Scripture: Matthew 22:34-40
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
January 10, 2016
There was a man who was about ready to jump from a high bridge, when a second man ran up to him shouting, “Stop! Stop! Don’t do it!”
“But I have nothing to live for,” said the first man.
“Maybe I can help you,” said the second man. “Are you religious?”
“Yes, I am,” said the first man.
“Me, too!” said the second man. “Are you Christian, Jewish, or Muslim?”
“I’m Christian,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the said the second man. “Are you Protestant or Catholic?”
“I’m a Protestant,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Are you Calvinist or Wesleyan?”
“Calvinist,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Are you liberal or conservative?”
“Conservative,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “Charismatic, Reformed or Baptist?”
“Baptist” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man. “General Baptist, Conference Baptist, or Northern Baptist?”
“Conference Baptist,” said the first man.
“Me too!” said the second man excitedly. “Conference Baptist of 1932 Conference or Conference Baptist of the 1946 Conference?”
“Conference Baptist of the 1932 Conference!” said the first man.
“1932? Then go ahead and jump you heretic!” And the second man pushed the first man off the bridge. (From Hot Illustrations for Youth Talks)
At times people can get a bit neurotic about our religious beliefs. At times, people can get a bit fixated about who is right and who is wrong, who is in and who is out, who is holy and who is not. Today, I would like to make the bold claim that everyone is in, everyone is holy and the whole world is God’s house.
I make that claim because of my experience of growing up in this congregation. You taught me radical inclusivity. It is from this culture of openness, acceptance and affirmation that our Vision Statement emerges. It was created in 1998 – 18 years ago – but I still believe that it continues to be relevant for us today. The beginning of a new year, at the beginning of a new chapter, with a new minister is a fitting time it is to look at our Vision Statement and reflect upon its intent, purpose and values.
As I look at the RUCC Vision Statement, there are 4 key words that speak to me:
It is these four words that will shape our four week sermon series on the RUCC Vision Statement.
Today, we look at the word “God”. No doubt, the word “God” is a loaded word. God is mentioned 4 times in the Vision Statement. What do we mean when we say “God”? For centuries, Christians confidently maintained a vertical theology with a three-tiered universe. God lives in heaven above, a distant place of eternal reward for the faithful. The second tier is the world where we live. Then, the final tier is the underworld – the place we want to avoid after we die. With a vertical theology, God is understood as a distant deity, an external object, Judge. With such a theology, the purpose of the church is to mediate the space between heaven and earth, acting as a kind of holy elevator.
Diana Butler Bass states that there is a decline in church membership because many people have a difficult time affirming this vertical theology (Grounded, pg. 1-26). She says that many have found it increasingly difficult “to sing hymns that celebrate a hierarchical heavenly realm, to recite creeds that feel disconnected from life, to pray liturgies that emphasize salvation through blood, to listen to sermons that preach an exclusive way to God, to participate in sacraments that exclude others, and to sit in a hard pew in a building with no windows to the world outside” (p. 23). Bass concludes that there is a decline in church attendance and an increase in the number of people who call themselves “spiritual, but not religious”. In other words, there is a shifting understanding of God. The personal, mystical, immediate, and intimate is emerging as the primary way of engaging the Divine. God is seen in the horizontal landscape of nature and people.
This resonates with me. Our scripture passage says, “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength.” Who is this God that I am to love with all of who I am? I personally am not interested in loving a theistic God — a distant deity, God sitting on a throne in a cloud reigning down judgment on human beings, an outdated image of a punitive God.
On the other hand, if we are talking about a God of love, meaning, joy, and hope; if we are talking about God as the ground of our being, as the electricity that lights up the whole house, as the reverence that is humming inside of us – now that’s compelling. That’s what I am after! That kind of God is worth 100% devotion in every area of my life!
Rob Bell, in his book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, uses three simple but profound and powerful prepositions to describe God. The first preposition is with. God is with us. God is the cosmic electricity, the divine vitality, the ruach (spirit, breath) that moves through the universe, the glue that holds life together. If you have ever found that when holding a newborn baby or hearing a favorite song or standing on the side of a mountain or floating in the ocean and you are aware that there is something more, something else going on just below the surface – something that is glorious or transcendent, that is God with us. Jesus was always aware that there was more going on beneath the surface – a meal was never just a meal – it’s never just bread and wine, a person was not just a person, a conversation was not just an exchange of words. Jesus saw what others missed (p. 124). The invitation is for us to become more and more the kind of people who are aware of the divine presence in each and every moment, the sacred in all of life (p 126). “To be aware of God’s presence in every taste, touch, sound and embrace” (p.123).
Secondly, God is for us. There are many dominant theological systems that paint God out to be angry, hateful, judgmental. There are Christians who paint God to be over and against and even in opposition to human flourishing. I am shocked because I don’t believe that is who God is. I believe God is for you. God is on your side. God’s desire for you is that you flourish, thrive, shine. The apostle Paul put it this way, “If God is for you, who can be against you?” We see the forness of God in the unexpected stories of Jesus who touched lepers when no one else would, who dined with tax collectors, whom everyone hated, in his liberation of women, who in that day, were seen as property. Jesus says, “I came that you may have life and have it in abundance to the full until it overflows.” Believe it, trust it, claim it, celebrate it – God is for you!
Finally, says Bell, God is ahead of us, pulling us forward. God is not behind us, in the past, keeping us down, holding us back – no, God is ahead of us, moving us forward, making a way where there seems to be no way, bringing us into a new way of being. God’s vision for our lives is more inspiring than we could ever imagine. God is ahead of us pulling us into a vision of radical, inclusive love for all, deep peace in every heart and soul, a transcending joy that makes every nerve alive and standing on tiptoe. In the words of one African American preacher, “While sickness may be on the itinerary, healing is your destination. Tears may be on the itinerary, but joy is your destination. Storms may be on the itinerary, but shalom is your destination.” In plain language, God is up to something and it’s bigger and better and wider and more liberating than we could ever imagine! God is ahead of us.
With, for, ahead – that is the kind of God I am talking about. I imagine that is the image of God the writers of our Vision Statement had in mind. That certainly is the kind of God about whom I am wildly passionate. That is the God who I wish to follow with abandon. That is the God whom I commit to worship with every cell of my being and every breath in my body! On this day, may we commit to loving God, divine vitality, cosmic energy – this one who is with us, for us, and ahead of us — with all of our heart, mind, soul, and all of our strength. For this is the first and greatest commandment.