SERMON: “The Great Comeback” by The Rev. Kaji Douša, Oct. 23, 2016
What does God owe you? When you stand, trembling at the throne of God, what, in your imagining, is required of God? What would God need to do to meet your expectations?
Maybe I’ve been too apocalyptic with my ask. Standing at the throne of God, my guess is that we’d probably go ahead and take what God will give us.
But what about standing here? Right here? Right now? What are we expecting God to do?
|4 c. CE Battistero, Milan. Image from here.|
How many of you are uncomfortable with this line of questioning? How dare we expect something from God? God is God! That is enough!
That may very well be true. But if it is, we had better know what we mean by the claim that God is God. And, I would submit, we ought to have some expectations of God. Because, if we don’t, as we navigate the waters of life, how will we ever know what we face comes from God and what does not?
What do you expect from God?
This is a key question. It’s at the core of our spiritual yearnings as we bump what we see against what we want and/or need. When we know what we expect from God, we understand how to articulate our disappointment when we don’t see it [right away], we learn how to shape our prayers of wondering or frustration or loss or anger.
My expectations of God come from the basic theological premise that God is good, all [of] the time. I expect good from God. If something is not good, then I understand it not to be from God. Of course, sometimes the goodness (or badness) of something isn’t immediately apparent or obvious. This is where prayer steps in, if it hasn’t already: I pray to bring clarity on whether or not something I encounter is right and mete. In the midst of all this, I am struggling with whether or not my expectations of God are being met. Am I encountering goodness? If not, God and I need to talk.
It’s a general truth that I will never fully grasp the layers to a text that requires agrarian understanding, and our reading from the prophet Joel is just this. He addresses the city of Jerusalem using images that make sense for the context that could have been lost on us. But the biggest part of what he is addressing, by my read, is Jerusalem’s expectations of what God would do for them.
Clearly, they had seen a period of drought. There was no refrigeration, no mass global economy to bring food from another distant land to the hands of the people. There was no bottled water, no consistent marketplace to pillage natural resources in far distant lands for the comfort of Israel Joel addressed. Instead, the people flourished if the land yielded. Plain and simple. Whatever limited reserves there might be would be subject to the usual laws of injustice. And so, when Joel talked about God pouring out “early rain” and even “the later rain, as before” his audience would know just how critical it was. They would see their expectations of God – in their minds, the giver of the rains – realized.
The other day I had the great honor of baptizing a woman. When I got here, I was perplexed. I’d spent some real time ensuring that all of the responsible and interested parties would know that this baptism was coming. I didn’t want any surprises. I wanted to make sure that the water would be ready and that it would be warm. With sufficient planning, this is entirely possible. So I sent some emails and was entirely assured that all would be well.
Before the service, I checked in: are we ready for the baptism? Yes, I was assured. The choir was rehearsing, though, so I couldn’t exactly see how things were set up. I should have checked, but I didn’t. Halfway through the first hymn, I looked around, puzzled. I couldn’t find the font! This is, by the way, the stuff of nightmares for a minister. It is akin to the dream where you preach naked in front of a congregation a sermon you didn’t know you had to preach. Not being able to find the font was a naked sermon nightmare, and I was determined that this would not be me, not this week, not in my second liturgy as Senior Minister of the Park Avenue Christian Church. What would they say about me? She couldn’t even find the font! So I called the most mobile person in the room, who graciously takes photos during the service, and asked to send the one who’d assured me that everything was ready over.
I have what you need, she promised.
But it was prayer time, and that wasn’t a time for conversation, so I decided to set my liturgical ego aside and just…trust. Trust that what she said was true and that what I needed to baptize this woman into the Christian faith would be on hand when the time came.
You’ll pardon me my surprise, I pray, when I discovered that there was no font. There was just a cup, a beautiful white, ceramic cup, of [warm] water that mysteriously showed up on the altar some time between the Scripture reading and the sermon. Everything was ready for the baptism, even if it wasn’t what I expected.
You see, in theological education, we are quickly trained to notice a congregation’s commitment to its sacraments as determined by its architectural appointments. How a church decides to allocate its space as it relates to its sacraments – in our case, baptism and communion – says a lot about its priorities. Here, the percentage of space we allocate to our altar says exactly what you’d expect a Disciples of Christ congregation to articulate: we are a table-based ministry. Thanks be to God.
But there’s no baptismal font. The baptistery has given way to a sortof kitchen space, as far as I can tell. And there will be stories that I want to hear that will teach me how we got there.
Let me say this: whatever the story – and let’s be clear, I want to honor that story – our lack of a visible reminder of baptism says something about us. And it says something about our understanding of God and what we expect of God.
Ideally, there would be something beautiful, just as beautiful as the most gorgeous components of our space, that would point to the amazing expectations God allows us in baptism. We baptize someone and God promises so many things: to show up, to provide an anointing, to mark the baptized with the name of Christ that can never be taken away. We need something that communicates that expectation just as strongly as we communicate the expectation that God will show up at the altar in communion. We need something that is so beautiful, that’s waters flow so dramatically and consistently, that we know that, just as the prophet Joel says, God will pour out God’s spirit upon us as the first rain and the later rain, as before.
Why? Because if we do not, if we do not very clearly and intentionally articulate our expectations of God based on the truth of God’s promises, then we will malign God’s interests and we will be disappointed.
There are things that God has promised you: that God will show up. That each breath is a gift from God. That God will infuse you with love. And when you do not honor that love in your many, complex choices, God will forgive you and call you to do better the next time, again and again. That when that last, God-given breath comes, that a new breath and new life will be yours. That, no matter what, nothing can come between you and that Divine Promise. This is what we do well to expect from God.
Instead. Instead! Instead we have a tendency to expect God to be provider of our desires, the proprietor of some sort of cosmic Target store, where we go when we set aside the time with a list and a sense of wonder, wondering what we’ll walk out with and how much we will have spent.
This cosmic calculation, part and parcel to contemporary religious experience, is, at best, misguided. Because know this: no matter what your divine budget might be, no matter what you’ve decided you might spend for your relationship with God, there’s nothing that could purchase the enormity of what God has already said God will do for you, and for me, and for the entirety of God’s Creation. Expect God to show up and to be good. But never expect that we did anything to earn it. Because the expanse of God’s economy can never squeeze into the limits of our consumerist expectations or any system outside of God’s very own self.
And this is a very real, very important struggle in our lives alone and our lives as community. We expect God to show up in particular ways. We expect a comeback, as the prophet Joel describes. We think we know what God owes us for being a countercultural, multiethnic church in a sea of segregated worship. We think we know how God should respond to our consistent showing up here despite moments of conflict and frustration. We expect a comeback, with the numbers that our peers will respect and the giving that makes our power in the community formidable.
Don’t get me wrong: I want those things, too. I’m invested in that vision, for better or for worse. But we should never, ever expect that God owes that to us.
The prophet shows that when God gives, God pours out God’s spirit.
Like, when we didn’t have the font and we had a baptism from a relatively little cup.
I was worried, but in the moment, I went with what I’d been taught by people far wiser than I: honor the living waters. Respect the symbols. If there were only to be a cup of warm water, let it pour out on this woman in a way that points to God’s consistent pouring out of love on us. Let it be the early rain shower that is a portent for the later rains to come. Let it be messy. Let it shake things up without all of the expensive liturgical appointments. Let it be God’s moment and nothing else.
Let it be the primordial comeback God promises it shall be.
We expect God to give us the blessings of a satisfying spreadsheet. I know, I do it, too. We expect our comeback to meet all of our expectations, however shallow or interiorly focused they might be.
God’s comeback is so much more, folks. God’s comeback exceeds our expectations because it is cosmic in scope and theological in nature. It is beyond us but it includes us, thanks be to God. Do you want restoration to glory? Try to envision that in God’s terms, which will always be more than the seductive reduction of nostalgia.
So many of us want restoration to glory. But often that glorious past is more nostalgia than reality. But what is God’s image of restoration? What is God’s comeback?
I’ll note my own fantasy of the “perfect church” with “perfect attendance” from “perfect people” who give 10% of their gross incomes to the church, attend with their gorgeous, well-behaved children (and grandchildren and great-grandchildren, as applicable, every week). What have I forgotten? Is there something in you that expects God to provide this? (Or worse yet, your minister?)
Beyond these traditional assumptions, what might “perfection” look like, from God’s perspective? What might God be waiting for us to see and to do that we haven’t been able to pull off, just yet? What, from our history, makes us ready for this work in ways we haven’t been able to imagine, just yet? This is the key to the moment God has called us to. This is where we need to dig deeper.
God is full of promises, church. And we will, we will absolutely be restored. That is key to God’s promise. The trick is that restoration is unlikely to be what we think it is. The good news is that it is even better, because it’s God’s vision, not limited to ours. Meanwhile, we look to the symbols where God promises, always, to be. We are cleansed by a Spirit that can never be blocked. We are met and fed by a God who will never leave us hungry or thirsty.
That’s what we can expect of God. The rest…will be exciting to discover.
The Great Comeback, of course, is to come back to the God who never left.
God is doing a thing, God will do a thing! Are we ready?!