The Vocabulary of Faith: Resurrection
Dr. John Judson
Easter Sunday, April 21, 2019
Exodus 14:21-27; Romans 6: 1-11
I was discouraged. I was discouraged because all I ever did was die regardless of how many times I tried. What was I trying and where was I dying? I was trying and dying on Super Mario Brothers. I don’t remember the exact year that we bought our son his first Nintendo, but he took to it like a duck to water. It was as if the controller was an extension of his brain. He would then say, “Dad, its your turn.” And dutifully I would take the controller in hand and almost immediately die. I knew what I was supposed to do and how I was supposed to do it…jump here, slide there, but it was no use. Granted with my son’s help I did make it past level one, but in the end, no amount of instruction was going to help me be good at Super Mario Brothers, or any of his other games for that matter. It was incredibly discouraging to try so hard and to always come up short.
In some ways this is the way I feel about my life of faith, my following in the way of Jesus. I know what I am supposed to do. I know that I am supposed to love God with all of my heart soul, mind and strength and my neighbor as myself. I know that I am supposed to forgive as I have been forgiven, that I am to love and pray for my enemies, that I am supposed to share all I have with the poor, that I am supposed to be continually humble and self-effacing rather than proud, that I am to give to all who ask, that I am to pray without ceasing, that I am to work for justice in this world, that I am to honor the sabbath (which is often hard for ministers since it is the only day we work) and the list goes on. Each day I get in the game of following the way of Jesus, but then something happens. I drive into the parking lot at Kroger’s, I read a story about people who hate and harm others, I am tempted by something new on eBay and suddenly all that knowledge and practice seems for naught. It is very discouraging to die one more time. Any of you ever feel that way? That you try so hard to follow Jesus and then something happens and it’s as if it just flies out the window and you feel discouraged? If you do, know that this is nothing new, because it was where the Roman church found itself as Paul wrote to it.
The church at Rome was not a church that Paul had established but it found itself completely discouraged. They were so discouraged in fact that they had given up trying to follow in the way of Jesus and had returned to following in the un-way of Jesus. When I say the un-way of Jesus I am referring to a style of life that is the exact opposite of the way of Jesus, meaning a way of life defined by power, prejudice, hate and selfishness. In his letter, Paul calls this sin, but I like the un-way of Jesus better because we often limit sin to mean those things we don’t like, whereas for Paul it entails a way of living. Why were the Roman Christians so discouraged? I believe they were because living the way of Jesus made them outcasts in the Empire. They were outcasts because the way of Jesus was exactly the opposite of the way of Rome. Christians were viewed as odd and even un-Roman. People lost employment, friends and family members because of their faith. To follow the way of Jesus was incredibly discouraging. Which is why Paul, in his letter to them, tells them that they should not be discouraged, but encouraged, because in the death and resurrection of Jesus, they had given the power and freedom they needed to follow in the way of Jesus.
I realize that this may sound a bit odd, that the resurrection of Jesus gave them the power and freedom to follow in the way of Jesus. I say this because most of the time when we think about resurrection we think about life after death. Resurrection is what we talk about at a memorial service or a graveside remembrance. It is that assurance that our lives here are not all there is to life. And that is certainly true. Paul puts it this way in verse nine, “We know that Christ being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him.” And by extension over us. But, for Paul that is not all there is to resurrection. Resurrection is about the here and now. Resurrection is about what happens to us in this life. As Paul puts it, the death and resurrection of Jesus break the power, not only of death, but of sin, or as I have called it, the un-way of Jesus. What Paul means by this is that all those things that lead us away from the way of Jesus, no longer have control over us. What has control over our lives is the power of Jesus offered to us each day. And for that reason, we are not to be discouraged, but encouraged because even if we wander off, we have the power to try again.
Paul offers two images of the origins of this power and freedom to follow in the way of Jesus. The first is the image of our dying to our old selves that were trapped in the un-way of Jesus and being raised to be new persons who have the power to follow the way of Jesus. In verse four he writes, “Therefore we have been buried with him in baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in the newness life.” Notice first, that Paul links resurrection with life in the here and now, not in the eternal. Second, Paul says that something happens in our baptisms. That in baptism we are no longer children or adults of the un-way of Jesus, but that we have become people empowered to follow the way of Jesus. Let me ask, how many of you know who Peter Parker is? Right he is Spiderman. Consider his story. He is an ordinary kid until he is bitten by a radioactive spider. Then he is imbued with super powers and is capable of great good. This is the image Paul offers. We are no longer ordinary kids, but people capable of doing great good by living into the way of Jesus.
The second image has to do with being freed from slavery. In verse six he writes, “We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin.” The image here is of the Exodus. Remember the story. The people were trapped on one side of the sea with the Egyptians in pursuit. God opens the waters and the people walk through them to the other side where they became free people, capable of living in the way of God in the promised Land. In other words, just as the people of Israel moved from being slaves in Egypt, to being free people in the Promised Land, so too we have moved from being slaves to the un-way of Jesus, to being free people capable of living in the way of Jesus. This means that the un-way of Jesus no longer holds us captive. We have the freedom to do what is right and good in God’s eyes.
I wish I could say this morning that because of the resurrection and the power and freedom it offers us, that we will be able to live perfectly in the Jesus’ way. I can’t because we won’t. Like me trying to master Super Mario Brothers, we will give it our best and sooner or later, we will find ourselves once again in the un-way of Jesus. We won’t slide, duck or jump in the right place…and it will seem as if we are back to square one. Yet, the good news is that not only will we never move back to square one but that we have infinite lives; infinite opportunities to try again and again to live in the way of Jesus. We have them because we are new people who have been given the power and the freedom to follow Jesus. What we will need then is continuing encouragement along the way. We will need opportunities to find the encouragement to keep moving forward. If you are looking for that kind of continuing encouragement, I have some good news for you. Over the next six weeks we will be showing you where you can find encouragement along the way. I would challenge you then to make a commitment to be here for the next six weeks during Eastertide as we explore those places where encouragement awaits in order for us to live fully into the Jesus’ way, blessing the world and blessing ourselves.
The Vocabulary of Faith: Joy
The Rev. Bethany Peerbolte
April 14, 2019
Psalm 30; John 16:20-24
Our vocabulary word of faith today is Joy. Palm Sunday is a great time to talk about what Christians mean when they use the word joy because this is the day Jesus finally lets his disciples and followers express the joy that he has inspired in them. They have been told to remain silent after seeing Jesus perform miraculous healings and after he cast out evil spirits. They have been told to not tell anyone about Jesus’ teachings about inclusion and equity and justice. That must have been incredibly frustrating! Imagine having such good news and not being able to tell anyone!
Palm Sunday is the day Jesus does not hold them back. The time for silence has passed; the authorities know what Jesus is up to. Finally, the people are free to express their joy! After keeping it bottled up it must have been a powerful expression. John’s gospel gives us an exceptional example of what Christian joy is all about. John’s retelling places the joyous Palm Sunday parade as a direct reaction to Jesus bringing Lazarus back to life. The people have experienced a great loss and their pain has been turned to joy through the resurrection of a friend. But the miracle is also the cause of Jesus’ death. Once authorities hear about what Jesus did for Lazarus they turn against him and plot his demise. Joy and pain are close companions in John’s gospel.
Joy is in short supply in Jesus’ world, largely because the Pharisees and Roman authorities deal out joy like a drug. Their power depends on their control and careful dispersion of joy. The Pharisees and the Roman authorities are the ones who keep sorrow and trouble at bay. They keep out invaders and create order in society. They make sacrifices and keep God’s favor on the people. They create a barrier to keep sorrow and pain away so that the people have more joy. When these powers hear that Jesus is offering another access point to joy they become afraid and plot to get rid of the challenge of their joy monopoly.
After the joyous parade of palms in the streets Jesus reteaches the basics of God’s joy. He wants them to remember how God’s joy works because they will need to hold on to it for the painful days ahead. Jesus talks about grains needing to die and fall to the earth before they can grow and become what it was made to be – a giant, strong stalk of grain. Jesus teaches about the light shining in the darkness and how darkness is needed to see the light. He invites his betrayers to eat with him, welcoming the cause of his pain to sit next to him. He teaches repeatedly about existing in pain and struggle until we get to the passage I read today. You will weep, you will mourn, you will have pain, but your pain will turn to joy.
Jesus compares this process of pain turning to joy to a woman giving birth. There is pain, but when the child is born healthy, the woman no longer remembers the pain. It has turned to joy. Do you hear what Jesus is saying? The very thing causing the pain – the child – is what causes the joy. There is no substitution happening. The thing causing the pain is not taken away and a joyous thing put in its place. The child causes the pain and the child causes the joy. The pain is transformed into joy. Joy is not a substitute for pain; joy is the transformed state of pain.
When scripture talks about joy, there is always pain in the verses preceding it. Joy does not exist in scripture without pain. But the world takes the verses about joy and cuts out the parts about pain. The transformation is lost and we are left with substitutive joy. A concept that leads us to believe that joy and pain cannot exist together, that they are opposites. Substitutive joy is problematic. If every time we break something it is replaced with a shiny new thing, we become spoiled. And when we finally face a loss that cannot be replaced, we become desperate to find joy again. Substitutive joy tells us we must get rid of the pain to receive joy. We must cover our pain, dump our pain, before joy can take over our lives. If we think joy is a substitute for pain, then after a great loss we can try to cover our pain with other things. Material goods, other people, experiences, drugs. If we still feel pain, we keep trying to cover it up with joyful things.
The opioid epidemic is a result of substitutive joy. Pain is covered by the rush of a high, a rush that needs to get bigger and bigger to bring the same level of joy one had yesterday. In 2007 500 people in Michigan died of opioid overdoses; ten years later, in 2017, the number of deaths was 2,033. There is pain in our community and the only way the world has taught us to deal with it is substitutive, to cover it up.
Substitutive joy tells us that joy and pain cannot exist together. If you want to feel joy you must find a way to get rid of the pain. If covering the pain up does not work then try unloading the pain on others. Substitutive joy convinces us if we can just make the other person feel our pain it will transfer from us to them and we are free to let joy take the place of the pain. Hate, abuse, and violence all stem from people trying to unload their pain onto someone else. 2018 had the highest reported incidents of hate crimes in the United States ever. There is pain in our nation and substitutive joy is how we deal with our pain.
Spend one day working in retail or a service job and you will see the pain that people cover or unload every day. In college I worked in a hardware store and by far my favorite assignment was the paint department. I would come in early if I heard we got new paint chip samples because I wanted to be the one to put them out. They always had the most ridiculous names and I dreamed of having the job of naming the colors. (Go through paint samples!)
I also liked mixing the paint. When a customer needed something mixed, the message would go out over the PA system and I would run to the paint counter. The way paint is mixed is by taking a can of base and mixing in concentrated colors according to a formula in the computer system. The regular concentrated pigments were red, blue and yellow but we also had black and some other secondary colors for specific brands.
One day a woman was buying a beautiful sunflower yellow for her child’s room. I went to the computer typed in “brilliant sunflower” and the formula popped up on the screen. There were only two pigments called for but those colors made me second guess the system. There was yellow, of course, but also a fair amount of black. The system had never been wrong before so I went along and followed the formula, carefully measured out the pigment and hoped for the best as it clambered around in the mixer. When I opened the can to check the color, it was brilliant sunflower yellow. I was genuinely shocked that it wasn’t grey with the amount of black put in. Don’t tell my boss but after the customer left I tried a sample can with just the yellow pigment. The color that came out was yellow, but not the brilliant yellow that child was about to have on her walls. The yellow without the black was weaker, fainter. I doubt it would have looked much different from a yellowing old white wall. The black is what made the color have depth and presence.
When scripture and Jesus talk about joy the understanding is that pain and joy exist in the same can. Pain is an essential ingredient of joy. And if we can avoid covering and dumping our pain to allow it to mix and process and develop, God transforms it into joy. Joy without pain is not rooted in reality. There is no contrast in painless joy to really make the joy stand out as special. Joy is stronger when it is allowed to develop alongside our pain. In God’s care pain is never the final state. When we look at our pain we see black but God sees the start of brilliant, yellow joy. Jesus says this kind of joy will never be taken away from us because it is not just a covered top coat that can be chipped away; it is an enduring color and pain is only a few shades away from joy.
To us it is obvious why this is the message Jesus leaves the disciples. We know the week ahead will be filled with every painful emotion one can think of. What Jesus does not want to happen is for the disciples to cover up or unload their pain. He wants them to remember substitutive joy does not work. It is shallow and fleeting. He wants them experience God’s joy. That will mean sitting with the pain and with God but knowing that that pain will transform into their greatest joy. He allows them to express joy today on Palm Sunday. On Thursday he leaves them a meal to remember their joy when he is gone, so that when they get to Friday and the cross they have the tools to make it to Sunday. We as a community will walk that same path this week. Celebrating today, remembering Thursday, sitting in the pain of Friday … then, when we are here again in a week, Easter will shine so much brighter because we have experienced the whole journey, the whole depth of holy emotion together.
This is the week to give your pain a chance to see the light. Uncover, hold on to it, treasure it even. Pain is not our enemy. In God’s hands it is the beginning form of joy.
The Vocabulary of Faith: Power
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 31, 2019
1 Kings 12:1-11; Matthew 20:20-28
He had a decision to make. Which way would he go? To understand Rehoboam’s decision tree, let’s take a quick look at our morning’s story. Rehoboam had been named king at the death of his father Solomon (who was not as wise as people make him out to be and was an incredibly brutal monarch). Following Rehoboam’s coronation, a delegation from the ten northern tribes of Israel came to him with a proposition. If he was nicer to them than his father had been, which would not have been difficult, they would be happy to be his subjects. Rehoboam, not sure what to do, asked them to come back in three days. To facilitate his decision, the king went to his older, wiser advisors. He asked them what he ought to do. Their answer was to agree to all the terms and conditions offered by the tribes. Not really liking that advice, the king went to the young men who had grown up with him in the palace in places of power and privilege. Their advice was to threaten the northern tribes with even worse treatment then his father had imposed. So, which would he choose? The answer unfortunately seems too obvious. He chose the latter...the way of absolute power. It proved again Edward Abbey’s comment that “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.” Oh, and the result of his choice? It was violence, civil war and the destruction of the kingdom.
While we might want to criticize Rehoboam for this decision, my guess is that deep down inside all of us is a desire to run the zoo; to organize the world, the nation or our lives, exactly the way we think that it ought to be. Unfortunately, this desire for power, when it leads to real power usually leads to death rather than life; to diminishment rather than to empowerment. One of the great experiments dealing with power occurred at Stanford University in 1973. One of the psychology professors was tasked with determining why prison guards tended to abuse their prisoners. Was it the prisoners? Was it the conditions? Was it the guards? He was not sure, so he created an experiment in which he would have students act the parts of prisoners and guards. He recruited 24 mentally healthy students to participate. Half of them were prisoners and half were guards. The prisoners were rounded up from their homes and placed in prison cells that had been created on the campus. The experiment was supposed to last two weeks but was cancelled in the sixth day because the “guards” had become so abusive to the prisoners that the professor feared for the prisoner’s mental health. One of the student guards later said he could not believe his own vicious actions. Again, “Power is always dangerous. Power attracts the worst and corrupts the best.”
This understanding of power is on clear view in our Jesus’ story this morning. Jesus was moving toward Jerusalem and what his followers believed was that there would be a consolidation of power over the Roman legions and their Jewish colleagues. Not wanting her sons to miss out on the most powerful positions, Jesus’ aunt asked that her two sons, Jesus’ cousins, be given the most prestigious and powerful positions in the new kingdom; the seats at Jesus right and left hand. This made sense because positions of power were almost always consolidated within families. Though Jesus tried to explain what those positions entailed, which they did not understand, he then made it clear they were not his to give. Needless to say, when the other ten heard that they might miss out on being power brokers in the new kingdom, they went ballistic and their anger toward the two brothers boiled over. They were not about to be left out of the positions of power. they wanted their opportunity to dominate not only the Romans but the corrupt Jewish administration in Jerusalem. It was in that moment that Jesus decided to give a two-lesson short course on power in the Kingdom of God.
The first lesson could be called, “Uh, Uh, not in my house you don’t.” If any of you ever came home and said or did something you learned elsewhere, which was not acceptable in your own home…and your parents said, “That is not acceptable in our house”, then you know what was happening here. These are Jesus’ words. “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you.” Jesus wanted to make it clear that this new kingdom was not like the old kingdom; that the Kingdom of God was not the Kingdom of Rome. And because of that, the way one operated was going to be different. And I want to be clear here what I believe this means. Some people, including Luther, interpreted this to mean that lording it over and being tyrants was OK out in the secular world; the world of governments and military might be like this, but it was not acceptable in the church. This is what some people refer to as two kingdom theology. In other words, Christians can be brutal to others in the public square, just not in the church. This is not what Jesus is saying. He is saying it is never acceptable, whether in the church or in government or in families, for his followers to act like Romans and use power to get their own way while oppressing others. It is not acceptable because it destroys rather than gives life; it tears down rather than builds up. And God is about life and building up.
The second lesson could be called, “Now this is real power.” Originally, I was going to go straight to Jesus’ words, but I think we need to pause. We need to pause because the words I am about to read have become such throw away words that I believe that they have lost their power. What I want us to do is to rethink them even before we hear them. Let me ask, how many of you have ever been in an airport? Used a restroom in an airport? Noticed the person cleaning up the restrooms? OK, keep that person in mind as we read Jesus’ words. “Whoever wishes to be great among you must be the person who cleans the toilets in the airport. And whoever wishes to be first among you must be the one who cleans them forever without pay.” I say this because Jesus’ words about being servants and slaves would have hit his disciples in the gut, because his followers had servants and slaves. And the thought of having to trade places with those servants and slaves would have been unthinkable. Thus, when Jesus tells them that greatness and real power comes in serving others, it would have blown their minds. He would have been calling for them to radically rethink all their relationships, both with each other and with the world. And in so doing they would have discovered that service is real power because it lifts people up and helps them to understand that they are valued by God and others.
One of the great sins of the church is that we have either forgotten or ignored these words from Jesus. And that decision is what has led to the ongoing sexual abuse scandals in not only the Roman church but far too many protestant and independent churches as well; because that kind of abuse is not about sex but about power. It has led good church going folk to seek power in politics and to forget that they are to be servants and not overlords. Is has led to tens of thousands of women and children fleeing their homes because of abuse, some of the abuse even sanctioned by clergy. We have forgotten that this kind of power leads to diminishment rather then the empowerment of the image of God in others. What should we do then? The answer to this comes in a practice I will give you this morning. First look around you at the people sitting close to you. Now turn to them and say, “What can I do for you?” That’s right, turn and simply say, “What can I do for you?” See it isn’t that hard to say…and it isn’t that hard to do. But in so doing we become servants. We become those who, like Christ, serve others and in so doing help transform people and communities and the world into the realities that God desires them to be. That then i my challenge is that wherever you are this week, to look for opportunities to ask others, “What can I do for you” that you might help to transform the world.
The Vocabulary of Faith: Anger
Youth Sunday, March 24, 2019
Anger is consuming.
As you heard Emily say in this morning’s announcements, I am in the MRP’s production of West Side Story. Our final show is today at 2pm, in Marian’s auditorium – tickets are $10 at the door, but I’m not here to give a shameless plug. Some of you know how competitive landing a role in theatre can be; which is something very relatable to obtaining or climbing the ranks of employment. Now when I was auditioning for this year’s production, I was fairly confident in my position. Last year, I was the lead in the Little Mermaid, Prince Eric, and had taken up a leadership role in Choir at Marian. My goal was to receive the lead role of Tony, and I was determined, even a little conceited. I was on my game throughout the audition process. After the dancing and monologue portions, however, they didn’t even give me a chance to sing for Tony. I must have impressed the dance coach more than I expected though. Some of you may know, West Side Story is a dance heavy show. With dancing being something I have never been experienced in, I was shocked when I saw the cast list come out; I got casted as Riff, and a buddy of mine got the role of Tony. I was furious - I immediately went into my basement, hung up the punching bag, and unloaded on it. Still have scars on my knuckles to this day. The following days, I used some select words with my friend who got the role over me. I was very brutal with him, and I never knew how much it would affect him. All of these things I didn’t mean. I was blinded by anger and I never took into consideration how my friend would have felt, and I was wrongly searching for my own peace. Even though I was still jealous, I made amends with my friend and I have actually really enjoyed my role.
Of all the things in the human heart, anger can be one of the most intense, destructive, and unhealthy emotions that we can experience. If not handled in the proper way, it can have drastic life-changing consequences. Anger may be caused by pressures of work, family or even from being the innocent victim of another’s wrong-doing. If left unresolved, anger creates a deep desire to destroy.
Psalms 103 may be the “Mt. Everest” of praise psalms. The speaker here is David, written in his later-life. David begins by praising God for personal benefits, then moves on to God’s mercy toward all the people and how even sin cannot destroy that mercy. Slow to anger. He can be angry, and can deal out righteous retribution upon the guilty, but it is his work; his love remains long, giving space for repentance and opportunity for accepting his mercy. That is the grace of this passage, the good news. The Lord’s patience to anger with us is a virtue that we can only repay by becoming acquainted with asking for forgiveness. We ourselves must learn from this passage to be slow to anger.
This is the message of anger throughout the Bible. Ephesians 4:26-28 states “Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need.” What should be taken away from here is that anger is a normal, human response to things that provoke anger. God gave us anger as an emotion for a reason. The harm caused is when we act upon our anger; that is when we are left to deal with the repercussions. This passage also tells us to “not let the sun go down on our anger.” This can be interpreted as an instruction to make amends with our neighbors when we do get angry. Many times, I’ll get angry at someone for something, and through human nature, I act on it. Then my actions cause that person, or another person to become angry. Now we are left with this pile of anger, and the more that time passes sitting on this anger, the larger the pile will grow. This can be due to many factors. Whether it’s lack of communication, past ordeals, or differing opinions, the expansion over time is the bane of anger.
There are also different levels to anger that should be deciphered very carefully. The angry we get when you stub a toe is incomparable to the anger of breaking your phone. The more substantial anger is especially hard to recognize because the anger can be so deep that we are unaware of the situation, or what is at stake. This is rage. I can say I have felt rage only a few times in my life, and they’re intensely surreal. Dealing with this type of anger is something that I struggle with as a Christian. Remember when I talked about hanging up that punching bag? That was my “healthy” way of exerting that anger. Various methods call for: a nap or some exercise – just a way to blow off the steam. Finding what way works for you is important.
In saying that, there can be such thing as healthy anger. We should be angry when our favorite basketball team loses a game, messing up all of our March Madness brackets. I’m looking at you Wisconsin. Anger can also motivate and inspire. In 2004, the Boston Red Sox came back from a 3-0 game deficit to win the World series, an event that would later go on to be on the most incredible moments in sports history. I can’t even imagine how upset those guys were by the end of the 3rd game. But see, they acted correctly on that anger. They translated the anger they were feeling into a positive energy, and it led them to greatness. As unbecoming as the thought of anger is, there is grace, it just needs to be utilized correctly.
Anger is consuming. But, there is a right and wrong way to handle it. God placed anger into us for a reason. We must be slow to anger, and never let the sun go down on our quarrels. We must be mature to anger, and never let it get the better of us. We must be cognizant to anger, and always be aware of the situation.
The Vocabulary of Faith: Idolatry
The Rev. Dr. John Judson
March 10, 2019
Exodus 32:1-6; Colossians 3:1-4
I am going to begin this morning by reading you a list of things and I would like you to figure out what these all have in common. Here we go. Christianity, Islam, Judaism, crucifix, statue of the Virgin Mother, drugs, rap music, cell phones, iPads, video games, the Trinity, movies, pornography, sex, nice clothes, expensive cars, church, cross jewelry, the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB and all their stadiums, Nike apparel, money, military power, border walls, guns, the flag, restaurants, relationships and my favorite, Alexa. And for those of you who don’t know Alexa, she is not a she, but a voice activated personal assistant. What do these things have in common? They are all, according to the internet, idols. They are things that we worship other than God. While some of these may not come as a surprise, chances are that many of them do. And they do so because we know what an idol is. It is a statue that people worship. It is the Golden Calf of the Great Golden Calf Incident in Exodus 32. However, I believe that a retelling of the Golden Calf story, and its basic theme, meaning the saving work of God, will help us make a connection between that calf and all the things mentioned above.
Let’s begin. The Israelites initially arrive in Egypt because God is saving them from a famine. Unfortunately, they become slaves and their life is hard. They cry out to God for deliverance. God hears their voices and sends Moses and Aaron to negotiate with Pharaoh for their release. The negotiations do not go well, but then God sends a few plagues and the people are given their freedom. As they leave, God has the Egyptians give the former slaves all sorts of parting gifts including gold jewelry. Once the people were in the wilderness, God provides them with water and food. Knowing that the people need guidance by which to live, God calls Moses to Mt. Sinai to receive the law. While Moses was gone, the people began to be afraid. God didn’t seem to be around, and Moses was running late. Rather than wait for either of them to show up, the people melt down their rings and make an object, a calf, which they then declared to be their god, and they worshipped it (note the theme…everything they have is a gift of God). What this means is that they chose to worship the gift rather than the giver (Calvin’s definition of idolatry) and in so doing made something other than God the giver the primary object of devotion. Thus, anything or anyone we make the primary object of our devotion, can be an idol.
Making something or someone, other than God, that is the primary object of devotion; that is the working definition I would like to use this morning to describe idolatry. What I mean by the primary object of our devotion is not simply describing that one person or thing to whom we bring a valentine card, or flowers on their birthday. Something becomes the primary object of our devotion when it becomes that something or someone on which we focus most of our time, talent, treasures and trust because it is the one which we believe will give us meaning, purpose and protection. (Jesus reminds us of this when he says that our hearts are where our treasure is.) Looking for someone or something other than God to become the primary object of our devotion makes sense because, as human beings, we live a tenuous existence. As corporeal beings, we live in a world we cannot control and one from which death will one day take us. This leads to anxiety and insecurity. Because of these two realities we seek that which can organize our lives in such a way that we find meaning, purpose and protection. And, if we are honest with ourselves, it is far easier to find that security in something we can see, touch and perhaps taste, than it is in an invisible God. This seeking explains Calvin’s statement that the human mind is an idol factory…always looking for the next thing that can be the primary object of our devotion in which we can find meaning, purpose and protection. What this means then is that all those things I first listed, if we allow them, can be idols.
Why is that a problem? Why shouldn’t we make something we can see, touch or taste the primary object of our devotion? There are two Biblically based answers I would offer.
First, making someone or something other than God the primary object of our devotion will ultimately bring disappointment, fear, anxiety and not joy. Let me ask, how many of you have ever had buyer’s remorse? Right, and we have it because the things we cannot live without, that we must have, that will make us complete, always let us down. They will let us down because they do not, in the end, possess the power to give our lives meaning, purpose and protection. While they may claim to do so, sooner or later they will fail us, and we will have idolater’s remorse. People will not live up to our expectations, objects will break, politicians will let us down, those things that we believed we could not live without…there will be something better next week. What happens then is that we go looking for the next thing to take their place with a sense of disappointment and not joy. If you want to see how this works, simply look at our beloved Detroit Lions. At the beginning of each season we invest ourselves in them, don our liturgical sports clothing, visit their downtown temples, perform the appropriate liturgy (the wave, making noise when the other team has the ball…you get it) and believe that this will be the year. However, somewhere toward the end of the season we begin to feel disappointment set in once again, leaving us unfilled, disappointed and empty. This is what happens every time we make something or someone other than God the primary object of our devotion...we end up with idolaters remorse.
Second, making persons or things the primary object of our devotion, gets in the way of us receiving what God wants to give us. When I was a child, we only had one television. I know, it is hard to imagine such deprivation, but it’s true. And whenever I would wander in front of it and become mesmerized by its glowing images, I would stop and stare, which proves that some things never change…and then my father would say, “John you make a better door than a window.” At which time I would realize I was blocking the view. This is what idolatry does. It blocks our view of God. It keeps us from seeing and receiving all that God has to offer. For God desires to give us a love that is deep, wide and eternal. God desires to gives us safety that will watch over and care for us regardless of what happens in our lives. God desires to fill our lives with meaning and purpose as God’s own children, called to love and be loved. When we allow objects, people or things, to come between us and God, they become better doors than windows and keep us from receiving all that God desires for us.
How then do we keep the appropriate perspective? How do we keep our minds from making things in this world the primary object of our devotion? The answer is to look up. Paul put it this way in his letter to the Colossians, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on the things that are above.” What he means is that we keep our eyes, our minds and our hearts appropriately oriented toward God in Christ, such that it is only in God that we seek meaning, purpose and protection. It means that we consciously orient ourselves daily to the One from whom all life and love flows. The gift of doing this is twofold. First, it allows us to receive all the gifts of meaning, purpose and protection that God desires we receive. We can become people who live with hope and not disappointment, with peace and not anxiety, with joy and not sorrow. Second is allows us to enjoy the gifts that God gives us. We can enjoy the Lions without being depressed when they do not win the Super Bowl. We can enjoy our relationships, our tech and our travels for what they are, knowing that we are not dependent on them to make us whole.
My challenge to you then is twofold this week. First, I ask you to make a personal inventory of your life, looking for those things that you might have made into the primary object of your devotion and when you find them, remind yourself that they are gifts and not the giver. Second, it is to daily look up; to look up to God throughout the day, reminding yourself that it is in this giver alone that we can find meaning, purpose and protection.
The Vocabulary of Faith: Faith
Rev. Joanne Blair
February 17, 2019
Genesis 15:1-8; Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16
As we continue our series on “The Vocabulary of our Faith” – looking at the words we use regarding our faith and what they mean – it only makes sense that we look at the word “faith” itself. What does faith mean?
Needless to say, I “googled it.” Faith is:
The common denominator here is that faith is believing in, or believing that, something is true without concrete evidence. According to these definitions, there must be some room for hesitancy or questions – otherwise it would be defined as “knowledge” instead of “belief.”
Abraham is the epitome of someone with questions, while still trusting and believing. Earlier in Genesis we learn that God told Abraham to leave his country, his people, and his father’s household to go to a land God would show him. And based on the promises of land, descendants and blessing, he went. How many of us would leave just everything behind – everything that is familiar to us – and just go without knowing how things would unfold, or at least knowing the destination? The concept of family meant everything to a person living in the time of Abraham, and it was very unusual for family members to live hundreds of miles apart from each other. But by faith, Abraham went.
Abraham’s faith was certainly tested, especially later regarding the sacrifice of his son, Isaac. We can only guess at how Abraham really felt about this command. While we know that God holds him back from the sacrifice, the point is that Abraham’s faith in God was stronger than his love for his son.
We also learn from scripture that Abraham was not without sin and failure, but that God held fast to God’s promises. Abraham’s life teaches us what it is to have relationship with God. Abraham shows us not only what it is to have faith, but what it is to live faithfully. He believed in God without any concrete evidence that God’s promise would come to fulfillment. And this is what the writer of Hebrews is attesting to in his letter. Written to a church in Rome, the writer is concerned that they are drifting away from their faith. While not being persecuted at the time (though they would be later), Christians were unpopular, and the writer is concerned that they will not hold fast, and that many will return to Judaism. The book of Hebrews begins with the statement that God, who in ancient times revealed Godself through the prophets, has in these last days revealed Godself through the life and teachings of a Son.
Leaning on the faith of Abraham (and many other ancestors), the author encourages them (and us) to remain strong in faith. We are told that faith does actually provide substance and reality, giving us a ground to stand upon. Not only that, but faith provides the courage to move forward into the unknown. But again, what is faith? In his book, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg (based on Niebuhr’s work) writes that faith has four primary meanings in the history of Christianity. Faith as Assensus (Assent – assenting to the truth of a claim or a set of claims; believing that a statement or a set of statements is true. This really took off during the Reformation and the Enlightenment, as believers started to write new creeds and doctrines or dissect older ones. Faith as Fiducia (Trust) – having a radical trust in God.
Soren Kierkegaard gives the metaphor that faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. If you struggle, if you tense up and thrash about, you will eventually sink. But if you relax and trust, you will float. (Ring a bell to any New Testament stories?) Faith as Fidelitas (Faithfulness) – a radical centering in God. Being faithful to a relationship. Not to doctrines and creeds, but to the God to whom they point. Not faithfulness to statements about God, but faithfulness to God. Faith as Visio (a way of seeing) – a way of seeing the whole; of seeing what is. Faith, as a set of eyes through which we see the world. Seeing the world as spoken of by Jesus. For how we see the world affects how we respond to it.
The first meaning of faith, Assent, is primarily a matter of the head. The remaining three: Trust, Faithfulness and Way of Seeing, are primarily matters of the heart. Someone once told me, “I love worshiping here because I don’t need to leave my intelligence at the door.” I couldn’t agree more. It is important, crucial even, to use our critical thinking skills. Faith certainly involves the head. But perhaps more importantly, faith involves the heart.
Faith is taking God at God’s word. Faith is trusting that the promises of God have been, or will be, fulfilled. Faith can include doubting, and questioning, and arguing and challenging God, but in the end, trusting and following God. Faith is not something we can put on a shelf and dust off each Sunday to bring to worship. Faith is not a thing we simply attain. It is not enough to say, “I have faith” and expect God to do the rest. Faith leads to action. Faith is something we live out as faithful people. Faith is filled with momentum, leading where God calls us into the known and the unknown.
Faith is being faithful. It is a matter of aligning our lives with the purposes of God and living in relationship with God involving both our hearts and our heads. And this relationship leads to transformation. Again, faith is taking God at God’s word, and living our lives in active, grateful response. Faith is traveling into the unknown with the trust that God’s promises have been, or will be, fulfilled.
On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and looked out as he gave his “I Have a Dream” speech. There certainly wasn’t any concrete evidence for the end of racial segregation. But his dream of a just and integrated America was not based on fact. It was based on faith. His faith in God’s transformative power was, to him and many others, the assurance of the things they hoped for. He stepped forward in faith, because he was called and he believed God’s promises of justice and righteousness. Being faithful, he traveled into the unknown.
We tell faith stories of Martin Luther King Jr. much the way the writer of Hebrews tells the story of Abraham. The hope of heaven is not separate from the hope of a transformed earth. Neither King, nor Abraham, nor the other ancestors mentioned in Hebrews saw the promise of their call fulfilled in their lifetime. They only saw it off on the horizon. Yet by their faithfulness, they continued to move forward into the unknown. They held fast to the promises of God, knowing that the future belongs to God, while also knowing that faith calls us to action.
Abraham’s faith wasn’t a blind faith. His faith was based on the promise of, and trust in, the God who had already proved to be faithful and true. Abraham didn’t live to see the full fruition of the promises, but he remained obedient and faithful. And this is the message in our scripture from Hebrews today. This message is as timely today as when it was written.
And if we ever find ourselves doubting or waning in our faith as the church in the book of Hebrews was, we need only look at the promises fulfilled in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Our faith need never be a blind faith. Our faith should be based on the promise of, trust in, and relationship with our Lord and Savior who has already proved to be faithful and true. The constant call of scripture is to live our lives on the basis that God is both good and steadfast and Jesus exemplifies this.
Our faith is to be expressed in trust, love, obedience and action. The more we express our faith in active faithfulness, the more our theology will expand while the simpler and more childlike our faith will become. What a beautiful thing.
And so, our challenge this week is to ask ourselves: Do I trust the promises of God? How am I putting my faith into action?
The Vocabulary of Faith: Salvation
Rev. Dr. John Judson
February 3, 2019
Exodus 15:1-7; Romans 1:16-17
“Have you been saved?” Those were the first words a member of my former church heard when he visited another congregation in San Antonio. He told me that he was running late for church, but rather than skip, he would try out the new Presbyterian congregation that had opened about a mile from his house. His first impression was that the building was nice and that worship time on the sign out-front insured him that he was not late there. As he walked in a man with a greeter badge approached him and the first words out of the greeter’s mouth were, “Have you been saved?” Needless to say, my church member was a bit taken aback. He was taken aback because as a good mainline Presbyterian he had no idea what he was being asked. Had I been there to translate, I would have said, friend, you are being asked, have you made a profession of faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior, which insures that at the end of your life you have your ticket to heaven and not a pass to hell. I could have translated it because I speak fluent southern evangelical. For better or worse though, this understanding is not limited to certain churches. It has become, since the Middle ages, the way the church in the West has talked about salvation, which is a shame, because it is, in the end, not Biblical.
To understand this, I want to take us to our two texts this morning. First, our story from the book of Exodus. To set the scene, recall that God’s people had been living in Egypt initially living the good life. But over the years they moved from being free-people to being slaves. They were oppressed and beaten down. It had become so bad that Pharaoh desired that all male children be killed. The people cried out to God. God heard them and sent Moses to seek their release. Though Moses had no real power, God used him to challenge the king. Ultimately God acted and brought about their freedom and release. In other words, God saved them. This is what the people in the story were celebrating. They were celebrating salvation. They sang this song. “The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation.” And, what is important to remember, is that God freed them not only because they were God’s children, but because God had a job for them to do, which was to make possible the blessing of all the people of the earth; to help people find peace, flourishing and justice. This is what salvation meant in the Hebrew scripture, and I would argue meant to Paul, the good Jew that he was.
Now we turn to Paul and his words to the church at Rome. As a reminder the similarities between Egypt and Rome were uncanny. They both were powerful and domineering empires. They both were ruled by kings that claimed to be gods. They both claimed that they were the saviors of the world. And, most importantly they not only oppressed the world around them, but they oppressed God’s people. With that in mind let’s listen again to Paul’s words to the Roman church. “For I am not ashamed of the Gospel, it is the power of God for salvation for everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek.” When Paul used the word salvation, I would argue that the concept of salvation being a ticket to heaven was not even on his radar. Instead he was pointing his readers back to God’s great acts of salvation; the Exodus from Egypt, the return from Babylonian exile and others, and saying, in Jesus God is not simply setting one nation free but is liberating the world that it might find peace, flourishing and justice in real time. To understand this, I offer my translation of Paul’s words. “The God of Israel, the one true God of the universe, having promised to repair a broken creation, sent Jesus into the world to not only defeat the powers of sin and death but to also become the true King of the world, who would liberate creation by initiating a new kingdom in which all humanity could share in the peace, flourishing and justice God intended.” For Paul, to speak about salvation was to speak about how God, through Jesus, was liberating both individuals and creation from the power of sin and creating a new reality, in real-time.
What this means for us, is that salvation, or being saved, is not about getting our ticket to heaven but it is about participating in the life and world liberating work of Jesus, which sets individuals and the world, free to find peace, flourishing and justice. How do we participate? First, we sign up to be part of God’s liberation adventure. We do this by professing that Jesus is Lord, meaning the real king of the world, and savior, the one who transforms us and creation. By signing up we receive the benefits of membership, which include the continuing work of God in our lives making us into new and ever being renewed people. Second, once we have signed up to be part of this liberating work, we are live faithfully by loving God and neighbor. This second part is a reminder to us, that just as God liberated Israel because they were supposed to be blessing all of creation. We are liberated for the same reason, to be a blessing to the world. As our tradition puts it, we are liberated for service through salvation.
The Vocabulary of Faith: The Spirit
Dr. John Judson
January 13, 2019
Genesis 1:1-5; Acts 2:1-13
We stood on the sidewalk and felt utterly defeated. We thought that we had helped to save a life, yet it was not to be. The year was 1978 and I was living in the Philippines as a Peace Corps Volunteer. I lived in a communal house with other volunteers, some Filipinas and a Japanese volunteer. Several months after moving in, a young woman with a baby on her hip came to our door. She did not speak English or Tagalog which we all spoke. But through some patient interaction we realized that she was looking for work as a lavandera, meaning she wanted to wash our clothes. At first, I was resistant, but then my friends convinced me that it would help her and that we could quit spending hours washing our clothes by hand in a tub. As time went by we discerned parts of her story. She lived in Manila’s largest slum. Her husband had deserted her, and she was forced to live with her in laws. One day though she arrived in tears. As best we could make out, one of her children was dying. We told her to bring the child to us. When she returned with him, we were shocked. His entire body was covered with open sores. Gathering what little money we had, we found a dermatologist who told us he had scabies, a creature that burrows in under the skin. She quickly prescribed some medicine but warned us that unless it was applied exactly as noted, he would die. With our last few pesos we purchased the medication, stepped out onto the sidewalk, and then realized that we had no way to tell her how to use it. We were defeated. But then, a woman walking by stopped and asked if we needed help. We told her the problem. She then asked the woman a question in a language we did not understand. They conversed. The woman on the sidewalk then said, “I grew up the village next to hers. I will explain to her how to use this.” My friends, I believe that this is the work of the Spirit because how else, in a city of 7.2 million people, could a woman take two buses and a jeepney from an inner-city slum, come to our street and our house and then when all hope was lost have another woman from a remote village of fewer than a thousand people, happen to walk by, stop and intercede? This is the work of the Spirit because the Spirit is the active presence of God, creating new realities, out of impossibilities. Let me say that again. The Spirit is the active presence of God, creating new realities, out of impossibilities.
The Spirit is the active presence of God creating new realities out of impossibilities. Throughout history, people have struggled to understand the Spirit. Many have seen it merely as the power of God, like a wind rushing forth. Others have seen it as something like The Force, in Star Wars; this generic power that is accessible to all people. The scriptures make it clear though, that the Spirit is more than either of these. It is literally the active presence of God at work in the world. What I mean by this is that just as we talked about last week, that God showed up in Jesus to redeem the world, God shows up once again in the Spirit. God shows up in ways and in times and in places where we least expect to find God, and makes things happen. The scripture has stories of the Spirit ahead of people, making new things possible, such as in the wilderness where God’s people were led to freedom. The scripture has stories of the Spirit within people, applying the work of Jesus in order to transform them. The scripture has stories of the Spirit behind people pushing them along, such as the Apostle’s Paul being pushed to preach to the Gentiles. David Paterson once said that he saw the Spirit as the great annoyer. I think this is right because the Spirit never leaves things as they are but is the active power of God helping to make things into what they ought to be.
The Spirit is the active presence of God creating new realities out of impossibilities. This can be seen clearly in the story of creation. As the book of Genesis opens, we see the Spirit of God hovering over the chaos below. This, by the way, is the Biblical story of creation that God confronts, not emptiness but chaos; a chaos that will not allow life to form and flourish. To create a new life-giving reality out of this chaos was understood as something only God could do. And so the Spirit “hovers” over the watery chaos preparing to give birth to a new creation. I say this because the Hebrew word for hover is what is used to describe a mother hen or dove, hovering over her nest in order to help birth new life. So when the Spirit (in Hebrew the same word “ruach” can be translated as Spirit, breath or wind) hovers, it is God being actively present creating a new life giving reality.
The Sprit is the active presence of God bringing new realities out of impossibilities. We see this in the story of Pentecost. On the Jewish holiday of Pentecost, the disciples were still hiding out. Even though they had seen and experienced the risen Jesus and had been instructed to go into all the world making more disciples, they had no idea how to accomplish this task. They knew it was an impossible task. Who would believe a story of a crucified and risen messiah? Who would believe it from bunch of barely literate Galileans? How would they tell the story such that people would believe them? How could they begin to create this new reality that Jesus had called the kingdom when they had no power and no authority? This task had impossible written all over it. Yet on that Pentecost day, the Spirit invaded their upper room and pushed and pulled them out in power, to create a new reality, the Jesus’ community, by telling the story of Jesus’ work, in multiple languages. That day, according to the story in Acts, more than 3,000 people believed, and the core of this new kingdom community was born.
What does this have to do with us? What it tells us is that our future is not limited by our past. Our future is not determined by our past because the Spirit as the active presence of God can create new realities out of impossibilities in us. We are not trapped in our lives because God can and will be a transforming agent in our lives. This is so both for our personal lives and our corporate life as Everybody’s Church. It means that we as a community of faith are not constricted by what has been but through the Spirit we can continue to become that new reality that God is creating in and through the Spirit. This is especially relevant today as we install our new elders and deacons. It is so because these persons, along with those already on session and the board of deacons are called to listen for the work of the Spirit, leading us into God’s new reality.
Before I close, I want to circle back to my story. The ointment worked. The child lived. And then my friends and I got together more pesos and paid for our lavandera and her children to leave the slum in which she was living and move back to her island community and her family who could help care for them. This too I believe was the work of the Spirit. Through my friends and I and the woman on the street, God created a new reality out of an impossibility for this family.
My challenge to you on this day is this, that as you go through your week, ask yourself, how am I open to God’s active presence in my life, creating new realities in and through me?
The Vocabulary of Faith: Jesus
Dr. John Judson
January 6, 2018
Genesis 12:1-3, John 1:1-14
So, who is he? Who is this Jesus that we claim to believe in and follow? The scriptures tell us that Jesus is the savior, messiah, Christ, Son of Man, Son of God, rabbi, teacher, prophet, King, Lord, bread of life, sheep gate, shepherd, way the truth the life, bread of life, living water, light of the world, redeemer, lamb of God, true vine, King of kings and Lord of Lords and the Word made flesh. Later writers have said he is a demi-god, a good god as opposed to the evil creator god, a spirit who was never real, the world’s greatest salesman, greatest CEO and model for all small group leaders. He is the laughing Jesus and even what my daughter calls, Rambo Jesus. He is also the sender of crusaders, the hater of all non-Christians and the lover of all people. So who is he? The answer seems to depend on each of us. What I mean by that is that across the centuries we have made Jesus in our own image and used him to defend our own beliefs. This is the reason in the Civil War, Jesus was both the one who approved of and condemned slavery. But again, who is he? Though we could spend years unpacking this question, since I am time limited this morning, I want to offer you what I believe are the two critical understandings of Jesus that scripture offers.
First, Jesus is us. Jesus is fully human. What I mean by that is that Jesus experienced the absolute fullness of life. He experienced birth and adolescence. He experienced love, adoration and rejection. He experienced temptation that he had to work to resist. He had to learn and grow in both experience and outlook. He had to seek his own destiny. He was at times, angry, sad and frustrated. He showed compassion for some and righteous indignation against others. He was neither a card-board cutout of a human being nor was he an unearthly figure floating through life. And he experienced pain and death. What this means is that there is nothing that we will experience that he has not. He is the one who understands what it means to walk around in these mortal bodies enmeshed in complex cultures and relationships. Even so, Jesus managed to be the one who continually oriented his life to God, always seeking God’s will and direction for his life. He therefore becomes the model for life, the one whom we are not only to follow but try to emulate. Jesus is us.
Second Jesus is God. This reality is what is at the heart of John’s opening words about the Word was with God, the Word was God and the Word become flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth. For many of us in the 21st century, this is the most difficult aspect of Jesus for us to wrap our heads around. In fact, in a recent survey of self-identifying evangelical Christians, a significant percentage did not believe that Jesus was God. But for the early church this affirmation was essential to the faith, and here is why. Only God can save. Let me say that again, only God can save humanity and so unless Jesus was God then regardless of all that he did in life or death, humanity would still be stuck in the mess sin created. One way I have taken to explaining this is to use the image of an operating system…meaning the software code that runs your computers, phones and tablets. The Biblical story is that God wrote the operating system of love that was to run creation. People were to love God, each other and creation. Human beings however introduced a virus, called sin, into the operating system and God’s desire for love was hijacked by hate, jealousy, violence and greed. Throughout history men and women, prophets, priests and saints have tried to restore the original OS but have been unable to restore the code. This is something only the original coder could do. This is something only God could do. Thus, it was necessary for God to become one of us, so that through his life death and resurrection, he could restore the original operating system of love, so that humanity could once again flourish.
So who is Jesus? He is the intersection where heaven and earth meet. He is the intersection where humans and God meet. He is, if you will, the person in whom Eden exists, meaning in him we discover what it means to be fully human and oriented toward God. And what it means for God to be the one who is oriented toward humanity desiring the restoration of creation. As such he is the one who makes possible the reprogramming not only of our lives but of humanity itself. This is why the Apostle Paul said that when we put on Christ, we become new creations. We become those who are no longer programmed by sin, but by Spirit (of which we will learn more next week). And there is no greater way to experience this intersection than at this table (the communion table) where we witness the fully human one dying for us, and the fully God one offering us new life through the bread and cup. The challenge that I want to put before you this week is this, to ask ourselves, how are we allowing that fully human and fully divine One to reprogram our lives, such that we reflect the love of God and neighbor that is at the heart of this mysterious intersection of heaven and earth?
The Vocabulary of Faith: God
Rev. Dr. Kate Thoresen, Parish Associate, Foster/Adoptive Families Partnerships
December 30, 2018
Ex.3: 9-15; Acts 17: 22-28
Joanne Blair recently shared a story about a seminary professor who always asked, “What do you mean?” Joanne went on to say that this was one of the most important questions she heard. And it stays with her to this day. Joanne went on to say, “No matter what you’d say, this professor would respond with, ‘What do you mean by that?’ We, as seminary students, would often be left stymied at times. And yet I’m so grateful,” reported Joanne, “to be pushed to more fully articulate my own vocabulary of faith. “
Today begins a new sermon series called “The Vocabulary of Faith.” What comes to your mind when you hear the words, God? Jesus? Holy Spirit? Salvation? This First Sunday in our explorations of our Vocabularies of Faith we’ll explore ways in which God reveals God’s self. How do we begin to articulate what God means to us?
If we asked people today, “What do YOU mean when you say, ‘God,’ what do you suppose they would say?” Are we referring to a particular name? Or do we refer to a particular characteristic of God or what? If we took a poll, we’d hear many different responses. A Supreme Being? Creator? Energy Force? The life-giving Jesus as the Face of God? A Spirit? Love? Light? What would YOU say?
We also would acknowledge that God is so beyond our human comprehension that we cannot comfortably fit God into a convenient box and talk about God casually. We worship a holy God of mystery, yet a God who is closer than our breath. The God who names you. Claims you. Calls you by name and seeks to be in relationship with you. We can only sense the paradox.
Let’s look at what God revealed to Moses in the story that Katie Blair read today in Exodus 3. In this setting God is speaking to Moses through the burning bush. God gives him the mission to free the Hebrew people from Egyptian captivity. Understandably, Moses has some concerns, the main one being how he will convince his fellow Israelites that this really is a mission from (and blessed by) God. (Oxford Annotated Bible) Then Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you.’” God also said to Moses, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations.” - Exodus 3:13-15
“I AM who I AM” or YHWH is here introduced as God’s personal name for the first time. This is ambiguous and points to the mysteriousness presence of Israel’s God. Scholars have puzzled for years over its meaning. It could mean “I am who I am” or it would mean “The One who causes to be.” Here we sense a timeless Presence that cannot be held in the space of our own measures of time, yet is working in human lives and history. Notice that in verse 15 God also says, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.’ This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations. Here God then restates God does not hesitate to identify the divine self with displaced and oppressed people. This holy name is associated with marginalized people. (The New Oxford Annotated Bible)
This revealed name of God was considered so sacred that the Hebrew people would not pronounce the name itself, but referred to God as Jehovah, Adonai, Elohim, or LORD. As we can see here, God will not be completely understood, not confined to a conceptual box. As Joanne Blair says, “God is so much bigger than any of these; if we think that we can easily begin to define God then we are probably on the wrong track. God is so much more than our human comprehension.” Yet in the story of Paul at Athens we see that Paul first uses comprehension and logic to open the minds and hearts to God as revealed in scriptures and in Jesus Christ Paul here is portrayed as the first Christian philosopher, using Stoic and Jewish arguments (Oxford Annotated Bible).
He says to them, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown God. He uses recognizable tenets from both groups and points to God as the creator, an idea common to Jews and to Greeks. That God is near to all people is a Stoic belief as well as Jewish. Then Paul quotes another Greek philosopher whom the listeners would know, “It is God in whom we live and move and have our being.” He then adds that people can know the true God through Jesus Christ.
Theologians often refer to God as a Trinity—God the Creator, God the Son, Jesus, our Redeemer, and God the Holy Spirit, the Sustainer. This Vocabulary of Faith series will explore these in greater depth. Stay tuned!
And yet even though God is so far beyond our human understanding, scripture still bears witness to God. The Bible contains almost 1000 references to God ‘s name or various characteristics of God. (www.Biblestudytools.com). Many of these point to a way that people have personally experienced God—as their Deliverer. Their Redeemer. A Light. A Shepherd who leads us beside still waters and restores our souls. The One who is with us. So what are we to say in all this? One clue comes from what the Psalmist wrote: “Be still and know that I Am God (Ps.46:10).”
This approach calls for the kind of knowing in a relationship; not necessarily based on logic or rational thought; but a deeper kind of knowing as you would know a family member or a close friend. There’s something about the essence of that person that you know that you can deeply trust. You know that they will be there for you and with you. There is respect. Love. A mutuality. People refer to this kind of knowing as those personal God moments in their lives. What was it like for you when something has turned out so well and good that you sensed that you could not have orchestrated that yourself?
A strong God moment for me happened when we were living in Florida. Our son Thomas had just been born. My father and mother had just moved to Texas from Michigan. I thought that we’d never see them—or so seldom since travelling long distances wasn’t easy with an infant. And then, Tom was transferred of all places in the United States to the Houston, Texas area. My heart and mind opened in wonder. It hit me that there truly is such a supreme benevolent force that is working for the good in ways so beyond our imagination or control.
I began to experience God as the “fount of every blessing.” And the more we sense those unmerited blessings and love in our lives, the more they want to pour out into others. What kinds of God moments have you experienced throughout the years? Something so good happening that you know you could not have caused it by yourself, yet you knew it was so right and better than what you could have possibly scripted yourself? You knew that somehow God is with you and blessing you?
So while we may not have easy definitions for God, we human beings, in our own humble ways can point to the goodness of the timeless, eternal One at work in our lives. And so, our challenge today is this: Recall a God moment in your life that has made an impression on you. Take time to wonder and relish that. Rest in it. And ask God throughout the week so open your eyes to other God moments that are happening so that you move closer to knowing the God who is. The richness and fullness of God’s perfect love await.
Let us pray: Holy God, You created the heavens and the earth and all that is in them. And yet you reveal that you are mindful of us. (Ps. 8) Keep awakening us to your loving Presence so we may grow in our faith, hope and love and share that vocabulary with others. In Christ’s name. Amen.