The other night, our home phone rang. Nobody really has our home phone number; we use our cell phones for everything, so when that phone rings, I know it’s going to be a telemarketer or somebody trying to upgrade our insurance. And yet, out of some ingrained habit, I always answer anyway, being, apparently, a glutton for punishment.
So the other night, the phone rang, and I answered it, even though I was in the middle of something else (though when are you not in the middle of something else?), and the woman on the other end of the line launched into a series of questions that pretty quickly indicated that this was a political poll.
Now, I’m kind of intrigued by the political process in general, and I know that polling is part of that, and I think it’s important to participate in the system in order to make it better… so I didn’t really mind taking this poll.
Some of the questions were easy: my name, the year I was born, which party I’m registered to vote with. Others were more complicated: Are you on this side or the other side of some social issue – well, rarely is that clear cut, and almost always it deserves a conversation, not a yes or no question.
She didn’t seem interested in a conversation, so she asked the next question: Are things going well in our state? Well, I said, that depends on what you’re talking about. Some things are not going that well, but I can point to some really good things happening, too. She didn’t really like that answer, either. And then there were some questions that were so clearly designed to lead in the direction of one candidate or issue over another that I declined to answer them just on principle. I’m sure she was really glad I picked up the phone.
And all that got me thinking about the nature of questions in general. There are straightforward questions you know the answer to, like, what year were you born?
And then there are questions to which the answer is almost always, “it depends.” “Do you like the mountains or the beach better?” It depends, on the time of year, the weather, who’s going with me, and what we’ll be doing there…
And then there are questions that are not so easy to answer at all, like this one: Who is God?
The questions we’re going to dig into this fall are more of that last category: Big questions that are not at all easy to answer. So if you heard about this series and were hoping I was going to give you some straightforward answers, or tell you exactly what to think and how this whole Christianity thing works, I’m afraid you’re going to be sorely disappointed.
But if you’re interested in digging a little deeper into what it means to be part of a church, a follower of Jesus, about who God is and how God works in the world – then I think we’re going to have some really good conversations over the next few weeks.
I’ve got two major goals for this series – and I hope this sounds helpful to you: The first goal is to simply dig into these big questions, to push ourselves a little bit and to explore what we think about God and Jesus and the life of faith.
The second goal is to get back to basics, in a way. To develop something of a common language with which we can talk about our faith. Christianity is a huge religion, and there are a whole lot of ways to practice and talk about it. And sometimes – maybe you’ve had this experience, too – conversations about Christianity in our culture, or comments from Christians in our culture, just don’t fit with how I think about myself as a Christian. And I find myself wanting to distance myself, and not want to engage, or not wanting to out myself as a Christian. And I think that’s too bad. I think we ought to be better equipped to express what it means for us to be followers of Jesus – I don’t think we ought to be embarrassed about this, but I do think we might need different language to do it well. So that’s my hope for this series – not that we’ll all agree on everything (we won’t) but that we might develop a common language for conversation amongst ourselves and with the world.
One note: if you want to do some reading beyond what we talk about Sunday morning, I’d recommend Marcus Borg’s Heart of Christianity. Some of you did a class with me on this book several years ago; it’s been around awhile now but it’s really quite good. Lots of people who have read this book say to me: this book articulates what I always thought, but I didn’t know how to say it.
I’ll be pulling some from the book for Sunday mornings, but some of you might want to read more beyond that, and this would be a good place to start.
Sound good? Okay. Let’s get started with this first big question: Who is God? Of course – we could also ask, “What is God?” or “Where is God?” or “Is God?” Even our questions are rather inadequate to the task, so we’ll just have to make do with the language available to us.
Let’s start here: grab a pen or a pencil and find that spot on the inside of your bulletin that says: What’s your big question about God? Take a minute and write down a question. Doesn’t have to be well articulated, just jot down a question. What are your big questions about God? Take a minute and do that… (Yes, actually write something down. It’s okay.)
Would anybody like to share? What are your big questions?
How about this: What are some names we use for God?
Or images? What images come to mind when we try to describe God? We talked about some back in June…
Here’s a really famous image of God – from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, God reaching down to touch Adam’s hand. This is the sort of white-man-in-the-sky kind of image of God.
But there are lots of others…. Light, dove, peace…
And you know, as an aside, when we’re talking about these big questions, some people might say we’re making this too complicated: just look at the Bible, some people say, the answers to all your big questions are right there in the Bible.
Well, maybe, but the Bible’s a really complicated book. There are a whole lot of images of God in the Bible, too – there’s God walking around in the garden of Eden; Adam and Eve can specifically here God’s footsteps and hear God talking, so there’s an image of God with feet and a voice.
But then, throughout the Bible, there are also much less anthropomorphic images of God – that is, images of God that make God look a lot less like us humans and a lot more, something else. That something else, naturally, is harder to get our head around; we know what humans look like so we can imagine God as human. We don’t know what God looks like, so we have to stretch a bit.
Marcus Borg talks about this in the Heart of Christianity. He suggests two different ways to make sense of who God is:
The first he calls “supernatural theism.” This is a way of understanding God as a person-like being. That’s the image of God walking around in the garden of Eden. And a lot of us have thought about God like this most of our lives. God as a person-like being who directs the action and gets involved in our lives – We talk about God like this a lot – we refer to God as “the man upstairs.” This is the Sistine Chapel version of God – the old man in the clouds.
But there’s another way to understand God, Borg says, and he uses this big word: panentheism, which means that God is bigger than the universe, all that is, but also in and throughout all that is. Borg says: “this concept imagines God as the encompassing Spirit in whom everything that is, is.”
Pan = everything; en = in; theism = God. God is in everything.
This is slightly different from pantheism, which would be the notion that everything is God. That’s not quite what we mean. We mean that God is in everything, but is also more than everything.
For the record, this is not some new-fangled idea. This is ancient. It’s in the Bible, too (I told you it was a complicated book.) Psalm 139:
Where can I go from your spirit?
Or where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there;
if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
God is in and present in everything.
Paul, in the book of Acts (17:28) says – and he’s probably quoting a much older poet – that in God “we live and move and have our being.”
Or those words from 1 John – that’s a letter written from a really early Christian community, who were trying to make sense for themselves who God is…
7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
God is love – that’s along the lines of that “encompassing spirit,” God in and throughout everything; wherever there is love, there is God.
So there are these two options for how to understand God. A person-like being? Or an all-encompassing spirit? Is it one or the other? Or both?
I think you have to decide for yourself. (Sorry; I told you I wasn’t going to give you easy answers.)
Take a look at that passage from Isaiah:
*But now thus says the LORD,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
2 When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
3 For I am the LORD your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
Seems to me that this passage sort of combines these two ways of thinking about God: you’ve got a little bit of God-as-person-like-being in those fires couple of lines: God as creator – you get a sense that God has hands with which to create. “I have called you” – God with a voice.
But then it shifts a little bit, into metaphor, into God-as-presence; God-as-encompassing spirit: When you pass through the waters I will be with you – I don’t picture God as a person literally standing there in the water with you; even the waters are metaphor. I think of God’s abiding presence, with us always, in good time and in struggle, bearing us up and accompanying us through the water and the fire.
And I think this matters, how we think about God – whether we think God is a person-like being who lives in the sky and occasionally intervenes on earth, or whether we think God is an all-encompassing spirit who pervades and lives in each bit of creation. It matters if we think God is a God of rules and requirements or a God of love and justice. It matters if we believe that God is love. It matters because how we think about God has everything to do with how we treat each other, and the earth, and ourselves, and how we live in the world.
Maybe the answer to this big question – Who is God? – is one of those not straightforward answers. Maybe it’s a little bit like “it depends.” Maybe you answer one way today and another way tomorrow. Maybe it’s a little of both/and.
Maybe God is too big and too vast, too beyond us and too right-here-with-us for us to pin down with simple explanations; God far exceeds the limits of our language to describe God – and yet, God is here, even now, in and through us and our relationships and our words and our worship.
In our singing and our praying, and in the bread and cup on this table here. Perhaps there is no better way to imagine the vastness of God than through the ordinary feast of communion, where the God who is beyond and in all things meets us and feeds us and loves us again.
People of God, you have been created and loved by a God too big and vast to define. Let us come now to this table where the feast has been made ready for us. Amen.