God is Close, Real Close

Easter 6A-23
Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago

As part of training for ministry 30 years ago, I spent a summer working as a chaplain at Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge. I was there a short time—just three months—but that time was full of vivid experiences and unforgettable people.

One of them was a little girl, only eight years old. Let’s call her Sarah. She was just like any other child except that she had no hair and she seemed to know more about hospitals than playgrounds. She was just like any other child, except that she had leukemia. Her body had betrayed her. It had robbed her of her youth. Death waged a daily battler against her health, gradually gaining ground, cell-by-cell, organ by organ—yet despite all that, Sarah was an inspiration. In the way that people (at any age), who have gazed long into the eyes of their own mortality, seem to become wiser than the rest of us. Sarah seemed wise.

She didn’t have time, anymore, to waste on anger or envy. She didn’t dwell on the bad things but seemed always to be looking for the things that were good—in the people who cared for her; in the places she went; in all the events and occasions of her short life. She didn’t live long, but she did live well. She seemed to live joyfully, and without regret.

I remember when she asked me, one night, late, after the hallways had long since gone quiet, “Tell me, have you every wondered? What do you think God looks like?” (Apparently, she had no time for small questions either.) Fresh from seminary, I ran through a list of concepts and biblical images—completely missing the fact that her question wasn’t really a question but a signal that she had something to say on the subject. She gently interrupted me. She said, “I used to think of God as like an old man, or a king, or a judge. But now, I have a different idea about God. For me, the word that best describes God is ‘close—real close.’” Then she paused. Her face became more serious, and she said, “There’s some of God in everything.”

Sarah had a grasp on the meaning of Easter. Light is more powerful than shadow. Hope is stronger than memory. Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness. Love is stronger than hate. Resurrection is stronger than death on a cross. She knew that God is alive and cannot die; and that she was part of that undying life. She would never be alone, and that knowledge enabled her to live her tragically painful and unfair life with grace and power.

Although her experience set her apart from other children and she was, in many ways, isolated, illness and death had no power to render her stranded or orphaned. Rather as, Jesus says in today’s gospel, the Spirit of God abided in her—as in all things. God was, quite literally, with her. More than 1,900 years before I met Sarah, we read today that St. Paul went and stood before the great and prestigious court of the Areopagus in Athens and said much the same thing.

Athens, you will remember, was the seat of Greek civilization and authority. Even in the days of the Roman Empire, it continued to hold sway as the center of wisdom and learning. The Areopagus sat atop a rocky hill across from the Acropolis. The Romans called it Mars Hill. Its court was composed of an elite group of philosophers who rendered judgments in all matters—ranging from homicide to theology. According to historical accounts, the panel that encircled the accused were seated upon starkly hewn rock benches. Beneath them, in the center, were two stone pavements. One marked “Outrage,” and the other called “Ruthlessness.” We’re not told which one Paul stood on, but I’m guessing it was the first one—the stone of Outrage. It was from one there that Paul preached the gospel to the philosophers of Athens who were not merely curious, but who held his life in their hands. Paul quoted one of their own: the Greek philosopher Epimenides. Paul said, “In him [i.e. in God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In other words, God is close, real close. There’s some of God in everything and knowing that can change your life.

I don’t think Sarah was aware of Paul’s testimony when she spoke so eloquently about God that night from her hospital bed. I don’t know even if she had ever heard of Paul—or if she knew an epistle from a prophet. But even so, in her own way and in her own words, she testified to the same God that Paul did. That God gave Paul courage to stand before a hostile and powerful tribunal. God gave Sarah courage to testify to the God of light and love with all that she was from her hospital bed.
Jesus told the disciples he was going to leave them. But they should not worry, because soon after God would give them another Advocate, through which Jesus would return to them, better and more powerful than before—through which they would know him even more fully than they already did while he yet walked among them and had breath. The Advocate, The Holy Spirit, was and is the revealer of Christ to the first Christians, to Paul, to Sarah, and to you and me.

In the bible the Holy Spirit has many names: the “Spirit of Truth;” the “Incarnate Word;” the “Indwelling presence of Grace;” the “Giver of power and life;” the “Source of our Easter joy.” The Greek word used by John is the “Paraclete.” It has no direct English translation. It basically means “one called to the side of.” Our bible uses the word “Advocate.” But you could just as easily use words like “teacher,” “guide,” “mentor,” or “counselor.” In his commentaries, Martin Luther uses the word “comforter.” All these words taken together describe the work of the Holy Spirit within, among, and under us.

We encounter the Spirit in scripture, and in the wine and bread; and whenever we gather in Jesus’ name, and in the eyes of a stranger, victim, or a sufferer—like Sarah. In other words, God is close—very close. There’s some of God in everyone.

Jesus, our fellow traveler, is the human face of God’s gift of unconditional love. That love waits for you like a candle, like water, like food, like a seed, like a stone, like a mothering hen to embrace it, to believe it, to trust it, to live it. Enfolded in the undying love of God gives us courage like Sarah and like Paul. Accepting God’s love will open your heart, your mind, your hands to love others in the way God loves everyone. We worship a God of love and radical inclusion who offers welcome and shelter for all regardless of their gender, orientation, nation of origin, class, or religious background.

God is close, real close. Today, as we honor all mothers, I remember philosopher Charles Hartshorne, who suggested that one of the most beautiful and descriptive metaphors for our life in God is the relationship of the unborn child to its mother. The baby is made of the same stuff of its mother. The baby grows using her blood, her body to build its own. Yet the mother makes no claim on all that she surrenders to the life of her child. She gives to it freely—even (at times), at the expense of her own life and health—so that the child may live—so that it may become fully creative and responsible for itself. She gives all these things and more so that the child may become independent—even while her deepest hope is that the child will choose to remain close and connected. When the baby moves, she feels it. When the baby is hungry, she feeds it. Absolutely everything the baby needs comes from its mother, and the mother loves her child with all that she has.
As the mother is to the unborn child, so we are to God. We are God’s offspring. We are children of God. This is another way of saying what Sarah knew, what Paul professed, and what Jesus promised: that God is close, real close. When we gaze into the heavens on a starlit night—perhaps what we see is much like what we once might have seen when we first opened our eyes from within our mother’s womb: believe that—trust in that—open to that knowledge. Do not fear but let God, who abides in you, fill you with courage, great joy and the abundance of love to walk forward together in faith through all that life will bring.