November 17, 2013
When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, ‘If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.’ So God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness towards the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph, who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, ‘God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.’ They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people.
I want to start by asking you to take time, before reading this sermon, to watch a video on YouTube. It’s a song called “I Saw God the Other Day” by Victor Wooten. You may not know who he is, but he is considered one of the top bassists in jazz today, along with Stanley Clark and Marcus Miller. If you like jazz you may be aware of him from his work with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones.
Victor has become good friends with our music director, Bruce Smith, who is the one who first made me aware of the video. It’s a video that Victor made seven years ago, and it has a lot to do with our passage for today, but even more with the idea of God as Shekinah. Here’s the link to the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L_h9eQ15CIs
If you veer more toward Christian orthodoxy, you probably found a number of things that bother you in the video, but I’m going to ask you to put those aside to pay attention to a bigger message. What Victor says in the song is a profound reflection of God as Shekinah.
My guess is that you’ve never heard the name or term, Shekinah, but it is ancient understanding of God that appears in our passage, and continues on throughout the rest of the Bible. Shekinah is a name for God that means “God’s presence in our midst.” The word in Hebrew looks like this: שכינה. It literally means “to settle, inhabit, or dwell.” When our passage talks about God as appearing before the Israelites as a pillar of cloud by day, and of fire by night, that is God as Shekinah. When we hear about the tabernacle (a tent that holds the ark of the covenant), we are hearing about the holy place where the Shekinah of God rests. When Elijah is in the cave, and he hears God in the silence, that silence is Shekinah. When the prophets hear God speak to them, and share God’s word with the Israelites, that is them living in and sharing Shekinah.
The Bible is adamant about the fact that God is a presence constantly in our midst, a holy Shekinah living in, with, and among us. Too many Christians have a problematic theology that promotes the idea of God’s separation and distance from us. Many Christians hold the belief that God is up in heaven and we are down on earth. They also believe that when each of us was created, we were given the task of living out the Golden Rule, treating other as we would be treated ourselves, and believing Jesus so that when we die and go up to heaven, St. Peter will let us in. That’s a belief in God’s separation.
That is not a biblical belief, and it is definitely NOT what either the Old Testament or New Testament. They teach God’s Shekinah. They teach that God has been a presence with us from the beginning. In Genesis we are told that God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden. We are also told that God literally appeared before Abraham to tell him that Sarah would bear a child. All throughout the Bible we find God’s Shekinah, including in Jesus.
What is also interesting about God as Shekinah is that like the name for God that Rev. Frierson preached about last week, Sophia (God as Wisdom), Shekinah is also feminine. In English we don’t have feminine or masculine words, so this idea can be confusing to us. It certainly was confusing to me when I was taking French. I could never figure out why some words were feminine and some were masculine. But I’ve since found out that one reason is that the originators of the words were trying to communicate something essential in their choice of masculine or feminine designations. What was essential about making Shekinah feminine was that God’s presence has many of the qualities of what we think of as feminine: nurturing, loving, gentle, peaceful, and intimate. We often think of God as a “he,” and therefore give God masculine attributes. The Hebrews were adamant that God has feminine qualities, too, that come out in God’s Shekinah.
I first heard of Shekinah from the great Quaker mystic and writer, Thomas Kelly. His book, Testament of Devotion, was a revelation for me because it was the first Christian writing that opened me up to a whole different dimension of understanding God than I had been aware of before. He said, “Deep within us all there is an amazing inner sanctuary of the soul, a holy place, a Divine Center, a speaking Voice, to which we may continuously return. Eternity is at our hearts, pressing upon our time-torn lives, warming us with intimations of an astounding destiny, calling us home unto Itself. Yielding to these persuasions, gladly committing ourselves in body and soul, utterly and completely, to the Light Within, is the beginning of true life. It is a dynamic center, a creative Life that presses to birth within us. It is a Light Within which illumines the face of God and casts new shadows and new glories upon the face of men. It is a seed stirring to life if we do not choke it. It is the Shekinah of the soul, the Presence in the midst. Here is the Slumbering Christ, stirring to be awakened, to become the soul we clothe in earthly form and action. And He is within us all.” Prior to reading this passage, I had never heard the word “Shekinah,” and I had to look it up, which took a while to find.
This is one of the most profound passages I’ve ever read, and it has had a deep impact on me. Kelly emphasizes that there is something of Christ, of God’s presence, in each and every one of us, but that this is a polite presence. God’s Shekinah will never be forced upon us. If we choose to ignore God’s presence in us, then God will become a “Slumbering Christ” within each and every one of us, remaining unknown and dormant. But if we choose to say “yes” to God’s Shekinah within, God’s presence will grow in us to lead us to an amazing life.
This message of Shekinah is a message we preach all the time at Calvin Church, so it’s most likely familiar to you, but it’s not to many Christians. As I mentioned before, too many Christians think of God as “up there,” and of us as “down here.” God as Shekinah is a radical understanding of God that says that God is with us wherever we are, and deeply involved in our lives. It also means that God’s presence isn’t just in humans, but that it’s in everything. Everything manifests God’s Shekinah: nature, books, music, relationships,… life.
Why do so many Christians have a hard time with this idea? I believe it has to do with orthodox, doctrinal Christians being scared of pantheism, which literally means that everything (pan) is God (theism). Many New Age believers like to promote everything as being God—us, trees, mountains, lakes, animals,… everything. The truth is that Christians do not believe in pantheism, but we do believe in panentheism, which is that God (theism) is in (en) everything (pan).
Panentheism is deeply biblical. You find it promoted in the beginning of John’s gospel, where is says that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
Panetheism is promoted in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, where Paul says about Christ, “for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible.”
Panentheism is also promoted in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, where he says, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
The point is that God’s Shekinah is here among each and every one of us, but that doesn’t mean that we are always aware of it. I want to close with one of my favorite stories that speaks to the difference God’s Shekinah can make in our lives. Years ago there was a small monastery in the mountains of France. It once had been the center of inspiration for pilgrims and seekers yearning for God. People came from all over Europe to discover God in the monastery. But then it changed. It became proud. The brothers took themselves too seriously. Instead of being truly humble, they became proud of their humility. So began their decline. Fewer and fewer pilgrims sought their wisdom, and few monks joined their ranks. They became old. They became rigid. They worshiped their past. They were spiritually dead and physically dying. In another generation their members would be dead and they would be no more.
One day a scraggly stranger came to their door. He smiled a toothless smile as he asked for a place to rest for the night. He was invited in. The monks thoroughly enjoyed his presence at dinner and sensed a spiritual depth about him, even if he was rough and smelly on the outside.
The next morning, as he was leaving, he profusely thanked the abbot. Taking the abbot’s hand, he leaned forward, and said in a soft whisper, “I need to tell you a secret, one that God has given me permission to tell you. Christ is here in your midst. The messiah is masquerading as one of your brothers.” The abbot was shocked: “The messiah? Here? In this place? No, it isn’t possible!”
He told the other brothers what the stranger had said. They also couldn’t believe it. Then they began to think about it. Could it be brother Joseph? No, he’s too selfish. Could it be brother John? No, he’s much too strange. Is it brother Bernard? No, he’s too clumsy. No matter whom they thought of, they couldn’t imagine that brother being the messiah. Still, what if the stranger was right? A thought occurred to them. What if brother Joseph is really Christ, and just pretending to be selfish? What if Christ is brother John, and he is just pretending to be strange? What if Christ is brother Bernard, and just pretending to be clumsy? So they started to treat each other as though each one was possibly Christ, lest Christ really be one of them. As they did, the monastery changed. They began to focus more deeply on God during worship, lest Jesus catch them slumbering. They read scripture with a renewed fervor, lest Christ catch them daydreaming. As they did, they grew spiritually. Their prayers took on a new life. So did their teaching and service. And people noticed. Soon pilgrims and seekers came to their doors to learn from their wisdom. New monks joined their ranks to learn the spiritual secrets. They became alive once again, and once again they became a center of spiritual life for all of Europe. They became alive to Christ.
Two questions reflect on: Do we allow ourselves to be a dwelling place for God’s Shekinah? Do we recognize God’s Shekinah in others and the world?
As a final note, and as an exclamation point to this sermon, I want to share with you something that happened right after I preached this sermon at our 8:30 a.m. worship service. As I was shaking hands with members, one of our members handed me a blue folder and said, “God told me to give this to you.” Not knowing what was in the folder, and a bit nervous that it might be his letter to me about the 50 ways I stink as a pastor, I stepped back and said, “Should I be afraid?” He said, “No, but let me explain it before you open it. I wasn’t coming to church this morning, but it was like this nagging voice in my head kept urging me to go to church. It felt like there was an important reason for me to go. So I got dressed and headed out the door. But before I could walk out, I also felt this urgent compulsion to grab this folder. It seemed preposterous, but I couldn’t get the idea out of my head, so I grabbed it and headed out the door. I was a little embarrassed to walk in to church with it, so I left it in my car. After I heard your sermon, I realized that I was supposed to give it to you. Open it up.”
I opened up the folder and found in it this bumper sticker:
He said, “I got that bumper sticking at a Victor Wooten concert three years ago…”