September 17, 2017 - Soli Deo Gloria from the Reformation Series


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During our church staff meeting on Wednesday morning, I reminded the staff that, in conjunction with our ongoing exploration of the themes of the Protestant Reformation, the theme of our worship this week was going to be God. To which one of our staff members wryly responded, “Isn’t that the theme every week?” And of course I had to give grudging consent! But I tell you, it’s one of my crosses to bear to work with colleagues who are exceedingly pithy and perceptive, but also impudent!
She was right, of course. The theme of every worship service should properly be God. Or, if not the theme, at least the focus. We come here every week because of something different from us that is at the heart of life. We come because we want to know that there is something beyond us that grounds us and give us hope. We come to be reminded that there is a power that does not belong to us, a power of goodness and love.
Despite how central the subject is, though, it’s a difficult one to talk about. No matter how hard we try, words fail and easy formulas elude us. The poet Mary Oliver has a prose poem called “The Word,” and it begins like this: “How wonderful! I speak of the soul and seven people rise from their chairs and leave the room, seven others lean forward to listen. I speak of the body, the spirit, the mockingbird, and the hollyhock, leaves opening in the rain, music, faith, angels seen at dusk—and seven more people leave the room and are seen running down the road. Seven more stay where they are but make murmurous disruptive sounds. Another seven hang their heads, feigning disinterest though their hearts are open, their hope is high that they will hear the word even again.”
The thing I wonder over and over again is: why couldn’t things be clearer? Why must talk of God always be shrouded in a kind of mist? If God were a weather condition, I suspect it would be fog. What it always comes down to is that what we don’t know about God is breathtaking. The theologian Michael Jinkins quotes a friend of his as saying, “If you have understood, what you have understood is not God” (Called To Be Human: Letters to My Children on Living a Christian Life, p. 69).
As we began talking about God at our staff meeting on Wednesday—and I have to say what a blessing it is for me to work as a part of a staff in which talking about God is par for the course—I said that what irks me about God is precisely this lack of clarity. If I could change one thing, I said, it would be that. It’s so odd to me that the things of God are not clear in the same way to everybody. I have strong convictions about who God is. The God I know in Jesus Christ wouldn’t stand for any notion of white supremacy; that God wouldn’t tolerate a world in which people of various sexual orientations and gender identities are shunned and disdained; that God becomes known to me in a book, the Bible, whose metaphor and poetry open up worlds of imagination and beauty and grace that can never be accessed by a flat and literal reading of those words and dreams. Why is it, I mused, that other people, equally ardently, worship a God who stands for just the opposite passions and values—people who think that God sanctions racial whiteness as somehow superior, that God condemns people for sexual and gender qualities that could not possibly have been chosen but are given, that God insists on a literal, fundamentalist reading of sacred texts? Shouldn’t God’s heart be clearer than that? Shouldn’t the things of God be obvious to everyone?
In the theological realm, it turns out, there’s a notion of God as Deus absconditus—Latin for “God who absconds, God who is not present.” It’s a way of talking about God’s remoteness, God’s apparent absence. And it was Martin Luther, the instigator of the Protestant Reformation, who was a prime proponent of this notion of the God who always remains at least partially hidden.
While we may not use that Latin phrase, Deus absconditus, I suspect we’ve all nevertheless wrestled with this whole notion of a God who so often remains hidden. If you’ve ever wondered why God lets little children die, you’ve dealt with the hidden God. If you’ve ever wondered why, in your depression or divorce, God seems so far away, you’ve dealt with the hidden God. If you’ve ever been stymied by how a good God could allow the violence and disruption of this world, you’ve dealt with the hidden God.
Given this apparent hiddenness of God, it’s not surprising that legions of people proclaim some sort of atheism. “How can you believe in God,” they wonder, “when all these rotten things happen? No good God,” they think, “could possibly allow such cruelty and mayhem.” And we understand that—most of us are not immune from the same sort of questions and doubts.
What that sort of atheism fails to reckon with, though, is that God, even this oft-hidden God, may have other priorities. Maybe atheists are looking at the wrong set of factors. My friend and colleague, Tony Robinson, says that when people tell him they can’t believe in God, he says to them something to the effect of, “And tell me about this God in whom you don’t believe.” Inevitably, what he hears about from these avowed atheists is some suffering that wasn’t alleviated, some violence that wasn’t thwarted, some loss that wasn’t prevented. Who can blame people for being furious at God when a child dies? Of course they’re livid. Of course they feel incredibly let down. Every child’s death is a travesty. It would be heartless and inappropriate of us not to acknowledge that.
The question, though, remains on the table: is that God’s fault, God’s doing? Can we hold God responsible for that sort of travesty and tragedy? Or are there other factors at work? Part of the reason we sometimes, or often, experience God as hidden is that we fail to take in and acknowledge that God is not entirely controlling every detail of every life. If God were the master puppeteer engineering every single event in every single life, then we would have good reason to blame God for the gross and gruesome events of life. That would be a sadistic deity. Why would you want to worship that?
What this perspective fails to take account of, though, is the sublime gift of freedom that has come our way by the sheer gift of God. God doesn’t control us like puppets. No, God creates us and says, ‘You have some play here. You can honor the world I’ve given you. Or you can abuse it. I’m not going to manipulate your response. I’m going to let you have an active role in the living of your lives. You decide.’
In one of the most riveting sermons I’ve ever encountered, William Sloane Coffin addressed just this issue after his 24-year-old son Alex had died when he drove his car off a bridge in Boston. I’ve quoted from this sermon before, but not for many years, and it’s very much worth hearing again. “When a person dies,” said Coffin, “there are many things that can be said, and there is at least one thing that should never be said. The night after Alex died I was sitting in the living room of my sister’s house outside of Boston, when the front door opened and in came a nice-looking middle-aged woman, carrying about eighteen quiches. When she saw me she shook her head, then headed for the kitchen, saying sadly over her shoulder, ‘I just don’t understand the will of God.’ Instantly I was up and in hot pursuit, swarming all over her. ‘I’ll say you don’t, lady!’ I said. (I knew the anger would do me good, and the instruction to her was long overdue.) I continued, ‘Do you think it was the will of God that Alex never fixed that lousy windshield wiper of his, that he was probably driving too fast in such a storm, that he probably had had a couple of “frosties” too many? Do you think it is God’s will that there are no streetlights along that stretch of road, and no guardrail separating the road and Boston Harbor?’
“For some reason, nothing so infuriates me as the incapacity of seemingly intelligent people to get it through their heads that God doesn’t go around this world with [a] finger on triggers, [a] fist around knives, [and] hands on steering wheels. God is dead set against all unnatural deaths. [There are many deaths that raise questions, of course.] But violent deaths, such as the one Alex died—to understand those is a piece of cake. . . The one thing that should never be said when someone dies is, ‘It is the will of God.’ Never do we know enough to say that. My own consolation lies in knowing that it was not the will of God that Alex die; that when the waves closed over the sinking car, God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break” (January 23, 1983, Riverside Church).
God’s heart was the first of all our hearts to break. When God seems distant or absent, this is the bedrock to which we return again and again. It’s not so much power that defines God. It’s not manipulation and control that mark the identity of the Holy One. No, it’s the cross. It’s the cross of relinquishment and compassion. Or as this conundrum sometimes gets put: God can either be all-powerful or all-loving, but not both.
As for me, I’ll take the love and give up the power. Sure, God could have decided to be all-powerful if that seemed crucial. But in God’s eyes, freedom, the freedom represented by a vulnerable cross, is worth the pain that ensues as a result of natural disaster and human sin. And the reason that freedom is so important is that it’s what gives us the possibility of loving each other.
Strange as it may seem, the core of God is not power. It’s love. We heard that in our psalm today: “God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 103:8). In his letter to the church in Rome, the apostle Paul sets out what is most crucial about being a disciple of Christ. He reminds them that what matters most is that we welcome each other, no matter how different we may be on the details of how we practice the faith. “Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do” (Romans 14:1, The Message) he says. If you disagree about what foods it’s appropriate to eat, remember what God is about. If you disagree, he might have written to a church in a later era, about mission priorities or what statues or symbols to display or how to interpret the Bible, the bottom line is this, in Paul’s words: “Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome?” (14:4).
To really worship God, Paul says, you have to recognize that everyone belongs at the table. Everyone. Think about the person who most irks you, the one who really rubs you the wrong way. That’s the one whom you most need to welcome. Even if you stand on the opposite side of every single issue, even if you think the other person’s positions are the devil’s spawn—even then, and especially then, it’s incumbent on you and me to welcome that person with open arms.
In my last church, Art Mahler was one of the saints of the church. He and I had a major rift, though, when I officiated at the wedding of a lesbian couple in the church. He thought that was just dead wrong. He said that that marriage sullied the sanctuary. And he left the church.
Several years later, I heard through the grapevine that Art was dying. So I went to his house one day and knocked on the door. He came to the door and opened it. And when he saw me, he immediately started to weep. And we hugged each other, and talked quietly together, and resumed a lost connection. When he died, several months later, he asked that I officiate at his memorial service. I was honored to do it.
I don’t take a lot of credit for that. I did decide to go visit him. But the marvel was in the reconciliation, a reconciliation that happened despite our profound difference of opinion. And that reuniting was not something he or I made happen. It was something only God could do.
The great German pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer talked about God as always other-focused. Central to the identity of Jesus is that he was the one “for others.” This is who God is. And this is who we’re to be. When we come together on a Sunday morning to praise God, this is the God we praise, the God who makes possible affection and reconciliation and care.
And there’s more. Martin Luther, the catalyst for the Protestant Reformation, was a man plagued by doubts about God. His struggle was that no matter how hard he tried, he could not be good enough for God. He was consumed by his need to confess his failings. He would pour out his sins to his confessor, spending hours detailing every sin. And it was never enough. Nothing he did was sufficient to satisfy what he saw as God’s severe requirements. It was only after years of being defeated by his own inadequacy that he was finally overcome one day by the deep truth he kept missing. At the core of the One who saves was simply this: God forgives. God forgives you and me all our shortcomings and failures and cruelties. With each new day, each new moment, God says, ‘I give you a fresh start. The slate has been wiped clean. No matter who you are or what you’ve done, I forgive you. Start again. And rejoice!’
It’s this God-for-us who is at the very core of our life. A local chaplain tells the story of visiting a man who was dying. The man told the chaplain he was an atheist. He was convinced there was nothing more than this life. He regaled the chaplain with his questions and doubts. Back and forth they went. As the visit came to a close, somewhat unexpectedly the man said he wanted to see the chaplain again the next day.
As it happened, the chaplain was to leave for vacation the next day. He went, but while he was gone, he received an unexpected visitation from what he sensed was the spirit of the man who had bent his ear. The man appeared to him in the middle of the night. “Will you give my wife a message?” he asked. “Tell her it’s more glorious than you can possibly imagine.” When the chaplain returned from vacation, he went to the now-deceased man’s wife and told her. And she was hugely comforted.
God is immeasurably more than we could ask or imagine. God is for us. God loves us. God forgives us. All praise and thanks be to God.

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