Sermon: November 27, 2016 – Mystery of God – Part 4: God as Light

Mystery of God – Part 4: God as Light

Text: John 1: 1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,[a] and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

This may be my favorite scripture in all the New Testament; there are a few Hebrew Bible passages that rank right up there as well, but for New Testament, I think this one from John is probably my favorite. It is a favorite for a number of reasons. For one thing the imagery and metaphor that is brought to life is, in my opinion, beautifully written. I resonate with the concept of God and Jesus depicted as light and I am particularly fond of the last few words where it states that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. That is a very hopeful statement. I also like this particular scripture because I think it announces the Christmas season and the meaning of Christmas perhaps better than any other. I look forward each year to this Advent season so that I can once again look at this scripture and form sermons and worship services around these concepts.

I mentioned last week that my short answer to the question I raised was God is light. This scripture confirms that, at least in a metaphorical sense. But just in case you have been out of the loop for a little while, let me refresh your memories.

We have been working our way through a sermon series about the mystery of God. I have mentioned that I believe some of this mystery can be unraveled a little bit by taking clues that we find in the natural world. I have also said that often I think the mystery of God presents itself to us in the form of a question. A couple of weeks ago we looked at the question of why bad things happen to good people. Last week we began to look at the questions of who is God and what is God as we continued to unravel some of the mystery of God. Last week I mentioned that I felt it was important that if we are going to try to define God that we do so with a wide-angle view. In other words, it might be important for us to incorporate many different views of God rather than sticking with traditions about God that are uniquely Christian.

As we consider our questions of who is God or what is God, I hinted last week that I thought God could best be described as light. The text I read a minute ago is a prime example of the use of light as a descriptor of the Divine. But there are others, a lot of others.

I wanted to begin our unraveling of this mysterious God by pointing out a basic concept of light that I think is very important for us to understand. There are many Christians who believe we are engaged in spiritual warfare, and the dark side, to use Star Wars type language, has real power and real influence in the world. Some Christians even believe that Satan or the devil is an actual being with power and influence over the human mind. This spiritual warfare is a battle of will and a battle of wits and it acknowledges that the power of evil is strong and we can only overcome this evil power by aligning ourselves with someone more powerful. Of course, that someone in this context would be Jesus. In other words, if we are afraid of the bully, we hang around with the guy who is tougher than the bully. As in the text I read a few minutes ago, this battle is sometimes described as light versus darkness. Even in Star Wars the evil side was called the dark side and in our text John reminds us that the darkness has not overcome the light.

When you are speaking or writing in metaphor, I guess this is an OK way to explain the power of God. The down side of this metaphor is that it grants far too much power and authority to darkness and it reinforces what I consider to be a very dangerous myth, and that is the devil is actually real.

So I mentioned I wanted to begin with a basic concept of light. This understanding of light, I believe, is much closer to the truth than the metaphorical story of a fallen angel. This aspect of light, which I think we must understand, is that there is no such thing as darkness. Darkness cannot be measured or quantified in any way. You cannot take a room and add darkness to that room. Unlike light, darkness does not travel at a particular speed.

What I’m trying to explain is that darkness is not a thing. Darkness is a condition; that condition is simply the absence of light. This is a very different idea than granting darkness power or authority or giving darkness a persona that tricks and manipulates. In our natural world, which I think is a good measure of the personality of God, darkness is not a thing or a being or have any power whatsoever. Darkness is merely a condition caused by the absence of light. Bring light in and the darkness flees without a fight. There is no spiritual warfare, there is no fighting of the dark side; once you introduce light, the darkness is gone in an instant.

This is one of the reasons I find the metaphor of God as light very attractive. Light dispels darkness and light identifies darkness as powerless. Darkness is a condition brought about by the absence of light.

But light has other properties worth mentioning. Another aspect of light that I think fits well with my personal concept of God is that light is required for almost any kind of life or growth we know of on this planet. That statement at one time was unequivocal; light absolutely was required for any kind of life. In recent years science has discovered some tiny sea creatures that survive at ocean depths where there is not any light. They seem to draw their energy from thermal vents on the ocean floor. So with the exception of those weird tiny sea creatures, light is required for life of almost any kind.

What I think is particularly interesting is the process by which this light is used. We need to really think about this, because I feel it is an important concept. To understand that the giant Redwood and the delicate flower both use light in their process of growth is to begin to understand God. You see, the light does not mandate what the life produces, what it looks like or how it is used. In our natural world light is used to grow food and warm our bodies. Light is used to raise fresh flowers and keep the animals on this planet alive. Light is used with such diversity that we can’t even begin to name all the ways. But consider the property of light which falls on the earth without regard to what it becomes or how it is used. Light may help produce a newborn infant and it may also help a tree clean our air of carbon dioxide. The point is that light is both necessary and egalitarian all at the same time. Remember when I said we will need to look beyond a uniquely Christian definition of God? Imagine if light fell on this planet but someone tried to enforce a rule that the light could only be used a certain way? What if someone decided that oak trees were the only true users of light and all other forms of life were false? Does that make any sense at all? Of course not. Nature has many expressions of the growing power of light, and so should we.

I only have time for one more example, even though the light analogies and metaphors could go on and on. This concept is one that if I tried to explain it in any detail I would fail; so you have two options; you can either just take my word for it, or you can look it up and read about for yourself. What I am talking about is a famous experiment that was first conducted early in the 19th century. Since that time it has become increasingly complex and even more meaningful because of the advance of quantum physics. This is what is usually called the double slit experiment.

Without trying to explain all the details, most of which I do not really understand, let me just give you what I find fascinating about this experiment. With all of our scientific inquiry and research and advancements in science, there is still some debate about the properties of light. Some say that light is a particle and some say that light is a wave and some say it is both, although in the rest of the scientific world, it is impossible for something to be both a particle and a wave.

The double slit experiment uses a light source to prove that light can be seen as a particle and can also be seen as a wave. What seems to make a big difference in the experiment is what the expectations are of the observer. Now let that sink in. There is an experiment that seems to indicate that if you expect light to be in a wave pattern that is what you see. If you expect to see light as a particle, you can also see that. From a certain perspective, it seems that light changes form based on the expectations of the observer.

I believe this is partially the reason that the Christian response to the mystery of God has been Trinitarian in nature. God is so diverse that we seek to define God in three ways as parent and partner and spiritual director. Those may be accurate, but I also think there are probably 100 more. Just as in our experiment the light responds to the needs or expectations of the observer, so God responds to our needs. God becomes that which we need or desire at any given moment and can change from moment to moment depending upon our needs or expectations.

To understand this particular aspect of the Divine, I think, is the beginning of, pardon the pun, the beginning of enlightenment.

God as light has many parallels, but none are more important than the one where we began. Simply and beautifully stated the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not and will not overcome it. The light of the world has come for all as a witness to the power of that light and as a shining example of what living in the light can be. God is light and it shines on you. How you use that light and what you manifest with that light is up to you.

Go as children of the light and go in peace. Amen.

 

Sermon: November 20, 2016 – “The Mystery of God – Part 3”

The Mystery of God – Part 3

Text: John 4: 24

24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.

Over the past few weeks we have been exploring some of the mysteries of God and looking for ways to help us unravel some of that mystery. One of the ways we have increased our understanding, or perhaps become more comfortable with the mystery is by looking to our natural world for some clues. I have made the comment that I believe much of our natural world reflects what I called the personality of God, or reflects certain character traits of the Divine that in turn help us move closer to a fuller understanding of the Divine.

Often the mystery of God comes to us in the form of a question; last week we looked closely at the question of why bad things happen to good people. I hope our exploration of that question was meaningful and helpful for you. Today, I want to explore another very common question and that is “who is God” or perhaps more accurately, “what is God”?

I do believe our natural world holds some clues that will help us answer this question, but before we look at the natural world I want to take a minute and analyze the question itself. There is an old saying that you shouldn’t ask the question if you don’t want to know the answer. That is particularly true, I believe, when we ask this particular question; there may be answers to this question that challenge us in a number of ways.

For example, I think that most of us would agree that God as creator is an image that we are comfortable with. We believe that the creation of the universe and our planet was at some level divinely inspired, and I would agree with that assessment. On the flip side of that “God as creator image” must also come the realization that the presence of Christianity is just a blink of the eye in terms of the extent of time we are exploring.

Let me put this into perspective for you. If the history of the universe were to be compressed into a 24-hour day, the presence of humans on this planet would take place in the last second of the last minute of that 24-hour day. Most of science agrees that humanity is between 6 and 8 thousand years old. So if we look to Christianity as being approximately 2,000 years old, that means Christianity has been around for the last 1/3 of the last second of our 24-hour period of time.

For me, that begs the question of what we should use as a reliable source for understanding God. Do we use something that has known God for close to the entire 24-hours or do we use observations that have been made in the last one-third of the very last second of the 24-hour period? Obviously, the more reliable source of information would be those sources which have been present with the Divine for the greatest length of time. This is one of the reasons why I believe that perhaps our natural world holds more answers to our questions about God than we may have originally thought. Our natural world has known God for a much greater length of time and perhaps reflects to us a more accurate reflection of God than does any human observation. Even with human sources, the particular and unique Christian perspective is just a newborn infant by comparison.

So as we analyze the question of “who is God” or “what is God” I think it is important for us to resist the temptation to define God in uniquely Christian terms. I believe it is a much better form of analysis to remind ourselves that God is far beyond mere Christianity and that our faith tradition of choice, that Christianity, is just a lens through which we view God.

Following that metaphor for just a minute, we can certainly acknowledge that a lens can change our perspective of what we view through a lens, but it doesn’t change what is. In other words, I have a number of lenses that I carry with me when I go out and about to shoot photographs. This is a picture of Yellowstone Falls that was taken through a long lens; some refer to this type of lens as a telephoto lens. It brings the image or the subject up close; similar to what a pair of binoculars does for you. Here is another photograph of Yellowstone Falls taken from approximately the same spot, but with a wide-angle lens. These are two very different representations of what I happened to see from exactly the same place.

What I want to point out is that just because we happen to be looking at Yellowstone Falls through a telephoto lens doesn’t mean the rest of Yellowstone Canyon doesn’t exist. Can you imagine what a photograph of Yellowstone Falls might look like taken from a satellite orbiting the earth? That would be a different perspective still, and yet the actual falls and canyon would not have changed. This is what I mean when I say that Christianity is a lens through which we view God. If you change lenses, you may see more or perhaps less of God than you did before. That is also the reason I believe it is not wise to look to Christianity as the sole definer of what God happens to be. Without multiple lenses, and without the experience of having been around for the full 24-hours of our metaphorical history of the world compressed into a single day, we cannot possibly receive an accurate image of God from such a limited perspective.

When we ask the question, “who or what is God”, if we are truly seeking an answer to that question, I think we must be prepared for that answer to challenge any notion we may have that Christianity is the single source by which to know God. Christianity is a lens through which we view a particular perspective of God, and that part of the answer can be challenging for some of us to come to terms with. Many of us have been taught that Christianity worships the one true God and all other representations of God are false. For me, that is simply not the case. The fact that much of Christianity seeks to define God in that manner is one of the primary reasons why I deem Christianity to be an unreliable source of information when we seek to answer our question. Christianity may offer some information and perspective about God, but as a single source, it is, at least for me, an unreliable source of information. God is simply bigger and much older than Christianity.

Another way of looking at this question would be to use the analogy of a 3-year old child who is just learning how to talk describing his or hers elderly great grandmother. There would be some useful information as our child described the elderly person. But we also recognize that the 3-year old perspective would offer just a small fraction of a true reflection of who this person actually is. If we wanted to get to know this great grandmother, we would need to talk to other people who had a different perspective. Getting to know God and getting to an answer of our question is no different. We need to seek other sources and other perspectives.

That is why I have chosen the scripture from the Gospel of John that I read at the beginning of this sermon. By defining God as a spirit, it grants us the level of flexibility required to explore all our sources of information as we seek to answer the question; “who or what is God.”

So far, I have yet to even begin to answer that question; but I will give you a preview. Next Sunday we begin the Advent season. I will be drawing from our natural world and using examples from what we know about light as we welcome the Divine into our midst. So the short answer to our question is God is light. If you want to know what that means, you’ll have to come back next week, because we are out of time.

Go in peace,  Amen.

 

 

 

Sermon: November 13, 2016 – The Mystery of God – Part Two

The Mystery of God – Part Two

Text: Galatians 6: 7-10

Do not be deceived; God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit. So let us not grow weary in doing what is right, for we will reap at harvest time, if we do not give up. 10 So then, whenever we have an opportunity, let us work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith.

Last week I introduced to you what I intend to be a series of sermons designed to help us unravel the mystery of God. I also mentioned that I believe there are clues for us that can be found in the natural world that help us understand and embrace that mystery. One way for us to think about this would be to consider that in some ways the natural world reflects the personality of God. If you know me and have been paying attention over the past few years you will recognize that to describe God as having a personality reinforces what I call an anthropomorphic image of God. This is normally something I resist. But in this case, I believe some character traits, or a personality, or perhaps even the many facets or faces of God are displayed in our natural world. These character traits help us unravel the mysteries we do not understand.

One of the mysteries I mentioned last week was a popular question about why bad things seem to happen to good people. Or more specifically, why does it seem that bad things sometimes happen to me? Why is my life turned upside down at this particular moment?

As we look to nature and the natural world for clues to help us unravel this mystery, I believe one thing we can notice right away is that the natural world runs on cycles. There are the obvious cycles of the seasons, the cycles of the moon, the cycles of tides and cycles of night and day. Our own bodies run on certain cycles; if you have ever experienced a severe case of jet lag, you know what I’m talking about!

The text I read a few minutes ago reminds us that there is a harvest time. If you read this text in a different translation, you might find the words we will find our reward in due season. All this seems to indicate that we cannot expect our lives to be in harvest time all the time; there are other seasons and we should anticipate as much.

I want to share with you another mystery found in the natural world that I think is a perfect example of what I’m talking about. This mystery has to do with the fresh water lakes and streams and rivers we have on this planet and what happens to them as the seasons change. You might remember from your junior high earth science class that a lake will turn over during the course of the seasonal change. By turn over, what is meant is that the water that has been at the bottom of the lake during the winter will rise to the surface and the surface water will sink to the bottom. So there is a shifting and a circulating of the water in the lake or stream or river. Most places on earth experience this to some degree, but any place that has freezing temperatures in the winter for certain has it happen to the fresh water in those locations.

But here are a couple of important points. One important point for us to realize is that this turn over is absolutely critical for the health of the lake. If a body of water fails to turn over it isn’t long before the water becomes stagnant and contaminated to the point where it becomes hazardous. A lake must turn over in order to stay healthy.

Another interesting point is the mystery around how the lake turns over. I can explain it, sort of, but in the big picture, it still remains a bit of a mystery. We need to begin with a lake on a nice warm summer day. If you happen to be swimming in this lake, you will notice that as you dive into the water, the water gets cooler the deeper you dive. This is because as the water gets cooler, it becomes more dense and is then heavier and so it sinks. This means the coldest water is on the very bottom of the lake.

So far, everything makes perfect sense at least in terms of how the world works. But then something really interesting happens; as the coldest water begins to reach freezing temperatures, suddenly it begins to expand. This means the coldest water, which is at the bottom of the lake, just begins to reach freezing and it then begins to expand, or become less dense. As it becomes less dense, it becomes lighter than the water around it and it floats to the surface. This is why lakes and rivers freeze from the top down and not from the bottom up.

Now science can explain this process; at least sort of. This is what a water molecule looks like in its normal state. There is one molecule of hydrogen, which the H in H2O, and there are two oxygen molecules, which of course represents the other part of H2O. In a liquid state, the oxygen molecules can slide around the hydrogen molecule and stay attached in almost any position. If you can imagine water molecules packed into a mason jar like marbles, which is sort of what it would look like. The marbles can pack in around each other and pack tightly without any wasted space.

What happens when it reaches a freezing temperature is the oxygen molecules can no longer slide around the hydrogen molecule, they begin to stick. So as the water begins to freeze, the molecules cannot pack as tightly together, they look more like Mickey Mouse ears. If you imagine the mason jar now full of Mickey Mouse ears, you can quickly realize that you could not fit as many marbles into the jar. This is the same as it becoming less dense; so it is lighter and it floats to the surface.

What I think is really fascinating is that this unique property of water actually saves the life of the planet. You see, if fresh water on this planet were to all freeze from the bottom up and consequently freeze solid in the winter, it would be the end of life as we know it on this planet. It wouldn’t be long before most of life here on earth would be destroyed.

So not only is it healthy for the lakes to turn over, it is mandatory for our survival on this planet. If lakes were not turned upside down every season, almost all life would be destroyed. That is a natural cycle. I believe that represents the intelligent design of the universe.

But I also think that we can look at that lesson and recognize that we, too are a part of nature and a part of this planet. If lakes need to be turned upside down every so often, is it possible or lives are the same way?

When we encounter hardships or defeats or struggles in our lives that seem to turn it all upside down, can we have the faith to recognize it may be a normal cycle? Can we have the faith to recognize it may be necessary for our own health? Can we have the faith to recognize that even though it feels like we are losing at the moment, the promise of scripture tells us we will reap again in due season?

I want to share an interesting story with you. I began this series last week and I already knew what today’s sermon was going to be about. On Monday of last week I outlined the bulletin and selected the text I read because I thought it fit so well with what I wanted to say about the lakes and what happens when water freezes. Then on Tuesday afternoon I began to outline my sermon. This is about the same routine I normally follow.

On Wednesday morning I listened to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech. Now I don’t care who you voted for or what you personally think of Hillary. Whatever your opinion is should not diminish the fact that this was a difficult loss for her. In almost every way, her life had been turned upside down in just a few hours as the election results came in. On Wednesday morning, during her concession speech to her supporters, Hillary Clinton quoted this scripture which I had already selected for my sermon. She reminded her supporters and followers that they will reap a harvest again, in due season.

There is something important that I said last week that I wanted to remind you of again. That is the importance of knowing what is and knowing what can change. Acceptance of what is can be our greatest source of comfort and understanding. Knowing what can change can be our greatest source of hope. Sometimes when our lives get turned upside down, we can look at the lakes and recognize this may be for our benefit in the long run. We can also recognize what is, and not resist it and create more pain and suffering around it. We can also recognize what in our situation can change, and begin work on that immediately and find hope in that effort.

So I believe the cycles of nature, the way freshwater lakes and streams turn over each year and the way our own lives at times get turned upside down at times are all related. The mystery of God is partially made known to us through the cycles of nature.

And that is food for thought.

Amen.

 

Sermon: November 6, 2016 – “The Mystery of God”

“The Mystery of God”

Text: Ephesians 3: 1-5

This is the reason that I Paul am a prisoner for Christ Jesus for the sake of you Gentiles— for surely you have already heard of the commission of God’s grace that was given me for you, and how the mystery was made known to me by revelation, as I wrote above in a few words, a reading of which will enable you to perceive my understanding of the mystery of Christ. In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit:

 

I’m not sure if anything like this has happened to you or not; it seems like with Heidi and I, as we get a little more distance between where we are and pop culture, it is happening more and more. What I’m talking about is this lost feeling you get when everyone else seems to know exactly what is going on and you find yourself clueless on the topic. To make matters worse, sometimes you can be told what it is that everyone is talking about and you still don’t know. It remains a mystery.

I’m reminded of that every once in a while when I’m driving along and I notice a billboard on the side of the road way. Often they are advertising something I know nothing about, the message makes no sense to me and I don’t even know what the product is or what it is supposed to do for me. I’m suspicious that often these ads for some feature on a new smart phone, but I can’t confirm that because I don’t really know what the ad is trying to sell me. I’ve had the same experience occasionally watching TV as well; if I watched as much TV as some researchers claim we do, I’m guessing it would happen a lot more.

Just the other night, it must have been Halloween, I’m flipping through Facebook on my phone. (which is actually quite an accomplishment in itself) I’m on my phone looking at all the posts when a picture of my eldest son and his wife comes up. They seemed to be sort of dressed in costume, but I’m not sure. Then I read the caption and it says something like “off to our Halloween party; guess who we’re going as”. I didn’t have any idea-that’s why I said they were sort of in costume. It didn’t seem like their normal attire, but it didn’t seem like a costume either. So I read few comments that had guesses in them – and almost all of the comments successfully identified this couple that my kids were dressed as. I still didn’t have a clue.

Normally when I’m clueless I have a secret weapon; so I asked Heidi who is such and so? I can’t even remember the real names any more, but she didn’t know either. So we Googled it!

Of course, Google knew exactly who we were talking about, Google identified them as a couple portrayed in some famous sitcom, I think, gave us their real names, how many seasons the sitcom has been on TV and a whole bunch of other information. After seeing the answer in comments and after being told who they were by Google, you would think we would have some idea as to what was going on and who we were talking about. Zero. Zip. Nada. We were not any closer than when we started. To this day I can’t tell you who my eldest sent went as to his Halloween party. That’s kind of sad. I remember when he was four or five he went as Annie from the musical, and Artoo Deetoo perhaps the year before that. He was a ninja for about 5 years running – those things I understood and knew a little something about.

You know there is a Paul Simon song that is a favorite of mine called Saint Judy’s Comet and in that song there is a line that is repeated several times about how this little baby can make his famous daddy look so dumb.

Like I said, I don’t know if these kinds of things happen to you yet, but they will. Sometimes I think they come as a no extra cost option with grandchildren, but that is just a theory.

I’m spelling this out with some degree of clarity in hopes that what I’m describing sounds at least a little familiar. I want you to be able to resonate with the feeling of being a little in the dark, not knowing exactly what is going on, or feeling a bit overwhelmed with new information all the time. In truth I think it happens to most of us quite often.

Also think this may be similar to what the Ephesians were experiencing when the Apostle Paul sent them his letter that is preserved in our New Testament. You may have noticed that Paul used the word mystery at least 3 times in the opening few sentences of the third chapter which I read a few minutes ago. I believe that Paul was trying to introduce the Ephesians to some new ideas, new ways of thinking about God and perhaps attempting to bridge some cultural barriers as well. It was all very strange, a lot of new information, and this new God did indeed seem mysterious. I think Paul was trying to make them feel comfortable with the idea of not knowing all the answers. By identifying God as a mystery, I think he could build some common experience and perhaps keep them from just giving up before they even got started.

Thing is, I think God remains a mystery. We still don’t really understand, we still struggle at times to make sense of things, we wrestle with God in our own minds on any number of topics. Why do such bad things happen to good people is a common one, why are all the people we consider to be less honest, less spiritual, less moral, less you can fill in the blank, why are all of those people so successful and I have to struggle? Yes, I think in many ways God continues to be a mystery and often we lack full understanding. Why are there accidents and natural disasters, why are some people so cruel to others, the questions can just go on and on. To be honest, most of the time, we don’t have very good answers. You hear things about God’s will, or some thin theological perspective about how things were meant to be. At least when someone tells you they don’t understand why you are suffering, or why someone died or why you were just diagnosed with some horrible disease; at least when they say they don’t know why, it is an honest answer. We don’t know why.

But I think there is an important point hidden away in our not knowing. I believe that the mystery of God extends into our natural world and when we look at our natural world, we see the end result of the creativity of God, without necessarily seeing the pain or suffering or fully understanding what is happening.

For example, we have a volunteer walnut tree in our front yard. I’m suspicious that a squirrel buried a walnut at some point in that spot and now we have a tree. How does the walnut know how to make a tree? How does the walnut know which direction to grow? How does it know what shape to make the leaves so that we know it is a walnut tree? What happened to the original walnut?

We only understand these things up to a certain point. A botanist may have a slightly more informed perspective, but there is still a good amount of mystery there as well.

My point is that even though we don’t understand, even though the walnut itself no longer exists in its original form, even though there is mystery, we can still see the miracle of a tree and enjoy the shade. We don’t necessarily need to understand, we only need to accept.

Acceptance of what is provides the greatest opportunity for peace and understanding available to us. Knowing what is and what we can change gives us the greatest hope available to us. Embrace the mystery, embrace the unknown and look around the natural world and as you do, you will discover the mystery of God displayed for you everywhere.

I also believe we can understand the mystery at a much deeper level than you may have thought possible. Stay tuned as we explore the mystery of God together.

Go in peace, Amen.