Where is God?

Sermon for Sunday, April 23, 2023 || Easter 3A || Luke 24:13-35

One of the most common questions people ask me in my role as priest is, “Where is God? Where is God in all of this?” I usually turn the question back on the other person and ask where they think God is. And this usually elicits a sigh or a raised eyebrow – they like had asked their doctor for a diagnosis and the doctor had said, “Well, what do you think you have?”

So, today, outside of any particular situation or context of a person asking me this question – Where is God? – I thought I’d share with you my answer. This answer may or may not speak to you, which is why I’m sharing it in a sermon and not a one-on-one conversation. Or maybe it will. First off, we need to talk about prepositions.

Recall from your school days, a preposition is a small word that relates a noun to another part of the sentence. “I am standing behind this lectern.” Behind is the preposition in the sentence. Prepositions place other words within time and space: after the service, in the pew, above the altar. When we ask the question, “Where is God?”, the constraints of the English language force us to use prepositions. The tricky thing is deciding which ones are the most helpful to use in discerning our relationship with God.

By the end of this sermon, I’ll have shared three prepositions that help me the most to discern God’s presence. But before that, we need to address one that I don’t find all that helpful. The unhelpful preposition is the word “up.”

“Where is God?” What do we all immediately do? We look up! This is only natural given our very human bias for hierarchies. Of course God is up, above all things, at the top of the ladder, seated on the throne in heaven! Jesus “ascends” to heaven – goes “up.” When we were kids, we all imagined God was bowling during thunderstorms, right? Led Zeppelin sings about a “stairway to heaven.” (Though I suppose they don’t say which way the stairway goes. I assume “up.”) 

Now, there are plenty of bits of scripture that imagine God as ‘up,’ so I’m not saying this word is wrong – just that it’s not helpful. The idea that God is ‘up’ is so enmeshed in our culture that any other way of imagining where God is gets drowned out. God being ‘up’ conjures the image that God is ‘far away’ and that heaven is some place way up in the sky, from which God sits on the throne but doesn’t intervene in creation. The use of the word ‘heaven’ to talk about space (‘heavenly’ or ‘celestial’ bodies) reinforces this idea that God is far away, watching us “from a distance,” like Bette Midler sings.

Instead of ‘up’ I’m going to offer you three other prepositions that might help you find God’s presence in your lives. The first is the exact opposite of ‘up.’ Yes! ‘Down.’ Wait. What? How could God be down? Isn’t that where the other place is?

What I mean is this. Theologian Paul Tillich talks about God as the “ground of all being,” the “foundation” upon which all things are built. God isn’t the first or best of beings, but Being itself – infinite and eternal – from which finite beings like you and me spring. So when we try to place God somewhere, we can imagine God as being ‘down,’ as in, the ground beneath our feet, that which supports us, holds us up, keeps us ‘grounded.’ There are plenty of images in scripture of God being a rock. Jesus talks about the house built on solid ground, which withstands the tides when the house built on sand collapses. Where is God? God is the foundation upon which we stand. God is the path along which we tread. God is the ground. God is down.

The other two prepositions need to be paired together. They are “beyond” and “in the midst of.” ‘Beyond’ conjures similar spatial images as ‘up,’ but without the hierarchical baggage. ‘Beyond’ reminds us that God is so much bigger than we can possibly comprehend. This helps us not fall into the trap of remaking God in our own (or more often our parents’) fallible human image.

At the same time, God is ‘in the midst of’ us – closer to us than we are to ourselves. We believe God is both ‘beyond’ and ‘beside.’ (There are five dollar theology words for these two understandings, which I can share with you after the service if you want.) Seeing God ‘in the midst of’ us helps us to recognize God’s presence in every encounter that we have. 

My friend Ruby, whom I’ve talked about many times in sermons, taught me this understanding of God’s presence. When her husband was in the hospital with cancer, she and I went to visit him. Before going in, she stopped me at the door and whispered, “God is in this room right now.” She was reminding herself and me that we weren’t bringing God with us. God was already there, in the midst of the dire situation with her husband. He died a few months later, surrounded by love and prayer. Now, every time I go to visit someone in the hospital, I pause outside and say, “God is in this room right now.” Then when I go inside, I can bear witness to the God who is already present, no matter the situation. Our prayer shawl ministry makes this understanding of where God is tangible with the beautiful shawls they knit and crochet.

The two disciples who are on the road to Emmaus encounter all three of these prepositions that help us see “where God is.” They walk along the road, away from Jerusalem, but never away from the ground of their being. They haven’t stopped believing in God, but right now thinking of the God who is “beyond” is the only way they can conceive of God. And perhaps that’s why they don’t immediately recognize the “God in their midst” when Jesus joins them on their journey. All along the way, Jesus teaches them about his own story and the part they play in it. But it’s not until they break bread together that they realize God was beside them on the road the whole time.
There are so many ways to answer the question “Where is God?” These are my current three. God is down, the foundation of our being. God is beyond, more glorious than we can possibly imagine. And God is in the midst of us, beckoning us into deep and abiding relationships with God and with each other. God is in this room right now. In a few minutes, we will share that presence in a tangible way through the meal of Holy Communion. As you prepare your hearts to receive God’s presence in this special way, I invite you to reflect on how you would answer the question, “Where is God?” Listen for your heartbeat. And listen for God whispering to you. Right here. Right here. Right here.

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