Far off, yet Here
7 February 2021
The Rev. Fr. Tony Hutchinson, SCP, Ph.D.
10:00 a.m. Live-streamed Ante-Communion
before the 11:30 a.m. Annual Parish Meeting by Zoom
Trinity Episcopal Church
God, take away our hearts of stone and give us hearts of flesh. Amen.
There is a great contrast in our scriptural readings today: distance and the big-picture vs. closeness and intimacy. Isaiah says:
“Have you not known? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? …[God] sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers.” “The … everlasting God, [is] Creator of the earth from end to end.” “[God] gives power to the weary, and fresh vigor to the spent. Youths may grow faint and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who patiently trust in the LORD shall renew their strength. They will soar up like eagles: they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint.”
The Psalm captures the idea too:
At a distance, “The LORD … counts the number of the stars,” but intimately, “he calls them each by name.”
At a distance, “He covers the heavens with clouds and prepares rain for the earth,” but up close up waters individual shoots of grass so they sprout and grow.
Most intimately of all, “The LORD heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”
What strikes me in all this is that God is both overwhelmingly BIG and DISTANT (that’s why we look like grasshoppers to him), but also profoundly CLOSE and INTIMATE. And he does indeed seem to be watching us, both at a distance and up close: “He lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked [their oppressors] to the ground.”
The contrast is deliberate. Theologians have special words to describe it. They call the distance the “transcendence” of God, God going beyond things. They call the nearness God’s “immanence,” or God present in things.
We often get this wrong, and tend to think of God completely one or the other.
At one extreme, a God who goes beyond things only is remote and disconnected. You get the watchmaker God of the Deists, who sets the natural processes in motion, winds the world up, and then never touches it again. Or we get the God of supernaturalist theism who is “up there” or “out there” but not beneath and behind the world. This God might intervene in the natural world and human affairs from outside, perhaps. If we think he does so often, we usually say this is because we have pleased him in some way, begged him in prayer to do something and he has favored us by listening.
Such belief brings with it real problems: we end up wondering about the prayers that God doesn’t seem to have heard or answered, and why God puts up with so much evil in the world. The God up there and out there is hard to believe in. He is too much like that petty and vain being we see in that Monty Python and the Meaning of Life scene parodying a Church of England vicar at prayer in a boys’ school: “O Lord, you are so big, so absolutely HUGE. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here, I can tell You. Forgive us, O Lord, for this, our dreadful toadying, and barefaced flattery. But You are so strong and, well, just so super.”
If we think that the supernaturalist God doesn’t intervene all that much, we are left wondering whether anything we do or say in our lives matter at all: if we look like so many little grasshoppers to God, then why worry about pleasing him or having any relationship?
At the other extreme, we might believe God is immanent but not transcendent at all: pantheism, the belief that God is the universe and everything in it. God ends up being seen as some sort of gas or fluid, and there is no personality or person to speak of. And if we try to connect with such an impersonal oversoul in our hearts and meditations, it often ends up being pure solipsism: How I think and feel about the god becomes paramount and absolute. There is little or no room for community when it comes to faith, and our religious experience becomes idiosyncratic or cranky.
The Christian God is both at a distance and up close, both universal and personal. Distinct from pantheism, panentheism is the belief that God is behind and in all things in the universe, but is not the same as those things. Panentheism has traditionally been the way Christian mystics and philosophical theologians have expressed their faith in a God both transcendent and immanent.
It is easy to be misled by the metaphorical and mythological language and images we see in parts of the Bible: God is a jealous God. God hears and answers prayers for his favored ones. You can please or displease God, and God gets angry, sometimes to the point of wiping whole cities or nations off the face of the earth. But these images do not describe God; they must be taken in context with other passages, ones like “Thus says the High and Lofty One who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy. ‘I dwell in the high and holy place and also with the one who has a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isa. 57:15) “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger and full of compassion” (Psalm 103:8).
Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed it this way: “What the Bible puts before us is not a record of a God who is always triumphantly getting his way by doing miracles . . . , but a God who gets his way by patiently struggling to make himself clear to human beings, to make his love real to them, especially when they seem not to want to know, or want to avoid him and retreat into their own fantasies about him.”
Jesus taught us to call God by the very personal title Abba, father. He said that God counts the sparrows and the hairs on our heads, and values each of us. He said God is compassionate for all, blessing good and bad people alike with his sun and rain. And we need to be compassionate like that.
Our lives are hard. We currently have several members of the parish in intensive care or on hospice care. We need no reminder how short and fleeting life is. But see also how sweet and good life is—that is what makes our loss of loved ones so hard. We need a God who is transcendent enough to be above the fray and completely reliable, but immanent, close, and intimate enough to care about us, care for us, and bind up our wounds when we are broken-hearted.
God is over all and above all. This means we can worship and stand in awe of him. God is also beneath and behind all, including our own hearts. What do we pray at the start of each Eucharist? “O God to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid.” God wants to give us strength and comfort, wants to give us new hearts. We can trust God to do so.
Note that in today’s Gospel reading, Jesus seeks solitude and quiet time to be alone with God. It recharges him. It reconnects him with that distant Deity who somehow also is in our hearts. It renews his relationship with Abba. It is so important to him that he chooses to take a break from his busy schedule to make time for it. The distant God can give him strength. It is the very busyness of his schedule that wearies Jesus; it is the reason he must seek rest solitude with God.
We must do this too. Personal prayer, in solitude and in silence, is important for us to let God recharge us, give us eagle’s wings, make us run and not grow weary, walk and not faint.
We will soon be starting Lent. In it, we seek to follow Jesus and find a quiet place in the wilderness to commune alone with God. Hymn no. 149 says it well, also in distance and nearness images:
“Eternal Lord of love, behold your Church walking once more the pilgrim way of Lent, led by your cloud by day, by night your fire, moved by your love and toward your presence bent: far off yet here the goal of all desire.”
I invite all of us this week to increased and more intense personal prayer. God is at a distance, watching us. But he is also in our hearts, renewing us, strengthening us, and giving us his own heart. Like Jesus, let us get up early, seek out a deserted place, and pray.
In the name of Christ, Amen.