Draw Near to God

Proper 20, Year B (James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37)

It was so long ago now that cannot recall the circumstances of her death, but a teenager in the church had died. I was in my last year of seminary, serving in a full-time internship in a small Episcopal church on the outskirts of Dallas.

So many people attended her funeral that both the nave and the parish hall were packed. Our little parish did everything we could to accommodate and communicate clearly with so many guests, but we were challenged. We were stretched beyond our capacity to host an overwhelming majority of guests with little or no experience with our faith tradition, or perhaps even “church.” But that’s not what this story is about. This story is about God’s love.

During communion, I served one of the chalices. The deceased’s family came forward for communion, and then others. But at some point, one of the guests – instead of coming forward to the altar rail for communion or a blessing – turned to the grieving family in the first pew and began to hug and greet them.

This is certainly an understandable gesture, and it was quite moving. But the effect it had, was that the guests behind them did the same. And so did the next guests. And then when those who entered the nave from the parish hall for communion looked around, they saw a receiving line for the family. And so, it continued to be.

This was certainly a type of communion – greeting one another and expressing love and condolences. This is an important part of a funeral event; this just wasn’t yet the time for that in our tradition.

 As this unfolded, I stood with the priest and altar party on the other side of the altar rail and watched. Anguished faces streaked with tears. Emotional embraces. The grief was intense. Occasionally a guest, after greeting the family on the front row, would then turn and come forward to receive the sacrament or a blessing. 

As I watched all of this from my post within the altar party, I was highly aware of Christ’s real presence with us – in the Spirit and in the sacrament. Right here! So close! I was holding it! The thing that provides real comfort, real healing, God come down to be with us in Jesus and is here with us in the sacrament.

I felt God’s intense longing for God’s people, and I heard a word in my head — in koine Greek (because, as New Testament scholars will tell you: koine Greek is the language of the Holy Spirit!) and that word was this: 

eggizo! eggizo!

Draw near. Draw near.

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you (James 4:8a).

I felt God’s longing to comfort and console them. But so many did not know it could be found there — in the sacrament. In the real presence. They just didn’t know.

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

I cannot hear this verse from James without thinking about this experience. The Book of James is referred to as a Christian wisdom book. And James 4:8a is certainly wisdom: how fundamental the turn toward God is in our lives. 

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

What is required for us to do this? That is, draw near to God?

St. Augustine quote captures the human predicament so well: “God is always trying to give good thing to us, but our hands are always too full to receive them.”[1]

In today’s gospel we see the disciples: totally not understanding, too afraid to ask, too concerned with status. And in them, we can see ourselves. 

And in Jesus, we can see God. Hanging in there with us and with humanity. Longing for us, occasionally — or often as in the Gospel of Mark! — frustrated but focused on the goal of loving us. For this is the good news: We are loved, we belong to God and to one another … and this is what abundant life looks like in this life — and the next!

And the turn toward abundant life is simply this: draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.

But we carry with us experiences, often from childhood (but not necessarily so), that can cause us to question our worthiness. Question our belonging. Question if we are loveable. And therefore, withdraw.

So, it is important to know … God is not my (sadly, tragically) bitter 6th grade math teacher. Or your neglectful or abusive parent. Or the kid who bullied us — who we now understand was wounding others from the place of his or her own wounds.

It can also be that what has untethered us is a deep loss, as in the story I told at the beginning of this sermon. 

eggizo, eggizo.

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you.

And lest we think it is all up to us, God has already come near to us, and actively – even achingly — waits for our turn toward.

To illustrate this point, I’ll close with a quote from Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, from this 12th c. treatise entitled On the Love of God. It is more spiritual wisdom for us. 

“You are good, Lord, to the soul that seeks you. What, then, are you to the soul that finds you? The marvel is no one can seek you who has not found you already. You desire us to find so that we may seek, to seek so that we may find. We can both seek you and find you, but we can never anticipate you, for though we say, ‘Early shall my prayer come before you,’ a chilly, loveless thing would that prayer be, were it not warmed by your own breath and born of your own Spirit.”  

What do you need to be healed from? What do you need to drop from your hands — to let go of — to receive the deep love that God wants to give you?

God is present. 

Draw near to God, and God will draw near to you.

eggizo! eggizo!

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1996, p. 94. 

J. Robert Wright, editor. They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts. Church Hymnal Corporation: New York, 1993, p. 154.

Image above: Vuillard, Édouard, 1868-1940. Artist’s Mother Opening a Door, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57013 [retrieved September 28, 2021]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Edouard_Vuillard_-_The_Artist%E2%80%99s_Mother_Opening_a_Door_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.

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