Sunday, May 27, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org

© Copyright, Silverside Church 2007


The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor


May 27, 2007

Calm, Courageous, and Confident
(Sixth sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)


I.

Karl Marx is often misquoted as having said that religion is "the opiate of the people." What he actually said, in a bit of context, was:

Religion is the general theory of this world, its encyclopedic compendium, its logic in popular form, its spiritual point d'honneur, its enthusiasm, its moral sanction, its solemn complement, and its universal basis of consolation and justification. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

Now, conservative preachers who are among the ones misquoting Marx generally use the quote (misquote) to scoff at Marx the Communist who went about slamming all religion as a numbing agent--religion as a powerful means to keep adherents from being able or having to face the real world, the cold cruel world.
Since preachers like this are accustomed to taking little bits and pieces of the Bible out of context in order to use them to serve their own purposes, they of course have no qualms vilifying a Communist with his own out-of-context words. When Marx wrote these words in his 1843 manuscript, Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right, opium was still legal in many parts of the world. It was used medically as a sedative and a painkiller; but it was also used to combat the effects of diseases such as cholera.
I'm not suggesting that Marx was, after all, promoting or encouraging religious involvement by his people. What I am suggesting, however, is that his comment wasn't nearly the putdown to religion it has been made out by many to be. As an avowed atheist, Marx, no doubt, thought that religion in the end had nothing to offer; and, yet, I don't think he trashed some of the potentially positive things religion could offer those who, unlike him, bought into a God-concept. By the way, Marx was born to Jewish parents, both descendents of noted German rabbis I’ve heard; for pragmatic reasons long, long before Hitler’s lunacy, the parents converted to the religion of the state church, which happens to have been Lutheranism. This “conversion,” if you will took place either shortly before or shortly after Marx’s birth.
As far as I know, the idea of a God never gripped him so there was no dramatic life turn—believing in God one day and zealously denying the existence of God the next. For an atheist, I think he’s potentially relatively nice to religion. I refer you back to the quote I read earlier and to his four closing descriptions of what religion is.

 "Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature."
 Religion is "the heart of a heartless world."
 Religion is "the soul of soulless conditions."
 "Religion is the opium of the people."

Could he have meant that religion is a potentially helpful medicine and not that religion is an addictive, illegal narcotic?
I would like to say that I think it's perfectly legitimate for religion to add a little something extra and nice to the lives of those who involve themselves in it. I'm not talking about false hope or false security. I'm not talking about twisting a likeness of God so as to create a god in our own image. I'm talking about the right to be more upbeat and hopeful and positive about life as a result of our religious commitments.
One simple statement of proof. If we learn and then come to believe down deep in the core that God loves us profoundly and unconditionally, that should please and even excite us to the point that we have our lives improved and enhanced. I don't see how it could be otherwise. An affirmation such as this doesn't, by any means, require us to pretend that the world is trouble-free or that because we're happy someone else's unhappiness is a matter of very little concern to us.
Without a doubt, we know that some religions do call on adherents to buy into a way of looking at the world that is nothing more than pure and utter denial. They pretend that God blesses them materially, and those who have to go without are enemies of God who will eventually cease to exist. Yet, both the Jewish religion and the Christian religion call on persons of faith to look at the world just as it is--filled with trouble and injustice, often much more sold out to evil than to good, and so on. But these negative aspects of the world are not the last words; they are not irreversible conditions.
Healthy religion helps us affirm life as it is, even the toughest parts, without playing a game that has us thinking that things are never as serious as they seem and that help is on the way every time we're in a jam. We all know that religion isn't the only source of information in the world telling people things about themselves and their plights that just ain't so. Government, for only one of several other possible examples, has done and is still doing exactly the same thing.
Healthy religion also helps me affirm me. I am a person of worth and value. Affirming that doesn't have to make me live selfishly, as if others are of little consequence in comparison to me or as if all available means of making a difference in the world should be used for my own happiness alone. Indeed, religion shouldn't be used the way Marx's misquote is often said to do; religion shouldn't be an opium in that regard. But religion should be a vitamin or an endorphin if endorphins could be bottled, don't you think? There's nothing at all unhealthy about these. And who wants religion that makes you feel bad about yourself and your world all the time? (Well, never mind that question! If religion makes us feel good about our world’s potential and ourselves even when the world seems to be falling apart, I think that’s a good thing!)


II.

We continue our sermon series today on "God in Twelve Musical Styles" by focusing on "Rhythm and Blues" or "R&B" music. The designation, "Rhythm and Blues," began to be used in the late 1940's to describe music that had been performed predominantly by African American artists for a decade or so.
The "rhythm" part of "Rhythm and Blues" referred to four-beat measures with emphasis on the second and fourth beats. The "blues" part of the name came from the lyrics and some of the melodies that were sad or "blue." I gather that the term, R&B, has been broadened quite a bit across the years since now some songs considered R&B are amazingly upbeat, and it happens that today we'll listen to portions of two R&B songs that are very hopeful and life-affirming. And we'll use them to springboard us into the depths of some wonderfully hopeful passages of Jewish and Christian scripture.
Religion as an institutional means of ensuring that I must always feel bad about myself--at least at some level--has absolutely no foundation in the teachings of Jesus. The Apostle Paul had a preoccupation with human sinfulness that kept him thinking--part of the time, anyway--that there was something fundamentally wrong with human beings instead of affirming that there was something fundamentally right with these creatures created by and in the image of the living, loving God.
I'm thinking of two people right now.

§ The first person was one of the secretaries at the large church in Maryville, Tennessee, where I served as youth minister during the last couple of years of my undergraduate studies. Eva was her name, and she was a wonderful person; someone very patient with a young, struggling and stumbling minister-to-be. Eva and I agreed on many things, most things; but not on this matter. Eva had an overdeveloped sense of human sinfulness, and if she came to church without being dangled over the fires of hell, she considered it a waste of time. No positive happy gospel for Eva. A minister who makes you feel good about yourself just isn't telling the truth. There was a lot of that in my background too so I understood Eva, but as I neared the end of college it just wasn't computing.
§ The second person about whom I'm thinking is a current student of mine at Wilmington College in a course entitled "Human World Views" in which we give a fair amount of attention to how the monotheistic faiths have highly influenced the development of Western thought. This student whose name is Zach is a police officer completing his bachelor's degree. He has a Roman Catholic background, and he told me that some time ago he decided to stop going to church because every single week the priest had a way of making him feel bad about himself. Let's not assume that all priests do that, and let's not assume that Protestants do much better overall.

Now, I'm not pushing for a God who wants all the favored people to be rich and famous, but I am pushing for a perspective on God as something other than a divine brow-beater.
I have no idea how people who are made to think negative thoughts about themselves and their essential worth as human beings are supposed to be able to think positive, productive, healthful thoughts about others. Those who are taught to hate themselves will do so, and they will think similarly low-down thoughts about others.
If we are such despicable characters, all of us, then why does God do so many wonderful things for us? Hold that thought while you listen to a portion of R. Kelly’s song, “I Believe I Can Fly.”
[audio clip: "I Believe I Can Fly"]

This is a song of great confidence and encouragement, as I hear it. If we believe in ourselves, we can accomplish great things. When we stop believing in ourselves—or never have the opportunity to begin—we plod through life as defeated and hopeless people.
Speaking of flying, I want to get us to the ninety-first psalm. The particular psalmist who wrote Psalm 91 surely had a sense of being loved by God. In the opening verses of the psalm, she or he envisions us as baby eagles in a nest, I think.

You who live in the shelter of the Most High who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.” For God will deliver you from the snare of the fowler [the bird trappers] and from the deadly pestilence; God will cover you with God’s pinions, and under God’s wings you will find refuge; God’s faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness or the destruction that wastes at noonday (Psa 91:1-6 NRSV adapted for inclusive language).

Early last year, the society of pastoral musicians conducted a survey and asked its membership which hymn had had the most profound impact on their spiritual lives. “How Great Thou Art” came in fifth. The winner hands down was the hymn we’re about to sing, “On Eagle’s Wings,” Father Michael Joncas’s reworking of Psalm 91, and I see some blending with the fortieth chapter of Isaiah. In Father Joncas’s version, the mother eagle isn’t protecting us by the cover of her wings; instead, she is teaching us to fly. And we are being raised up on her mighty wings. Is this an image of a God who thinks humans, even with their imperfections, are deserving of divine disdain?




III.

Paul of all people, surely the inspiration for Augustine’s insistence on human depravity and so-called “original sin,” also had this part of himself that understood God’s love. When he penned what we now refer to as 1 Corinthians 13, the “love chapter,” and the latter part of the eighth chapter of the book of Romans, Paul was at his height of inspiration. Who wouldn’t be more calm, courageous, and confident if she or he knew beyond the shadow of any doubt that God’s love is a force from which no earthly complication or calamity, no earthly power regardless of how pervasive and devious can separate us from the love of God.
We often hear this portion of Romans 8 read at funerals because to those bereaved and left-behind loved ones, it is a confidence builder; one of the most eloquent reminders of this fact of life that I know of. Ask yourself, the question Paul asks of his first readers in Rome: “If God is for us, who is against us?” That’s a really good question, isn’t it? I mean, yes, of course, there are those who oppose us, but if God is for us, how much can the opposition of others ultimately mean to our spiritual wholeness? “If God is for us,” Paul begins, and his emphasis is that God is! In English we might translate this more clearly and confidently, as Paul intended, if we were to say, “SINCE God is for us, who can be against us?”

If God is for us, who is against us?... Who will separate us from the love of God that we have seen in the life and teachings of Jesus? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through the One who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God (Rom 8:31b, 35-39a preacher’s paraphrase).

 Spatial separations don’t surprise us as people then and now typically believe that God is far away from us off in some heaven somewhere.
 Death in the list don’t surprise us because many people then and now fear that in the next realm of existence there will be a finality to the separation from God that many feel in this world.
 Rulers of this world may be able to keep us from worshipping as we see fit, and that would (and does!) greatly complicate life for persons living in that kind of political context, but no ruler can take the presence of God away from us, nor can she or he take God’s love away from us. It simply isn’t possible.
 What jumps out at me in the list is the mention of life itself as something that some people see as a factor in separating them from God and God’s love. What in the world could Paul have had in mind? Did he know that life gets so hard, so painful, and so troublesome for some people that they believe that have absolute proof God could not love them? Or could this mean that after so much pain some people go numb emotionally and spiritually and can’t feel or sense the loving presence of God any more? Even life at its worst, though, can’t stop the flow of God’s love.

This kind of buildup is powerfully motivating. Such a foundation lets us believe in ourselves, and even the most secure and accomplished among us need reminders of that from time to time.
Here’s another R&B song from R. Kelly. It was the theme song to the film, “Ali,” about the life of the famed boxer, Muhammad Ali, who from all indications had no trouble whatsoever believing in himself. We all need a little bit, though, of what he had a lot of!

[audio clip, “World’s Greatest”}

I’m that star up in the sky
I’m that mountain peak up high
Hey, I made it
I’m the world’s greatest
And I’m that little bit of hope
When my back’s against the ropes…

Yes, indeed, we all need a little bit of what Ali and Howard Cosell had a lot of!
Another hopeful passage of scripture for me, and I’m sure this isn’t on everyone’s list, is Isaiah chapter six, the first eight verses, in which First Isaiah has a vision of God in a worship setting. Isaiah is overcome with his own inadequacies in the presence of God. He ponders his weakness. He ponders his moral failings. Part of the vision is his purification ritual.
Then something amazing happens; it’s a soul-stirring part of the vision. Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” (Isa 6:8 NRSV).
God in a sense is asking for help. God has a mission in mind that cannot be accomplished by either God or any of God’s heavenly messengers or servants. It’s a mission to humanity, and it must be undertaken by a human being. God, in the vision, is asking aloud, “Whom shall I, God, send? Who will go for us? Who will go on behalf of all of us who are not humans?
Isaiah, the man formerly overcome with personal inadequacy and at least a measure of self-loathing, was now able to speak up. And with great confidence despite an appropriate measure of discomfort in the face of utter unknowing, he can now speak. He can now own his God-given capabilities, and he can go out in service to the one great God and the people whom that God created and loved. “Here I am, send me!”
Amen.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org

© Copyright, Silverside Church


The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor


May 20, 2007

The Glory of God Is Being Revealed
(Fifth sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)



I.

I found it interesting that for this gathering when we intended to focus on classical choral music, as one of the twelve types of music we are considering in this sermon series, “The Christian Century” magazine had an article in it entitled, “Handel Scandal.” Professor Martin Marty, dean of modern church historians, wrote about his disappointing discovery that Handel’s “Messiah” had a not-so-godly origin. A close read of the words being sung in much of Handel’s most famous composition reveals, in Dr. Marty’s words, that it is “full of unnecessarily anti-Jewish themes.”

The next time you’re a contestant on “Jeopardy” or “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” you’ll be armed with this vital information. You’ll also be one of the few people in your neighborhood to know the truth about “Messiah.”

It seems that Georg Friedrich Handel had a buddy, one Charles Jennens, who did the libretto for “Messiah.” The libretto is the wording—what the singers sing. A devout man of faith, Handel wanted to create a decidedly biblical collection of songs so he asked his friend, Mr. Jennens, to find biblical texts that he, Handel, could set to music. Jennens followed the great composer’s directions, but he had an agenda of his own.

Jennens felt that Jews constantly called into question the deity of Jesus. As a person holding to the Christian faith, he believed that it was his duty to battle the Jews over this conflict in understanding.
Joining the Jews in such a dastardly doctrinal diminishment would be none other than the deists. Deists were, ostensibly, Christians who didn’t believe in the deity of Jesus; they were “Unitarian-ish”—if you will. And, just as aggressively, they too had to be challenged and stopped!

Dr. Marty, in his article, shows us that Jennens owed his views of the Jews to an author, Richard Kidder, who wrote what Marty calls a “tome” with a tome-worthy title: A Demonstration of the Messias, In which the Truth of the Christian Religion is Proved, Against All the Enemies Thereof; But Especially the Jews. Among other points he made, Kidder insisted that logic required us to see that either Christians or Jews—one or the other—must be in a state of damnation from God’s perspective. Both “sides” can’t be OK with God. As a Jew hater, you know whom Kidder believed to be damned.

In addition to the Kidder work, Jennens favored a translation of the Psalms by Henry Hammond who translated the second Psalm differently than King James’s translators had done. The King James Version rendered a critical verse in Psalm 2 as, “Why do the heathen rage?”. Hammond, in contrast, translated it, “Why do the nations rage?”

So what’s the big deal? Well, the big deal is “nations” for Hammond referred specifically to the Jews, and “rage” in this context meant something like “flourish.” So, the nations, the Jews, are growing, and their growth is getting out of hand. They, therefore, must be stopped.

Actually, if that is what this psalmist meant, she or he would have been delighted with the growth and expansion of the Jewish nation because the psalmist was a Jew writing to Jews! It turns out that such was not the writer’s intent as we see in a modern translation of Psalm 2:

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain? The sovereigns of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord and the Lord’s anointed, saying, “Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us.” The one who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord has them in derision. Then God will speak to them in divine wrath, and terrify them in divine fury, saying, “I have set my sovereign on Zion, my holy hill.” I will tell of the decree of the Lord: God said to me, “You are my child; today I have begotten you. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.” Now therefore, O sovereigns, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth. Serve the Lord with fear, with trembling kiss God’s feet, or God will be angry, and you will perish in the way; for divine wrath is quickly kindled. Happy are all who take refuge in God (Psa 2 NRSV, adapted for inclusive language).

Such a warm view of God! It makes us want to be connected to God right away, but not out of love; instead, out of fear! The word “nations” in this passage does not refer to the Jews—not by any stretch of the imagination. It refers to the enemies of the Jews!

We have to believe that Jennens and Handel knew better than this, but did it anyway. How disappointing! Yet, their anti-Semitism was shining through.

Numerous passages, therefore, in “Messiah” speak at this level of anti-Semitism. Handel’s beloved “Hallelujah Chorus,” one of the great choral compositions of all time—many would say--contains some of the tainted terms.

Hallelujah!
For the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Hallelujah!
The kingdom of this world [and who might THAT be, now that you know of Jennens’s modus operandi?] is become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ [an anti-Jewish slur even though Jesus was a JEW!!!].
And he shall reign forever.
King of kings and Lord of lords.
And he shall reign forever.
Hallelujah!

My popularity ratings just fell lower than Bush’s! I’m sorry to have to be the bearer of bad news, but just as the magi never made it to Jesus’ manger and must be honored at some time other than the Christmas season, so also the “Hallelujah Chorus” is a part of Jennens’s fear of and hatred for the Jews.

Knowing the truth, sometimes, can be a terrible thing! What will you do the next time the “Hallelujah Chorus,” this great choral piece, is sung in your hearing?
Allow me to quote Martin Marty:

While I can never again hear the “Hallelujah Chorus” without remembering that is was written to wound the displaceable “nation” called the Jews, with others I’ll sing and rejoice, “For unto us a child is born, unto us son is given.”




II.

More Handel.

And the glory, the glory of the Lord, shall be revealed. And all flesh shall see it together for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.

This is a clip from the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah, the first chapter of the segment of the prophecy that many scholars call Second Isaiah. Many beautiful pieces from “Messiah” are based on these words of Second Isaiah.

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever (Isa 40:1-8 NRSV).

I want to leave Handel here, and ask you to focus with me on the concept of the glory of God—sung beautifully and joyously in one of Handel’s choral pieces from “Messiah”: “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together?” What in the world did Isaiah mean? Let’s begin by noting that what he envisioned was to be an event or set of events in the very near future for him and his people—not something hundreds or thousands of years removed from the concerns of the people to whom Second Isaiah spoke.

God’s glory is to be revealed, and all people—that’s everyone in the world, isn’t it?—are going to see God’s glory together. I am fascinated by how various groups of those who consider themselves children of God have, across the years, viewed the meaning of the glory of God.

The literal meaning of the word, kabod, typically translated “glory” in Hebrew scripture is heavy or weighty—literally, heavy or weighty. The word evidently came to have a figurative meaning—namely heavy or weighty in terms of concern or importance. In its most fundamental sense, then, the glory of God is God’s importance. When one of the psalmists says, “The heavens are telling the glory of God,” she or he is saying that creation tells us of the importance of the Creator.
The beauty and the order we behold and experience could not have come about without such a creator and designer as God; in that sense, the heavens—literally, the skies—are declaring the importance of the one who created them. The artistry that we see in nature per se is not what the psalmist has in mind as reflecting God’s glory; rather, more precisely, she or he says what God created causes us to reflect on the Creator. There’s a slight difference, perhaps, between the two ways of understanding this issue in the psalm. Speaking of great choral music, Haydn set these psalm words to a majestic melody!

The concept of glory is going to come to be joined, in some ancient Hebrew contexts, with the notion that while humans may typically not be able to see God visibly, there, nonetheless, are visual indications—often with sounds—that one is in the presence of God. “Glory” in this sense came to pick up on the bright—sometimes blinding--light, the brilliance that must emanate from the essence of God as the ancient Hebrews reasoned through the matter. Most often, it seems, people came to associate a luminous cloud with the presence of God. There might be bolts of lightening. There might also be sounds of thunder.

One of the earliest references to this luminous cloud, in terms of how the Hebrew Bible came to be collected, is in the book of Exodus, the thirty-third chapter. The setting is the wilderness as the Hebrews, emancipated from Egyptian bondage, are wandering and in search of the land God promised them:

Now Moses used to take the tent and pitch it outside the camp, far off from the camp; he called it the tent of meeting. And everyone who sought the Lord would go out to the tent of meeting, which was outside the camp. Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand, each of them, at the entrance of their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. When Moses entered the tent, the pillar of cloud [this is the luminous cloud to which I’ve been referring] would descend and stand at the entrance of the tent, and the Lord would speak with Moses. When all the people saw the pillar of cloud standing at the entrance of the tent, all the people would rise and bow down, all of them, at the entrance of their tent. Thus the Lord used to speak to Moses face to face, as one speaks to a friend (Exod 33:7-11 NRSV).

We have no idea what to make of this except to say that there was a widely held belief that Moses was special. He could come closer to God than could any other human being. He went to the top of Mt. Sinai to commune with God, but even atop the Mount, while he could hear God’s voice, there wasn’t the face to face experience of God that the writer of Exodus talks about at this point. The writer goes out of her or his way to say that Moses and God talked face-to- face, just as friends talk.

This chapter in Exodus is filled to the brim with anthropomorphisms for God. God has a face, hands, and a backside. After making the point that Moses and God talked face to face, the writer—or maybe another writer whose materials are grafted in to the original story—has a fascinating exchange between God and Moses.

Moses wants to see God, even though the early part of chapter 33 says he did in fact see God face to face on a regular basis. In the latter part of the chapter, Moses wants to see God—as if he’d never seen God before. He asks to SEE God’s glory, an indication that in some contexts there was a visual component to God’s presence.

God says, “OK, I’ll be extra nice and let you see my glory and my backside, but you can’t see my face.” Doesn’t that strike you as more than odd that God changes God’s mind about letting Moses see the divine face and offers, instead, the chance for Moses to see God’s hindquarters? Yes, as indelicate as that is, that is what God offered.

From the book of Exodus, chapter 33 again. Words attributed to God Godself in conversation with Moses:

“`…you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.’ And the Lord continued, ‘See, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock; and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back; but my face shall not be seen’” (Exod 33:20-23 NRSV).

The New Revised Standard used the word “back” as the description of what Moses would see, but “back” as we use it today was not what the writer of Exodus had in mind. “Hindparts” or “hindquaters” is much more on target. God wanted Moses to see God’s hindquarters; that is uneasily the proper rendering.




III.

I hope you’re still thinking about God’s glory on the one hand and God’s hindparts on the other, and I hope you have to wrestle with both of those images for at least a week. Ian Harris had the following to say about this most unusual passage from the book of Exodus that raises questions for any number of reasons:

Taken literally, the idea of the divine derriere has nothing to commend it….But as testimony to the allusiveness of God and of all God-talk, the incident has much to offer….In a secular world, which for all practical purposes has moved beyond supernaturalism, it is less and less helpful to keep on defining God as if [God] were a being….As this allusive, non-realist God grows in the human imagination, the theistic God of the Bible cannot but wither. That way of thinking about God was compelling over many centuries. Clinging to it in the secular world of the West is nudging the churches steadily into irrelevance. Hence the most urgent item on every church’s agenda today should be how to make non-theistic sense out of the experiences that the Bible depicts theistically. But it is not.

Everything Mr. Ian Harris is saying here is of vital importance to us, but I want us to pay special attention to his insistence that the most urgent item on any modern church’s agenda must be how to make “non-theistic sense” out of the words, ideas, and divine-human encounters that the Bible “depicts theistically.”

Leading the charge against understanding the Bible according to Mr. Harris’s standards are the Pat Robertsons of the world and, of course, the many followers of the late Jerry Falwell. I could not rejoice in his death this week as some folks seemed to do. When my son phoned me to tell me what he’d heard on the news and to get to a computer to read up on the details, he also asked me how I felt knowing that one of the people whom I have consistently criticized roundly for his narrow-minded fundamentalism and his seeming lack of concern for multitudes of people in the world was dead. I thought for a minute—even before I went to find the breaking news stories of Falwell’s death—and then I told my son, “I’m glad Jerry doesn’t have to be angry any more.”

A God who speaks audibly to human beings and who appears in the world of humans from time to time bathed in a luminous cloud, that God never was and certainly will never be. And yet there is something to God’s “glory” in the sense of God’s importance to even the most liberal and/or secular modern woman or man.

I want to get back to the Ian Harris article that I think is very important and timely. The article entitled, “Is God a Being or an Experience?”, appeared originally in the May 5 edition of The Dominion Post.

As traditionally presented, the theistic God offers security, comfort, protection and rescue; the allusive, non-realist God encourages people to acknowledge the radical insecurity of life and yet face it with hope. The theistic God laid down firm rules for living; the non-theistic God is the central symbol of community values such as respect, trust, responsibility, mutual dependence. The theistic God is identified with love and compassion, so making love sacred; for the non-realist, says Spong, “the God who is love is slowly transformed into the love that is God.” The God of theism is a being; of non-theism, immersion in being itself – so you meet this God not in any after-life but by embracing life in the here and now.

I’m not sure that Mr. Harris is excluding the possibility of an after-life or not, but I certainly do not believe embracing a non-theistic God means tossing the idea of life with God in the next realm of existence. In fact, I feel that the Reverend Mr. Falwell is with God there right now and still in shock to find feminists, homosexuals, and liberals there as well!

Harris one last time for today: “None of those non-theistic experiences and emphases is new. It is the way they are explained and interpreted that is changing. They no longer depend on a theistic God.”

My dear friends, this is where we come in! We take the realities that the ancients explained the best ways they could with their anthropomorphisms, with their very human God, and we modern theological progressives—Jesus Movement types and others—we must talk about the realities of the divine in ways that make sense to the modern scientifically-informed seeker.

The lightening and thunder atop Mt. Sinai had nothing to do with God’s presence after all. Storms naturally took place up there—much more often than out in the wide open desert. But that isn’t to say human beings failed to experience the presence of the living God near that mountain.

If the presence of God brings some kind of light, it will certainly not be in the luminousness of clouds, but it might be the light we see in the face of someone who has found the true presence of God within or in the face of someone who has gained true understanding about the life-source, life-force that many of us now refer to as “God.”

God does not speak with an audible voice. God never has and never will. God has no voice. God is spirit or force. All too frighteningly often, though, certain human beings claimed to have heard the literal voice of God, and those who gave God a voice like that could put whatever words they wanted into the mouth of God. This typically added to the notion of divine maleness, if you will. Since God had and has been thoroughly masculinized, God’s voice sounded like a man’s voice—especially baritone or bass so as not to be confused with the voice of a woman who smokes heavily. The voice of God could sound like the human voice of James Earl Jones or the voice of Billy Graham—in the latter case, God with a southern dialect! But the voice of God somehow never sounded like a man with a high-pitched voice and certainly not as the voice of a woman—even the amazing voice of Maya Angelou! Alas, God has no voice, and God has no gender. If God speaks to you, it will be through some kind of silent communion or in the voice of a human being who speaks truth, love, and/or challenge to you.

The voice thing and even the gender of the divine have, ultimately, been small matters in comparison to the overpowering cultural preferences and prejudices projected onto God. We humans have God preferring our group over other groups of humans. We inevitably make God the God of this nation or that nation rather than the God of all people. We have God endorsing our biases—from racism to classism—and limiting love as well as enrichment or opportunity. That God doesn’t exist and never did.

New Zealand poet Gregory O’Brien, wrote of the real God, the non-theistic God as “the one unknowable thing”:

It soars
It brushes up against us,
Traversing the difficult hours
Without form
Or features
With nowhere to stand or lean.

Amen.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


© Copyright, Silverside Church 2007


The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor


May 13, 2007


God’s Grace Revisited
(Fourth sermon in series, “From Rap to Rachmaninofff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)



I.

Why do we buy, so uncritically, into what has been passed on to us? Surely one of the major reasons religions are more of a problem than a help in the world today is that every new generation has very few people in it who question what the previous generation held as true. Realizing the importance of thinking for ourselves--and evaluating for ourselves ideas, principles, and theologies our elders have believed before we embrace them for ourselves and base our lives on them--isn’t disrespectful to those who have gone before us. No, not at all. It is merely an act of intellectual and emotional maturity. A two-year old doesn’t have the right to question a parent who tells her or him not to touch the hot stove; a twenty-two year old, on the other hand, has an obligation to test parental values to see if they fit and make sense for the world in which the twenty-two year old has to live.

We would like to think there are some lasting values that won’t ever go out of style—basic honesty, for example; the importance of justice for all people, for another. Other principles of necessity are altered by challenging new circumstances with which our parents and grandparents never had to contend.

The tendency of small, localized units to generalize or even universalize their values is evidenced time and time again. This happens with families, communities, churches, and even political parties.

While I was growing up at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads, my parents and my pastors were telling me that using beverage alcohol in any form, for any reason was sinful and a sign of disobedience to God—even though the Apostle Paul recommended a little wine to settle one’s stomach and Jesus himself turned perfectly good water into wine to be served to party guests who had already been drinking. So, that is what I was being told at the Beaver Dam Baptist Church, but in the priest-chaplains’ dining room at Knoxville’s Roman Catholic Hospital, St. Mary’s, there were kegs of beer. And many Baptist parents in countries like Switzerland were asking their children to pass the wine at the dinner table.

The dangers of alcohol abuse are well-documented, but threatening people with hell rather than trying to teach them to use alcohol responsibly, if they choose to drink at all, is overkill to say the least—even if the person who passes on such teachings to me has my well-being at heart. Don’t try to make me think the Bible says something about alcohol it doesn’t say, and don’t threaten me with hell if I choose to believe differently about alcohol use than you do. Had I never left Halls Crossroads, I might still be believing that all people who drink at all are hell-bound.

I use that issue as one among dozens that I could have used to make my point. There came a time when I had to look at that issue for myself, and I came down at a different place than did my parents. I taught my children my views; not those of my parents even though my mother found plenty of ways through the years, notably when the boys would stay with her for a few weeks at a time during summers, to correct the erroneous theology and ethical norms of their father!

Some of you know that the third of the four books I’ve written has the title: Unmerited Favor: Teaching Sermons on the Love and Grace of God. That book came out in 1997, about a decade ago. At the time, I loved the title; the title was a collaborative effort among the editorial and marketing people at Abingdon Press and myself. In recent years, and some of you also know this, I have come to dislike that title BECAUSE of my uncritical evaluation of the grace of God up to that moment in my life and career.

If God’s grace is, for me, God’s lavish love-giving coming my way despite my unworthiness then that means both that I have to have a measure of low self-esteem AND that God’s love and grace are conditional in a sense. And both of those ways of looking at life lead me in terribly wrong directions.

We humans have real trouble simply embracing God’s lavish love-giving especially if we have any theology of human sin. What has eventuated is a view of God’s grace as “unmerited favor”—thus the title of my book. What I’d like to rename the book if it were ever re-published is: God’s Favor: Teaching Sermons on the Love and Grace of God.

God didn’t make God’s love for us contingent on anything we did or didn’t do, anything we do now or might do in the future. God’s grace, just as God’s love, just is. I’m deserving of the benefits of God’s love because of the fact that God offers God’s love to me. I am not unworthy because God, who has the love to give, says that we are all worthy to receive the benefits of divine love. “Unmerited favor” is a definition that buys right into the old notions of fundamental human depravity.

God hasn’t opened a debate on whether or not anyone has ever lived a good enough life to deserve God’s grace. The fundamentalists did open such a debate, and came up with a response—a resounding NO! They say we don’t deserve God’s grace, but God says we do.

Parallels with human parents are extremely limited, but they still often give us some foundation for visualizing and understanding our relationship with God. I have to tell you, I don’t think much of parents who have some need to keep reminding their children that they, the parents, went out of their way to bring them into the world and that they, the parents, have had to sacrifice so much to provide for them, their children, and that they, their children, could never be deserving of such giftedness unless, of course, they grow up to be rich and famous and out of their abundance shower the parents with money and gifts. If I choose to participate in bringing a child into the world then I owe the child; the child doesn’t owe me.

I’m not saying on this Mother’s Day that children have a right to undervalue their parents and the efforts of their parents to care for them. An ungrateful child is a curse to parents. If that’s not in the Bible, it ought to be!

I hope my children appreciate what I tried to do for them in the nurturing and rearing processes, but if my love as a parent is worth anything in the long run, it has to be a no-strings-attached kind of love. And my children ARE deserving of my love, even if they should ever made a mistake that displeases me.

So it is with God’s love and grace, in my view. I’m not saying God owes us for God’s role in creating us and having us in the world in the first place. I’m saying that God’s love for human beings is unconditional—even for those few humans who err now and then. Maybe you made a mistake somewhere along the way—longer back than you can really remember. Even so, God’s love and grace are parts of the human experience; they come with the package. Therefore, to speak of God’s grace as something “unmerited,” something we don’t deserve is to buy into an old notion of the absence of human worth. I must rewrite the book AND use that new title!




II.

Folklore is any of the beliefs, materials, customs, and traditions that people pass on from generation to generation.

Another way of defining “folklore” according to Jan Harold Brunvand, the dean of folklorists in this country, is: “…the traditional, non-institutional part of culture. It encompasses all knowledge, understandings, values, attitudes, assumptions, feelings, and beliefs transmitted in traditional form by word of mouth or by customary examples.”

Much folklore consists of fairy tales (more properly referred to as wonder stories), legends, and myths. But folklore also includes arts and crafts, dances, games, nursery rhymes, proverbs, riddles, ballads and other songs, superstitions, and holiday and religious celebrations.

Folklore is as old as humanity. Written records left by the earliest peoples include examples of folklore. As soon as a people developed a writing system, they began to record folk stories. However, folklore does not have to be written down. Much folklore is passed orally from person to person (and originally was passed along in ONLY this way). Cultures that didn’t or don’t today have a written language such as some Aboriginal communities still had and have folk songs, legends, myths, and other kinds of folklore.

Sometimes folklore is handed down by imitation. For centuries, children have learned games, such as jump rope and marbles, by watching and imitating other children.

As people move from one land to another, they take their folklore with them and adapt it to their new surroundings. From the 1500’s to the 1800’s, for example, thousands of West Africans were transported to the Western Hemisphere as slaves. Many of the slaves enjoyed telling a number of West African folk tales about a sly spider named Anansi. Through the years, the slaves continued to tell tales of Anansi, though the stories about the spider were gradually changed to reflect life in the New World. Today, Anansi remains a popular character in folklore, both in West Africa and in the Caribbean.

Most ancient peoples lived in rural communities. Through the centuries, large numbers of people moved to cities and, it was thought, gradually lost touch with so-called “authentic” folk traditions. According to the scholars of nineteenth century Europe, those traditions were preserved by uneducated peasants called folk, whose way of life remained unchanged over hundreds of years. Thus, the idea of FOLKlore.
Today, folklorists consider “folk” to be any group of people who share at least one common linking factor. This factor may be

• geography, as in folklore of the Ozark Mountains region;
• religion, as in Jewish folklore;
• occupation, as in cowgirl and cowboy folklore;
• ethnic background, as in Irish-American folklore.

Folklore survives only if it retains lasting appeal. Obviously, people wouldn’t bother to retell tales or continue to follow customs that had no meaning for them.
To be considered an authentic folk story by scholars of folklore, an item must have at least two versions. It also must have existed in more than one historic period and place. For example, scholars have identified more than 1,000 versions of the fairy tale about Cinderella. These versions developed through hundreds of years in many countries, including China, France, Germany, and Turkey.

Changes in folklore often occur as it passes from person to person. These changes, called variations, are among the surest indications that the item is true folklore.
Variations frequently appear in both the words and music of folk songs. The same lyrics may be used with different tunes, or different words may be set to the same music. The nursery rhymes “Baa, Baa Black Sheep” and “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” have the same melody.

Jazz developed largely from folk music of Black women and men in the American south. Classical composers also have incorporated folk melodies into their works. For example, the Czech composer, Antonin Dvorak, used Negro spirituals in his famous symphony From the New World. And Austrian composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, used the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” as the basis for a work he wrote in 1778.

There are many definitions of “folk music” floating around out there, and it is not possible to consolidate them and make one neat, tidy, inclusive definition. Some musicologists say folk music is any music by and for common people. Others suggest that folk music is music that has deep roots in one specific culture and has been passed on by memory rather than in writing. Still others insist that a piece of music can’t be authentically “folk” unless its authorship is unknown; compare a piece of folk music to a folk tale like “Red Riding Hood,” for example. Like Cinderella, there are hundreds of versions of that story from various cultures, but no one knows who originated the story.

Folk music, if sung, can be about a way of life that is no more or that is threatened with extinction. Think about the song “Old Man River,” for example. The song reflects the way of life as perceived by the American Southern Black plantation worker in a post-slavery era, but not too far out of slavery.

Ol’ man river,
Dat ol’ man river
He mus’ know sumpin’
But don’t say nuthin’,
He jes’ keeps rollin’
He keeps on rollin’ along.

He don’t plant taters,
He don’t plant cotton,
An’ dem dat plants ‘em
is soon forgotten,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rollin’ along.

You an’ me, we sweat an’ strain,
Body all achin’ an’ racked wid pain,
Tote dat barge!
Lif’ dat bale!
Git a little drunk
An’ you land in jail.

Ah git weary
An’ sick of tryin’
Ah’m tired of livin’
An’ skeered of dyin’,
But ol’ man river,
He jes’ keeps rolling’ along.

In the modern Western world, “folk music” can be popular music—trendy, I mean—based on more traditional folk music. Or it can be used to describe a type of popular music performed by someone like Joan Baez or Woody Guthrie or Peter, Paul, and Mary.

If I had a hammer,
I'd hammer in the morning
I'd hammer in the evening,
All over this land
I'd hammer out danger,
I'd hammer out a warning,
I'd hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters,
All over this land.




III.

The accordion music Jeff Anderson has provided for the service today has been a real treat. His rendition of “Amazing Grace” is especially moving for many of us—at least a tad more inspiring (though not as much fun!) than “Liar’s Polka”! In any case, thank you, Jeff.

“`Amazing grace’—how sweet the sound!” That is such a beautiful beginning to this song. We sing it with warmth and joy…and then we immediately diminish ourselves: “…that saved a wretch like me!” Nothing like that good ole “spiritual schizophrenia” to keep us on our toes! On the one hand, God’s grace abounds, but unless I’m a lowlife wretch or worm it doesn’t matter. Back to this in a minute.

Turn in your hymnals to hymn number 280, and look in the upper right hand corner of the page under “God” and “280.” What do you see there? Please don’t say, “White space.” What you should see are the two words: “Virgina Harmony.” In the layout of most hymnals today, the person who wrote the hymn words has her or his name printed at the upper left of the published hymn. The person who wrote the tune has her or his name printed in the upper right. In the case of “Amazing Grace,” you see that someone arranged the tune in 1900—a Mr. Edwin O. Excell. But the hymn tune is anonymous. It happens to have been included in a collection entitled “Virginia Harmony,” edited by David Clayton and James Carrell in 1831. It is a “traditional American melody,” aka “folk tune.” That tune with John Newton’s words get us back to our central topic for today: God’s grace.

The New Testament Greek word translated “grace” by many New Testament scholars is charis (χάρις). This is a beautifully and challengingly multi-faceted word.
This Greek noun, “grace,” is a feminine word. Our nouns in English are “all purpose,” but in Greek they are either feminine, masculine, or neuter. “Grace” is feminine, and since it’s a key trait of God, what might that tell us about the God whom so many stress as “masculine” all the way.

This word can also be translated: loveliness, charm, sweetness, delight, pleasure, favor, loving-kindness, blessing, thanks, and that which brings joy. That’s a huge span for interpretive possibilities, and each time a translator comes upon this word, she or he must—based on context and common sense—assign a meaning to the word as used in that particular setting.

It’s striking to me, and at least a little disappointing, that Jesus never uses this word to describe God. God’s grace is resting on the baby Jesus, according to the Gospel of Luke. Did that mean “God’s favor” was upon the baby or that God’s blessing was already spilling over onto the infant? It falls to you to decide.

The little boy Jesus, also only in Luke, grew in God’s grace. Again, which of the multiple meanings or shades of meanings did the Gospel writer intend? Did she or he mean that the little boy grew up in a way that brought joy to others? Or was he a charming lad?

As an adult, Jesus—again according to Luke alone—spoke gracious words. I assume he chose his words carefully to reflect the graciousness of the God on whose behalf he taught and ministered, but other options are possible.

What is not required, or even probable, in any translation option is that God’s grace is in any way impacted by human failings or undeserving actions. God’s grace—favor (not “unmerited favor!), loving-kindness, delight, good will—simply is. If we encounter God, that is of necessity and very naturally what we encounter. It isn’t a little extra that God goes out of God’s way to toss in despite our more-than-evident unworthiness. That is damaging, diminishing, and preposterous. Thankfully, I have been able to reassess my views on the true richness of God’s grace.

Since the word can mean “thanks,” as I’ve pointed out, could God’s grace be God’s own thankfulness for humanity and for individual humans in particular? That would really turn around all this divine anger and rage and contempt for humanity that are part and parcel of many if not most traditional monotheistic formulations about God.
Does this mean that I should take God’s unconditional love-lavishing for granted? Paul had an answer for that. In teaching about God’s amazing grace, some detractors challenged Paul by suggesting that if God’s grace is so great, we should sin all we can so God’s grace can come our way with even greater force. Paul got more than a little testy at that suggestion and responded to those who made such a ridiculous proposal by saying something like, “No way in gehenna!”

OK. OK. I know that in English, it’s been all cleaned up for respectable Bible reading in public: “Should we continue in sin in order that grace may abound? By no means!” (Rom 6:1b-2a NRSV). It sounds so sweet and reasonable. That part translated by the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, which you have there in the pew rack, as “by no means,” is actually two Greek words, me genoito (μη γενοιτο) , meaning literally: may it not become. It’s the strongest rebuttal imaginable, and it’s an idiom so you have to kind of get it into the modern English vernacular the best you can. Suffice it to say that Paul was appalled by the mere thought of such a thing. Still God’s grace is real and powerful, and we are all benefited by it.

Without a doubt, for me, the most inspiring passage about God’s grace comes from the Apostle Paul’s Corinthian correspondence. Paul should indeed vindicate himself on this subject because it was his ramblings in Romans (the book of Romans) that has had much do with causing people feel unworthy about themselves in general and in relationship to God in particular—even though that is not consistently Pauline. In any case, my mentor and friend, Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, the brilliant historian of early Christianity and a modern Christian mystic, related during a personal crisis to Paul’s comments about God’s grace in 2 Corinthians 12 in connection with his own, Paul’s own, ongoing struggles. Paul was seeking for a way to go on living with a condition or a plight that caused him pain—emotionally and spiritually to be sure, and maybe physically as well.

Many of you have painful realities with which you must also live, day in and day out, year in and year out. May you hear from the God of grace what Paul heard and later Glenn Hinson too. Listen for God however it is that God speaks to you. Listen. God is saying it again: “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9 NRSV).

Amen.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


© Copyright 2007, Silverside Church


The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor


May 6, 2007

Closeness to God
(third in sermon series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)



I.

As many of you know, I’m not a fan of spirituality by bumper sticker, but now and then there’s a bumper sticker that really catches my eye. Years ago, I saw a profoundly theological bumper sticker that proclaimed something really memorable about God. It read: “If you don’t feel close to God any more…guess who moved.” Much of Hebrew and Christian scripture is about how, in one way or another, to get close to God. The notable exception is the book of Job, which is all about how to try to get as far away from God as one possibly can!

There are certainly churches and religious groups today that focus almost exclusively on closeness to God and make every gathering a set of emotional experiences “guaranteed” to cause the “truly devout and faithful” to feel close to God. Many of these services are charismatic, and the participants in these may end up doing all sorts of things that we more rational persons of faith find extreme if not out and out off-putting including speaking in unknown tongues. The official linguistic designation for speaking in tongues is “glossolalia.” It is, perhaps, the most emotional expression of religion that I know anything about.

Glossolalia isn’t the sole possession of Christians seeking to be close to God. Going all the way back to ancient Greek polytheism several hundred years before Jesus was born, people who wanted to know the future went to the Oracle at Delphi and venerated the god Apollo, the god in the pantheon who was wise in terms of knowing what the future would bring.

The way it worked was that you would come to the sanctuary built in his honor at Delphi and ask your question to one of the priestesses, the pythia, who served Apollo in his temple. For a fee, of course, they would, in a trance, carry your request to Apollo and speak his answer to you in ecstatic utterance, in glossolalia. If you wanted to know what he said to you through the pythia you had to pay another fee, this one to an interpreter who would tell you what the ecstatic utterance meant. Here, we only pass the plate once per service, and I speak your language the whole service! What a bargain! And keep to yourself your comments about not being able to understand what I’m talking about anyway!
ANYWAY, at Delphi, the paid priestess was the one who had the most profound religious experience—unless, naturally, you got the word back from Apollo that you wanted in the first place, and that might have made you have a religious experience. It certainly seems to me that people today who win the Lotto or the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes are having a religious experience when camera crews and reporters show up quietly and unexpectedly at their front doors to record their response to the mass of money about to be showered upon them.
The ancient Hebrew prophets also had some among them whose prophetic utterances were glossolalic. In the 1 Samuel report of the anointing of David to be king of Israel, one of the signs Samuel promised David that would confirm his God-ordained appointment was almost immediately meeting up with some prophets who would be speaking ecstatically.

…you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you. And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do (1 Sam 10:5-8 NRSV).

Paul dealt a great deal with issues related to glossolalia in the young developing congregations in earliest Christianity. It seems to have been more a problem than a help, but that could simply be a biased reading on my part. There is no question, though, that the practice was a problem. In Corinth, the people who spoke in tongues believed that they were closer to God than those who didn’t have that particular spiritual gift. Paul refuted that notion on the spot, but the notion prevails yet today.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.


II.

Paul made it very clear that not all people could or would speak in tongues; thus, using that as the ultimate expression of spiritual achievement or closeness to God is and always has been completely off base. There must be some other way to achieve closeness to God for the most of us who will not fall into trances and speak in tongues.

My observation is that many persons of faith still struggle with the perception that God is removed from them somehow and, therefore, must continually be summoned or coached to one’s presence through special prayers or by being at a certain place. This shows no advancement whatsoever from what many of the most ancient monotheists thought about God.

Indeed, as you well know, many of the ancient Hebrews associated God with specific places such as atop mountains, Mt. Sinai for example. If someone believed that she or he had encountered God in a given place, the place would often be named and made into a shrine since, unlike lightening, once God had come to a specific place, many thought God was more likely to return to that spot. Bethel, where patriarch Jacob believed that God came to him in desert darkness, was one of many such places.

Many of us today, as I’ve said, still associate the presence of God with specific places even though intellectually we may know good and well that God is with us wherever we are. Still, for some God seems especially close when the National Anthem is being sung in a sports stadium; for others God is predictably close in a sanctuary—a beautiful structure for religious reflection such as our own gathering space. And, of course, there are plenty of folks who feel very close to God in the beauty of nature.

There’s not a thing in the world wrong with those perceptions as long as we avoid making the mistake of assuming that those are the only places we can or should feel closeness to God. The tendency for us to feel close to God in a certain place is more an emotional thing as opposed to some spiritual reality per se. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Yesterday was Derby Day in Louisville. Rags to Riches won the one-hundred-thirty-third run of the Kentucky Derby. For something like eight years, I lived in the Louisville area and experienced Derby stuff. Though I never actually attended a race, I did attend many Derby functions. Derby stuff is like Mardi Gras stuff; there’s so much more to it than the final, capping event itself.

My friend, Dr. Bill Rogers, sent me an NPR sound bite of a reporter, a Louisville native, reflecting on how moving Derby time is by this point in her life and how when the Stephen Foster song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” is sung no matter where she is, she is drawn back to the warmth and fun of Derby with family and friends. And if she is no where near Louisville when the line is sung, “Weep no more my lady,” she will weep for sure. I do the same thing with Dan Fogelberg’s song, “Run for the Roses,” especially if someone hands me a mint julip!

Jazz renditions of Christian hymns stress closeness to God in this world and the next. “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” This becomes especially apparent in a jazz funeral. One knows, she or he has become a real part of New Orleans life after having been stopped in the middle of street a couple of times, forced to wait for a jazz funeral procession to pass, and the marching jazz musicians aren’t about to be hurried. Jazz is our musical form today, and I’m so very grateful to Don Neal for all he did to get me background information and musical options.

One of the songs you will almost always hear at a jazz funeral is “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” We should listen to a little bit of that song right now.

[CD clip]

Jazz is about a hundred years old. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, jazz was born in New Orleans. The earliest jazz tunes were played by a handful of musicians. The melody was generally played by a trumpet or a cornet; although, sometimes a violin carried the melody. Almost always there was a clarinet playing what have been called “ornate countermelodies.” There typically was also a trombone sliding around and playing bass notes and sometimes yet another melody. Topping off this foundation, there would often be a guitar or a banjo, sometimes a piano, sometimes a stringed bass, and often drums.

Jazz relies heavily on improvisation, and for that reason one song may go on for a good long while. Someone has said that the mission of a jazz piece is to explore a basic theme from as many angles as possible—or at least as many as the musicians can manage in a single setting.

In jazz, musicians often play solos that they make up on the spot, or they reinterpret a given melody or chord sequence. When more than one musician is playing, the rhythms often become very complex. There is tremendous variety in jazz; the music is rhythmic, has a forward momentum called “swing,” and employs “bent” or “blue” notes. One can often hear “call and response” patterns where one instrument, voice, or band section answers another. With a few exceptions found in some styles, most jazz is based on the principle that an endless number of melodies can fit the chord progressions of a song. Musicians improvise new melodies that fit the progressions. Other featured soloists follow with their improvisations for as many choruses as desired.

One of the most cutting-edge of all professors of preaching in the last twenty-five or so years—and I’m a fan of a number of them—is Professor Eugene Lowry, now Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. In addition to some theories of preaching that he termed “the homiletical plot,” Dr. Lowry took his knowledge of jazz and his own skill as a remarkable jazz pianist and developed some other notions about preaching that he called “jazz homiletics.” Often when he would lecture on jazz homiletics, he did so at a piano.

I never heard his lectures—my loss for sure—but I was told by my some preaching professor friends who did hear them that Lowry emphasized the need in certain types of sermons to do what jazz music does: look at a basic theme from several points of view, repeat key points, call and respond, and so on. Brilliant!




III.

I grew up believing that seeking to be as close to God as at all possible was the consistent mission of all devout persons of faith. And certainly all the people who were my spirituality mentors were, in my view, almost always close to God. This state of being seemed natural for them, and I wanted what they, my mentors, had.

I believe that I misunderstood what closeness to God was and could be, and for that reason I think that I diminished myself in a spiritual sense for many years because I could neither find nor create for myself this “bosom buddy” kind of connection to God that so many people I admired seemed to have.

I spent a good bit of my life not realizing several facts related to this issue of closeness to God:

• One, to an outside observer, personal contentment and closeness to God look like the same thing. They may certainly be related to each other, but it’s possible to achieve one without the other.
• Two, a person’s psychological makeup has everything in the world to do with a “spiritual relationship” just as it does with any human relationship. I can no more have the identical relationship with God that some other person has than I can have the same kind of paternal relationship with my sons that some other father has with his children. Relationships, my dear friends, are like snowflakes; no two can be alike, and this applies in the realm of connections to God as well.
• Three, being close to God may not always make me feel overwhelmingly happy and excited or ecstatic in any sense of the word. I may feel very, very close to God during the saddest moments in my life. I’ve never been more sad in my fifty-three years than when my family gathered around Dad’s bed in St. Mary’s Hospital intensive care unit, having signed authorization for the respiratory therapist to remove breathing support and having been told by the doctor that he would quietly slip away in a matter of minutes, which he did. My heart was ripping apart. I was angry. I was frustrated. I was helpless feeling. I was confused. I was shocked. But God was so very close.

One of the hymns of my childhood, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” has a line in it that sings, “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.” How insightful! One of the verses also asks, “Are we weak and heavy laden? Cumbered with a load of care?” We are. Often we are. You bet we are. “Oh, what peace we often forfeit. Oh, what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.” Let’s listen to a little jazz rendition of the tune to this hymn, which is entitled “Converse.”

[CD clip]

Despite my deep and abiding respect for mystics of faith across the ages who waited for and later described for us what it felt like to come into something like complete union with God, by this point in my spiritual experience, I don’t think of the presence of God as something that comes and goes. Our perception of it does. Our awareness of it does. Our attentiveness to it does. But God is within us at all times. God doesn’t come and go. If we don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?

Some of the psalmists talked about a God who was ever near us. The writer of Psalm 139 was just such a psalmist:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to [the skies], you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast (Psa 139:1-10 NRSV, adapted).

This is the God whom Jesus knew and to whom Jesus pointed his followers. The writer of the book of Hebrews reminded her or his readers that God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb 13:5 NRSV).

We should be thankful for those who have taught us about the nearness of God, the constant or consistent nearness of God. This doesn’t mean that since God is near we always feel warm and wonderful or that life is terrific at every turn. The closeness of God isn’t a good luck charm nor is it the special possession of certain saintly types.

Once when I was on a plane awaiting takeoff , I had my Bible open in preparation to take some notes on a sermon. This was before the days of laptops with the whole Bible already downloaded onto the hard drive! As I recall, the takeoff was delayed for one reason or another—nothing terribly unusual about that although one hopes the engine isn’t having too many repair needs. By and by, someone sitting across the aisle from me said, “I see you have your Bible open there.”

I said, “Yes.” I was a little embarrassed to tell you the truth because of what most people associate with Bible toters. Even so I went on to add, “I’m doing a little sermon work.”

“Sermon work?” he spoke out in a voice way too loud for my taste. Other people began to notice and become drawn into this conversation I hadn’t planned to be a part of. “Sermon work? Well you must be a preacher!”

“Yeah,” I answered. “I must be. It’s mostly preachers who do sermon work alright.”

“Well, I feel better now; I know we’re going to be safe on this flight even if the plane IS falling apart.”

I asked, “What do you mean?”

“You’re a man of God. God is close to us on this flight. No way God is going to crash this baby with YOU on board.”

“I’m sorry to have to burst your bubble,” I responded. “but God doesn’t like us preachers any more than God likes the non-preachers. In fact, if God had to choose, I’d guess that God likes the non-preachers better than most preachers I know. So, if we manage not to crash today, I need for you to know that my being on board won’t have had a thing to do with it!” Thank goodness, right at that moment the steward started his little speech about buckling seat belts.

Some people feel especially close to God in communion. In a few moments we will gather at the communion table, and if you feel a closeness to God as we partake of the elements today, that is great. It is a much more important lesson for us to learn, though, that God is just as close to us when we’re far, far away from a communion table as we may feel when we are right here. Neither church building nor clergyperson attracts or ensures closeness to God.

God is nearer to each of us than the very air we breathe. Not just sometimes—but always. In the best of times and the worst of times. When we feel warm and wonderful, and when we are at our lowest life points. When we look out over the joys of life from some spiritual summit, and when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, God is near regardless of how we feel. What a gift! Amen.
Silverside Sermons
Silverside Church
Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


© Copyright 2007, Silverside Church


The Reverend David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor


May 6, 2007

Closeness to God
(third in sermon series, “From Rap to Rachmaninoff: God in Twelve Musical Styles”)



I.

As many of you know, I’m not a fan of spirituality by bumper sticker, but now and then there’s a bumper sticker that really catches my eye. Years ago, I saw a profoundly theological bumper sticker that proclaimed something really memorable about God. It read: “If you don’t feel close to God any more…guess who moved.” Much of Hebrew and Christian scripture is about how, in one way or another, to get close to God. The notable exception is the book of Job, which is all about how to try to get as far away from God as one possibly can!

There are certainly churches and religious groups today that focus almost exclusively on closeness to God and make every gathering a set of emotional experiences “guaranteed” to cause the “truly devout and faithful” to feel close to God. Many of these services are charismatic, and the participants in these may end up doing all sorts of things that we more rational persons of faith find extreme if not out and out off-putting including speaking in unknown tongues. The official linguistic designation for speaking in tongues is “glossolalia.” It is, perhaps, the most emotional expression of religion that I know anything about.

Glossolalia isn’t the sole possession of Christians seeking to be close to God. Going all the way back to ancient Greek polytheism several hundred years before Jesus was born, people who wanted to know the future went to the Oracle at Delphi and venerated the god Apollo, the god in the pantheon who was wise in terms of knowing what the future would bring.

The way it worked was that you would come to the sanctuary built in his honor at Delphi and ask your question to one of the priestesses, the pythia, who served Apollo in his temple. For a fee, of course, they would, in a trance, carry your request to Apollo and speak his answer to you in ecstatic utterance, in glossolalia. If you wanted to know what he said to you through the pythia you had to pay another fee, this one to an interpreter who would tell you what the ecstatic utterance meant. Here, we only pass the plate once per service, and I speak your language the whole service! What a bargain! And keep to yourself your comments about not being able to understand what I’m talking about anyway!
ANYWAY, at Delphi, the paid priestess was the one who had the most profound religious experience—unless, naturally, you got the word back from Apollo that you wanted in the first place, and that might have made you have a religious experience. It certainly seems to me that people today who win the Lotto or the Publisher’s Clearing House Sweepstakes are having a religious experience when camera crews and reporters show up quietly and unexpectedly at their front doors to record their response to the mass of money about to be showered upon them.
The ancient Hebrew prophets also had some among them whose prophetic utterances were glossolalic. In the 1 Samuel report of the anointing of David to be king of Israel, one of the signs Samuel promised David that would confirm his God-ordained appointment was almost immediately meeting up with some prophets who would be speaking ecstatically.

…you will meet a band of prophets coming down from the shrine with harp, tambourine, flute, and lyre playing in front of them; they will be in a prophetic frenzy. Then the spirit of the Lord will possess you, and you will be in a prophetic frenzy along with them and be turned into a different person. Now when these signs meet you, do whatever you see fit to do, for God is with you. And you shall go down to Gilgal ahead of me; then I will come down to you to present burnt offerings and offer sacrifices of well-being. Seven days you shall wait, until I come to you and show you what you shall do (1 Sam 10:5-8 NRSV).

Paul dealt a great deal with issues related to glossolalia in the young developing congregations in earliest Christianity. It seems to have been more a problem than a help, but that could simply be a biased reading on my part. There is no question, though, that the practice was a problem. In Corinth, the people who spoke in tongues believed that they were closer to God than those who didn’t have that particular spiritual gift. Paul refuted that notion on the spot, but the notion prevails yet today.
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot would say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear would say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole body were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many members, yet one body. The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” On the contrary, the members of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and those members of the body that we think less honorable we clothe with greater honor, and our less respectable members are treated with greater respect; whereas our more respectable members do not need this. But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers; then deeds of power, then gifts of healing, forms of assistance, forms of leadership, various kinds of tongues. Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret? But strive for the greater gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way.


II.

Paul made it very clear that not all people could or would speak in tongues; thus, using that as the ultimate expression of spiritual achievement or closeness to God is and always has been completely off base. There must be some other way to achieve closeness to God for the most of us who will not fall into trances and speak in tongues.

My observation is that many persons of faith still struggle with the perception that God is removed from them somehow and, therefore, must continually be summoned or coached to one’s presence through special prayers or by being at a certain place. This shows no advancement whatsoever from what many of the most ancient monotheists thought about God.

Indeed, as you well know, many of the ancient Hebrews associated God with specific places such as atop mountains, Mt. Sinai for example. If someone believed that she or he had encountered God in a given place, the place would often be named and made into a shrine since, unlike lightening, once God had come to a specific place, many thought God was more likely to return to that spot. Bethel, where patriarch Jacob believed that God came to him in desert darkness, was one of many such places.

Many of us today, as I’ve said, still associate the presence of God with specific places even though intellectually we may know good and well that God is with us wherever we are. Still, for some God seems especially close when the National Anthem is being sung in a sports stadium; for others God is predictably close in a sanctuary—a beautiful structure for religious reflection such as our own gathering space. And, of course, there are plenty of folks who feel very close to God in the beauty of nature.

There’s not a thing in the world wrong with those perceptions as long as we avoid making the mistake of assuming that those are the only places we can or should feel closeness to God. The tendency for us to feel close to God in a certain place is more an emotional thing as opposed to some spiritual reality per se. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Yesterday was Derby Day in Louisville. Rags to Riches won the one-hundred-thirty-third run of the Kentucky Derby. For something like eight years, I lived in the Louisville area and experienced Derby stuff. Though I never actually attended a race, I did attend many Derby functions. Derby stuff is like Mardi Gras stuff; there’s so much more to it than the final, capping event itself.

My friend, Dr. Bill Rogers, sent me an NPR sound bite of a reporter, a Louisville native, reflecting on how moving Derby time is by this point in her life and how when the Stephen Foster song, “My Old Kentucky Home,” is sung no matter where she is, she is drawn back to the warmth and fun of Derby with family and friends. And if she is no where near Louisville when the line is sung, “Weep no more my lady,” she will weep for sure. I do the same thing with Dan Fogelberg’s song, “Run for the Roses,” especially if someone hands me a mint julip!

Jazz renditions of Christian hymns stress closeness to God in this world and the next. “Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, let me stand. I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.” This becomes especially apparent in a jazz funeral. One knows, she or he has become a real part of New Orleans life after having been stopped in the middle of street a couple of times, forced to wait for a jazz funeral procession to pass, and the marching jazz musicians aren’t about to be hurried. Jazz is our musical form today, and I’m so very grateful to Don Neal for all he did to get me background information and musical options.

One of the songs you will almost always hear at a jazz funeral is “When the Saints Go Marchin’ In.” We should listen to a little bit of that song right now.

[CD clip]

Jazz is about a hundred years old. Just after the turn of the twentieth century, jazz was born in New Orleans. The earliest jazz tunes were played by a handful of musicians. The melody was generally played by a trumpet or a cornet; although, sometimes a violin carried the melody. Almost always there was a clarinet playing what have been called “ornate countermelodies.” There typically was also a trombone sliding around and playing bass notes and sometimes yet another melody. Topping off this foundation, there would often be a guitar or a banjo, sometimes a piano, sometimes a stringed bass, and often drums.

Jazz relies heavily on improvisation, and for that reason one song may go on for a good long while. Someone has said that the mission of a jazz piece is to explore a basic theme from as many angles as possible—or at least as many as the musicians can manage in a single setting.

In jazz, musicians often play solos that they make up on the spot, or they reinterpret a given melody or chord sequence. When more than one musician is playing, the rhythms often become very complex. There is tremendous variety in jazz; the music is rhythmic, has a forward momentum called “swing,” and employs “bent” or “blue” notes. One can often hear “call and response” patterns where one instrument, voice, or band section answers another. With a few exceptions found in some styles, most jazz is based on the principle that an endless number of melodies can fit the chord progressions of a song. Musicians improvise new melodies that fit the progressions. Other featured soloists follow with their improvisations for as many choruses as desired.

One of the most cutting-edge of all professors of preaching in the last twenty-five or so years—and I’m a fan of a number of them—is Professor Eugene Lowry, now Professor Emeritus of Homiletics at the St. Paul School of Theology in Kansas City. In addition to some theories of preaching that he termed “the homiletical plot,” Dr. Lowry took his knowledge of jazz and his own skill as a remarkable jazz pianist and developed some other notions about preaching that he called “jazz homiletics.” Often when he would lecture on jazz homiletics, he did so at a piano.

I never heard his lectures—my loss for sure—but I was told by my some preaching professor friends who did hear them that Lowry emphasized the need in certain types of sermons to do what jazz music does: look at a basic theme from several points of view, repeat key points, call and respond, and so on. Brilliant!




III.

I grew up believing that seeking to be as close to God as at all possible was the consistent mission of all devout persons of faith. And certainly all the people who were my spirituality mentors were, in my view, almost always close to God. This state of being seemed natural for them, and I wanted what they, my mentors, had.

I believe that I misunderstood what closeness to God was and could be, and for that reason I think that I diminished myself in a spiritual sense for many years because I could neither find nor create for myself this “bosom buddy” kind of connection to God that so many people I admired seemed to have.

I spent a good bit of my life not realizing several facts related to this issue of closeness to God:

• One, to an outside observer, personal contentment and closeness to God look like the same thing. They may certainly be related to each other, but it’s possible to achieve one without the other.
• Two, a person’s psychological makeup has everything in the world to do with a “spiritual relationship” just as it does with any human relationship. I can no more have the identical relationship with God that some other person has than I can have the same kind of paternal relationship with my sons that some other father has with his children. Relationships, my dear friends, are like snowflakes; no two can be alike, and this applies in the realm of connections to God as well.
• Three, being close to God may not always make me feel overwhelmingly happy and excited or ecstatic in any sense of the word. I may feel very, very close to God during the saddest moments in my life. I’ve never been more sad in my fifty-three years than when my family gathered around Dad’s bed in St. Mary’s Hospital intensive care unit, having signed authorization for the respiratory therapist to remove breathing support and having been told by the doctor that he would quietly slip away in a matter of minutes, which he did. My heart was ripping apart. I was angry. I was frustrated. I was helpless feeling. I was confused. I was shocked. But God was so very close.

One of the hymns of my childhood, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” has a line in it that sings, “What a privilege to carry everything to God in prayer.” How insightful! One of the verses also asks, “Are we weak and heavy laden? Cumbered with a load of care?” We are. Often we are. You bet we are. “Oh, what peace we often forfeit. Oh, what needless pain we bear. All because we do not carry, everything to God in prayer.” Let’s listen to a little jazz rendition of the tune to this hymn, which is entitled “Converse.”

[CD clip]

Despite my deep and abiding respect for mystics of faith across the ages who waited for and later described for us what it felt like to come into something like complete union with God, by this point in my spiritual experience, I don’t think of the presence of God as something that comes and goes. Our perception of it does. Our awareness of it does. Our attentiveness to it does. But God is within us at all times. God doesn’t come and go. If we don’t feel close to God, guess who moved?

Some of the psalmists talked about a God who was ever near us. The writer of Psalm 139 was just such a psalmist:

O Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. Even before a word is on my tongue, O Lord, you know it completely. You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it. Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to [the skies], you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast (Psa 139:1-10 NRSV, adapted).

This is the God whom Jesus knew and to whom Jesus pointed his followers. The writer of the book of Hebrews reminded her or his readers that God has said, “I will never leave you or forsake you” (Heb 13:5 NRSV).

We should be thankful for those who have taught us about the nearness of God, the constant or consistent nearness of God. This doesn’t mean that since God is near we always feel warm and wonderful or that life is terrific at every turn. The closeness of God isn’t a good luck charm nor is it the special possession of certain saintly types.

Once when I was on a plane awaiting takeoff , I had my Bible open in preparation to take some notes on a sermon. This was before the days of laptops with the whole Bible already downloaded onto the hard drive! As I recall, the takeoff was delayed for one reason or another—nothing terribly unusual about that although one hopes the engine isn’t having too many repair needs. By and by, someone sitting across the aisle from me said, “I see you have your Bible open there.”

I said, “Yes.” I was a little embarrassed to tell you the truth because of what most people associate with Bible toters. Even so I went on to add, “I’m doing a little sermon work.”

“Sermon work?” he spoke out in a voice way too loud for my taste. Other people began to notice and become drawn into this conversation I hadn’t planned to be a part of. “Sermon work? Well you must be a preacher!”

“Yeah,” I answered. “I must be. It’s mostly preachers who do sermon work alright.”

“Well, I feel better now; I know we’re going to be safe on this flight even if the plane IS falling apart.”

I asked, “What do you mean?”

“You’re a man of God. God is close to us on this flight. No way God is going to crash this baby with YOU on board.”

“I’m sorry to have to burst your bubble,” I responded. “but God doesn’t like us preachers any more than God likes the non-preachers. In fact, if God had to choose, I’d guess that God likes the non-preachers better than most preachers I know. So, if we manage not to crash today, I need for you to know that my being on board won’t have had a thing to do with it!” Thank goodness, right at that moment the steward started his little speech about buckling seat belts.

Some people feel especially close to God in communion. In a few moments we will gather at the communion table, and if you feel a closeness to God as we partake of the elements today, that is great. It is a much more important lesson for us to learn, though, that God is just as close to us when we’re far, far away from a communion table as we may feel when we are right here. Neither church building nor clergyperson attracts or ensures closeness to God.

God is nearer to each of us than the very air we breathe. Not just sometimes—but always. In the best of times and the worst of times. When we feel warm and wonderful, and when we are at our lowest life points. When we look out over the joys of life from some spiritual summit, and when we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. Wherever we are, whatever we’re doing, God is near regardless of how we feel. What a gift! Amen.