July 19

Elusive Presence

By Marsh Chapel

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Genesis 28:10-19

Romans 8:12-25

Matthew 13:24-30

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One summer some years ago our family made a three-day trip to Maine.  We stopped in Kennebunkport and swam in the ocean.  That day the newspaper carried a little book review of a short book called On Presence.  The review noted that the book had been written by Ralph Harper, an unknown Episcopal priest in Maryland, who also taught a religion course at the local college.  The book won a prestigious prize.  The author was quoted as saying, among other things, ‘After preaching almost every Sunday for the past 31 years, I know how hard it is to say anything honest’.  I stuffed the review in my shirt pocket.  I finally bought the book (though nine months later).  On Presence is about the practice of the presence of God.  Harper writes, We have too short a time on this earth to pass up any chance to find words and images to live by.  I believe almost everyone is capable of being moved by some person, place, (part of) nature, or individual work of art.  Of course, there is instability and incoherence in and about us all the time.  There is also the inexhaustible store of Being to keep us permanently in awe.

 This summer we are not traveling, neither up or down the coast.  Perhaps you are doing so, and is so, many blessings to you. But the matter of presence, or the question, is freshly alive in the season of plague, the season of power and its policing, the season of presidential reckoning.  One asked, Just where is God in all of this?  To the few verses of Holy Scripture accorded us this summer morning, we may portage that question, of presence, of divine presence, of God, of God’s presence, or absent presence, or present absence, during pandemic, and pandemonium, and political reckoning.  Our Scripture affirms an Elusive Presence, oddly lodged in remorse, in scrutiny, in longing and in contest.  All of our lessons today explore this question, a good and honest question of faith, the question of presence.  But they answer in a Scriptural key, in a Biblical tongue, in a Holy honesty.  In a strange way, a strange answer, coming out of the heart of the strange world of the Bible.


 Sometimes presence appears in remorse, in hindsight.  From your campfire days you will remember Jacob’s ladder.  The Book of Genesis is about to move from Creation and Covenant, on to Providence, or at least to the naming of the sons of Jacob, the twelve tribes, with which the rest of the book will be consumed.  But first, there is the matter of Jacob himself.  Jacob dreams of a ladder ascending to and from heaven, and hears the promise of promise.  He awakes and rubs his eyes, and realizes.  He had not seen, he had not known. I knew it not!  In this place, with a baffling dream and a rock for a pillow, here, not in comfort or completion, or conquest, here, alone at night and in a dream, there appeared a strange presence.  But he sees so in retrospect, in reflection.  He sees after the fact.  And, with more than a tinge of remorse, he realizes what he had missed.  ‘Surely the Lord was in this place….but I knew it not’.  In case we are prone to think this a cheery tale, the lesson schools us otherwise.  For Jacob, we are immediately apprised, ‘was afraid’.  In hindsight.  In retrospect.  In remorseful recollection.  So that was it…was blind but now I see…If only… If only we had seen that coming tsunami of a virus for what it was, say, and earlier, say, and more fully and truly, say, and, well…

Consider, in hindsight, what you may have missed, along the way.   A season ago, or a decade ago, or most of lifetime ago.  Presence, though elusive, presence still.  So many are the examples.  The Gospel of John has as its main point, the ladder up and down to heaven, for sure, but more so, the utter grief of a congregation that only belatedly recognized just Who, just Who, this Jesus had been, among them.  God.  Divine Presence, but Elusive, mistaken, mistaken in identity.  Way and Truth and Life and, now we see in hindsight, we mistook Him—Way and Truth and Life—for so much less.

The hard truths of the strange world of the Bible include a somber recognition of divine presence, eerie and elusive, but presence nonetheless, seen most clearly in hindsight.  Presence? Yes, but known in remorse.


 Sometimes presence appears in scrutiny.  In being known in full and in truth and in person.  Seeing ourselves as others, or Another, sees us.  This is the wearying challenge of friendship, of partnership, of marriage, of employment, and of any long term, honest relationship.

You may love the 139th Psalm, as did Howard Thurman and as do I, perhaps more than any other in the Psalter.  Usually we hear it, and properly, as light in darkness.  O Lord though hast searched me…such knowledge is too wonderful for me…even the darkness is light to Thee…

 Yet some years ago, I offered it at a BU Commencement, a joyous and happy and celebrative day, in this, my preferred sense of it.  Still.  Afterward a friend and colleague, and a veteran lover of the Psalms too, came up and said, I heard that Psalm in a completely different way today.  In hindsight, I believe what he meant was, Thanks for a gladder reading of the verses, 1-12, but there is a more sober one too.  Think of being so entirely well-known by another, any other:  O Lord thou hast searched me…Thou knowest when I sit down and rise up…Whither shall I flee from thy presence…

A sudden sense of no escape, of being known through and through, of being seen for just who we are, of having no dark corner in which to hide, of having no fig leaf behind which to huddle…Even the darkness is not dark to Thee.  Yes, there is an elusive presence, at the sheer price of being fully known.  Is this not one of the great challenges of CORONA?  Our full social and cultural exposure, to full scrutiny?  Scrutiny of who suffers and who is healed, of who has and has not, of who can make easier strides and who stumbles through no athletic fault, but for lack and lack and lack?  I see your true colors…

 There is, for sure, a gladness in being known through and through.  But there is also, for sure, a sobering effect to such scrutiny, such an elusive presence in such scrutiny, be it human or divine or both.


Sometimes presence appears in longing.  Paul names for us the groaning, the groaning of all creation, awaiting the revealing of the children of God.  There is hardly a longing or groaning at more of a fever pitch in all of Scripture, or in all of literature, or in any life, than here in Romans 8.  Groaning inwardly…as we await…the redemption of our bodies…For this hope we were saved…but hope that is seen is not hope…who hopes for what he sees?  We hope for what we do not see and wait for it with patience.  Patience. 

 Our time waits for such redemption. And ours is a hard, a challenging time, yet one within which there is a shared groaning, a communal longing.   My friend’s 7 year-old daughter, at the end of glad hearted family meal, as one or another mentioned the virus, the pandemic, burst into tears, saying, When is Corona going to end?  We hope for what we do not yet see.  And wait.  With a disciplined patience.  Without a vaccine, there will need to develop a semblance of antibody bulk, of herd immunity.   We need to have a sober mind, an awareness of waiting, waiting, waiting for what we do not yet see, and may well not see for some time.  This capacity in St. Paul and in my seven year-old, to long and long without yet seeing, but still to wait, too is part of the elusive presence.  We have a long way to go.  But the 7 year-old’s groaning is spirited expression of hope, presence, divine presence, though utterly elusive.  She awaits a hope, not seen, but awaited, as did Emma Lazarus.

 Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,

With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she

With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”


 Sometimes presence appears in contest, in the contention of life.  The Gospel of Matthew leaves wheat and tares together sown, unto joy and sorrow grown, without yet a final winnowing, without yet an eschatological separation.  And here is our condition, too.  The challenge of every day, with decisions to make, small or large, or what appear to be small but are large, and what appear large and are actually small.  The challenge of wheat and tares is in the contest of the everyday, for and toward the true and the good and the beautiful. On your prayer list, it may well be, you have a place regularly to lift up those near and far who face rigorous, awkward and multiple daily decisions in a new era.

In this contest, we may need traveling partners, allies, those from and with whom to learn.

One may be David Brooks.  He wrote movingly this week about such an elusive presence, and the contest of perspectives needed to arrive at a better day.  It was striking to me, as a son of a BU graduate, who studied here in the 1950’s at the time of the high water mark of Boston Personalism, to hear Brooks use the term Personalism, without any reference to BU, or any sense that the term had a longer fuse than the one he lit under it.  Yet, perhaps by accident, or grace, or the influence in contest of an elusive presence, his conclusion came close to home.  We will leave quibbles for another day.

Personalism is about constructing systems where the whole person is seen and cultivated—schools where a child is not just a brain on a stick, hospitals where patients are not just bodies in beds, cities where cops are seen as people, communities in which each person is seen as rich interplay of multiple identities, economic systems that allow people to realize their full dignity as makers and earners.  Personalism judges each social arrangement by how well it fosters the kind of relationships that enhance the full complexity and depth of each soul. (NYT 7/10/20)

 In this contest, we may need our predecessors to lean on.  Elmer Leslie taught Hebrew Scripture here when my parents were at BU so long ago.  His son, James Leslie, became my chaplain at OWU, a mentor and model for chaplaincy, he, one of only two Chaplains OWU has had since 1960, each serving thirty years.  Elmer wrote on the prophets, who themselves needed their own predecessors, in the contests of the eighth century bce. Friends, we shall need a biblical grace, tough as well as tender, for the days ahead.   Let us draw down on our spiritual endowment, our religious inheritance.  It has been done before.  A favorite verse, perhaps for you, is Micah 6:8:  He has declared to you O Mortal what is good:  and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?  Micah drew on the three great prophets who preceded him, Amos and Hosea and Isaiah, finally to craft his magnificent verse:  justice from Amos, kindness from Hosea, and humility from Isaiah.  And so, drawing on the Elusive Presence, he could preach to the need of his time.


 When we ask about divine presence (and how can we not?) we may be surprised to hear a response—Jacob, David, Paul, Matthew—that affirms, strangely, a presence, but an elusive presence, hidden in, with and under, even the sobrieties of our day:  in remorse, in scrutiny, in longing, and in contest.  Who would ask for more remorse, tougher scrutiny, unrequited longing, and ribald contest?  Yet, of a summer Sunday, in the reading and reckoning with Holy Writ, we are sent their way.

Ask yourself about a moment of remorse, of hindsight.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

Ask yourself about an experience of scrutiny, of being known, really known.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

Ask yourself about a keen sense of longing, a cry at night, a groan at dawn.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

Ask yourself about a kind of contest, struggle in contention for the good.  Was there not, even there, an elusive presence?

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill, Dean of Marsh Chapel

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