Authentically United Methodist: When We Live and Know That We Are Not In This Alone
July 26, 2015
Rev. James Kjorlaug
I can remember no time in life where I felt more isolated or alone than when I moved to Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. The entirety of my loneliness was bound up in isolation composed of cultural and linguistic boundaries. This of course was only compounded by the shock of going from being a member of a majority within my context’s culture to being a very easily spotted and recognizable minority. The truth was I arrived in Mongolia to a wonderful group of people who welcomed me with great graciousness but I knew absolutely no Mongolian and almost nothing about Mongolian culture. That paired with having only emailed a handful of people a few times made the feelings of isolation seem near overwhelming. Now just to offer some clarity, the people who welcomed me were incredibly nice and friendly. They did everything in their power to make the transition a healthy and joy-filled one. I will never be able to express to them the amount of thankfulness I have or the gratitude that they deserve. The difficult fact was that despite the wonderful care of those around me I still felt my world shattered, and that I was completely and utterly alone.
The painful reality is that a similar, incredible sense of isolation can be found and encountered in so many terrifying ways. No one person has exclusive rights to being overwhelmed with the sense of being all alone, of being completely isolated. Rather, all too often we ignore it in those we see everyday or we keep those particular feelings to ourselves when we have them. It may be that illness has us feeling alone and isolated in fear or anxiety. It may be that the fear and anxiety, the stress and strain of caring for loved ones has us in a place that we cannot even begin to imagine anyone else being with us. Perhaps it is being new to this or some other place where we are surrounded by strangers and we feel have been left alone in isolation. Possibly we even feel alone as we struggle to understand who we are in the light of our God, our community, our family, our friends, and the world. It would seem fair to say that many of us gathered here today find ourselves struggling with the feeling that we are alone and isolated at this or some moment in our lives. Brothers and sisters, we are not alone in this feeling.
Our scripture this day is bound up in the reality of these feelings. The prophet speaks on behalf of God as the people of Israel are in the midst of exile. Torn from their homes, they are at a place where we can only fathom the depth of despair, isolation, and aloneness they feel. Babylon has removed so many of them from their lands and from the space of exile the prophet speaks. They are isolated from the land that God had called them to. That land that had been such a significant part of God’s promise to Abram. In the midst of exile they are awash in a sea of sorrow. They are captives in a foreign land with the tremendous fear that their identity, their culture, and their connection to God could be lost. Words can only fail imagining the depth of their aloneness, the fear that they felt.
However, the prophet speaks from another place. The prophet speaks from and of a great hope. Despite the current circumstances the joy is that God is still God. God’s identity and presence is not predicated on the location or status of God’s people. That wherever or whatever condition they may find themselves in the call of God is the same, “I am with you.” In the midst of exile, of being cut off from the holy places where God has been so potentially present, Israel is assured that they are not alone in their exile. Their isolation is shared with God. Their journey is made with God present not separate from God. Far from home they still hear God call out, “I am with you.”
Now these words were not spoken for us, this is not our story. The prophet is not turning towards us. This is a moment where the prophet stands among Israel proclaiming the faithfulness of the God of Israel. To claim that we have any part in this story is to remember that we are interlopers who have been drawn in by Christ. The prophetic words the prophet speaks offer to us a glimpse into the story of God and the people whom God loves. Those words echo through this space and our minds, they rend our hearts as we bear witness to the magnificent joy that God does not abandon, that when God draws near the proclamation sounds that “I am with you.” It is the reminder that God will be God and will be present in whatever circumstances. We who stand as interlopers in this intimate moment of God and Israel, of God and God’s people, take heart because we have overheard the story and can cling to the reality that God is with us because God does not abandon God’s people and Christ has drawn us in. It is through Christ that we have seen the living God, that in seeing the wondrous redemptive work of God we have entered a conversation between God and God’s people begging for the hope that the prophet speaks from. It is with joy that we remember that our cries for help were not ignored and that through Christ we have been made part of God’s family.
In all of the isolation felt in Mongolia during that first week, walking into worship was the most potent sense of being alone I experienced. The sanctuary was shaped like a ger, more commonly called a yurt. It was filled with the smiling faces of strangers. The language spoken by the pastor was Korean and it was quickly translated into Mongolian. Music sounded vaguely familiar but the sounds that made up words had no meaning to me. I lacked the knowledge to understand. Because they use the cyrillic alphabet, the projection of what we were to sing only looked like the buttons on a high-tech calculator you never press. Despite all of this there was a profound moment in that time of worship where the cry of hallelujah was lifted up among the congregation over and over again. While this word is still not English it was a point where the worship and love of God transcended the feelings of isolation and aloneness, the presence of God was made clear.
Wherever we may be found, whatever the circumstances are around us God is present. God is with us. When we are in the midst of fear and anxiety, God is present. When we are filled with sorrow and weeping, God weeps with us. When we are filled with joy and can do nothing but celebrate, God celebrates with us. Throughout the incredible journey of life, that can be so filled with happiness and joy as much as sorrow and anxiety, God journeys with us. As we consider what it means to be authentically United Methodist by recognizing that we are not alone let us hold close the last words recorded at John Wesley’s death bed, “the best of all is God is with us.”