Detail from West African Fabric

Detail from West African Fabric

Adventures with God:
Experiencing the Divine in Our Relationships

Sixth Sunday after Pentecost • July 14, 2019
Scripture Lessons: Ecclesiastes 4:9-12  & Ephesians 4:1-6 (adapted from the NRSV
Rev. Jeff Wells, The Church of the Village (NYC)

We have a Holy Parent God “who is above all and through all and in all.” Our amazing God pours out love upon us, encouraging and inspiring us to become our best possible selves and to build our best possible relationships with one another. As the scripture says, God invites us to lead lives worthy of God’s calling. They (Holy Parent, Child, and Spirit) inspire us in our relationships to practice humility, gentleness, and patience, to bear with one another in love, and to make every effort to maintain our bonds of love and peace with each other. What a beautiful vision the Apostle Paul offers us this morning. 

So let’s look at what that means. Let’s explore how we can experience God or “find the divine” through our relationships with other people. 

From the time we are born, we are shaped by our relationships, starting with our parents and siblings, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers. Before long that circle of relationships widens to include friends, neighbors, schoolmates, and teachers. The company of others changes us. In communion with others, we learn to see things we could not see on our own. We are moved and molded, awakened and inspired, especially in our most important relationships. We are blessed by the wisdom, humor, joy, love, and care of others and we bless others with own particular gifts. We mutually enjoy a wealth of benefits and blessings in our relationships with family, friends, colleagues, comrades in struggle, and members of groups in which we participate. Such relationships can serve as a mirror in which you get to see who you really are. And it’s not just the positive moments in our relationships that influence who we become. We are also shaped by the difficult moments – the times of conflict disagreement, and misunderstanding – as we learn to make our way through those times together. A friend can often be a foil who helps affirm us or helps us get back on track. A passage from Proverbs says, “In the same way that iron sharpens iron, a person sharpens the character of their friend.”[1] In the best of times, family and friends work to hold us accountable in a spirit of love, just as God does. In fact, God uses people in our lives to try to accomplish God’s work of love and accountability. 

We are all shaped and sharpened in relationship with others. Even Jesus, who was a pretty divine guy to begin with, grew in his experience and knowledge of God and love and justice through his relationships. We think of Jesus in a very static and unrealistic way – as if he came out of his temptation in the wilderness fully formed and knowing exactly what he should be doing and what his path was going to be. We imagine that his relationships worked only one way: him influencing others. But that image does not square with the accounts of Jesus’ life we get in the four Gospels. Jesus learned and grew, just as we all do, and a big part of that was through his relationships and the ways he experienced God his those relationships. Can you imagine Jesus becoming the powerful, deeply spiritual leader he was without his mother’s influence? I don’t think he would have been who he was without his friendship with Mary Magdalene. By the time he was in active public ministry, Jesus had very definite ideas about this new movement he was starting. Yet even then and even in his encounters with strangers, Jesus was open to learning and being changed. When a non-Jewish woman asked him to heal her daughter, he said “I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.” But she was able to change his mind, helping him to expand his vision. Jesus grew into his divinity. 

We often don’t acknowledge or recognize it, but God is in our relationships. And the ways God participates in our relationships is not incidental or accidental. God continually and intentionally interjects herself in our relationships like a third person in a trinity. I am not referring only to the sometimes ethereal idea that we ought to “see the face of Christ” in every other person. I mean that God is in the mix with us all the time. God is invested in our relationships. Remember that God is with us every moment of every day. God is actively present in every event in creation from the level of atomic particles on up, and certainly at the level of our conscious functioning. So when I am in a conversation with a friend or colleague or Diane or one of you, God is fully present, encouraging the two of us toward deeper understanding, listening, compassion, forgiveness, and love. As someone wrote, “We are relational because God is relational.” God is love so, of course, they constantly encourage us to love in all the ways that gets expressed. 

I have certainly experienced this shaping and molding by God and through my relationships.  There are ways I have been roughly the same person my whole life. But in other very important ways, I have been transformed repeatedly through the people I have encountered and the relationships I have built along the way. I was not always conscious of God in my moments of deep connection with others but, with hindsight, I can nearly always detect God in the mix. And I have gotten better at recognizing God in the moments, too.  

I have many friendships in which we have mutually shaped one another. I have had a couple such friends since elementary school. This mutual “sharpening,” as the proverb says, is not limited to relationship in which we are very like-minded or have similar backgrounds. Some of the most important shaping and experiences of God’s presence can happen among us when we think, act, and approach life very differently. In a previous church I served, I worked very closely for several years with a woman named Ali. We had very different views on social and political concerns. But I sensed she had a deep love and I knew she was very committed to the life of the congregation, so I invited her to be one of the lay leaders. We grew to be very good friends and partners in ministry. She taught me so much about how to interact with conservative folks. And, thanks to her ability to speak the truth in love and her willingness to hold me accountable, I learned how to be a better pastor, especially as I journeyed with her as she battled cancer over the last year of her life.  

Now, I want to invite each of you to turn to a person near to you and take just a couple minutes each to share with one another how you have experienced God or have been shaped and sharpened as a person in a relationship with another person. You may even experience God in your sharing or your example might be about your relationship with that person you are speaking with. 

Friends, “we are made to know one another, to love one another, and to encourage one another to use the gifts God has given to each of us to fulfill our callings.” [2] We are all aware that friendships, family relationships, and other sorts, can get really messed up. They can even become damaging and painful aspects of our lives. Yet, at their best, they can also be powerful vehicles of God’s grace and God’s presence. I am so grateful for my relationships, this morning especially for those I enjoy with each one of you. Our relationships are a gift from God in which God is fully present at every moment. And sometimes, we are privileged and blessed to experience the presence of the divine right there between us as well as within us. I am in awe of the ways God inhabits the space between us. I am continually shaped and sharpened in my interactions with you and I hope you feel the same. What an amazing and loving God we have who is willing and desires to always be the “third” in our trinity with each other. Let’s thank God for this holy ground of our mutuality that we stand on together. 

[1] Proverbs 27:17 (The Voice)

[2] Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert, When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor . . . and Yourself (Moody Publishers, 2014).

Copyright © 2019 by Jeff Wells
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