Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Surrounded by Love

Surrounded by Love
Psalm 8; Matthew 28:20[1]
One of the blessings of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place. We can learn about what is going on in around the country and even around the world almost as soon as it happens.  That can be a very good thing. It means that we get to see up close and personal how much of a resemblance we bear to our sisters and brothers in the human family.  One of the curses of information technology is that the world has become a much smaller place.  That means that we also get to see—up close and personal—all the cruelty and violence and hatred and injustice afflicting the human family.  In the face of overwhelming cruelty and violence and injustice, it can seem incredibly na├»ve to believe that God surrounds us continually with love!
On the surface of things, it would seem that the reality of our world contradicts the message of our Scripture lessons for today. In our reading from the Psalms, we find ourselves confronted with the majesty of the God who created all the heavens and the earth. And the more we understand about just how vast this cosmos really is, the more God’s majesty and power in creation is magnified. Even in the Psalmist’s day, a simple glance at the night sky led him to wonder, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” (Psalm 8:4). And yet, despite the fact that the Psalmist frames his faith in the form of a question, we shouldn’t overlook the affirmation that lies behind it: God is mindful of us all; God does care for us, both deeply and continually.
The Psalmist had good reason to believe this. It was the heart of the essential affirmation of the Hebrew Bible: “I am the Lord God. I am merciful and very patient with my people. I show great love, and I can be trusted” (Exodus 34:6, CEV). It is the revelation God gave to Moses when he asked to see God’s glory. And it echoes like a refrain throughout the Hebrew Scriptures, because it is the truth that serves as the foundation for the faith that God loves us with a love that will never let us go. It may be difficult for us to grasp, but the truth of our Scripture lesson is that we are constantly surrounded by the love of the God who created all things.
In our lesson from Matthew’s Gospel, we see this truth reflected in a little different light. The risen Christ is giving his final instructions to his disciples.  And in the midst of it all, he gives them the promise “surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20, Today’s NIV). Jesus promised his disciples that he would always be with them, no matter what. If you look at what happens to them in the course of their lives of service to Christ and his kingdom, we might wonder about that: imprisonments, beatings, shipwrecks, and even martyrdom. But Jesus didn’t promise them that his presence would spare them from opposition in this world. He promised them that he would always be with them.
I guess I would have to say that I would expect the world to look a lot different if we’re to believe that we are always surrounded by God’s love, and that Jesus is always with us. We might think that a world in which we are all constantly and continually surrounded by God’s loving presence should bear a whole lot more evidence of peace and compassion and love!  This question has vexed the minds and hearts of believers throughout the centuries.  If God is so good and loving, why is there so much evil in the world?  And some of the best minds through the ages have diligently sought answers.  
But I’m not so sure that the answer is all that complicated. It seems to me that God’s presence in this world is no more complicated than giving and receiving compassion.  I would think it stands to reason that the way we experience God’s loving presence is in the small acts by which we share kindness and love with our fellow human beings. And I would say that when we open ourselves to our sisters and brothers all around us, we find that there is actually a great deal of love in the world—even in the midst of suffering and injustice.  Precisely in the midst of suffering and injustice.
I heard an interview several years ago with Sarah Shourd, one of a group of American hikers who were arrested and imprisoned in Iran, accused of spying for the U. S.[2] At first, she was alone, and she didn’t have any contact with anyone outside her cell.  During that time she said that all she did was cry and beat at the walls. What sustained her through her ordeal was the compassion of Iranian women who were her fellow prisoners.  When they heard Sarah crying, they would sing songs to her in English to comfort her. In the depths of Sarah’s despair, they would cry out to her in English, “We love you Sarah!”  There she was, surrounded by some of the worst human injustice and cruelty, and in the midst of all that suffering, the voice of compassion came to her, “we love you Sarah!”
I think for most of us, the reality of our world makes us tend to isolate ourselves from those around us.  We stay safely detached from everything and everyone in our world, walking around with earbuds, comfortable in our cars, withdrawing to our homes to engage with virtual reality over one kind of screen or another.  And it’s no wonder we look at our world and wonder, “Where is God?” On the other hand, when we open ourselves to those who are around us and allow ourselves to experience their suffering and share compassion and kindness with them, then we experience God’s loving presence in our own lives.  That’s when we discover the truth of the promise that, no matter what may come, we are always surrounded by God’s love.

[1] ©2017 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 6/11/2017 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] Sarah Montague,  Interview with Sarah Shourd, “Hardtalk,” June 10, 2011; accessed at

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