A Sermon by Jennifer W. Davidson
Over the past several years I have been teaching worship to seminarians. And part of teaching worship includes working with seminarians as they think about and begin to prepare prayers for Sunday morning worship experiences. Of the many things I love about the work that I get to do, this is one of my favorites. I consider it one of the most incredible privileges to be able to accompany people into the deepest waters of their faith. And the space of prayer will often plunge us into the deep-end of faith fairly quickly.
But over these past few years, I have noticed a pattern that has consistently emerged in the prayers I encountered from my students. And it is this: the most commonly repeated phrase, in all the prayers I read, is this one: “God, be with us.”
Actually, it was so often repeated by so many people that my first inclination was to treat it as a cliché: as a phrase that was written or spoken more out of habit than because it was particularly meaningful. Or maybe that it was not much more than a nervous tic in our prayer-speaking, much in the same way we might say “um”—as a way of buying time until we figured out what it was we really wanted to ask of God.
So I started out by circling the phrase and asking the students to reflect on what it was they were really asking of God, when they asked for God to be with us. This was for maybe the first year or so. But as the years went on, and the phrase “God, be with us,” continued to appear time and again, my attention was drawn back to it in new ways. Something about the request – and the number of times I was encountering it – suggested to me that something more was going on than was at first apparent.
This time, I noticed that there was a certain strangeness about the phrase, especially when we realize that we are praying to Emmanuel, the title or name that appears in Isaiah and shows up most often during the seasons of Advent & Christmas. Emmanuel means, translated, “God-With-Us.” So the strangeness of the prayer request is highlighted when we place the phrases next to each other: “Emmanuel, be with us,” or, literally: “God-with-Us, be with us.”
There is something about putting the prayer that way which reminds me of one of the greatest statements of faith recorded in the gospels: when the Roman centurion responds to Jesus: “I believe; help my unbelief.”
“God-with-Us, be with us.”
The thing is, if we are to take these prayer requests seriously, not as clichés, or as means of buying time, but rather as true cries from the hearts of those praying, then we start to wade into the deeper waters of faith. And it often seems that it’s in the deepest waters that two things can be true at once: I believe; help my unbelief. God-with-us, be with us.
So the question becomes this: If we begin our prayers by asking for God to be with us, what does this request say about our experience of God’s presence? Or, maybe more precisely, what does it suggest about our experience of God’s absence?
In this morning’s scripture readings we have two different moments in time folded in next to one another (like the back cover of an old issue of Mad Magazine), which, when taken together, form a distinctively new picture for us.
The earlier moment is recorded in John’s gospel and takes place shortly before Jesus and his disciples head to the Garden of Gethsemane where he will be turned over to the Roman authorities and eventually crucified. In this account, Jesus has just finished giving what is commonly referred to now as his Farewell Discourse—a long, looping, poetic, evocative plea and promise to his followers just prior to his being violently taken from them. In this morning’s text, Jesus has just stopped addressing the disciples directly and has, instead, started to pray for them (and by extension, most commentators point out, for the earliest Christian communities and for us)—all in anticipation of his leaving them.
In the Acts reading, we find ourselves on the other side of the cross post-resurrection, at the end of the forty days that the Risen Christ had to remain with his beleaguered followers (according to Luke, the author of Acts). This time it is the Wounded and Risen Christ who is addressing his disciples as he prepares to leave them one more time.
In both instances, Jesus the Christ is preparing his followers for the experience of his absence. These two liminal, or in-between, threshold moments fold in on each other and we find that we are facing a community of people who were themselves facing the loss of their most beloved one: Lost once to the violent convergence of religious fear and imperial oppression. And lost a second time to a cloud of unknowing, when the physical presence of God could no longer be grasped or, perhaps more importantly, clung to, possessed, or owned.
As strange and alien as some passages in scripture might strike us at times–and it is a strange thing to imagine Jesus slowly being lifted up from the midst of the disciples and taken into the clouds—one image I encountered when looking for a bulletin cover looked for all the world like Jesus was doing his best David Blaine impression and was levitating in front of a gawking crowd of frightened spectators—But as strange as scripture can sometimes be we can also almost always find something within that opens us to something true about ourselves and about God.
And the truth is many of us have experienced the loss of someone who was our most beloved. And many of us have experienced, maybe at that same time, but not necessarily, a sense of God’s absence in our lives or in our world.
And, no less jarring, many of us have experienced moments in our faith journeys when something we once understood, had a firm grasp on, has started to slip from our hands. It was true for a time, yes; but in order to continue to grow we find we need to let go of what was certainly true and open ourselves to not-knowing for a little while:
God, I believe; help my unbelief.
God-with-us, we pray, be with us.
The liturgical theologian, Don Saliers, writes: “Praying begins not so much with a sense of presence, but with some intuitive or even painfully concrete sense of God’s not being immediately present.” It is for this reason that prayer, according to Saliers, is always “a profound act of hope.” In fact, he pushes us even a little farther, and suggests that we do well to recognize our insecurity around God’s presence, because otherwise we begin to assume that “God is at our beck and call.” [See Worship as Theology: Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 108, 109, 111.]
How to say it? God’s presence is always a gift. But the certainty of God’s presence with us is not necessarily a gift. And perhaps most especially in North American, dominant culture where everything imaginable can be turned into a commodity. You know, last Sunday in church, my congregation sang the beautiful hymn, We Cannot Own the Sunlit Sky as the closing song for our Earth Day celebration. And as we were singing, my ten-year-old son glanced up at me with a twinkle in his eye and said, “Yeah, we can’t own the sunlit sky, but we can digitize it and then sell it.” We even talk about time as a commodity: time can be spent, wasted, borrowed, shared, stolen, or lost. I have tried for years to divest myself of economic ways of talking about time, but I’ve found it’s nearly impossible to do so completely. Because I am, we are steeped in a culture that commodifies everything it possibly can.
It is in this sense that our experience of God’s absence becomes as much a gift as God’s presence is a gift. Even when our experience of the absence of God is, as Saliers says, painfully concrete.
When the disciples watched as the Risen Christ disappeared into the cloud, don’t you think they experienced that rising absence with great dread? And yet, as they stood there gazing into the now-empty sky, they were called back to the present: Do not look for what used to be; Do not cling to the understanding of the Divine that you once held so dear; Do not seek to possess God. Rather, go and be the community that never stops seeking God.
In a little while, we will gather together around the table to break bread and share the cup in remembrance of the Risen One. And as we do so, I invite you to notice that the bread is always broken and given away; the cup is always poured out and given away.
The presence of God is only momentary before it becomes us as we eat it together. The presence of God is only ever a gift, given to us, given away by us, so that we might never stop seeking God, our beloved one.