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Let me tell you a little bit about the encounters I had in the past week where God’s face peeked through the clouds, where after the wind and the earthquake and the fire, God’s presence came out of the sheer silence.

Today’s texts: 1 Kings 19:1-4, (5-7), 8-15a and Psalms 42 and 43

Pastor Phil
Pastor Phil

Well, it’s been quite a week, hasn’t it?

A week filled with shock, grief, both hatred and love, both inexplicable horror and incredible devotion – people lined up to give blood, medical personnel spending endless hours saving lives, vigil after vigil from Orlando to Washington, from downtown Madison to our very own sanctuary.

Just like a deer that craves streams of water, our whole beings crave our God. Our tears have been our food both day and night as people ask, “Where’s your God now?”

Let me tell you a little bit about the encounters I had in the past week where God’s face peeked through the clouds, where after the wind and the earthquake and the fire, God’s presence came out of the sheer silence.

These are encounters our confirmation trip shared during the time when we were in Washington, D.C. They were the unplanned moments that emerged out of scheduled events, the places where God might unexpectedly break through.

These are encounters on the steps of a church serving breakfast to the homeless, and outside the Oval Office in the White House.

These are encounters with a man who grew up in Green Bay and with amazing singers in Washington.

These are encounters with the 12-ton bell in the carillon at the National Cathedral tolling 50 times in memory of those killed in Orlando.

These are encounters with hope in the midst of sadness.

These are encounters with the dreams of water that can quench a parched soul.

There were multiple encounters with Lorenzo. He is a homeless man who lives in Du Pont Circle in Northwest DC, near where we were staying at The Pilgrimage, a hostel for church groups visiting Washington.

We first met Lorenzo – identifiable with his wonderful dreadlocks – on Monday when we were doing an outreach run with Eric from the National Coalition for the Homeless. We brought bags with water, fruit, a granola bar, toothbrush and toothpaste – things like that – to folks in Du Pont Circle.

But the deep encounter happened early Tuesday morning at Charlie’s Place, a breakfast program at St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church in the Du Pont Circle area. They serve breakfast to 60 to 80 people each day.

I recognized Lorenzo from the day before, so we stood on the church steps and talked. We talked about his life, his journey from Florida to DC with his girlfriend several years ago, the demise of their relationship, the tattoos on his arms reflecting his Dominican and Cuban heritage.

And we talked about the life of the homeless at DuPont Circle, about how the regulars look out for each other, about how they divide up the panhandling spots, about the services that help people get out of homelessness.

It was an easy conversation, laced with humor and with insight.

We met Lorenzo again Tuesday evening, panhandling by a Metro stop. Rebecca offered him an apple. He took it with a smile. “You know what happened the last time a man took an apple from a woman, don’t you?” he asked. And there was laughter all around.

Lorenzo has been on the streets for quite a while. I have no idea when he will get a place of his own. The rents in DC are horrendous, even for people who have jobs. But he says he knows he can make it – when he is ready to take a step forward.

IMG_9002Reggie knew that as well. He was one of the folks managing the breakfast program. His father is a professor. He had a good job at a public relations agency near the White House. And then there were cutbacks. He was laid off. He went through his severance pay. He did not want his family to know he was in tough shape, so he did not tell them.

He lived on the streets until his sister, who was living in Dubais, found out. She sent him money and he used it all to pay ahead on an apartment so he would have a place to live. He started volunteering at Charlie’s Place and then they hired him. He has taken those steps forward.

We did not have to look too hard to see the face of God in the face of Lorenzo, in the face of Reggie. We did not have to listen too carefully to hear God’s voice in their words.

That evening, we were in a very different setting. My friend Alex works in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House. He was kind enough to take our group on an evening tour of the West Wing.

dennis_mcdonough_ap_328As we walked into the building, he told us about Denis McDonough, who is President Obama’s chief of staff, an absolutely key person in the running of the government. He described McDonough not only as a superb manager of people and projects, but as someone who knew the names of all the White House staff, be they policy analysts or janitors, be they secretaries or cooks.

At staff meetings, Alex told us, McDonough always called attention to something personal – a birth, a death in the family, an engagement – bringing a human touch into a pressure-cooker environment. He clearly cared about the people who worked for him.

One writer said that McDonough blends Minnesota nice – he grew up in Stillwater and went to school at St. John’s University in Collegeville before going to Georgetown – with Boston tough, reflecting the Irish neighborhood in Massachusetts where his parents grew up.

What we saw as we encountered him right outside the Oval Office was Minnesota nice, teasing us about being cheeseheads, shaking hands with Luke, patting Kevin on the shoulder.

Here at the height of power, McDonough showed graciousness not only to us, but to Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House majority leader, who wanted the chief of staff to let him take his guests into the roped-off Oval Office. McDonough made it happen.

This is symbolically a long ways from Du Pont Circle or Charlie’s Place or from Central Union Mission near the Capitol where we also worked with and met some more of Washington’s 12,000 homeless people. But in the stories about the presence of Denis McDonough, we could also get a glimpse of God working through people, greeting strangers, crossing partisan lines.

There were other ways we felt God’s presence this past week. We worshipped with our counterparts at First UCC/DC, where a service designed to celebrate pride in diversity became a time to begin to deal with the horrors from Orlando as the news was still breaking that Sunday morning.

We did not use the words from Psalm 43 that morning, but we might have joined in these questions to God: “Why have you rejected me? Why do I have to walk around sad, oppressed by my enemies?”

IMG_8896And then we learned about plans for a vigil outside the White House last Sunday evening. It was a vigil to remember and honor those who had died, a vigil to call for some kind of action to counter the proliferation of guns unique to this nation, a vigil to stand in solidarity with the Muslims in this country who once again feel they collectively are being blamed by something done by an individual in ways that Christians are not blamed when someone claiming to follow Jesus starts blasting away.

We went as darkness began to settle over the city. People took the mic to tell their own stories, their own grief, their own hopes. A young Muslim woman talked about the fear she and her parents feel once again because the shooter was a Muslim.

IMG_8894John Becker, who grew up in Green Bay and now works in Washington as a gay rights activist, told about his own struggle to find safe places as a young gay man. Then he added this: “Please, please do not react to this act of hatred with more acts of hatred. Please join me in standing with our Islamic brothers and sisters.”

I took the opportunity to say a few words as well, saying that as an older, white, heterosexual, cis Christian pastor, I felt honored to be able to stand with them in front of the White House that evening. I explained that our confirmation group from Memorial was in DC on a mission trip and that no mission was more important right now than for us to be with this wonderfully diverse group of caring people that evening.

And then there was singing in the distance. Another vigil had started in front of the nation’s Capitol and the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington was leading that group to blend with the group in front of the White House. They were singing “We Shall Overcome” as they arrived. Candles were flicking in the darkness. Out of despair, there was the possibility of hope. (You can see a brief clip of that here.)

Or as the Psalmist wrote, “Why are you upset inside? Hope in God! Because I will again give him thanks, my saving presence and my God.”

We ended the visit to DC at the National Cathedral, learning about the building as a theological expression taking us from creation to resurrection, learning about the ways the Cathedral embraces the nation’s history as well as its future.

And then we stood outside on a balcony far above the ground as the bell tolled 50 times, one for each death in Orlando. Yes, 50 times, not 49. Jesus did say, “love your enemies,” after all. (You see a brief clip of the bell tolling here.)

Love. That seemed to be a word that in a quiet way, wove itself through so many encounters in the last week. Hope. That was another word that kept coming up.

Here are the words from the Psalm: “By day the Lord commands his faithful love; by night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life.”

And here are words from a contemporary voice that will bring this reflection to a close. They are words from Stephen Colbert, best known for his comedy, but this week, he spoke with a depth of soul that may give us the hope we need for the encounters we have ahead.

(You can see the clip here – you may get an ad first.)

Let us join together in Hymn #589, “Let There Be Light, O God of Hosts”