 4:13-5:1,” Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary Year B, Vol. 3, ed. By David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009): p. 113.

[2] Ibid, p. 115.