Sunday, June 5, 2016

The Folly of God - Sermon June 4, 2016

[The Folly of God: A Theology of the Unconditional is the title of a book by John Caputo. I have been reading lots of theology and philosophy in order to better understand myself as I write my memoir, tentatively titled Faith Before and After.] The text is I Corinthians 1:17-31.

I am 72 and I am writing a memoir.
One reason I am writing my memoir is because I don’t believe what I used to believe.
It is important to me to figure out what I used to believe
how I came to believe it, and what I believe now.
My other motivation is to leave for my 8 year old granddaughter
who doesn't attend church at all
some explanation of what I did as a minister, and what churches used to be like.

My memoir is the story of one man’s life in a mainline denomination
during the last half of the 20th century.
In it I try to explain what I have seen as the essence of Christian faith
when I let all the extra stuff fall away.
A friend in high school asked:
“Is life really complicated, or is life simple and we just complicate it.”
So I ask “Is Christianity really complicated,
or is it simple and we just complicate it?”
Let me just say that my own memoir gets complicated because I have to ask:
What was the Calling that I experienced? What exactly was that call?
Where did it come from? Who is this God we all talk about so much,
with so little understanding and clarity?
At root it may all be simple, but
we complicate things because we think about them,
so I think that life is both simple and it is truly complicated.

Most of my life I have been battling with God,
with the God who doesn’t exist and never existed.
You know that God:
The God who is strong, all-knowing, all-seeing, the judge, the king, the father.
The God I have found is more like the one described by Paul.

One of two essentials of Christian faith is the cross.
The cross is a powerful symbol.
It was the means of execution by which Jesus and countless others
were tortured to death by the power of Rome.
I don't usually give lists in sermons, but here I think I must.
First of all the cross is the way Jesus died, an historical event.
Second, it represents the suffering of a man who was innocent
and all the innocent who have been tortured and killed by tyrannical empires.
Third, the cross is a symbol for all the suffering of the world,
endured by all humans, because we live this life in this world.
Fourth, the cross is the symbol for ultimate integrity,
for Jesus died without violating the principles which he taught,
because he lived and died non-violently protesting the ways of Rome.
And fifth, the cross condemns and declares the end of all violence.
It is wrong for those in power to kill those who aren’t.

Everything else you may have heard or thought about the cross
is probably tacked-on, elaborately created
to make the simple story of Jesus’ death and Rome’s cruelty
mean something else, to serve the agenda of the teller of that tale.
So the cross isn’t about sacrifice,
or paying a debt to God who is offended by our sins.
Jesus didn’t go to the cross willingly; or because God wanted him to do so.
He probably didn’t think he was the son of God,
that he would be rescued, or later be raised from the dead.
He was a fully human man,
brutally killed for preaching that God was above Rome;
that God’s Empire or kingdom was greater than Rome’s.
The cross was not glorious, never was and never will be.
The ultimate contradiction and irony
is a cross made of silver or gold, or encrusted with jewels.

The only possible way we can say any of these things or conceive of the cross
in any of these ways, is with the phrase “as if.”
When we contemplate the deep meaning of political violence and death,
we can say it is “as if” his death was a sacrifice,
“as if” the cross were a precious thing.
All of Paul’s theories about God and Jesus are those of an imaginative thinker
spinning out creative possibilities for us to consider.
Paul did not set out to write scripture;
he was writing, probably verbally dictating,  letters.

The only other essential thing in Christian faith, I think,
is the communion table and our communion around it.
I have said to you here before that
When we eat together and when the symbol works,
our eyes are opened to see Jesus more clearly.
When we are gathered around the table,
we are drawn under the influence of Jesus.
We find ourselves in a similar relation to him
as had the first disciples who ate and drank with him.
The words of his teachings, the stories of his suffering and death,
the promises of the fullness of life,
are given texture and flavor in the sacrament.

If the supper transforms us, we somehow can see God in each other,
and we can discover ourselves called to participate
in healing and restoring the world.

If there is no community around the table,
if there is no exchange of ideas and affections or feelings,
if we wall ourselves off from each other; it cannot work.
But for you who live together as this congregation,
community of sharing each other’s lives is possible.
You probably know Jesus’ idea of church as a gathering,
no more complicated than a table and benches,
with bread and wine on the table.

Now about that pesky idea of God.
Paul says God is foolish according to our usual ways of thinking.
Many if not most of us think wealth and success and nice things are good.
The God of Jesus and Paul doesn’t care about them.
Jesus said that “It is harder for a rich man to get to heaven
than to go through the eye of a needle,”
because the riches don’t get us anywhere meaningful.

We think of God as strong and mighty, sort of like a Hercules or Goliath.
But Paul says the real God’s idea of strong is the cross.
So if Jesus reveals God,
then Christian faith is the oddest possible religion.

In the early years and early centuries of Christian faith,
the church settled a lot of conflict by creating a paradox,
saying that Jesus was both the son of God and yet fully human.
This is a way of saying “It is as if this man was son of God.”
So this shabby rabbi in a corner of the great Roman empire,
was crucified to show everyone that he was a nobody.
Somehow it backfired and his followers declared him son of God.
The story of Jesus turns everything upside down.
It tells us that we are not supposed to think of God in the sky
or as a power who takes care of us.
The resurrection is meant to tell us of how his teachings lived on,
and how Jesus lives on in our sharing of a communion meal.

God is spirit, and as such lives behind the cross and under the table.
It is "as if" God comes out from behind the cross and under the table
when we remember Jesus
and when we are taunted and haunted by his teachings.

God is that which lies behind the ideals and virtues,
and the unconditional aspirations of humanity
Like forgiveness, grace, and love. Like mercy, justice and peace.
Like communion.

These are not God; they are the cover of the book that hides or conceals God.
This is why we don’t see God. God isn’t really there.
We see the cover, the mask, or the clothing, but not God.
Moses saw a burning bush, but not God.
A burning bush was an image that amazed ancient Hebrews
and masks for the Greeks created personna in theater,
and later the idea of persons in the Godhead for early Greek Christians.
For us I think we can be more direct in describing the indirect:
The spirit is what occurs between and among us.
God is known by the existence and emergence
of forgiveness, grace, and love; mercy, justice, peace, and communion.

Another image was sent to me on Facebook a few days ago.
Werner Heisenberg was the German scientist
who studied the smallest particles,
and found out that sometimes they exist, and sometimes not,
and sometimes they are in different places, maybe at the same time.
Sometimes they are particles and sometimes they are waves.
This he called “the uncertainty principle.”
It all depends on the place of the viewer.
The quote from him is
“The first gulp you take from study of the natural sciences
will make you an atheist,
 but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”

The God Heisenberg spoke of was not the one he ever heard about
in his Lutheran church.
The God that is waiting for us at the bottom or the glass of our searching
is one we do not and cannot know
except by the relational ideals or values
that are most desirable and impossible to fully attain
Forgiveness, grace, and love; mercy, justice, peace, and communion
are all relational.
They are the greatest possibilities of what can happen between people.
I see them as existing between the particles Heisenberg studied, and between us,
sometimes there, sometimes not.
The unconditional values are relational because reality at its most fundamental level
is relational.
All we have of a God is these values that are the sometimes visible hints of
what we have called God.
We find them in the teachings and acts of Jesus
and other great sages of the world’s religions.

The parables of Jesus teach about mercy and forgiveness.
Simple sayings like “Turn the other cheek,” and “love your enemies”
make us re-consider the possibilities for peace.
Stories of miracles are told to hint at God,
 so that the stories of Jesus raising Lazarus or someone’s daughter
reveal truths about love,
and the story of the risen Christ appearing on the road to Emmaus
reveals truth about communion with someone
who tells stories of deep meeting, and then disappears.
God is hiding in or behind these teachings and stories.

God is not so obvious and certain as we tend to think,
and certainly not an object or old man as the church has taught us to think.
So theologians have struggled to think of God as Ground of Being,
or the God above God, or “serendipitous creativity.” Wow.
That one says it is as if God is whatever is within the act of creativity,
happening when it happens, unpredictably and surprisingly.

So God is wise, but weak, kind of like a Mother.
So God is Good, like Jesus, but definitely a loser.
So God is Powerful not in might,
but in the power that we can experience only
in forgiveness, grace, and love; mercy, justice, peace, and communion.
Any God there is worthy of the name is hiding.
We can say "God is here when you feel suddenly compelled to help a stranger,
forgive your spouse, support greater justice in the legal system,
witness to peace, or experience oneness with others in communion."
God is in and under and behind the cross and this table;
God is in and under and around the bread and the drink.
May God be in and under and behind and around and underneath and overarching us.

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