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God Is in the Details

We can all remember defining moments from our childhood when we lost a piece of our innocence--
· like the first time you learned just how hot a kitchen stove can get,
· or to watch out for bumblebees in the honeysuckles,
· or why on the 4th of July it really isn't wise to try to make your own fireworks.

My first such memorable experience happened at five years old when I ran into the kitchen and took a big, thirsty gulp from a nearly empty Coca-Cola can, only to discover too late that someone had been using it all day as their makeshift ashtray, one part stale brown liquid and ten parts Marlboro leftovers. To this day I get a little suspicious if I have to leave my soft drink unattended even for a moment. There're some things that our tastebuds refuse to forget.

I think that was the first time that I can vividly remember learning that things on the inside are not always what they appear to be on the outside. Appearances can be deceiving, and sometimes the truth is only revealed after closer inspection. As time goes by and life is lived and lessons are learned and wisdom is gained, we find that is true on several fronts. One size does not fit all. Pasta makers and vegetable juicers and food dehydrators do not necessarily make your life easier. And just in case you haven't learned this yet, no credit card company is really in the practice of giving you cash back at the end of the month.

For those of us in the church, we learn sometimes as painfully as touching a red-hot stove that impressive churches with picturesque sanctuaries do not always make for godly communities. Many of us have learned first hand that when outdoor church signs boldly proclaim that all are welcome, that is not always the case. There's a well worn cliché that says the devil is in the details. But I think it is more accurate to say that God is in the details. Because if you really want to know where and how to find God, then you need to examine things at the deepest possible level. Just by looking at the outside of things, you can't always tell.

In the life of faith, one of the most difficult roads we ever travel is from the general to the particular. It's one thing to say we ought to feed hungry people and quite another to give up the next 52 Saturday mornings to do just that. It's not enough to say your favorite charity sure could use some more money if you're not willing to write out a check for your fair share. It may sound noble to vehemently defend the Bible as the Word of God, but that doesn't necessarily mean that you ever pick up the thing and read it.

In my life as a pastor and a community organizer, I have known people who love to say, "You know what we need to do?" But whenever it comes time for volunteers, there are a lot of busy people plucking the fibers from their sweaters. I know, because I've been one of them.

Yes, the real work of God happens in the details. Oh, I'll grant you that some good things happen purely by accident, but not most good things. Most good things happen because of good planning and intentional effort, because someone had the guts and tenacity to move it from concept to reality, because somebody took the time to consider all the details.

One day, according to the Gospel of St. Mark, tremendous crowds of people were pressing in to be near Jesus. Everybody, it seemed, had needs that day. In the midst of this chaotic scene, there were four men carrying a person who was paralyzed. At first it appeared that it would be next to impossible for them to get close enough to Jesus so that they could ask for his assistance. Most would have said, "Oh, well, we tried." But they refused to bow to conventional wisdom. So in an almost comedic way, they went to the rooftop of that house and cut a hole in the top of it. Imagine the look on the faces of the crowd below and on Jesus as they see these crazy people cutting a hole through the ceiling and lowering their loved one on a pallet to the exact place where Jesus stood. Having seen the pointed faith of these creative friends, Jesus offered a healing blessing and the man who was paralyzed arose, took up his mat, and walked out the door. And according to Mark, all the people were amazed and began to glorify God saying, "We never saw anything like this."

Whenever I hear the people's response--"We never saw anything like this"--I like to believe that this was an all-encompassing expression. The whole scene that day was an education in the specificity of God's love. Not only had the people never witnessed a healing so miraculous, but they had never before seen the love of people to be so bold, so creative, so specific, so courageous. On that day, God's love was made real in the details of ingenious friends who simply would not take no for an answer.

God is in the details. The love of God is not only about pouring general absolution on the masses, but it's about the one-on-one work of being in solidarity with those who are in pain. Jesus once told us that the greatest commandment is to love God with everything you have and with everything you are. So how do we begin to satisfy that incredible obligation? Where do we start? By paying attention to the more tricky part of Jesus' equation--by loving your neighbor as you love yourself. Since Jesus redefined neighbor to mean any person who is in need, that means there is a plethora of ways to specifically love God and show it in action.

Oh, sometimes we get stuck in that general place, and it's hard to move to any place in particular. Sometimes it's a lot easier to say that God loves everybody rather than speaking of anybody in particular. Sometimes it's easier to say broadly that God cares for the poor than it is to specifically name, for example, the migrant farm workers of Mt. Olive, North Carolina, or Immokalee, Florida, who struggle every day for a shred of dignity, the hope of a living wage, or a measure of justice for themselves and their families. Sometimes it's easier to say that the whole world rests in the palm of God's hand than it is to say that God loves both Christian and Muslim, God loves both Palestinian and Jew, God loves even the nonpracticing and the nonreligious among us.

For some reason, it has become easier to say that God is no respecter of persons than it is to say that God is a respecter of persons, that God does not love us without regard for who we are, but that God loves us with deep regard for the precious and unique gifts and personal attributes that each of us offers to this world. God doesn't love you despite yourself. God loves you period.

Sometimes it is easier to believe that Jesus died for the sins of the whole world than it is to believe that Jesus died for you and that God's grace is sufficient to cover every bad thing you've ever done--unmerited favor not only for the millions but redemptive love meant especially for you.

It is not enough to skim the headlines. We must read the fine print. Because it is in the asterisks of our faith, if you will, whereby we discover that God's love is reserved specifically for two people in this world: for you and for your enemy. Only when we examine God's love under a microscope like that can we ever begin to comprehend the magnificence of it all.

That's why I think that the church carries the responsibility of always clarifying what it means when we say that all are welcome, because every broad statement becomes more difficult to own and live whenever we are asked to provide an accounting for the details. Say what you will about the expansive nature of God, but I think it's true God is in the details. To sing of God's glory is not only to call forth images of impressive mountains or expansive oceans, but it's also to sing of molecular structures and microscopic realities. To sing of life's joy and faith's demands in the most specific terms we can utter, this is the Good News. It's not the devil who is in the details. It's God who meets us there.

And how do I know this? Because Jesus said the kingdom of God is revealed to us in the smallest of things, like the tiniest seed that is capable of producing something magnificent, like a tiny measure of leaven that causes the whole loaf to rise, like that one single lost sheep that is worth pursuing, like a cool cup of water offered in Christ's name, like the encouraging love of a faithful friend, like a little child who can teach us and show us the way.

God is in the details.

Let us pray.

Great God of all that is large and small, show us how to love with particularity. Teach us how to examine our lives and our relationships in closer detail, to not be afraid to see things up close as they really are, but to view them as you do, to pay greater attention to our words and actions, to live creatively and faithfully so that no one person will ever be excluded or abandoned on our watch. This we pray in the name of Jesus who loves each one of us by name. Amen.