Sermons

Patience

December 15th, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco, on the Third Sunday of Advent, December 15, 2019.

The Epistle says, “Be patient.” Just before Christmas is probably the time when we needed that advice the most.

Years ago and in another city, I used to go to a dentist who understood me. He did one thing that showed more understanding than any other doctor I ever met. He would get to that point in doing a filling – – you probably remember the experience – – when your mouth is full of all kinds of dental equipment and packs of cotton and most dentists walk away and say, “Now just sit still for a few minutes while it sets.” And you sit there with your mouth full of cotton and dental equipment staring at the ceiling for what seems like eternity. But this dentist – I will never forget him – would give me a newspaper to read before he left the room. It made all the difference.

I don’t know how people can sit in a dentist’s chair or a bench on the N-Judah or the #7 bus with nothing to read. How do they do it? Of course these days they have their cell phones. But still I see people in offices, shopping lines, buses, even park benches, just sitting. They don’t have a book or magazine or newspaper. They just sit there. I don’t understand it. I envy them. I really do. Because it seems as if they know how to be patient and wait. And I don’t. But it’s something we all need to learn. Many of these same people, by the way, will tremble at the thought of sitting quietly in church for even a few minutes or going on a retreat.

The lessons today talk about patience. They say, “Be patient; God will come.” If you want God to be present in your life, you often have to wait. This a season of waiting and it‘s nearly over. We are waiting, and sometimes we focus on the small things – the presents, the turkey or roast beef or vegetarian salad, the lights on the tree, the cards to send, the small stuff – and not the great thing: for the gifts of God, for peace, for joy, and especially for the birth of a child. That’s the hardest kind of waiting, but also the very best. We wait with Mary for the birth of a child – a child who brings hope to a hopeless world, who makes a difference, a real difference.

So let me point out three aspects of waiting, three things we can learn to do, if only we learn to wait.

The first thing waiting teaches you is how to deal with need. No one ever waits if they don’t have to. But when you need something and it isn’t there, you may have to wait. There’s a helplessness involved in waiting. And that’s one reason it’s hard. We don’t like to be helpless, we don’t like to face the fact that we are not in control. Children may be better at waiting just for that reason. Children are born helpless. We all are. We start out totally dependent. And we have to wait: wait for parents, wait for food, wait for help, wait for birthdays, and wait for Christmas. But do you know what we do wrong? We teach children that when they grow up, they won’t have to wait anymore. We create a myth. We want to believe in it ourselves, and that’s why we teach our children the myth. We know better, but still we teach them that grownups are not helpless, don’t have needs, don’t have to wait. And that’s a lie. We fool ourselves into believing it because we want to believe that we grown-ups really are in control. And if all else fails, we can always find a book, a magazine, a newspaper, so we won’t have to wait, won’t feel helpless. That’s the first aspect of waiting: not being in control.

The second is confidence. We wait in confidence. Why do we sit in waiting rooms or buses or anywhere else? Well, surely we wouldn’t be there if we didn’t think we stood to gain by waiting. The doctor will come back. The bus will arrive. We hope. Waiting involves a certain degree of hope and trust and confidence. Lacking that, you would move along, you would search. You would look for a doctor who could help you sooner, a means of transportation you could rely on. You wouldn’t wait; you would act. So we wait with patience – and we wait with confidence..

And\, third, we learn the value of waiting. We live in an age that tries to relieve us of the need to wait. There’s instant everything – or almost everything. But there’s a limit to the value of the instant everything. In the age of instant everything, it’s probably useful sometimes that we don’t have to wait for potatoes to be mashed or the television set to warm up. But what parent wants an instant adult? What adult wants instant birthdays? But it’s either that or wait, and sometimes there’s no alternative – so we wait. It sometimes seems as if, we spend our lives waiting: for a child to be born, to grow up, to come home to visit, to be married, to produce grandchildren. And however much we want any one of those things, they all involve waiting. And often the waiting itself adds to the joy, and waiting itself is a joy. Don’t spoil that. Don’t miss out on the joy of waiting. Advent is a time to wait, to practice waiting, and to learn our need to wait, and to remember God’s power, and to know the value and the joy of waiting.

Children have the advantage on us because they have to wait, and we don’t. We are grown up and we can make the rules and if we don’t want to wait, a lot of times we don’t have to. We can buy all the presents by Columbus Day if we want to and we can open them right after Thanksgiving. And we can put up the tree three weeks early and take it down on the 26th. We can be done with Christmas before it’s really begun. And we can be like everyone else and be in such a rush to have Christmas that we never really have it at all. We can be in such a rush to carry out our plans that we failed to carry out God’s plan or receive the gifts God prepares for those who wait. So remember the value of patience. Let’s refuse to let ourselves be rushed. We have time to wait, and we can wait because God know our needs, our real need, and we know that need will be met in God’s good time because God has promised and given us in the coming of Christ and the joy of Christmas the evidence of a fulfillment beyond imagining which, once given, will never be lost.

Meanwhile, right now, there’s the joy of waiting.

The Gift of Life

November 30th, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at All Saints Church, San Francisco, on Advent Sunday, December 1, 2019.

Lately I’ve been reading books about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake – and I’m about ready to move back to Connecticut! I’m doing the reading as background for a biography of John Shelley, who was mayor of San Francisco from 1964–1968 and who was born in 1905, the year before the earthquake. He was seven months old when the earthquake hit. The family home was destroyed and they lived in a tent for some months. Shelley’s father was a stevedore and the family lived near the docks on reclaimed land and that was where the worst destruction happened.

Jesus told a parable about the wisdom of building on rock versus building on sand, but the people who created San Francisco weren’t paying attention. There were some 465 measurable earthquakes between 1849 and 1906, but a good deal of the city was built on sand just the same and when the earthquake hit, it did, in fact, collapse. But it wasn’t, of course, just the collapse; worse was the fire that followed as the city burned for three days and nights and the panicked authorities authorized volunteers to shoot vandals on sight and often no one stopped to ask whether the shadowy figure carrying things out of a ruined store was a vandal looking for loot or the owner of the store trying to rescue his possessions. The city descended into chaos. The final death toll from all causes was in the thousands and when the fire was finally out, it began to rain. I picture the Shelley family, young father and mother with their seven month old first child, somehow surviving in one of the tents hastily put up, and finally moving into a new house further back from the bay and on less shaky soil.

The books I’m reading all make the same point toward the end: and that is that another Big One will come sooner or later: maybe tomorrow; maybe today. The San Andreas fault continues to move an average inch and a half every year and sooner or later the growing pressure will need to be released and it will happen again. Many of you remember 1989 – but that wasn’t the big one still being predicted for some time in the next hundred or two hundred years. Nor does that concern rank as high anymore for most Californians as fire, which moves many if not most Californians to keep their valuables and necessities packed and ready for instant flight because, as the Gospel this morning reminds us, “about that day and hour no one knows.” There has been some speculation that we could control the San Andreas fault by well placed atomic explosions to relieve the pressure, but they haven’t quite worked out yet exactly how that would go.

The good part of all this from a preacher’s point of view – always a bright side to catastrophe! – is that today’s gospel warnings about imminent disaster come with a lot more force in San Francisco than they used to do when I was preaching in Connecticut. Of course, even in Connecticut, and even if fire and earthquake weren’t imminent, we all did get older, and we should have been aware that no human life is forever – not, at least, on this earth.

So Happy Advent Sunday! This is the time when the readings remind us every year of what the burial service calls “the shortness and uncertainty of human life” and the need to have a contingency plan. The earthquake, fire, and flood may come soon and may not, but human life in this world is not forever and the consciousness of that fact is one of the most distinctive characteristics of human life. We will die, and we know it. Knowing that death awaits is, in fact, one of the benefits of being human – one of the gifts of the evolution of self-consciousness.

We don’t know for sure whether Neanderthal beings, buried their dead or put offerings in the graves, but our immediate ancestors, homo sapiens, did, beginning some 40,000 years ago. There is probably nothing more distinctive of human life than that evidence of the awareness of death and the refusal to believe that that self-awareness can simply expire at the end of three-score years and ten or even five score years and a few. Homo sapiens – that’s us – knows we will die.

I think there are – there have always been – two ways of dealing with that. The Bible lays out the alternatives: “to eat, drink, and be merry” as so many of us did last Thursday, or to order our lives, to orient our lives, toward what the Prayer Books calls “the sure and certain hope of everlasting life.” Here we are at the start of a new year, and the readings ask us to give that some thought. “You also must be ready,” the Gospel tells us, “for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” This life is not for ever. This earth may last a few billion years more, but it also is not forever – and however long it lasts it may not be inhabitable much longer. Sooner or later, we will not be around and the question to ask is how much thought have we given to shaping our lives with eternity in mind. Have we shaped our lives with any thought for what the Prayer Book calls “The sure and certain hope of everlasting life”? Have we given as much thought to eternity as we have to the present and passing moment?

The Prayer Book calls eternal life “a reasonable, religious, and holy hope” – or it used to. Let me digress for a minute: I like that phrase: “a reasonable, religious, and holy hope” and I think of it as being particularly Anglican. You don’t find other churches talking about “a reasonable faith.” And it shows. But here’s something to worry about: that phrase, “a reasonable hope” goes back to the very first Anglican Prayer Books centuries ago. But the new 1979 Prayer Book (I still think of it as new after forty years) provides, as you probably know, Rite One and Rite Two. Rite One uses the traditional Elizabethan language, but Rite Two is modern and up-to-date – sort of – but Rite One retains the word “reasonable” and Rite Two leaves it out. (Pages 489 and 504 – you can look it up – later!)

And what does that tell us? I’m talking about shaping our lives, about giving them order and direction. I’m talking about giving them a reasonable shape in the light of eternity. I’m suggesting that this is a time to ask whether we mean it and can be honest with ourselves about the need to order our lives here in the light of eternity. It took three or four billion years to get from the first single living cell in the primeval ocean to the first signs of human self-awareness and the burial of human remains with grave goods. It took three or four billion years, and isn’t it interesting that that distinctively human custom – the practice of burying provisions for life hereafter, that began with homo sapiens – ceased with the spread of Christianity? Thinking of a future beyond death seems to have begun a mere forty or fifty thousand years ago at the most, a blink of the eye in cosmological terms. It began with the burying of provisions for a hoped for future life and here’s something even more interesting: it ended with Christian faith. It ended with Christian faith in the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

That change is founded on what the Prayer Book calls “The sure and certain hope of everlasting life.” That’s what transforms our lives as Christians: the sure and certain hope of everlasting life and therefore the vital importance of living this life now in the light of the life to come. There’s no need for burial goods, but there is a deeper need to prepare ourselves for what’s to come. There’s no need to try to take this life with us, but there is a greater need to transform this life now in the light of eternity. Where Christianity has come grave goods are no longer needed, but where Christian faith has come schools and hospitals have been built and societies have been transformed by the vision of a still better world to come. The Christian goal is not to take this world’s goods to the next but to bring that world’s life here.

All of that comes into view with Advent Sunday: the opportunity to begin again, to re-imagine our lives in the image of Christ and to make his life present here. I’m talking about a way of life, not a spare time activity, not a hobby, but a way of life, a commitment to transformation. I’m talking about something that shapes us, that changes us, that remakes us, that defines us, and ideally changes the world around us as well.

Some of you know that I spent a month this year and last in a monastery. Now that’s obviously a commitment when you’re up at 3:30 to pray and spend five or six hours in prayer every day, Yes, that’s a commitment, but that’s easy because you have a community that’s equally committed to support you and nothing much to distract you. I’m talking about something harder and I’m saying that you and I are called to make that kind of more difficult commitment to live as Christians “in the world,” as the saying goes, in the midst of things, in the midst of distractions of every kind and assumptions – assumptions – that what we do here on Sunday morning is not some kind of esoteric affectation that our friends and others around us don’t quite understand. Others may not understand why we need to be here every week and find time for prayer every day, but we do, because we know something about life that changes us, and it changes our world. We do it because we believe, because we are making a commitment: a commitment totally unlike our other involvements. Whatever else we may do or be, this is different; this is a commitment to being reshaped, remade, reborn into life, new life, real life, eternal life a life that gives meaning and purpose to the cosmos itself.

If we mean it, it changes us and we find a need for a pattern of daily prayer to keep us centered and a pattern of giving that is more than loose change, and a disciplined use of our time that includes those in need whether working in the parish soup kitchen or supporting it in some way or supporting similar ministries in a world where too many or homeless and hungry. We’re here to change things. St John said it best and so simply: “If God so loved us, we ought also to love one another.” (I John 4:11)

The first small cell in the first primeval ocean billions of years ago was made for this: so that finally you and I would come into being and begin to live the life that is real life, eternal life, Christ’s life: the life that we received in baptism and renew at the altar rail. Let the Big One come when it may, our challenge is now: to let Christ come in us now, and accept and receive and share his life, eternal life, not for ourselves alone but for the sake of a desperately needy world.

The Harvest

November 21st, 2019

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at the Church of the Incarnation, San Francisco,  November 24, 2019.

Once upon a time, there was a young man
who lived in Israel who worked many years as a carpenter
but then began to preach.

For maybe three years
he wandered around the
countryside teaching people
and drawing quite a following
but then he made the mistake of
going to Jerusalem
and upsetting the authorities
and the result was
that he was arrested and tortured
and killed.

It’s not, by and large,
a very unusual story.

Similar stories might be told
of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormons
or George Fox, the founder of the Quakers
or maybe of Mohammed, the founder of Islam.

But while the Gospel today
tells us something about the events
surrounding the death
of Jesus of Nazareth,
the epistle today,
which was written only twenty years later
at the most,
makes the most extraordinary claims
ever made about a human being.

It says,
“He is ths image of the invisible God,
the firstborn of all creation.”
It says that “all things ln heaven and on earth
things visible and invisible,
whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers,
all things have been created
through him and for him
and that he himself is
before all things,
and in him all things hold together.”
It says, “He is the head of the body,
the church; he is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead
so that he might come to have first place in everything
for in him all the fullness of God has
been pleased to dwell.”

That’s what we read in the second lesson this morning
and that’s the most amazing claim
that ever was made for a human being.
No such claim was ever made
for Joseph Smith or George Fox
or even Mohammed.

But stranger still
it comes from a Jew, Paul of Tarsus,
a man who was educated in the best Jewish schools,
in a faith that had for at least fifteen hundred years
been drawing a wider and wider
line of separation
between human beings and God.

Early tn the Book of Genesis
you find God walking in the garden
and looking for Adam in the cool of the day,
and a little later on you find God
stopping ln to have dinner with Abraham,
and then you have God
appearing in a cloud
to give the Commandments to Moses
while the people stand fearfully at a distance.
And then Isaiah, centuries later,
pictures God as being so far above
the earth that the people down below
appear like grasshoppers.

That’s not very high by modern standards
but it was a new record in those days.
And then a century or so later Ezekiel had a vision
in which he could only speak
of “the appearance of the likeness
of the glory of God.”
Gradually, Judaism became a unique religion
in which no image or likeness
of God could be made
and in which the name of God
could not be spoken,
and the distance between
the Creator and the creation was so great
it seemed impassable.

Now, it seems to me
there’s a lot in common
between that understanding of God
and the vision of contemporary science
which also presents a universe so immense
that a God who created it
and stood outside it
would be so remote
as to be beyond all knowing.

Solomon built a temple for God and prayed saying,
“Behold the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain you;
how much less this house
that I have built.”

But in spite of all that,
almost two thousand years ago
one group of Jews began to claim
that indeed one human life
had contained
“all the fulness of God,”
and to say that “All things visible and invisible
were created ln him.”

They said that about this young Jewish man
who was nailed to a cross by Roman soldiers.

Now, if that were a claim
made by people who hadn’t known him –
if that were a claim developed
by theologians centuries later,
I would reject lt out of hand.

But it wasn’t.

It was said by people who knew him,
who were there when he was arrested,
and crucified,
but nevertheless went out saying,
“We were eye witnesses.”
“What our eyes have witnessed
and our hands have handled,”
wrote St. John, “we declare to you.”

Now, is that at all reasonable?

That’s the most basic, quintessential Anglican question:
“Is it reasonable?”
Is it reasonable to think
that the Creator of quarks and spinal nebulae
and black holes and infinite space beyond what our minds can grasp
would be present here on earth
in one brief human life?

Yes.
Yes, it is.
For why would a Creator
indulge himself or herself
with the doing of all this
if the universe were all one vast impersonal
swirl of power
but empty of love or response
or an intelligence able to understand
at least in part
and respond in “wonder, love, and praise.”
ln fact, it seems to me
it’s less unlikely
that the Creator should be present
in one human life
than that the Creator should be present
in all human life
and that that one human life,
the life of Jesus,
should be
not totally different from any other life
but rather a summing up,
a clarification,
a simultaneous showing
of all that God is
and all that we every one of us might be.

To say that all the fullness of God
dwelt in Jesus
is to say something about ourselves also:
to say that human life has that capacity for God-likeness,
for that relationship,
for that holiness.

And that’s wonderful
and it’s frightening.
It would be much more comfortable
to settle for something less:
a remote, unknowable God,
a god who was basically indifferent to us
and uninvolved in our lives.

But that’s not what the gospel offers.
It offers instead a God
beyond all knowing indeed,
but somehow nevertheless
truly known in human life,
especially in Jesus.

Known especially in Jesus,
but known also in Peter and Paul and John
and Francis and Thomas Cranmer
and Harriet Beecher Stowe and Mother Theresa
and even in you and in me.

The God of the Bible is
a God who could not possibly
as Solomon knew
be contained in any human building
yet can be present ln this building
and even in the small piece of bread
we receive at the Altar rail.

And that potential relationship
gives a purpose
to the whole of creation.

The Creator of the universe
is a God who loves
and who seeks a response.

The Creator of the universe
is the God who made us
for that purpose.

And all of that brings us around
by a rather long route
to what goes on this week.

There’s a potential danger
in any harvest festival
because it’s a part of a natural rhythm
of seedtime and harvest,
part of a circular pattern
that goes around and comes around,
unchanging year after year. after year.

And there’s nothing more deadly
than a circle; nothing more
deadening than the same thing
over and over again.
When we want to indicate that someone is crazy,
we make circular motion.

When the Hebrew people came
into the land of Canaan
they found people there
who were centered on harvests

They worshiped gods
who could bring them a good harvest
and nothing more:
they worshiped gods without any purpose
greater than a good crop this autumn.

And a great deal oI the Old Testament
is the story of the conflict
between the God of the Bible
and the gods of Canaan,
the God who works in history
and the gods who work in nature.

And the people were constantly
tempted to settle for a good harvest
and the prophets were constantly
threatening, urging, promising, proclaiming
that these gods were too small
and really not worth the trouble.

So the Jews finally did create some harvest festivals.
Passover itself was closely connected to the harvest
and so was Pentecost .
but still Passover remained deeply rooted in history,
in real events,
a real escape from slavery,
an event at the Red Sea
in which God had been clearly at work.
And the more they were defeated after that
and the more the promise seemed unfulfilled,
the more the prophets continued to point toward
a future,
a future fulfillment
of God’s purpose ln history,
and the coming of a Messiah
and a Messianic age
and a harvest of a very different sort,
a harvest of human lives
brought into an eternal kingdom.

That’s the beauty of a harvest festival,
or Thanksgiving, coming at the end of
the Christian year.

Yes, Christmas is coming and all that one more time,
but the tragedy is the story of so many
who get over Thanksgiving and skip Advent
and move right on from
Thanksgiving to Christmas
without stopping to catch their breath.
The tragedy is that they leave out
the weeks that put it in
perspective, that remind us
that Christ not only has come
but will come again
at the end of time
and bring in a final harvest
and sort out the good grain from the bad.

Yes, the world goes around
but the Judaeo-Christian insight is
that even more importantly
it is going somewhere also
ln a straight line with a beginning,
a middle and an end.
That the Creator beyond all knowing
has come here to be known
and to call us to a life
as far beyond this
as the Creator is beyond the Creation.

The Epistle and Gospel today
go together and tell us of that God,
the one who died for us on cross
and in whom all the fulness of God was present
and in whom we also
find the meaning and purpose of life.

Although it is night

October 26th, 2019

A sermon given at All Saints Church, San Francisco, by Christopher L. Webber on October 27, 2019.

My wife died two years ago today.

I didn’t have that in mind when we made the schedule for this month. But when I remembered the date, I thought, Why not? I’m a preacher and I cope by preaching. It’s the way I’ve been given to work things through. And not alone, but together with a congregation, with you. You can help.

You know how sometimes you need to talk things out, not just think about it, but talk it out with someone else? Clergy get to do that sometimes with a congregation – not, I hope, dumping my issues on you but trying to find ways of saying things, of seeing things that may help all of us.

To preach today makes me do some thinking and that’s always good. I hope it will be good for you to do some thinking also. Not every sermon asks you to do that. I was thinking about today last week, last Sunday morning, as Beth talked about the joy of her son’s wedding the week before. And weddings are joyous occasions. But in the Episcopal Church at least they are realistic. The Prayer Book provides vows that are starkly realistic: I John take you Mary / to have and to hold / for better for worse / for richer for poorer / in sickness and in health / til death us do part. The promise is not “for better or worse,” not maybe one, maybe the other, but both: for better / for worse. There will be both. In this church at least, we sign up for both, for the real world, “til death us do part.”

Just out of curiosity, I went on line and found a site that helps you write your own wedding vows. It did note that you may not get to do that. Some churches and clergy, it said, insist on the traditional language. But if you get lucky and a chance to write your own, it provided 15 or 20 samples for guidance. Here’s one: “I promise to always remember that laughter is life’s sweetest creation, and I will never stop laughing with you.” I think I can overlook the split infinitive, but you should never promise to keep laughing. There will be days – there will be days – when laughing would not be appropriate

Not one sample vow mentioned death. Not one. But if you have a good marriage, death will be part of it. It happens. A bad marriage may end sooner, but every marriage has an end. Death happens.

Now we don’t come here to be morbid – and I’m moving on. But we do come here on serious business: to share a death, to drink the shed blood. There’s joy here, of course, lots of joy, but there is an end to this life sooner or later, and only the church, I believe, gives us a way to face that. So we are being realistic. We’re facing facts. Nobody lives for ever. Not in this world anyway.

Now Jeremiah is grappling with all that in the first reading. I always look at the readings first. I may not start the sermon from the readings, but I start my thinking there and it turned out that that’s where Jeremiah was also. That happens. The lessons speak to us if we’re ready to listen. They have messages for us. And they invite us in to a dialog. I go to the readings with questions: Here’s where I am; what do you say to that? I found Jeremiah working through similar issues to mine: the pain of absence; the need for God, and the absence of God, a God who seems so often not to be there when needed.

Jeremiah challenges God for an explanation:

“Why should you be like someone confused,
like a mighty warrior who cannot give help?
Why have you struck us down so that there is no healing for us?
We look for peace, but find no good;
for a time of healing, but there is terror instead.
Do not spurn us, for your name’s sake;
do not dishonor your glorious throne;
remember and do not break your covenant with us.”

Jeremiah is challenging God: “think of your reputation. God. What will people say if you dessert us?” The technical term for that is “chutzpah.” But Jeremiah’s in agony; he wants help and he wants it now. “Be here for me in my need; don’t forsake me.”  Elsewhere in the Bible, Isaiah put it differently: “Truly You are a God who hide yourself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”  Where are you, O God, when we need you?”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great German theologian who was killed by the Nazis had an answer for that. He wrote once to someone bereaved:

“Nothing can make up for the absence of someone whom we love, and it would be wrong to try to find a substitute; we must simply hold on and see it through. That sounds very hard at first, but at the same time it is a great consolation, for the gap, as long as it remains unfilled, preserves the bonds between us. It is nonsense to say that God fills the gap; he doesn’t fill it, but on the contrary, he keeps it empty and so helps us to keep alive our former communion with each other even at the cost of pain.”

I give that statement often to people bereaved. I’ve been thinking about it myself these last two years. Can you just close the door on sixty years and move on? I don’t think so. But just as one we love can be there in the absence, in what we feel – experience – as absence, so is God there for us in the darkness as well as the light – and maybe more truly present in the darkness

The great Spanish mystic, John of the Cross, wrote about what he called “the dark night of the soul.” “Although it is night, I know there is nothing else so beautiful, earth and heaven find constant refreshment there. Although it is night, there are no clouds to conceal its clarity, and from it comes the light by which alone we can see. This is the living fountain and the bread of life, I see it clearly, although it is night.”

The great Welsh poet R S Thomas wrote something similar when he said:
“God is that great absence

In our lives,
the empty silence
Within, the place where we go
Seeking, not in hope to
Arrive or find.
He keeps the interstices
In our knowledge, the darkness
Between stars.
His are the echoes
We follow, the footprints he has just
Left.

But is it an absence or simply a presence we are too small to hold, too blind to recognize? Gilbert Murray, the great Classics scholar who died in 1957 once wrote, “We are surrounded by unknown forces of infinite extent – the essence of religion is the consciousness of vast unknowns – To be cocksure is to be without religion.”

To acknowledge our ignorance is the first step toward faith. I sometimes think that we use incense in worship to create what a great medieval mystic called “the cloud of unknowing” – it’s the cloud that Moses entered on Mt Sinai, the cloud that overshadowed Jesus at the Transfiguration, the cloud out of which God speaks, but remains never clearly seen.

I remember passing a church in Australia one day that had a big sign out front that said, “You have questions? We have answers.” I wouldn’t go there myself. If they have the answers, they aren’t asking the right questions. I want to go where the questions are acknowledged, where I am encouraged to think for myself, where I can find fellow seekers, but also a rich tradition of answers – not simple answers to all questions, but answers that have helped others and may help me. Jeremiah wrote – we read it this morning – “Is it not you, O Lord our God? We set our hope on you, for it is you who do all this.” It is you who are there when we are too blinded by grief to see.

Hold onto the absence. Hold onto the pain. Hold onto the God who is able to accept our doubts and our questions and wait for us to come, to come to him with all our questions and doubts and to find there in the darkness and the cloud the strength that only God can give.