Shining a New Light: It’s So Simple!”
A Sermon for University Congregational Church
Sunday, January 28, 2018
Rev. Paul Ellis Jackson
Let’s shine a new light on theology this morning, shall we? Theology is a branch of philosophy. Did you know that? This study of God (Theo means God and –ology means the study of) is linked to the study of wisdom–philosophy. So, technically, everybody present this morning is then not only a philosopher, but also a theologian. We all have ways we look at the divine—lenses through which we comprehend the often-times incomprehensible–even if we don’t like to put a name on it. We either come to it on studies of our own or we adopt the attitudes and beliefs of our families (or someone else) or we reject it all. Regardless, we are all theologians. Even those among us who reject a divine power are theologians. That’s more of an “a-theology”, but its theology nonetheless.
For many of us, our basic understanding and belief in “God” informs much of our behavior—how we interact with the physical world and other people. For those who see God as a white, bearded, old man who lives high up in a heavenly kingdom, presiding over a heavenly court, well– that resembles ancient Rome’s Imperial court or a medieval court of a King more than anything else—if this is our basic conception of God, then much of our behavior is going to be derived from this philosophical underpinning. This can be a beautiful and meaningful way to think about God and then a way for us to order our lives around such a dream of a court and a King. But those who do so should in this manner need to also understand that their behavior towards others is informed by this belief. If I have a philosophy with a very simple system of morality: God said it, I believe it, that settles it, or this all-powerful God in the heavens who moderates our every move and has everything all planned out for us, then it’s really easy to justify all manner of behavior that reflects this.
Think of so much of our language in our hymns: Crown Him with Many Crowns; The King of Love My Shepherd Is; Lead On, O King Eternal; O Worship the King, and on and on and on. So much of the music we sing and the words in our hymns reinforces this idea of a Heavenly Court with a strong male figure seated on a golden throne. And we just take it for granted—they’re some of our favorite hymns. But when our worship reflects this male-dominated, hierarchical heaven and courtly behavior, then I think we lose sight of many of God’s other, wonderful properties. We magnify worship of a King over worship of a God that truly reflects all of humanity.
What does the Bible tell of the properties and attributes of God? The Hebrew Bible teaches us a number of things about the nature of God and our Jewish ancestors have done some of the difficult theological work for us Christians: God exists, God is one; God is the creator; God is incorporeal—God has no body; The Holy One is gender-less or gender-ful; The Divine One possesses a number of “omni’s”—it’s omniscient, omnipresent, and omnipotent (although the new research on the meaning of that particular Hebrew word; kol yakhol or yekholah is fascinating as it might not really mean “all powerful” –as we’ve been told all these years–but instead it might refer to a mountain, or the nourishment humans receive from their mother’s breast—topics, I believe, we should look at more in depth another day—because, you know, interpretation matters.) Other attributes our ancient scriptures give to the Eternal One are just that –God is eternal, God is just and merciful, God is holy and perfect, and God is the “parent”. And it is this “parent” figure that is one day going to hold us all accountable for our behavior and actions here on earth. This “parent” is always watching and so we’d best behave or we’re in trouble on judgement day and our eternal future rests on this judgement. Once again—a reflection of the Imperial Court systems of Ancient Rome and then duplicated in the middle Ages and in some places on earth today.
There are some other potentially negative attributes given to the Divine Power; God is legalistic; God demands sacrifice; God demands worship and praise; and many other adjectives that are not so flattering. We sometimes use a shorthand for this and refer to an “Old Testament” God, but this is not an accurate reflection of the God of Hebrew Scripture. Personally, I’m always pulled back to the psalmist who wrote Psalms number 8: “When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is [hu-]mankind that you are mindful of them; human beings that you care for them?” I struggle with that idea: Why would God care about us, we who have done so many negative, unholy things in God’s name. People have been struggling with conceptions of the divine, and how we are to interact with this divinity, from the very first time folks got in an argument as to whether the stars “just happened” or “were made”? Apologies to Mark Twain. But somehow, we reconcile all of these tensions and contradictions, and we gather together here in community on Sunday mornings–to refresh our spirits, to contemplate these divine mysteries and to rekindle our love for each other.
Once you’ve crafted a theology (or borrowed one from someone else) then you can use this theology for all kinds of stuff. This default belief we have, of whether or not there is a divine presence that will hold us all accountable one day– or if rather we’re to co-create God’s perfect world here and now—working together with the Creator creates one of our philosophical bases. And these are really two poles on the extreme ends of our theological scale—God the omnipotent on one end and a God that we co-create with (you know, us being God’s hands and feet in the physical realm) on the other. So where you fall on this scale informs how you might treat other humans and other pieces of creation.
Let’s deal with God-as-King end of the scale first. Believing in a heavenly court immediately requires that some of us are in that court and some of us are not. Right there we have division and the creation of an “other”. We created a group of people who don’t believe as we do and therefore are not worthy of everything we’ve been promised we’re going to get. And it gets worse. This type of theology then can be used to rationalize all sorts of defacing and demoralizing acts. If the “other” we’ve just created as apostate or infidels, meaning God doesn’t even recognize them, right?—well, once we do that to a group of humans, it is so easy to begin to rob them of other aspects of their humanity. Up to and including, robbing them of their right to exist. Humans have used this as a basis for genocide since God told the Hebrew people to wipe out Amalek and his followers (which they did) and the Spanish Inquisition where the church deprived untold thousands of their lives and up to today where a radical version of Islam is preaching that anyone who doesn’t believe in that paticular version of Islam should be put to death. Just a small reminder folks, there are numerous Christian sects that are calling for the death of anyone who doesn’t believe as they do as well. Everyone in this room is living under that death-sentence—one more reason to be extremely grateful for the Establishment Clause, no? And, there’s even a Buddhist sect that calls for the extermination of non-believers: Bodu Bala Sena or Buddhist Power Force (BBS) of Sri Lanka, they slaughter both Christians and Muslims. It seems it’s easy to use divine authority as a means to create groups of others and then work to de-legitimatize and destroy those groups.
Cory Booker, the junior senator from New Jersey and the former mayor of Newark, has a quote that pertains to this idea of religious preeminence. It’s one that, when first out on the interwebs, I really liked and as it has aged, I like it even more. Booker says this: “Before you speak to me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people; before you tell me how much you love your God, show me in how much you love all God’s children; before you preach to me of your passion for your faith, teach me about it through your compassion for your neighbors. In the end, I’m not as interested in what you have to tell or sell as I am in how you choose to live and give.” To Booker, your actions are a direct reflection of your beliefs—your philosophy, and if you’re not a person of integrity (that is, if your words and actions don’t match) then he doesn’t want to hear anything about how great your beliefs are. I can get behind that.
Theology can actually be pretty simple—it’s in our human nature to complicate things—I mean, where would the church be if we hadn’t created all manner of doctrines and dogmas and rules and lists and sacraments, right? Have you ever looked at a copy of the Presbyterian Book of Order? It’s got rules for just about anything—even our little booklet from the National Association of Congregational Christian Churches manages to clock in at 76 pages. Humans often need rules for theological order, but, for me, the heart of God is simple.
Michael Hanawalt sang a song from Bernstein’s “Mass” at my ordination and it sums up a lovely theology in a beautiful moment of music: “Sing God a simple song: Lauda, Laudē– Make it up as you go along: Lauda, Laudē. Sing like you like to sing. God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all. For God is the simplest of all.” Isn’t that lovely? By the way, those words are written by Stephen Schwartz, a devoted and well-studied Jew, who knows what he is talking about when he writes of God. And also in the Christian scriptures we get an equally simple illustration of God and what we are to do with God, when Jesus was cornered by the Pharisees, while he was preaching to a crowd, and one of the Pharisees tried to trick Jesus into committing the sin of blasphemy when he demanded him to tell all gathered what is the greatest commandment? Now remember, in this moment, Jesus had been answering questions about the Hebrew Bible and Jewish law and history, so this Pharisee knew what he was doing and he was trying to catch Jesus in a “gotcha” moment, in hopes that he could discredit Jesus and his work. Instead Jesus gives his beautiful statement on loving God with all your heart and all your soul and all your being and then, adding to this philosophy, Jesus says to love your neighbor as yourself. But wait, more importantly, Jesus then add something to change it all—he says—“on this hang all the law and the prophets”. Do you see what the brilliant rabbi did there? He pulled out the legalism of the Pharisees and gave them a different foundation for their laws. Instead of reinforcing the idea that the scriptures were the basis of all morality, Jesus says instead that it is our love of God and our treatment of each other that forms the basis for all the law and all of the prophets. He got the Pharisee at his own game and turned the tables and resisted the status quo and rejected Imperial Rome, all in one fell swoop. No wonder they killed him. He was a dangerous man. A danger to the established order. By the way, I used this illustration, the greatest commandment, when I was asked to bless the finished construction on our projects in Chacreseca. It was such a privilege so be in this community that has shown us repeatedly that they love God with all of their heart and all of their mind and that they, too, love us, their neighbors, more than they love themselves. Once again I was reminded of how difficult it is to be people of integrity when we live in a culture that doesn’t practice or value integrity. We live in a time where it is okay to do anything you want as long as everything looks okay on the outside—as long as you say the right words—and believe the right things—and worship the right God. No matter how complicated all of this may be.
I think it would be the simplest thing if we just combined those two pieces of the greatest commandment. What if we treated our neighbor in the same fashion we would treat God, were God in our presence right now.
It really can be that simple—treat everyone around you as you would God. The writer of the Gospel of Matthew tells us that whatever we do to the least of our neighbors, we do to God –Think about that. It’s usually easy to treat our friends and family in a decent manner, but what about the folks we disagree with? How would you disagree with God? How would you correct God were you to find that God had done something you thought was wrong? How would you talk to God if God came up to you and asked you for a couple of bucks because God had just gotten laid-off and didn’t have gas money? There’s a thought-exercise for you.
Can you image what our world would be like if all of us did this? Can you imagine the overwhelming sensation of the whole world treating each other–and being treated–as divine, sacred, holy beings? Well, it’s no less than each of us deserves. And it is no less than what I must give my neighbor. Regardless of where that neighbor lives and where I encounter that neighbor. Next door to me, or down the street at the Dillon’s or a couple thousand miles away on the dusty, dry roads of Chacreseca, Nicaragua. It’s just that simple. Everyone is my neighbor and everyone has the spark of God within them. Everyone. There are no “others”. Why don’t we all start shining our inner “God-light” just a bit brighter and illuminate the darkness in our lives. Shine a new light and reveal the simplicity of God. The simplicity of a God who loves us very much and wants us to love each other exactly as we love God.