Sunday, May 29, 2011

An Unknown God (sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter)

James Limburg, a seminary professor, in an essay on today's psalm, reports that in his grandfather role he is sometimes required to tell his grandchildren stories. He has therefore written up a number of bible stories in short form that he can tell children. As part of making these stories more interesting, he sometimes includes his own grandchildren as characters in them. Once he asked his grandson if his grandson liked the stories. His grandson replied, "Yes I do." The child thought a moment and then went on: "But I like them best when they're about me!"

We all like stories about us, about ourselves or people we know. I often hear that people like my funeral sermons, and I think it's because they are stories about people they know. Sermons that are actually about Jesus are often less pleasant, and this is because, well, this is a person we don't really know very well.

It is the nature of the sinful world humankind has made for itself that other spirits take center stage and the spirit of the creator is exiled from human community. God has therefore called us, God's people, to make it our business to know God and to make God known again, in the hopes of reconciling the world to God.

But knowing God is a tricky business. One of our new members, Bill Luke, has said that God is slippery. I think God is slippery because God is alive.

A living God continues to respond to a living situation. No book or statue or creed can stand century after century as the last word, the sole idea, the unchanging identity of God. Jesus Christ, a very specific and particular person, is risen from the dead. He is alive.

And so Christ today is the same person who was born in the first century, who went about on foot in a relatively small geographical area, preaching and teaching and healing, the same person who was arrested and executed for insurrection, the same person who emerged transformed from the tomb on Easter Sunday.

But now he has lived through the fall of the Roman Empire. He has lived through the rise of the European feudal societies. He has lived through the Reformation. He has lived through the colonization of the American continents. He has lived through the American Revolution and the World Wars and the rise and fall of the Soviet Union.

And Jesus is alive in all kinds of places, in China and Liberia and Indonesia. He's alive in Belize and Sumatra and Illinois.

And, like us, Jesus speaks and acts differently dependent on when and where he is. He doesn't become a different person, anymore than we become different people because we have aged twenty years or because we've moved to a different place. We behave differently in different places and times not because we are inconsistent or dishonest, but because we are alive. That's what being alive means.

At the same time, there is a core to each one of us, an unchanging identity, and this is equally important. The story of our lives, the succession of anecdotes we tell about what we did in different times and places, is about the only way we can really capture this core. This is what I try to do at funerals. One way we talk about this unchanging self is with the word "spirit."

Each person has a spirit, a characteristic center that doesn't change, even though it might manifest differently to different times and places. Nations and institutions have spirits as well. And the spirit enthroned above all these spirits is the God of Israel, the great "I Am."

But peculiar to Christian thought is the idea that this Spirit, the creator God, makes itself known through the human creature. So when we tell stories about this God, we are telling stories about God's people. And when we are telling stories about God's people, we are telling stories about Jesus. And when we are telling stories about Jesus and God's people, we are telling stories about us.

I think it awfully important that the church share some common ground with the place and time in which it finds itself, that it finds what recognizable landmarks it can so that people can feel some sense that the gospel is about them. But I think at this time and place in history we emphasize this too much. I think we have so identified the gospel with our preferences and opinions and culture that we have lost the core identity, the Spirit, of Christ.

A lot of my work over the past six years has been to teach and preach about this Spirit, to insist on telling the Old Testament stories, to insist on speaking about the particular person Jesus, to insist on disciples learning these stories and coming to know this Spirit, just as we come to know the story of some friend or family member with whom we live. Knowing these stories and poems and letters is the way we come to recognize the Spirit, a Spirit which is indeed alive and always responding as living persons do, uniquely to each unique situation.

These are my prayers of thanksgiving for you:

That Christ has so worked in you and among you over these past six years that many lives have been transformed, many who have lived in darkness have come out into the light, and many who have been imprisoned have come into freedom.

That Christ has worked through you to bless and grow and heal me.

That Christ has led you to become a disciple-forming church, one that welcomes and involves seekers in ministry.

That Christ has given you a sense of mission, so that you have begun to act with purpose and intention in your community.

That Christ has richly blessed you with the humble spirit of service.

And these are my prayers for your future:

That God's Spirit will open in all of you a deep wisdom in the stewardship of the gifts God has given each one of you, all the gifts, of time, talent and wealth, and that the bottomless generosity of God will richly flow through each one.

That God's Spirit will lead this congregation more deeply into a corporate life of prayer, that you together might pray without ceasing, giving thanks and pleading for the world every time you gather, so that the passion God has for this beautiful creation might be revealed in your worship.

That the Spirit might so richly dwell in each one of you that your story might become part of God's story, and that you might be able to boldly give account of your relationship to Christ, so that the community all around might hear the name of Jesus on your lips.

And finally, this is my benediction as I leave you:

May you tell the stories of God to each other so richly and so often that you will collectively come to know the God's Spirit with great clarity and certainty.

May you let go of your preferences and opinions and yield to the sure guidance of this Spirit, in peaceful unity.

May it be this Spirit, and not powerful or popular personalities, that will hold the church together, guide all its work and grow all its members.

May this Spirit knit you together with all the people of God everywhere, in this county, in this country, in all the world.

May it be this living Spirit, and not dead words or creeds or doctrines, that encounters each new moment and each new person both in this church and, through this church, in the community.

May you continue to make known the unknown God.


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