November 29, 2020
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
I want to talk for a second about the game of Peek-a-Boo. Depending on where you’re from in the world, you may call this game “Peep-pie,” “Pee-po,” “Peep-ho,” or “Beebo,” but whatever you call it, the game involves covering your face in front of a baby and then uncovering it while announcing, “Peek-a-boo!” Usually the baby responds by chortling in delight, to which you in turn respond by playing the game over and over again. Much of the fun of peek-a-boo is hearing the baby laugh even if you have done it 27 times already because the disappearance of your face behind your hands and then the sudden reappearance of your face a second later never fails to amaze the infant. That’s because to them it is literally a miracle. Babies’ brains have not yet developed what psychologists call “Object permanence.” Object permanence is the recognition that an object has a self-reality beyond your experience of it. In other words, a baby who hasn’t yet developed a sense of object permanence can only believe in the existence of what they can see at that moment. When you cover your face with your hands, your face for the baby is literally gone, expunged from their universe. When their dog walks out of the room, their brain assumes that the dog evaporates into thin air. An infant’s world is the stage right in front of them and in their brains everything off-stage ceases to exist.
Within the first year of their lives however, babies will come to understand that their family doesn’t disintegrate into nothingness when they walk out of the room. As adults, we know that people continue to exist even when we can’t see them, that they are out in the world having conversations even if we can’t hear them, and that they are having experiences which are real even if they never share those experiences with us. We even come to understand that there are human beings out there whom we have not met and who we may never meet yet who are nonetheless living genuine lives. Right at this very moment, for example, there is someone in Zimbabwe sitting down to a dinner of sadza rezviyo, and the fact that I have never been to Zimbabwe, and have no idea what sadza rezviyo looks like or tastes like doesn’t make that person’s reality any less real. A person’s existence doesn’t depend on my experience of them. Unlike babies, we know fully well that things exist out there even if we can’t see them, hear them, feel them, sense them, or even imagine them because of the limitations of our own experiences. The world is bigger than just what is in front of our faces.
As people of faith, we extend our recognition of object permanence beyond the known reality of human existence to a belief in a divine reality that we call God. We have chosen to believe that just as a person in Zimbabwe’s existence doesn’t depend on our ability to see their existence, neither does God’s existence depend on our ability to see, hear, feel, or even imagine God. We who profess faith in God may have chosen to believe in God because we accept the testimony of thousands of generations that came before us, and the truth that we sense in the biblical witness to God. Or we may believe in God because in the past, we had experiences of God’s presence in our lives — a sense of call luring us into communion with God, an answer to prayer, a lifting of our hearts during worship, a moment of unexplained joy, a pealing back of the veil between heaven and earth that for a fleeting second convinced us that there is more to the world than meets the eye. Or those who have not experienced a single mystical event may believe in the existence of God because for them, life lived with the assumption of a divine rule of love and grace makes more sense to them than a meaningless life where they are no more consequential than the dirt beneath their feet. For some of us, then, our faith in God comes from a trust in the tradition of the church and scriptures; for some our faith grows out of specific unexplainable experiences in our past, and for some our faith is the best rational explanation that makes sense of our lives. However we come to it, though, our faith is grounded in the assumption that there is a God who exists and continues to work and move in our world even when we are not able to see God, hear God, or experience God in this very moment of this very day. I don’t know any person of faith who claims that God’s presence is a constant for them; rather every person of faith I know expects that on some days, in fact, on most days, God will be hidden from their eyes.
Of course, just because we believe that God exists even when we can’t see, hear, or experience God doesn’t mean that we are totally fine with not seeing, hearing, or experiencing God. God isn’t just some random person in Zimbabwe eating stew; God is someone to whom we have dedicated our lives and desire to know more intimately; God is someone we need to experience in those dark moments when we need divine strength to carry on, and so, while we can in faith say that God continues to exist even when we can’t feel God with us, in desperation we pray, “Please God, come to me, and come now! I don’t know how long I can wait to see you.”
Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury in the 11th century, expressed our longing when he wrote:
“I have never seen you, O Lord my God; I do not know your form. What, O most high Lord, shall this man do, an exile far from you? What shall your servant do, anxious in his love of you, and cast out afar from your face? He pants to see you, and your face is too far from him. He longs to come to you, and your dwelling place is inaccessible…. Lord, you are my God, and… it is you that has made me, and has made me anew, and has bestowed upon me all the blessings I enjoy; and not yet do I know you.”
Anselm was the archbishop of Canterbury and yet could confess that God remained elusive to him. Mother Teresa who was sainted for her work with the poor wrote in her journal of the doubts that consumed her because God felt so absent. We, who have grappled this year with despair over the pandemic and social injustice and divisions in our nation, and with our own personal struggles, know too well how hard it is when God is silent. Maybe we have been able to maintain an intellectual belief that God is still out there even if God is hidden from our eyes but belief in God’s existence is not enough when a tsunami of challenges threatens to overwhelm us. We need God to break through the silence and speak. We need God right here at our elbow holding us up so that we have the strength to stand. We need God to be on this stage with us.
In Isaiah 40, the prophet speaks to a people who too, long to hear the voice of God. The Jews are living in exile in Babylon where they were taken by their captors after the Babylonians destroyed their homes and ravaged their lands. Though they have continued to practice their faith in a foreign land, the challenges have been overwhelming and they despair that God has forgotten them. The prophet reassures them, saying, “Take comfort, people, for your God is coming. Prepare the way of your Lord, because the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all people shall see it together.”
As Christians, we believe that the appearance of God promised to us came in the coming of Christ who showed us the face of the divine in human flesh. We believe that even though our feeble human brains may not be able to apprehend the holy eternal God, we can look at Christ and see his attentiveness to the weak and hurt, his healing of the outcast and forgotten, his acceptance of the lowly, his insistence that every person is worthy — and experience through him God’s grace. And furthermore, the Bible tells us that Christ, the face of God, was not limited to the historical Jesus of Nazareth but is embodied in the church that he established. The eternal transcendent God may remain hidden to us but we can know God’s healing and comfort in the body of Christ which is right here in front of our eyes. As the human expression of God’s love, we in the church are obviously fallible and imperfect but this body manages to reveal just enough moments of holy grace to keep us going, to feed our hearts and nurture our faith.
Just look at what people in this church have managed to do in spite of the threats of pandemic and social upheaval. People gave generously to keep small businesses afloat during the shutdown. People painted signs and marched in the streets on behalf of social justice. While the nation shouted at one another behind competing political parties, we worshipped together and — for the most part I hope — remained caring of one another in spite of political differences. And this winter when the pandemic has forced us to socially distance and turn to Zoom for worship, members of this congregation are working together to make sure that we still collect coats and put together Christmas boxes for those in need and have times of fellowship with one another and pray for each other. We have extended our congregation beyond the limits of western NY and taken joy in seeing old friends and making new ones who have become part of this body of Christ. It’s been a different kind of year when the bleakness of the times would have challenged the faith of the strongest Christian, when the eternal most holy God may have felt far away and hidden and yet God’s grace has remained visible to our eyes through the caring and generosity of this congregation, the body of Christ with us, before us, behind us, and all around us.
The prophet declares, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God,” and you have. You have worshiped together, prayed together, cried together, and cared together so that the glory of the Lord might be revealed. When God feels hidden and the way is dark, look around you and see the faces of these people of persistent grace.
“Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together.”