Sermon: “Divine Image, Human Purpose”

I preached from this sermon manuscript for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on July 17, 2022 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Colossians 1:15-28 and Luke 10:38-42.


Sermon

I would like to thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me to the pulpit and you for welcoming me. I’ll keep today’s comments brief. I will only look at today’s two passages, consider the practice of preaching, human approaches to both revelation and science and delve into the heart of the universe. This should only take a few minutes.

A conventional way of preparing a sermon is to look at the world around us and try to make some sense of it in the context of the preaching texts. This is a liberal approach, because it both assumes that believers need to apply their faith to daily life, and that faith should be responsive to the world around us. Historically, this means reading newspapers, but today it probably means obsessing over Twitter. Either way, unfortunately, for the last two, twenty, or two hundred years the news that gets our attention tends to be bad. Some crisis or disaster occurs and so the theological response is one of fortitude, or patience, or endurance or hope. I’ve preached the same myself. I’ve preached the same from this pulpit. So you would be forgiven if you expected to hear something about the January 6th hearings or the drought in the southwest, the war in Ukraine or any number of things, but that’s not ultimately what focused my attention this week. There was something else to talk about, and it made me very happy. Perhaps you too.

After many years and enormous cost overruns, the James Webb Space Telescope has given us images of wonder. And by us, I mean the whole world. As with other NASA-led projects, this telescope feels like a global accomplishment, and that’s noteworthy in its own right. But I keep going back to those pictures: the birthplace of stars within nebulae, the cliff-like formation deep in the Carina Nebula and of course that speckled image with the multitude of galaxies all found — and here’s a phrase that will enter the vocabulary of wonder — in the size of a grain of sand held at arm’s length. (Quotation from NASA) Something that seems so small yet holding multitudes. There is so much out there and so much yet to be found. The telescope will produce data which will take lifetimes to process and analyze.

But since most of us aren’t astrophysicists and astronomers, why the popular interest? I suspect many of us owe a debt to Carl Sagan and other popular scientists who gave us a language of wonder when we look up into the heavens, a position formerly held by theologians. (So if NASA would like to invest billions into theological exploration I wouldn’t say no.) And it is theological, because the questions the James Webb Space Telescope raises, even if it cannot answer, come as close to public theology as we have today. What is our place in the universe? And by extension, our purpose? Is all the life in the universe found on the crust of our small blue world? Are we alone, or are we awash in an ocean of life, not knowing what else exists because of the great expanse of space, the limitations of our understanding and the shortness of our lives? The stellar portraits are important and not simply beautiful because I express our wonder in the vastness and grandeur of the universe.

Of course this is not the first time human beings have looked up to the heavens and marveled. We look into the night sky, and cannot reach those lights: a metaphor for the Divine which carries over from generation to generation and beyond. Whether astronomy or astrology, now or thousands of years ago, with the naked eye or an observation platform literally a million miles from here, the stars and heavens are an ideal context for our questions, and an ideal dwelling place for the unknowable reaches of God.

Our reading from Colossians is full of such imagery. Angels, rather than galaxies, are the multitudes. It is the seat of God, and the place from which Christ arranges creation. It’s not clear if the apostle Paul wrote it. He may have dictated it to someone who changed his particular style or it may simply be attributed to him. It does come from an early period of Christian thought. Here Jesus the humble preacher in Judea is recast as the image of the living God, the agent through whom all things are made and the keeper of deep primordial truths. I think I understand why. It has to do with how God’s truth is presented to us. Universalists have long professed the presence of revelation within Scripture. We make reference to it in our declaration of faith, which is itself derived from earlier denominational professions. So at one level, yes, we can find truthful and personally meaningful texts within scripture, but there are other levels. For example, there’s a kind of development within scripture. As human beings change, our understanding of God changes, for example. It’s hard for us to imagine as God as anything but a universal spirit now, but that’s not how God is always depicted in scripture. The author of Colossians expresses Christ’s role as a bridge between humanity and divinity in cosmic language.

Revelation isn’t just about what’s written, but it informs our approach to knowledge, and gives us guidance about how we interpret our response. Revelation is not just what is given to us in scripture but what we find when we try to understand it. It shows us what the value. Revelation includes the a-ha moment that helps us be more truly and deeply human in the best sense. It’s the same sensation as when we are touched by great art, natural beauty and those awe-inspiring images from the James Webb, but with an added dimension of morality. What do we do with these great and wonderful feelings? Once our awe of the universe turns back to Earth, what do we make of the life we see around us? You and I might not be as exciting as extraterrestrial life, but we are here, and our life together makes demands on us.

These demands are the focus of our reading from Luke. I’m personally conflicted by today’s gospel passage, probably because I’m a Martha by nature. She does all the right things and works her hands to the bone, but Mary becomes the hero of the story. Martha was busy, but Mary heard the truth and responded to it, accordingly Mary knew the true value of discipleship. Or as St. James (2:18) put it, faith without works is dead. It’s not enough to be busy, you have to discern what is worth doing and treasuring.

And this brings us back to some bad news. (There was going to be some bad news, wasn’t there?) When I started in the ministry, I served a small church in Georgia and supplied the pulpits of other churches, including two in South Carolina. This involved a lot of driving. To mix it up a bit, I would visit roadside attractions, and the quirkiest of these was something called the Georgia Guidestones. It was a vaguely Stonehenge-like monument made of granite, set in a field outside of Elberton, Georgia. But no one knows who paid for its construction in 1980 but the reason it was there was obvious. That part of Georgia sits on an enormous exposure of monument-grade blue-gray granite. The industry, in short, is headstones, and so the material and construction skills were nearby. The Guidestones, far from being massive headstones, had advice inscribed upon them in a number of languages, for example Prize truth — beauty — love.

Like the funder, the purpose of the Guidestones was unclear but the internal evidence of the writings and their location provided a plausible answer. The site is near a river, the Savannah, but far enough from population centers to survive a nuclear war. Presumably future survivors might use the Guidestones has a foundation to rebuild and recover. Like Stonehenge, the Guidestones even had grooves cut into the stone so they could act as a solar observatory. From here too, future generations could look up into the heavens. 

At some point, persons with extreme opinions considered the Guidestones to be Satanic, possibly by misreading the population goals as a mass elimination of today’s population. One candidate for governor even made it a part of her platform to have them destroyed. And earlier this month, persons unknown blew up the Guidestones; the county demolished the rest as the remains were deemed a safety hazard. It just makes me sick to think that something that was probably meant to help humanity by being put in a remote area was destroyed because it didn’t belong to anyone to be properly tended. Better that the space telescope is a million miles away….

All of this serves as a warning. American democracy, our climate, a peaceful world order and stable food supplies seem particularly fragile now. But so is our grasp on the truth. I believe a liberal approach to theology is ultimately stronger for individuals because it is less fragile to contradictions and shocks. But it takes a lot of work, too. Seeing different points of view, gently holding contradictions in tension, using imagination joyfully, being patient but firm towards ignorance… all of these take a lot of work. And when we are feeling stressed, it may not feel like it is worth the trouble. When you’re hunkered down. It might seem like an unaffordable luxury. If the news rattles you everyday, it’s easy to be stuck in the moment and not take the longer view. Remember Mary and Martha. Stay cool, and remember what is important. Our days are not the accumulations of individual tasks, but a living out of God’s purpose which involves greater and higher things. Instead. Let us look into the heavens, the depth of eternity to explore their depths, ask those questions and find greatness and truth.

Correcting resources for very small churches

Last month, I proposed ten kinds of resources that might already exist to help very small churches. A commenter suggested an eleventh. I’d like to take a couple of months to start filling in a resource list. If you know of an applicable resources, please leave it in the comments and I’ll review it (for applicability) and add it to the list.

  1. Training manuals and spreadsheets for volunteer treasurers
  2. Resources for accompanying hymn singing without a trained musician
  3. Self-directed spiritual development resources with a group element
  4. Model agreements for supply preachers
  5. Templates for preparing attractive orders of service and newsletters
  6. Recipes and guidelines for easy-to-prepare but delicious (and safe) church lunches and dinners
  7. Model guidance for protecting vulnerable persons in small churches
  8. Resources for the delivery and organization of sermons for novice preachers
  9. Ready-to-print materials appropriate for children who come to services
  10. Trustworthy guidance about “how political” a church can be without disrupting its non-profit status
  11. Computers and internet access; worship without Zoom. (By request.)

 

Sermon: “The Right Use of the Spirit”

I preached from this sermon manuscript for the Universalist National Memorial Church, on June 12, 2022 using lessons from the Revised Common Lectionary: Romans 5: 1-5  and John 16: 12-15.


Each time I preach in this church, I thank Pastor Gatton for inviting me and you for welcoming me. This isn’t just a bit of ministerial etiquette. Several of you know that I used to be the minister of this church (many years ago) and I want you to know (and want you to know that I know) that I don’t take my presence here for granted. I respect the established lines of authority and responsibility, precisely because this was once a problem in ministerial college. My greeting, therefore, is also a bit of applied ecclesiology. It comes from a spiritual discipline. And thank you this morning.

I’m not the only one to frame a sermon with a recognizable formula. Pastor Gatton (and others) introduce sermons with a title, preparing our thoughts in a particular direction. And the Reverend Colleen Fay always begins with a prayer from scripture,

Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my strength, and my redeemer.

That passage from Psalm 19 prepares us listeners, but it is also a prayer and a plea that chastens the preacher to speak truthfully. And I’ve been thinking about the truth lately, and how we prepare ourselves to defend it.

The vocation of truth

Maybe it’s a minister’s bias, but I see the work of the sermon in parallel to the work of our individual Christian vocations. Both require reflection, and benefit from having forms. There’s no guidebook to being a faithful Christian (no, not even the Bible) or even a list of essential characteristics. Because the point of this faith is to have “our life and to have it more abundantly” – and not only for ourselves, before the sake of the whole world. We make use of our spiritual lives in a supportive environment like the church so we will be strong and flexible to respond the rest of the time. And that includes being truthful and trustworthy.

The Trinity Sunday “problem”

In many churches, today is commemorated as Trinity Sunday, teaching the nature of the relationship of one God in three persons: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Universalists have not made belief in the orthodox doctrine of Trinity a requirement to belong; neither must it be disbelieved, and in fact I do believe it.

In some denominations, the Trinity Sunday sermon was an opportunity for preachers to explain this complex and nuanced theology for the edification of the people — and too often to get it incorrect and fall just the kind of formal heresy they were hoping to teach against. Such a sermon could also be a way for learned ministers to show off their education, using language and concepts that they do not commonly use themselves – in short, to show off. There are ways to teach the doctrine of the Trinity, but that is not it. Such preaching does not bring truth, does not demonstrate trust and it does not bring life.

The liberal approach to theology – we’re a liberal Christian church – is more subtle. We must take what we know, our context in the world, and what we have inherited as religious culture (and other cultures) and from these create a theological framework from which we live and make our everyday lives richer and more meaningful. Such observations need to be tested, and generous margins must be left for friendly disagreement. We are guided, inspired, encouraged and (yes) chastened by scripture and those interpretations of our tradition which collectively call theology. In stable times, this interplay of tradition and interpretation can set up guidelines to help us live well and better.

The “use” of truth

And in hard times, this approach and the convictions it finally develops can give us the strength and resolve to make difficult decisions.

As a nation, we have to face a lot of difficult truths to face, not the least of which is the January 6 investigation. I’m worried if the truth will not be see, and get buried under conspiracy and misdirection. As a world, I’m worried that climate change will make living unbearable and spark wars that consume millions. But will we hear the truth and take corrective steps, or let the comfort of inertia carry us beyond the point of no return? We need help, and look for concrete solutions. But spiritual life is not the same as political or economic life.

“Thoughts and prayers” are not adequate responses when making public policy, but they are essential preconditions for Christians setting out to respond to evil. Those thoughts — the meditations of our hearts — are a preparation for God to help us make sense of what we have experienced. In great occasions and important moments, discernment is not optional.

For if we do not know who we are, and what we stand for, we can too easily be co-opted into each and every cause of the day. This happens all over the political landscape because political and economic life seems strong and real, while spiritual life seems weak and ephemeral. Let’s try to understand it better.

The Spirit

In our lessons today we hear about a spirit which is to come to us. In Romans, Paul refers to “The Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus promised that “when the Spirit of truth comes he will guide you into all truth.” The coming of the Spirit is commemorated at Pentecost, last week, where its presence dissolved the differences of different nations, and let them understand one another as with a common language.

What is the spirit? How do we know if its presence? Why should we believe any of this? If it were that important, why isn’t it the the Great Sacred Hammer or the Brick Wall of Illumination or something more concrete? But since it’s a spirit, what do we do with it?

We cannot see it, we cannot measure it; neither can we capture or control it. It is free.

For just as there are false gods and false saviors, there are false spirits. The spirit must be discerned with patience and gentleness; it cannot be hurried or forced. It may be claimed, but it’s on us whether we believe the claim. For in a sense, the process of discerning the spirit is its power. So, when our conscience is betrayed, when decisions are forced, when persons are defamed, the immeasurable, unconquerable, invisible spirit is far more real than the madness that passes for reality.

Likewise, then the spirit is performed, like a play, and then we know it is not the spirit that is speaking. Or when it is brought out to hurt others, or to create division or to validate its preachers, we know to pause and examine, because a spirit maybe speaking but it is neither holy nor the bringer of truth. If our faith moves us in a God-ward direction, we should know who is guiding us, and whether or not its trustworthy.

Romans takes extra work

Themes explored in Romans

Our first reading today comes from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. I am drawing heavily from The Story of Romans: A Narrative Defense of God’s Righteousness by the Rev. Katherine Grieb, a professor of New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary over in Alexandria. Even though you could read this document in less than an hour, it’s theological importance can’t be overstated. It’s influence on Augustine shape the development of the church, and their influence on Luther galvanized the Protestant Reformation. Even today, it acts as a common text for churches seeking common ground. Paul in Romans makes an appeal to conscience; he also respectfully recognizes Phoebe, a colleague in the ministry, itself an important note as other texts from Paul have been used to justify limiting the ministry to men.

Nevertheless, Roman can be a hard read, and not just because of its complex grammar and use of allusions. It contains one of the main “gotcha” texts against gay men, which tells me a lot about how people find what they want. And themes in Romans have been perversely twisted to justify the conversion efforts against Jews, if not worse.

Paul, as a Jew, needed to make sense of God’s promises to Israel on one hand, and the fact that this revelation he preached was not accepted by his own people, but was increasingly accepted by everyone else.

For context, the church in Rome had conflict between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. And a lot of the trouble wasn’t theological but came from outside the community. The emperor Claudius decreed that all Jews were to be expelled from Rome. There was a controversial figure called Chrestus; perhaps a misunderstood reference to conflict between Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and those who didn’t. Claudius didn’t take sides in the controversy and expelled all of them. This meant that the Christian church in Rome was Gentile until Claudius died and his ban expired. When Jews returned to Rome, including Jewish Christians, unresolved and perhaps deepened theological disputes came back up.

Additionally, Paul couldn’t understand why Jews in his own day didn’t accept Jesus as the messiah. The letter shows his anguish, lays out arguments and counters others. It’s too much to get into now, but all his thoughts hinge on God’s righteousness, and how God has a future purpose and goal for Israel; today’s passage is a hinge in that discourse.

“A slave…” to what?

Paul begins Romans by calling himself a slave of Jesus Christ, which is upsetting, galling or insulting to modern ears. But what he and his listeners understood is that each of us is dependent upon something. Perhaps a person or persons, perhaps a form of economy or system of government, perhaps an idea, perhaps our own desires. We are not truly independent. Paul, interpreting his experience, acknowledged his dependence on Jesus Christ as a source of life, truth and hope, even if his personal outcome is (in fact, was) hardship, suffering and death.

Because “we are justified by faith we have peace with God.” How? To flip around Paul’s difficult syntax, “through our Lord Jesus Christ, … [we access] this grace in which we stand.” From this, “we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God.”

This doesn’t mean we are justified by our intellectual assent to something about God, but instead we are justified by God’s righteousness, Instead think of it this way: that God is faithful in maintaining the promises God makes. This is what we mean by saying that God is righteous. God is right-doing. (Squaring the righteousness of God with the future of Israel is Paul’s key concerned in the letter to the Romans but this detailed discussion isn’t well suited to be slotted into a sermon, so I’ll leave that for now.)

Worthy of worship

Something you find in Universalist thinking over and over is that God must be worthy of worship. A God who would inflict conscious and eternal torment on any sentient being is not worthy of worship; it is slander against God; it is our imputing our anger and violence onto the Creator of the Universe. Such of God is untrustworthy, for in other words, is not righteous.

A trustworthy God would not abandon us, and does not. Consider that the presence of God’s spirit comes in moments of clear resolve, of self-giving love, in difficult decisions, in moments of harmony, in peace after conflict, in the remembrance of friends, in the satisfaction from restrain, in laughter after tears, in “hope that does not disappoint.” We test these feelings by reflection, with consultation with trusted persons, by waiting in silence, in comparison with trustworthy evidence, with patience, hearing the voice of conscience…

So the spirit is not something for us to use, but we to be led by it, to be comforted and revived, and be blessed.

The proper use of the spirit

Friends: God makes the proper use of the spirit: given it to us that we might discern the truth and do it. And this is one way a righteous God, a loving God lives in the world, and gives us hope.

Conclusion

And so may God bless us and keep us, providing what we need so we might be a blessing to one another.

10 resources for very small churches

Derek Parker, a friend and minister, responded to my request for what I might write for this blog. This is a list I drew up over lunch, in no particular order. What would you add?

  1. Training manuals and spreadsheets for volunteer treasurers
  2. Resources for accompanying hymn singing without a trained musician
  3. Self-directed spiritual development resources with a group element
  4. Model agreements for supply preachers
  5. Templates for preparing attractive orders of service and newsletters
  6. Recipes and guidelines for easy-to-prepare but delicious (and safe) church lunches and dinners
  7. Model guidance for protecting vulnerable persons in small churches
  8. Resources for the delivery and organization of sermons for novice preachers
  9. Ready-to-print materials appropriate for children who come to services
  10. Trustworthy guidance about “how political” a church can be without disrupting its non-profit status

Sometimes it’s just a question of identifying resources that exist. No need to reinvent the wheel.

New in church formation?

I was reading a work of biblical interpretation from 2002 which referred to the house churches of the early Christian era. Memories of then-chic church planting came back, almost accusingly. Were new house churches such a good idea then? Did they endure? Did it lead to sustained growth, either numerical or spiritual?

I realized that I’m so out of touch with church planting and church growth (not just house churches but all models) that not only did I not know, but don’t know what’s current now. Churches, in any case, seem more fragile now than then whether “old line” or more innovative, of any theological stripe.

Do you know what the trends are? I’m not afraid to ask for ideas and citations.

Lovely examples of order of service?

Another request. I’m looking for lovely samples of orders of service. Necessarily available in a downloadable format online, and preferably from a small church (of whatever stripe) or one that works with a tight budget. Feel free to chime in, even years from now.

There’s something dispiriting to visit a church and find something that was clearly made with love (I’m trying to be nice here) but is ugly, disorganized, jam-packed with add-ins or otherwise unpleasant to use.

I’d ask the same for newsletters, but those are harder to find in print. Alas.

Reading “Search”

I’ve started reading Michelle Huneven’s church memoir Search, about her experience with a ministerial search in a California Unitarian Universalist congregation. The details are altered to create a cloak of anonymity, though it doesn’t take much effort to pull back the veil. (I don’t know how much is fiction; the author and the protagonist have a little dance of identity.)

I’m about a fifth the way through. I’m not sure how a general audience will read it, but I feel like another veil — the practices of and about the ministry — are also being pulled back, and that’s not a bad thing. Several times already, I’ve been slingshot back twenty or twenty-five years to my own formation and the search that brought me to Washington. But I also see the clouds gathering in the book; conflict is coming. I’ll comment more as I go along, or when I finish.

While I don’t recommend prospective ministers develop their vocation in a Unitarian Universalist context (more about that later) if you feel yourself drawn that way, go ahead and get a copy: it’ll surely become part of the folklore of the calling. Anyone else reading it?

What would you want to see?

Part of me wants to start blogging again. Part of me says that the blogging age is over and that almost nobody would care.

I’m putting this out there not to cultivate sympathy, but to get a sense of whether anyone would read anything I write, and if so (and this is the important part) what kind of things would you like to see in 2022?

Please comment.