A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, June 29, 2014
Psalm 126; Acts 17:22-28 ESV
One year before our children got married, the four of us took a trip to New York City. But not wanting to drive into the city itself, we made reservations at a Day’s Inn in Ft. Lee, New Jersey, just across the George Washington Bridge. We arrived late in the afternoon and parked our car in the Day’s Inn parking lot, and there it would stay until we were ready to leave town. The next morning we got up real early and caught a city bus across the George Washington Bridge, which carried us to the subway station. We caught a subway to downtown Manhattan.
We saw as many sites as we could see in one day—the World Trade Center, Central Park, Empire State building, and so on. And then we finished off the afternoon by doing some shopping (well, more looking than shopping) at Tiffany’s, Sak’s Fifth Avenue and Macy’s. (We did find several bargains in the Macy’s bargain basement.)
Now, I had told my family, “I want us to be out of here and back to our hotel before dark. It was summertime, and it didn’t get dark until almost 9:00 o’clock, so we thought we would have no problems.
Well, we shopped until 7:00 o’clock or so, and I said it was time for us to start toward the subway. So here the four of us went, toting at least two shopping bags each, in search of our subway stop. We got there and it was not running. The subway line we needed was broken down, and they had no idea when it would start again. We would need to walk several blocks, we were told, to catch another line to carry us back to the George Washington Bridge bus stop.
Now remember, we had walked all day long all over lower Manhattan. And we were carrying bags of bargains and souvenirs. But here we went traipsing across several city blocks in search of a subway line that was running. By the time we found one and got on, it was after 8:30. Darkness was threatening to creep over the city, and I was starting to panic. But at least we were on a subway that was moving us in the right direction.
The subway arrived at the bus stop around 9:15 p.m. the best I recall. We got off and walked to the bus stop. It was dark, and very quiet. We were the only tourists standing there with a half dozen or so other people, who didn’t look anything like us. It made us a little uncomfortable, to say the least. We waited, and waited, and waited for a bus to arrive. Finally one arrived that was going to Ft. Lee, New Jersey. We climbed on and sat down, relieved that we were still alive and finally on our way to the hotel.
Well, it just so happened that our hotel was on the opposite side of a divided, busy freeway that was separated by a tall fence down the middle. As we approached the Days Inn, I walked up to the driver and said, “That is our hotel, where we want off.” We drove what seemed like forever past the Days Inn. I watched the Day’s Inn sunburst disappear in the distance behind us. The driver pulled up to a bus stop and pedestrian crossover bridge. We got off.
Again it was dark. Very dark. We walked down to the pedestrian bridge and walked across the busy highway in almost total darkness. And then when we got to the other side, we realized there was no sidewalk! And our hotel was nowhere in sight. We found ourselves on the edge of a busy freeway where cars were whizzing by about 70 miles per hour. And we were trotting up the side of the highway toting our Macy’s bags and souvenir in total darkness, except for the car lights that briefly illuminated us as black Cadillac’s and Lincoln Continentals sailed past us. I have never been more scared in all my life. All I could think of was mobsters rolling down the windows of their black Lincoln Continentals and mowing us down with their machine guns. Or drug dealers looking for a buck pulling over and mugging and robbing us and taking our Macy’s bags.
We walked in terror for about a quarter of a mile until we reached one of those glass bus stop cubicles. We decided it best to step inside and wait for the next bus to pick us up and carry us to the door of our hotel. We waited another ten minutes or so, and finally we saw a bus coming. The bus pulled up to the stop, the door swung open, and it was the same driver and same bus we had gotten off of some 20 minutes earlier. I walked up to the door and looked at the driver, and he said, “That’ll be $8.00.” I said, “But you just let us off on the other side about 20 minutes ago.” “I’m sorry,” the driver said expressionless, “but it will be $8.00.”
Not wanting to put my family in any more danger than we had already been in, I paid the $8.00 and we sheepishly climbed on the bus with our Macy’s bags and took our seats. The bus started up and immediately rounded a short curve. And lo and behold, just around the short curve—less than a quarter of mile from where we had been sitting—was the shining sunburst of the Days Inn. The bottom line is, we were much closer than we thought.
But isn’t that the way it often is in life? Often—at times when we feel lost, bewildered, so far away from our goal—it turns out that we are much closer than we thought.
I have shared how that about this time last year, I was looking for a retreat center where I could spend a few days focusing on Earth-related issues, the environment, and Nature. For weeks I searched the Internet, and considered retreat centers in Nashville, North Carolina, and as far away as Pennsylvania. When I was about to give up, I stumbled across the Naturalist Certification Program at Tremont in the Smokies, just an hour’s drive from here. Without realizing it, I was much closer to what I was looking for than I had ever imagined. Like the Hebrews who sang the 126th Psalm after being able to return to Jerusalem following the Babylonian Exile, and whose good fortune was an unexpected joy, it was like a dream. I was filled with laughter and joy.
But, there can also be a bit of theological truth in this idea of you may be closer than you think. Some folks go through life trying to find God, or trying to appease an angry God, or feeling alienated from God, when all the time, the loving God they seek has been right there all along. As Paul preached to the Athenians, “he is not far from each one of us . . . in him [God] we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Or as the poet Alfred (Lord) Tennyson, put it, “Closer is he than breathing, and nearer than hands and feet.”
A good case in point was the Protestant Reformer, Martin Luther. For years Luther longed for and sought the experience of a loving, forgiving God. Luther practically ruined his body, his digestive tract, through self-mortification and extensive fasting, trying to appease God for his sins and find a sense of spiritual peace. And then one day Luther had the revelation that the loving, forgiving God that he had been seeking all along had been there all the time. The window of enlightenment that allowed the darkness to be dispelled and enabled him to see this loving, forgiving God that Luther had been seeking was the window of grace. Luther had been much closer to the God he sought than he had thought, had ever imagined.
And so it is in so many aspects of our lives. The good news for us when we are searching, when we find ourselves in the midst of a major life transition, when we may feel alienated, or when we may think that goal is far out of reach—the good news is we may be closer than we think. We should never give up hope. Or to put it another way, that shining sunburst that we may be looking for may be just around the dark corner of our current experience—closer than we think. Amen.