Looking for God (July 14, 2002)
University Congregational Church
Most of you are aware that I usually prepare my sermons well in advance. I like to wrestle around with a sermon for five or six weeks before I actually put it into its final form and deliver it from the pulpit. When I left for Chicago to work on my Doctor of Ministry degree, I made a conscious decision not to have a stack of sermons already written for when I got back. I wanted to start fresh, assuming I would be energized and inspired by my experience to write lots of new sermons.
And I was right! For one thing, I want to let you know something about the program I’m in, and how it will affect you. And I want to tell you about some of the people who are in this program with me—it’s really an amazing cast of characters, and I use the term characters knowing all the connotations that word carries with it.
I rushed back home, ready to spend a week crafting a sermon all about my experience in Chicago, and a few things happened that made me change my mind. First, I looked at the lectionary texts for this week and for the next few weeks, and I was blown away! We’ve got the Parable of the Sower—perhaps the most famous of Jesus’ parables with the exception of the Parable of the Prodigal Son. And over the next three weeks the lectionary divides the 8th chapter of Romans into three equal parts, suggesting it as a good foundation for a little series.
Now, you have to understand: all ministers have favorite parts of the Bible—chapters and stories that they find especially important and inspirational. There are three or four such areas in the Bible for me. They include the prologue to the Gospel of John, the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew, the Farewell Discourse from John, and, you guessed it, the 8th chapter of Romans.
So I was somewhat confused about how to proceed. And then I worshipped here with the rest of you last Sunday, and heard Dr. Meyers preach that marvelous sermon about the vastness of the universe, and the difficulty of an honest search for God in the midst of a cosmos that, simply put, is too vast and too complex for us to even begin to comprehend.
Now, I think you all know me well enough to know I do not believe we have a God who micromanages creation. I don’t attribute every little thing that happens to the intentional will of our Creator. But I do believe the Spirit moves somewhat mysteriously in this world. Sometimes people are where they need to be when they need to be there. And sometimes what most would call serendipity, I, perhaps naively, attribute to the movements of the Spirit. And so it was that in the midst of my confusion over how to proceed with regard to my sermons, I was reading the Bible…and hallelujah! There before my eyes was Psalm 139, which at least in my mind follows almost perfectly on the heels of Bob’s great sermon.
So here’s the plan. Two weeks from now we’ll take a look at Romans chapter 8. Next week we’ll work with Jesus’ Parable of the Sower. And today we’ll look at the 139th Psalm. You can be the judge and decide for yourselves if I’m going through life in a self-deluded daze, or if it really does address the mystery of creation, and God’s place in a universe that is mind-numbingly vast.
Oh yes! What about Chicago and the doctoral program? Well, I really do need to let you know some of the things that will be occurring as a result of the program. But I’m still working out the details, so I’ll try to get around to that over the next few weeks. As for the cast of characters in that program, well, I’ll briefly tell you about two of them, and you can see me in Fellowship Hall if you’d like more details.
In my class are people from Sweden, Ireland, England, Korea, and Liberia, not to mention people from all over the United States. These are some interesting folks. For example, the Liberian—Matthew Josiah—is in the United States as a political refuge. His co-pastor back in Liberia was killed—a common occurrence for those who stand up to the government—and after Matthew’s picture appeared on a most-wanted list in Liberia he managed to make his way to the United States. This all arose when Liberia’s new revolutionary government insisted on reading Matthew’s sermons before they were delivered.
And then there’s Kenneth, the Irishman from Belfast, now living in America. Not only does he have an amazing number of wild stories about life in Northern Ireland, he taught us such classic Irish drinking songs as:
Mary Mac’s father wants me to marry Mary
And my father wants me to marry Mary Mac.
Those of us who chose not to over-imbibe had a much easier time with those songs than did those who really let their hair down!
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Well, enough preliminaries! Let’s get down to business with the vastness of the cosmos and Psalm 139. I absolutely loved Bob’s sermon last week. I’ve loved gazing at the night sky ever since I was a young child, and became addicted to the mystery of it all when I took an astronomy class my freshman year of college. And who among us can’t identify with that poor preacher in Bob’s story who looks up through the heavens, and instead of seeing God walking around up there, sees an endless expanse of space filled with an occasional speck of light, which turns out to be a few billion stars here, and a few billion stars there.
One of my theology professors said that the farther he looked out into space, the more he felt like “pond scum.” Pond scum! Now there’s a beautiful metaphor for human life. And as if it isn’t troubling enough looking through telescopes, things get even more confusing when we look through microscopes. That’s where we enter the world of quantum physics.
If you are prone to headaches, feel free to tune out the next sixty seconds of this sermon. One of my favorite books is called Quantum Questions by Ken Wilber. It is a collection of the mystical writings of the great Twentieth Century physicists—Heisenberg, Schroedinger, Einstein, Planck and Eddington, among others. Here is the basic idea behind what each and every one of those physicists has to say about the universe. When you get down the smallest level—when you slice reality down to the tiniest piece possible—you reach a point where the physical world disappears into the idea from which it springs forth.
Matter is not the ultimate reality. Matter comes from something else. And at that level—at the quantum level—all of the categories in which we usually think lose their meaning. We don’t need to worry so much about how big the universe is because at the most basic level of reality there is no such thing as big and little, up and down, right and left, near and far, in and out. And if that’s not mind-boggling enough, there’s no such thing as before and after. All of those ideas are generated within consciousness, as we grasp and shape reality in our four-dimensional way—the only way we can. But the reality we see as we look at the world, and as we look through our telescopes and microscopes, has much more to do with the mind that is doing the looking than with any exterior physical reality.
Well, if you tuned out when I warned you about an impending headache, you can come back now, and it’s time for the rest of us to come up for some air, because the more we think we know, the more we realize that we are squarely in the middle of a mystery that is simply beyond our ability to comprehend. However, I think we can take some comfort from the fact that all of those brilliant physicists, upon reaching the limits of human knowledge, sort of collectively fell to their knees in wonder at the glory of creation. Those very down-to-earth and practical scientists became as mystical as the guy who sits on a Himalayan mountaintop in a transcendental daze. In their eyes, in their understanding, the world did not turn into some vast and meaningless puzzle. Instead, the world became the object of joyous wonder and awe.
So, where is God in all of this? If God is not walking around “up there” somewhere, where can God be found? As some of us discussed Bob’s sermon from last week, I realized that you already know the answer. You found the answer implicit in his sermon. God isn’t up there. God is everywhere.
Of course, we could have figured that out without the help of those quantum physicists had we simply opened the Bible to Psalm 139. The author of that Psalm figured things out a couple of thousand years ahead of the physicists.
According to Psalm 139, God is simply everywhere. God is inside, outside, above and below every atom in the universe. I once heard Dr. Carolyn Knight preach on this Psalm, and it was one of the most amazing sermons I’ve ever heard. She took an unusual angle in explaining this Psalm. She asked, “What if God wanted to get away from us? Could God get away from us if God wanted to?” Dr. Knight’s answer was, “no.”
She said God couldn’t get away from us no matter what, because God is everywhere, and wherever we are God is there too. God can’t even get away from God. Because wherever God goes, God is already there.
Furthermore, God is in every cell of our body and in every nuance of every thought we ever have. There is nothing anywhere that is not thoroughly saturated with God. It is in God that we live, and move, and have our being, and the same can be said for the most distant star in the most distant galaxy.
Now, this God may not be the God we were hoping for. There is no reason to think this God is all-powerful, at least not in the way we human beings usually define power. There is no reason to think that if a person throws himself off the top of a building God is capable of causing that person to safely float to the street fifty stories below. If that’s what we mean by all-powerful, then perhaps God does not meet our definition of the word. But there are many of us who believe we can say God is all-knowing. If God is at all times everywhere and in everything, then nothing is unknown to God.
And that is the God many of us find ourselves capable of worshipping with complete honesty. That is the God to whom we have surrendered our lives. That is the God those quantum physicists knelt before, and that is the God we find in the 139th Psalm, which I will now read in part. Hear the words of the psalmist, who found God only after he stopped chasing after God:
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 heaven, you are there;
If I make my bed in hell, 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.
If I say, ”Surely the darkness shall cover me,
And the light around me become night,”
Even the darkness is not dark to you;
The night is as bright as the day,
For darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
You knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.
Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
My frame was not hidden from you,
When I was being made in secret,
Intricately woven in the depths of the earth.
Your eyes beheld my unformed substance.
In your book were written all the days that were formed for me,
when none of them as yet existed.
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them—they are more than the sand;
I come to the end—I am still with you.
When I read those words, I realize that there have been men and women through the ages who have been blessed with an amazingly close relationship with God. There are many such people in the world today, and they are almost never the people who loudly talk about their religion. The only thing that sets them apart from others is an inner peace that tends to shine through everything they do.
Which leads me back to my three weeks in Chicago. A wide variety of professors from across the country took turns challenging each of us in a number of different ways. For one thing, they demanded to know exactly why it is we dare to stand in the pulpit week after week. It’s really an audacious thing to do, for a person to stand in the pulpit as if he or she has something to say that you need to hear, and further, to allow the idea to simmer beneath the surface that what we say is in some way something that God wants you to hear. Those of us who questioned that assumption, by the way, were reminded that we speak in churches, and not at the Elks Club or Toastmasters.
And after each of us was forced to justify our desire to preach, we were backed into another corner, and forced to determine what good it could possibly do. Well, there is nothing quite like dissecting your life and laying it out on the table for everybody to see. But like all such exercises, the benefit, at least in looking back, was more than worth the pain. I came to two conclusions on which I have no choice but to anchor my ministry, and my preaching. First, the reason I preach is to point people toward a closer relationship with God. I don’t do it to save souls, or to impress you with my knowledge, or to earn personal favor with God; at least, I should not do it for any of those reasons. If I stand here with any purpose other than pointing us all toward a closer relationship with God, then I am being untrue to myself, to God, and to my call to ministry.
The second conclusion I reached is this: the only way for the people of a congregation to move closer to God is for the minister to move with them. We are part of the same body, with the same questions, the same doubts, and the same fears. I can’t take one step closer to God without you. If there is any trace of a wall between the minister and the congregation, it has to be knocked down before any of us can make any real spiritual progress.
I was quite surprised and disappointed to learn that the reason most of my classmates are seeking their doctoral degrees is so they can get better jobs—bigger churches with bigger paychecks. And they can easily justify that way of thinking, because seminaries teach pastors to maintain what is called “ministerial distance.” What that means is I shouldn’t let you get to know me too well. I have to maintain a wall—a ministerial distance—between the congregation and myself in order to maintain a certain mystique in your eyes. Heaven forbid you come to discover that I am a poor, simple, flawed human being just like everybody else. That is why the average stay for a minister in an American congregation is less than five years.
Well, I honestly believe the notion of ministerial distance is a bad idea. You know me pretty well, and I know you well—some of you I know very well. I’ve laughed with you; I’ve cried with you; I’ve shaken my fist at the sky with you. I honestly feel like we’re a family. So I just want you to know that I’m more than happy right where I am. And I’ll be the minister of this church as long as you’ll allow me to be nothing other than exactly who I am. If you can accept the lack of mystique, we’ll make our faith journey together—not with me as some sort of mystic visionary leading the way, but side-by-side. My hope is that we all end up a little closer to God.