July 25, 2021 - Sermon - Rev. Judy Bagley-Bonner

Sermon Text

Scripture Readings 

Psalm 29

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,[a]
    ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.

Ascribe to the Lord the glory of that name;
    worship the Lord in holy splendor.

The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
    the God of glory thunders,
    the Lord, over mighty waters.

The voice of the Lord is powerful;
    the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.

The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
    the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.

God makes Lebanon skip like a calf,
    and Sirion like a young wild ox.

The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.

The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
    the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.

The voice of the Lord causes the oaks to whirl,[b]
    and strips the forest bare;
    and in the  temple all say, “Glory!”
The Lord sits enthroned over the flood;
    the Lord sits enthroned forever.
May the Lord give strength to the people!
    May the Lord bless the people with peace!


John 3: 1-8 
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. 2 He came to Jesus[a] by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”[b] 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. 6 What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit.[c] 7 Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You[d] must be born from above.’[e] 8 The wind[f] blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.”
Sermon  “The Hum Within” 

     One of my earliest memories is of a provocative Time Magazine cover sometime in the early sixties.  In large letters, the cover asked, "Is God dead?"  I remember being very troubled by it and was relieved when my mother answered the question with an emphatic "NO!"  But over the course of my life-time we have certainly seen, if not the death, then at least the enfeeblement of the wider Church, which is how most of us got acquainted with God.  America appears to be on a path toward secularization much as Europe has been.  Many of us, my spouse and I included, have children or grand-children with zero interest in church.  So, in one way, I think we can say that, for a lot of people, God IS dead!   At least the old-world God who lives way up there and runs the universe like a puppeteer, zapping us when we're bad and weeding sinners out for smiting! The God who stands against science and whose scriptures must be taken literally without concern for context or translation or any understanding of the culture from which they emerged.  The God of easy, pat answers and the God of exclusion who invites only the respectable and well-heeled to the table.  The God we have created in our own image who tells us to hate certain people rather than to love our enemies.  I think it was Anne LaMott who said, “If it turns out that your God hates all the same people that you hate, your theology may be in trouble.”

   I remember when that God died for me, and it was very painful.  I was a first year seminarian who arrived on campus as a simplistic, judgmental  evangelical, and had been for some years.  It was a theology I embraced in college, not one I found here at Federated.  (And I don’t mean to discount all evangelicals here.  There are plenty with complex, nuanced faith.  I just wasn’t one of those. I still read and value tremendously several of their writers such as Philip Yancey, Eugene Peterson, Tony Campola and others.) In any case, throughout that first year at my liberal, UCC seminary, I began to doubt beliefs I had always taken at face value.  One by one, it felt like they were popping my cherished balloons…  But you know, really, they needed to go.  From a later perspective I realized those cherished balloons  never would have stood up to the challenges of life which has a way of being messy and defying those easy, pat answers. I had to let the castle fall, so to speak, and then gradually rebuild it with materials that could withstand the pressures of real life, the hard questions, the challenges of science and scholarship and messy, painful human experiences.  And that’s what the second and third years of seminary were about: getting to know a new and different God,  a much larger, more loving, more inclusive God. A God who is not just Father, but Mother and lover and even beyond human images, who is breath and wind and spirit of life.  The Hebrew Scriptures call it “ruach, ”  breath, and the King James says it listeth where it will.  Jesus said that to Nicodemius in today’s reading. Remember, Nicodemius was a pharasee!  A fundamentalist who liked to have everything black and white, and all nailed down.  But Jesus essentially said, “Nicodemius, you cannot tame the Spirit!  It’s too big and potent and mysterious!  It blows where it will and you don’t know where it comes from or where it’s going.”  Yes, we must be “born of it, that is, born into a spiritual orientation toward life.  But I don’t think that is about signing off on a narrow theological formula which is too often how being “born again” is portrayed.  Rather, for me it is about embracing the mystery that is the untamed, ultimately unquantifiable Spirit of Life!  

   Theologian Felix Carion puts it this way, 
" I, for one, would like to get rid of all tribal gods of our own creation. Really, they don't exist. They are a projection of human madness. Let's evolve.
But there is something that "never was born and never dies." Without it we would not be here. We existed in and with it and will exist in and with it when this form fades. This is God, the mystery, the elegant principle, I want to know and feel that God in and through the wonder of consciousness, higher intelligence, miraculous senses, boundless and daring inquiry, the wonders of creation, the communion of love and friendship, in compassionate tears, the depths of sorrow and pain, in forgiveness, reconciliation, redemption, the "glory of the flower," the dance of light and darkness, birth and death…I’m enjoying God! It just may not be your god or the one I grew up with.”

   One of the non-canonical, gnostic Gospels, the Gospel of Thomas, says this:  ‘Jesus said, "I am the light within and over everything…Split a piece of wood: I am there. Lift a stone, and you will find me there.”’  

   Jane Fonda, who late in life came to embrace the Christian faith, said,  “I could feel reverence and awe humming within me.”  That’s how she found faith- reverence and awe at the magnitude of life: the hum within.  

   Scott Peck calls it a force outside and within us, the mechanics of which we do not understand, that nurtures growth and evolution.  Indeed, the primary way that I understand God, at base, is as that Spirit of Life.  The impulse for life that works through evolution.  The shoot of green plant so full of organic potency that it emerges up through a tiny crack in concrete.  The twisted Cyprus Tree growing out of sheer rock.  But more!  Beyond just organic life itself, a sort of force-field for good that is somehow loving and wants to help us keep growing!  A loving energy that knows us and loves us, and tries to lure us and guide us on, into a reality of greater love and justice for us and the planet.     

 Bishop John Shelby Spong put it this way:  “God is not a Christian, God is not a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Hindu, or a Buddhist. All of those are human systems which human beings have created to try to help us walk into the mystery of God. I honor my tradition, I walk through my tradition, but I don't think my tradition defines God, I think it only points me to God.” 

  As a Christian, I go further than that, of course, in that I believe God, or that force-field of love for good, which is vast and mysterious, sometimes takes on a personal face, and has revealed itself in a powerful way in the person of Jesus, whose primary purpose was to embody and teach love.  A vast mysterious energy for good that sometimes wears a human appearance such that people have called it Father or Jesus, which is really just love with a name.

   Scripture tells us that God is love, and wherever love is, God already is, no matter what name you give it.  And really, that’s what I’m talking about when I talk about this life force or energy for good that exists not only outside and beyond, but within us…I’m talking about love, and I believe love’s other name is God, and it’s there for us whether we believe in it or not, but it works better, we start to get real traction, when we come to interact with it somehow, like Jane Fonda did, and then consciously lean into it, work with it, let it guide us and direct us and empower us to be its loving agents in the world.

   And that’s one of the key differences between the old, now less relevant God that our kids are rejecting, and what I’m talking about.  That God was primarily there to serve us, to protect us and our tribe.  We gave Him our wish list as though he were Santa Clause, which worked fine when we got what we wanted, not so much when we, in at least equal numbers, did not.  Rather than operate that way, I believe the intent is not so much for God to serve us, but for us to serve God!  To be healing agents of love in the world, seeking God, the Spirit, for strength and support for that agenda, not necessarily our own. Preacher and theologian William Sloane Coffin once said, “God provides minimum protection, but maximum support--support to help us grow up, to stretch our minds and hearts until they are as wide as God's universe.”  

   And oh, how those of us committed to serving love, to serving that broader God, are needed now.  Hate has taken on so much new energy in our country.  We are polarized like seldom before.  And when we bump up against opinions from “the other side,” it is so tempting to respond with the same energy that we think we see there!  We see it in the political wars on facebook, where there seems to have emerged a massive case of projection.  Everything they believe, we believe the exact opposite, but we too often do so with the same energy, the same vehemence and shrillness and intolerance, and yes, sometimes with the same hate.  But as Doctor King said, ““Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”  Paul said it another way in Romans, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good."

 Now, let me be clear.  This is not to say we just roll over, or abandon our prophetic task.  We, who serve love, MUST be in the public sphere advocating for justice in our policies; justice especially for those without voice and without power, those scrambling with every ounce of energy they have just to survive because they are not privileged with all kinds of hidden benefits, invisible steps up.  But even as we respond to Micah’s command that we do justice, so we need to remember the rest of that command, which is to love kindness and walk humbly with our God.  In other words, if we want to be effective, we need to operate out of a different energy than the polarizing one which grips us now…not one of hate and fear, but out of the energy of love and serenity.  We can state our case with passion and assertiveness, but still with respect and kindness, and maybe even a little humility. So try speaking gently to those with whom you disagree.  Still speak clearly, but with gentleness and love, and I truly believe it will play out differently.

   Of course, to do this, you have to stay connected to gentleness and love.  That’s where spiritual practice comes in…prayer and meditation that connects us to the source, that loving life force…and keeps us there as a matter of course.  And I believe that’s where God does her best work…not intervening in natural law to give us whatever our changing whims want this hour, but supplying a steady dose of love: like an iv that drips, drips, drips a new kind of consciousness into our minds, so that we can be its voice and hands in the world.

   Is God dead? Depends on which God you are talking about.  The tribal  and nationalistic gods that we believe are here to serve us?  I hope so.  Because they have been false gods all along.  But God as love whom we are here to serve?  That God is alive and well and pulsing with new vitality all the time.  And that God goes by many names, not all traditionally religious.  The real point is that that the God of love is looking for people to be its agents, its hands and voice in the world.  The question is, Will you?