Emerging Christian Story – Lenten Sermon #2 – February 29, 2012
Pastor Monte Stevens – North Riverdale Lutheran Church – Dayton, Ohio
“Let’s Talk About G_d”
As you can imagine God is a very big reality. A reality that can be discussed from a philosophical view, a historical view, a sociological view, a theological view, a biblical view, even a secular view. I was almost going to fill the entire 5 weeks of Lent with five sermons on God. So I have had a great deal of trouble deciding just where to begin and what path to travel tonight.
So my intent – just so you know right up front – is to begin a process of thinking about God rather than supplying quick answers. You will get food for reflection and contemplation. Everything we talk about in the year before us – as we learn and grow and renew our lives of faith – will deal with God on some level.
An essential part of the Emergent Christian Story, has to do with knowing what your concept of God is. You have a concept of God whether you realize it or not. Maybe the best place to begin is to let you know whether I believe in God or don’t believe in God.
Well, I do believe in God. That’s good news!
But here begins the question that will lead to yet another question, which can lead to many more questions. While I say, “I believe in God,” do I believe in the same God that you do? Meaning, do you and I have the same concept of God? Do you believe in the same God as your spouse? Or the person you ate dinner with tonight?
God is many things to many people. God means many things to many people.
Right now we are just talking about the people who say they believe in God, not the folks who say they don’t believe in God. Part of our journey this year is discovering why some people say they don’t believe in God – or once did – and no longer do or have given up on God in some way.
So I believe in God. But What God do I believe in? Tonight I will do my best to share that with you or at least begin to share.
Before we talk about God, we first have to talk about language. The language that we use to speak, the words we use to talk about God, or anything for that matter, are finite. They are limited. If we say, as most do, that God is infinite. Then how do we talk about God – an infinite reality – using finite words?
Our language, our words, are limited and thus finite. Something that is finite can never capture something that is infinite.
Have you ever heard someone say, “Words just can’t describe the sunset I saw.” “Word’s just can’t express what I felt.” “I don’t know how to put into words what I’m feeling.”
That’s because that sunset you saw, or the birth of a child that you witnessed, or holding the hand of someone as they pass from life to death are really big things that take us to the boundary of human experience and the boundary of language. The opposite of those first expressions is this expression “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Words only have the ability to express and describe and share so much, and then the ability of words hit their boundary.
If one can’t find the words to express the reality of a sunset, how will one ever find the words to express the reality of God?
In the Taoist religion the author of the Tao Te Ching, says, The Tao – The Way of the Tao – which is what we would call God, or the way of God – “The Tao that can be named is not the Tao.” What’s that mean? It means that if you think you can name the Tao with words you have not really named the Tao. You may have come close to naming the Tao but it is not the Tao, because the Tao is eternal, and cannot be expressed in words.
So we might say “The God that can be named is not God.”
That’s why I like the passage from Exodus (3:13-17) that I read tonight. When Moses asks God, “whom shall I say sent me if they ask about your name?”, the author of Exodus had God say, “tell them, I AM who I AM.”
This is known as a tautology where the second half says the same thing as the first half, and thus says nothing at all, except that God “is” and is beyond all names. God is beyond our finite words to capture God. For if we could capture God, we might be able to control God and then God would not really be God. God cannot be captured nor contained and our words will never adequately describe God.
Now this is not just philosophical mumbo jumbo. This has meaningful implications so hang in there.
The first implication is that every description of God that we have in scripture is inadequate. And more importantly, every description of God that I try to express will never be perfect, or deep enough, or full enough or complete. I will never be able to fully and adequately describe God.
No one will. Thus we all begin in humility. And every biblical writer that has written our scripture begins in humility. It’s also why the Bible is full of poetry and simile, metaphor and story, parable and descriptive prose.
From Genesis through Revelation the best descriptions of God use language that has the power to take us to the deepest possible place before language reaches its breaking point.
Moses said God was in the bush, that burned, but the bush was not consumed. That’s Moses trying his best to describe something infinite with finite words.
Like you trying your best to describe that sunset with words alone and not quite getting it; but trying.
And then there are all the places in the gospels that use “is like” language. God “is like” the father that waits for his prodigal son to return.
So when I say I believe in God, partly what I mean is that I believe in a God that will never be caught and captured by our words. God is infinite and we are finite.
The God I believe in is very grandiose. A word I like is transcendent – beyond my ability to fully understand and beyond my ability to even fully know. This is humbling and keeps me from reducing God into something small and manageable.
How many of you remember a book that was written by J.B. Phillips in the early 50’s whose title was, “Your God is too Small?” The premise of the book was that God can’t be reduced to what we want God to be.
The trouble facing many of us today is that we have not found a God big enough for our modern needs. In a world where our experience of life has grown in myriad directions, especially through scientific discoveries, our ideas of God have remained largely static.
It is nearly impossible, Phillips argues, for an adult to worship the conception of God that exists in the mind of a child of Sunday-school age, limiting God to such an inadequate conception.
Tonight, your God is too small. My God is too small. And the God we conceptualize, in some ways, will always be too small. And not only too small, but on some level, the God in whom you believe is not the true God. No one person, no one faith, no one denomination has a corner on God and can claim they have God down.
Every image of God in our scripture has limitations and problems. The Christian faith, in fact, has a pretty good history of getting God wrong. I believe that even our scripture, in places, has gotten God wrong.
If you noticed in the sermon title there is no letter “o” in the word God. Rather, you see an underline that replaces the letter “o.” This is Jewish practice. In Hebrew when they wrote the word God, they wrote it with four consonants and no vowels. This way it’s impossible to say God’s name. Why didn’t they want to utter God’s name? God’s name is too holy to even utter, and it show s a level of reverence and respect for God. Even though the Jewish faith may not say the word God, they sure do talk about God.
We talk about God a whole bunch too; who God is, and what God does. To do this we often personify God. Right? We talk about God as Father. We talk about God walking in the Garden. We talk about God as a person-like Being. God is personified as a father but also as a king, shepherd, judge, lover, mother, and so forth.
But is God a father? Is God male? Is God female? I would say no. The God I believe in is not male or female, white or black, Christian or Jewish, king or slave, shepherd or judge.
God is God; but for us to talk about God, one of the easiest ways, is to personify God. God is like a father that loves his children. In saying this, we are expressing something we believe about God.
Where we get into trouble is when we start to literalize the language. Language is a means to try to explain or describe something or someone. In the Bible there are female and male images used to describe God. But God is not literally male, nor is God a female.
Most of us still have an image of God that built upon a literalized personification of God.
I know when I was Sunday school age and growing up, my view and image of God was of an old man with a beard sitting on a throne. He was a very nice looking grandfatherly type guy. He – and back then he was a He – He was watching over the world and all of us. As I grew up this white-bearded grandfather was one that had lots of rules to follow and sat above the sky watching to see if I followed the rules. Most of the time I was not so good at following the rules and laws. I was a pretty rowdy boy.
But this God that expected me to follow the rules that had been laid out – those ten commandments and others. This God also held my eternal fate in his hands. At some point I would end up before him and I would be judged and depending on “how I did,” I would either end up in heaven or go to hell.
Occasionally, this God would intervene into the lives of people and help them, because this God, I was told, loved his children and would protect them and help them. So you could pray for what you needed and that God, would or might, answer your prayers. I was always a little confused on the “would” or “might” part of that.
Before college I was not a good student in school and my parents had expectations of good grades so I prayed. Well that never really worked out.
I also remember buying my first lottery ticket when I was 18, I think. Oh the fervent prayers I offered and I came up with what I thought was a sure way to win, to have God pick the winning lottery numbers that were on my ticket.
I knew God liked us to help people so I went right to God’s soft spot. I would give away – I think it was 80% – of the winnings to help those folks that needed help. Now why would God not give me the winner numbers and alleviate some suffering in the world?
Let me end the suspense. God didn’t pick the right numbers.
I offer this brief autobiographical sketch to share with you that, at one time, when I said I believed in God that is what I would have meant. It’s a childhood view of God that can be pieced together from a rather literalized picture of God using various personifications of God. But it is an image and understanding of God that I no longer believe.
But it is an image and understanding of God that many still believe, although that simplistic image might be dressed up in more sophisticated theological clothes.
Often when people will say to me that they don’t believe in God. I will say, “Tell me about the God you don’t believe in. I bet I don’t believe in that God either.”
Unfortunately, in the last 30 to 40 years, the fundamentalist Christians have dominated and told the Christian story in such a way that there is only one God to believe in, and it is their concept and their image of God. Since, for the most part, they read the Bible literally, it leaves a personified god that is too small and too much like the “Grandfather in the Sky” god.
When gods are too small, they deserve to die and be put into the dustbins of history. The Greek gods died. The gods of the Romans died. The Egyptian gods died. The Babylonian gods died. History is full of dead gods. When our understanding of the Christian god is too small or wrong, we need to let that god die.
In the 16th century, at the time of the Reformation, Martin Luther challenged the god that the Pope had popularized. This was an angry judging god that would put your loved ones in purgatory for a certain period of time, so they could be cleaned up before passing onto heaven. But – and here’s the beauty of it – if you bought indulgences you could get them out of purgatory more quickly. This was one of the best fundraisers the church has ever had!
Luther tired his best to kill this angry god that would bless you if you paid money to Rome. Luther did have some success. But today’s prosperity gospel that will be preached from many pulpits this coming Sunday has a similar god. If you give money, God will bless you with something you want – in the 16th Century, release from Purgatory – today, maybe a new BMW.
As a child I believed in a version of the that god, but I no longer do. That god is not only way too small, but I would say a perverted understanding of God.
Do you remember back in the 1960s there was a “God is dead” movement? They were talking about why the pre-modern God was no longer big enough for a modern scientific world on the edge of being post-modern. That movement died out because at that time the cultural images of God were just too strong and dominate to change.
There were several images of God and concepts of God floating around that were different but related. Listen to a few of those popular images. The “Grandfather God in the sky” god that would reward and punish. The Norman Vincent Peale god that would bless through the power of positive thinking. The Moral Majority god of Jerry Falwell. The Billy Graham accept Jesus into your heart god. And in more recent decades, the Joel Osten pop-psychology god. And the many preachers that have a version of the motivational speaker god. And the evangelical, Christian right, god of country and patriotism.
Now I’m not saying there is nothing good in any of these conceptions of God, but I do think in each case their god was too small. Luther was bold in his day to challenge the god of the Roman Catholic Church and we should be bold to look at and be critical of the gods that people offer us to believe in.
The evangelical Christian community is in a bit of a crisis now, in that, many of their star pastors have discovered and are preaching a much bigger god than before. The best and most popular example of this is Rob Bell. When his book “Love Wins” came out the evangelical community ripped him. How dare he preach a different god than they were preaching? His god was way too big for them, yet, for me, still not big enough.
God is a very big reality and every conception of God will always be too small and in some way inadequate.
One example: has our concept of god grown since the days of Galileo when we learned that the sun didn’t revolve around earth, and since we were no longer at the center of the universe, that God could no longer be considered to be above the dome of the sky? Has our understanding of God changed and expanded with our growing understanding of the world and what science has taught us about the world?
The Emerging Christian Story says “No.” The Emerging Christian Story is about sharing a much bigger God.
Today I have my conception of God. That conception is different than when I was a kid and, hopefully, will be different in another 10 years. As my understanding of everything changes, my concept of God needs to change because God is part of everything.
When we and others have a problem with God, it is most often the case that their God, our God, is too small.
I believe we get our best understanding and concept of God when we look at Jesus, the revealer and discloser of God. As we talk about and learn about Jesus, we will get to know the character of God and have an opportunity to widen and deepen our concept of God. But we’ll get to that in the weeks ahead. I look forward to sharing with you an ever expanding understanding of God in this post-modern world.