“Hide and Seek,” Exodus 33:13-23 and Matthew 11:25-27, July 9, 2017, FPC Holt

“Hide and Seek”
Exodus 33:13-23 and Matthew 11:25-27
July 9, 2017, First Presbyterian Church of Holt

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“Peek a boo!” If you’ve spent any time around a young baby, this is a pretty good go-to for entertaining them. Something is there and then it’s not and then it’s there again! Like magic!

Jean Piaget, a developmental psychologist, tells us that this is because of object permanence, which is a fancy phrase for understanding that objects exist even when we’re not experiencing them. A slightly older exploration of this is hide and seek, the joy coming from the anticipation of when you’ll be found.

Martin Luther and other theologians of his time used their own hide and seek language in relation to God. Deus absconditus, which literally translates to “hidden God.” It’s defined disparagingly to describe God as being so remote that God doesn’t seem to be able to effect any change.

Luther however, couches it in terms of the things that God tells us about God’s own hiddenness in scripture. Luther refers to Exodus 33, which we read today. Moses asks to experience God, but instead sees only God’s backside.

Luther writes, “Like Moses, we are denied a direct knowledge of God. Instead, we see God revealed in the cross, the posteriora Dei (backside of God) revealed in the humility and shame of the cross. What is made visible are the very things that human wisdom regard as the antithesis of deity, such as weakness, foolishness, and humility. To those who are not in faith, this revelation is concealed. God is not empirically discernible to be present in the cross of Christ. Those in faith, however, know that concealed in the humility and shame of the cross are the power and glory of God. His strength is revealed in apparent weakness, His wisdom in apparent folly, and His mercy in apparent wrath.”

While some would define this as God turning away from God’s people, Luther frames it in terms of opposites. Moses, and by extension all of God’s people, experience God in reversed expectations. God who is invisible, becomes visible in Jesus. God who is all powerful shows God’s self in the humility of the cross.

In a similar reversal, our New Testament passage speaks of God being revealed to infants, but not to the wise. While I fully acknowledge the irony of talking about the simplicity of thought in a sermon in which I quote Luther’s use of a Latin phrase, I believe our New Testament passage isn’t calling for ignorance, but for looking for God on the margins, in the unexpected places of humility and meekness.

Where do you expect to see God? God’s glory is indeed revealed in glowing sunsets and rollings hills,  but also in the small dandelion that makes its way through the concrete. God’s omnipresence is revealed in the vast twinkling sky and in the intricacies of a mosquito’s wings.

Might you come to know God better through that person in your life who has hurt you as you are moved from bitterness to empathy? Could God show up not in spite of your pain, but within it, the ways your relationships have been formed in the wake of your greatest loss or deepest suffering?

Columbia Seminary professor, Stanley Saunders wrote, “We are most likely to experience God’s presence and power in the company of the humble and vulnerable, the people who are usually found at the margins… They may be children or strangers, people who are not sure whether or how they fit. They may be poets or artists, who are trained to look at the world differently. Whoever they might be… they will always be people who see what others do not, and thus help the rest of us deal with our blinding arrogance and entitlement. They may be people whose lives challenge the ideals over which we argue and divide.

The empire of heaven, after all, is not an ideal, but a reality made known through real acts and experiences of judgment, repentance, and redemption. The church that banishes the marginal, the vulnerable, and the humiliated does not prevent itself from being subject to the judgment of God; to the contrary, it is precisely through their eyes and voices that we can most clearly discern God’s judgment and mercy, through which our ongoing repentance is made possible. Judgment is a tool God uses to open our eyes and ears, to draw us toward repentance — not to induce brokenness but to uncover and heal what is broken. “

To believe only in God’s philosophical attributes, omniscience, omnipresence, omnipotence, without knowing God’s willingness to enter into our existence, is to know only one side of God. And I’d go so far as to say, not the most compelling aspects of God. God’s love for us as creator and spirit are deepened through God’s love for us as the person of Jesus Christ. God literally put God’s skin in the game of humanity by being born as that helpless baby in Bethlehem.

Can you imagine Mary and Joseph playing peekaboo with their little boy? Even in his infant cries and giggles he was the embodiment of the divine… not very intimidating as deities go! As he grew he played his own game of hide and seek, staying behind his traveling group to remain at the temple. That was a terrifying game of hide and seek for his parents! In a role reversal of those early games of peekaboo, that time they were the ones not sure where he had gone.

But this is how God operates, showing up over and over again, in the most unexpected places. Even when we aren’t directly experiencing God’s presence, God is indeed there, waiting for us to open our eyes again.

How has your sense of God’s permanence been shaped as you’ve grown in faith? Does God disappear from your life, when you aren’t immediately experiencing God?

It’s not unfaithful to feel like God is hidden during a season of our lives. In fact, all throughout scripture God plays hide and seek. Throughout Deuteronomy God hides from the children of Israel in response to their selfish sinfulness. In the book of Job, Job has a whole series of losses and pain that would make anyone question where God had gone. In the Psalms, God’s seeming hiddenness is an undercurrent in all the laments.

It is very human to become frustrated and unsure when we don’t recognize God’s presence in our lives. Recognizing the permanence of God is part of our spiritual development.

One of the tools that helps children in their understanding of object permanence is the use of words. To this end, the accounts of God in scripture are a tremendous resource towards our understanding of God’s permanence.

In the book “Subversive Spirituality,” Eugene Peterson writes, “Words are our primary tools for getting our bearing in a world, most of which we can’t see, most of which we’ll never touch – this large, expanding, mysterious existence that is so much larger, more intricate, more real even, than we are…When I learn the word “God” I am able to deal with a person I cannot see. God uses words to train us in object permanence…. When we discover that God reveals [Godself] by word, we are back in the realm of the sensory again – a word is spoken by a mouth/lips/tongue/throat; it is heard by ears, or n the case of the written word, seen with eyes. But once the word is uttered and hear, or written and read, it enters into us in such a way that it transcends the sensory. A word is (or can be) a revelation from one interior to another. What is inside me can get inside you – the word does it. Which is why language is the major bridge from basic biology to basic spiritually.

And why Christian spirituality insists on listening.

By God’s grace, God’s Word is also written. And that makes Holy Scripture the text for Christian spirituality. Holy Scripture is the listening post for listening to God’s Word.”

As we grow in our faith we are like children learning object permanence, delighting when we sense God once again. After all, God promises never to leave or forsake us (Hebrews 13:5), and that if we search for God, God will be found. (Jeremiah 29:13-14) Thanks be to God. Amen!

The Lasting Gift of Liturgy and Art

Yesterday I led a time of devotion at West Village, a local nursing care facility in nearby Independence, IA. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect because this was my first time doing this within this context. While I have lead worship at both The Hermitage in Richmond, VA and Swan Creek in Toledo, OH, this was rather different. The services at the Hermitage and Swan Creek were structured like a Sunday morning worship service, with sung hymns, liturgy, and a sermon. I knew my role in that sort of arrangement and was comfortable preaching from those pulpits.

Here in Buchanan county, members of the ministerial association take turns leading a time of devotion in several different facilities in the area. I spoke with the coordinator and asked her what a typical devotion time at these facilities looks like. She said that there’s usually some a capella singing, a prayer, a story read, and some scripture, but that the aim of the time is really to give the residents some personal attention.

So, I looked through my trusty Presbyterian Hymnal, decided to bring along my copy of “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” to read one of my favorite (slightly autumn themed) stories, brought a great booklet of prayers and scripture from Westminister Canterbury (Richmond, VA) and decided somewhat last minute that maybe I’d bring along my “I Believe” book just in case it would come in handy.

Yesterday morning, when I got to West Village I saw that this devotion time wasn’t in a chapel setting like at Swan Creek or the Hermitage, rather about 8-10 residents were gathered in a small activities room in a semi-circle. A woman working at West Village introduced me to each resident and then stepped out of the room. More than half of the assembled group were asleep and those who were awake seemed confused.

Thanks to some great seminary professors and lots of time spent at Swan Creek, I know that one of the most important tools in engaging people with issues with memory and cognition, is to utilize well known songs and liturgy. When experience becomes foggy, recalling common liturgy can become a light of something familiar and comfortable.

So, I began the session with prayer and then started with “Amazing Grace.” Some people looked up for the song and smiled, one woman sang with me. After another song, and a reading from Romans, I read to them one of my favorite stories from “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which you can read at the bottom of this post. Next we prayed the “Serenity Prayer,” and the same woman as before joined in with me on the prayer.

But the best part of this service came next.

Wanting to engage this place of memory and comfort, I decided to read from “I Believe.” The text of this book is simply the words of the Nicene Creed, but it is set up similarly to a children’s book, with few words on each page, and illustrations throughout. The illustrations are done by Pauline Baynes, probably best known for her illustrations in the Chronicles of Narnia books. She published this book in 2003, five years before her death. She was 81 when she completed the book, likely the same age as many of the people I was sharing this book with yesterday. I have no doubt she knew the timelessness of the words of the Nicene Creed, and the impact of Christian symbology in art.

As I read the book, I would read a page and then walk around and show the pictures to the residents, one by one, talking through some of the images of each page. The illustrations are quite detailed, so there was always something more to discuss. Gradually, each resident woke up, and would engage with the book when I came by.

One woman pointed at the book to an illustration of the Nativity and said quietly and firmly, “Jesus, that’s Jesus!” When I came by with a picture of Jesus on the cross, she said it again. And then when the next picture showed Jesus climbing out of the tomb and then surrounded by light, she giggled and said “That’s Jesus!”

Another woman would simply press her finger to the page and then look up at me. When it was a picture of someone preaching she pointed to me. When it was a picture of doves moving out and towards a man and I talked about the picture symbolizing the Holy Spirit speaking to us and through us, she pointed to several of the birds and then pointed to herself.

What an amazing act of worship. Through the haze, the stories of Jesus and an acknowledgement of the Holy Spirit were able to speak hope and truth to this small gathered congregation.

I individually thanked each resident for coming and one woman held on to my hand, looked me in the eye and said, “I love you.” And I told her, “I love you too and God loves you.” She smiled widely.

As the hymn says, “Surely the presence of the Lord was in that place.”

_______________________________

 

As promised, here is my favorite “All I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten” story:

In the early dry dark of an October’s Saturday evening, the neighborhood children are playing hide-and-seek. How long since I played hide-and-seek? Thirty years; maybe more. I remember how. I could become part of the game in a moment, if invited. Adults don’t play hide-and-seek. Not for fun, anyway. Too bad.
Did you have a kid in your neighborhood who always hid so good, nobody could find him? We did. After a while we would give up on him and go off, leaving him to rot wherever he was. Sooner or later he would show up, all mad because we didn’t keep looking for him. And we would get mad back because he wasn’t playing the game the way it was supposed to be played. There’s hiding and there’s finding, we’d say. And he’d say it was hide-and-seek, not hide-and-give-UP, and we’d all yell about who made the rules and who cared about who, anyway, and how we wouldn’t play with him anymore if he didn’t get it straight and who needed him anyhow, and things like that. Hide-and-seek-and-yell. No matter what, though, the next time he would hide to good again. He’s probably still hidden somewhere, for all I know.
As I write this, the neighborhood game goes on, and there’s a kid under a pile of leaves in the yard just under my window. He has been there a long time now, and everybody else is found and they are about to give up on him over at the base. I considered going out to the base and telling them where he is hiding. And I thought about setting the leaves on fire to drive him out. Finally, I just yelled, “GET FOUND, KID!” out the window. And scared him so bad he probably wet his pants and started crying and ran home to tell his mother. It’s real hard to know how to be helpful sometimes.
A man I know found last year he had terminal cancer. He was a doctor. And knew about dying, and didn’t want to make his family and friends suffer through that with him. So he kept his secret. And died. Everybody said how brave he was to bear his suffering in silence and not tell everybody, and so on and so forth. But privately his family and friends said how angry they were that he didn’t need them, didn’t trust their strength. And it hurt that he didn’t say good-bye.
He hid too well. Getting found would have kept him in the game. Hide-and-seek, grown-up style. Wanting to hide. Needing to be sought. Confused about being found. “I don’t want anyone to know.” “What will people think?” “I don’t want to bother anyone.”
Better than hide-and-seek, I like the game called Sardines. In Sardines the person who is It goes and hides, and everybody goes looking for him. When you find him, you get in with him and hide there with him. Pretty soon everybody is hiding together, all stacked in a small space like puppies in a pile. And pretty soon somebody gets giggles and somebody laughs and everybody gets found. Medieval thelogians even described God in hide-and-seek terms, calling him Deus Absconditus. But me, I think old God is a Sardine player. And will be found the same way everybody gets found in Sardines – by the sound of laughter of those heaped together at the end.
“Olly-olly-oxen-free.” The kids out in the street are hollering the cry that says “Come on in, wherever you are. It’s a new game.” And so say I. To all those who have hid too good. Get found, kid! Olly-olly-oxen-free.

An excerpt from “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” by Robert Fulghum