How do you find God in the middle of the pagan marketplace?
How do you find God in things like, oh, cable news? a profoundly secular workplace?
among a thicket of family, friends, or neighbors who can’t understand what you get out of going to church and haven’t the faintest interest in learning – because golf or youth athletics or the beauty of nature or therapy or yoga meets their needs for community and meaning. (And besides, they’ll tell you, in those places, no one critiques your moral choices about birth control or gets excited about which kinds of families are legal.)
It’s easier to be an atheist – or at least agnostic – in the world outside our church doors, for most people, including many of us who come here every Sunday.
Some of us are blessed with the ability to see God in everything from a child’s laughter to the bee trapped in your office; from cancer to the grocery store checkout line, every day.
But not all of us. Not me, actually.
I do spot God in those sorts of things occasionally, but a good 75% of my life, I realize I’m not even looking, and so the presence of God in traffic or the mall or Facebook goes past unnoticed.
Many of us – possibly even most of us – aren’t actually looking for God in our secular worlds. We know we can find God when we look in church, in the Bible, in a few trusted people. So why worry in the rest of the world?
But the witness of scripture – and of generations of God’s faithful – is that if we aren’t looking, or aren’t noticing, we are seriously missing out. Missing out on grace for ourselves, and the opportunity to change the world without trying too hard.
Take Paul, today, for instance.
He’s been wandering around Athens, seeing the sights while he waits for his fellow missionaries to catch up to him, and he’s “deeply distressed” that the city is full of idols. He’s awash in the evidence that nobody seems to need the God he knows, the Lord who changed his life.
But finally in his frustrated tourist wanderings, he comes across one empty altar labeled: “To an unknown God.”
Now, he could see in that just more evidence of indifference and idolatry, but Paul sees God. Our God; the God made known to us in Jesus. And now he has the grace of God’s presence right there in the midst of ungodliness, and evidence of God’s presence that he can share, that will affect the world around him.
But most of the time, the presence of God in our pagan marketplace, in your and my day-to-day life, isn’t labeled at all, much less with any reference to God, named or unknown. So we have to train our eyes and hearts to look beyond the obvious.
That starts with believing it matters to find God outside the walls of the church and the words of the Bible. We have to believe it matters with our whole hearts and minds and souls – enough to risk disappointment and foolishness and failure as we go looking – not just believe it as a good idea.
If you are content to find God only here, an hour or two a week, or in the Bible, take the rest of the sermon off, and go get coffee.
If you’re still here, if you believe that it truly matters to encounter and respond to God wherever we go, well, just as your mother or your coach or your teacher told you, practice makes perfect.
This Lent, some of us made a point of looking for moments of God in each day, and telling one another about them. It’s a habit that gets easy once you get it formed, but it can also be a habit that limits where we look, if we are not careful.
Most of my God-moments this Lent, and most of the ones I heard about from you, were moments where joy or generosity or peace was suddenly and unexpectedly evident. This is the way we have been taught (when we’ve been taught at all) to recognize God at work in the world Two thousand years ago, Paul told the church in Galatia that the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And to this day, those things provide joyful and solid evidence of God and God’s work bubbling away in all sorts of secular places.
But how many of you live lives where most of what you see and interact with – in the “marketplace” of commuting, sports, work, neighbors…on TV and the internet – is peaceful, kind, gentle, generous, loving, and joyful?
Where even half of what you encounter is that way?
The good news is that good news isn’t the only way to see where God is and what God is doing in the world. Coach and missionary Greg Finke writes that we can spot God at work even more certainly when things are going wrong. When we see a fellow human being in despair, or in need of healing, or struggling with the well-disguised forces of sin and evil that drag our hearts and attention away from God, “wherever hope and redemption are needed,” he says, “you can be sure of this: Jesus is present and working nearby.”*
We know this, Finke assures us, because redemption is the work that Jesus never, ever stops doing, whether we notice or not, whether we help or not, whether we care or not.
Have you seen that?
Have you seen that great need for healing, for hope, for redemption? In the life of a neighbor, a stranger? yourself, someone you love?
If you have seen the need, then you have seen the evidence that Jesus is near, at work, working healing and salvation.
And now I remember that even though I am used to looking for joy and peace to see God, I have found more powerful evidence of what God is up to in people’s lives when I am face to face with their needs for hope and redemption - an encounter as simple as asking how I can be praying for them.
The deep yearning of the human heart, the crying need for God in a human life, are like the blankness of that empty altar in Athens to an unknown God.
That emptiness, the gaping space itself is evidence of God already there, already at work, redeeming and making whole, inviting us to join in.
This truth echoes the promise Jesus makes to his disciples today, that after Jesus dies and ascends – when the one person to whom they can always turn to find the presence of God is suddenly and permanently absent from their lives – in that blank space, they can be sure, God is at work. The Holy Spirit: Advocate, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, is active and present, abiding with us forever.
The work of the Holy Spirit abiding with us now is to fill us with the truth that in those hungry, hurting times and places where the need for healing and hope are greatest, God is there, already at work, inviting us to join in, just as God is working in those radiant moments of joy, generosity, and peace.
And the Holy Spirit abiding in us prompts us to respond to this evidence of God’s work with all our hearts, by listening, by generosity, by praying, by loving.
Because when we look with heart and soul and eyes, for both the radiant joy and the deep yearning needs; when we see God at work and respond, others who are not even looking will find more than they knew how to seek, and God will be vividly revealed, healing and inspiring the world with and among and around us, everywhere, and every single day.
*Finke, Greg. Joining Jesus on His Mission, Tenth Power Publishing, 2014