Basics of Faith 1 – June 19, 2017
A Sermon by Rev. M. Gayle MacDonald
Exodus 3:13-15; Ephesians 4:7-8; Matthew 5:1-12
The descriptions of God and the metaphors used to describe God in Scripture are many. Among the favourites are Father, Shepherd and King; but God is also described and/or compared to as a she-bear, an eagle, as a jealous God.
Today's readings give you more images of God – God as simply "I AM"; God is love. If you look in the Voices United Hymnbook, there is a section entitled “The Nature of God” and it runs from Hymn #258 to Hymn #292. If you read the most recent statement from the United Church of Canada on what this denomination, as a faith community, say about God (i.e., excerpt from A Song of Faith) found at the beginning of this week’s bulletin and also printed below), you will find even more images – some of them more abstract than others. And at the very end of the printed bulletin (and at the end of this document), you will find excerpts from the United Church of Canada's statements or creeds through the years. All of this is food for thought.
I found it difficult to begin this sermon, whose purpose is to get all of us thinking about God and what God means to us for two reasons:
1. First, because the word “God” causes a reaction in me; and that reaction is that I just want to sit in a quiet place and think about God or better yet “commune” with God. This reaction is the result of years of practice of doing just that. And yet, 20 plus years ago if someone said to me that they wanted to commune with God, I would have placed a large question mark over their head; so if you place a large question mark over mine, that’s o.k.
2. And the second reason I found it difficult is because I realize that it is almost impossible to talk objectively about God. While I will strive to present a variety of descriptors, I have to say this up front that my own thoughts on God necessarily plays a hand in my choosing. I hope that I will give you enough substance to provide you with something to think; and at the same time, I hope that I have left enough space in my thinking for you to find your own sense of God.
So let us now move into this complex topic – God - with the beginning words of the United Church’s latest faith statement, A Song of Faith:
“God is Holy Mystery,
beyond complete knowledge,
above perfect description.”
the one eternal God seeks relationship.”
So God creates the universe
and with it the possibility of being and relating.”
Here we are presented a description of the nature of God as accepted by the General Council of the United Church of Canada in 2013:
· God is beyond our knowledge;
· God is loving and seeks relationship;
· God is creator of the universe.
Let us imagine for a moment that I am new to this congregation, new even to the United Church of Canada. . . maybe even new to Christianity . . . but I feel this pull, this curiosity about this idea of God? Is God real or not real? I come in to the United Church to explore this ‘God’ thing and this ‘faith’ thing. I pick up this Song of Faith and begin to read.
And what if, when I get to that 7th line “So God creates the universe”, I stop for a minute . . . I keep on reading, but come back to it, because I am stumped. Such a big idea …. and I don't know how to fit it in with what I have been taught about the beginnings of the universe. I learned all kinds of scientific things about how the universe began, because I am interested – but this idea that some entity created the universe wasn’t one of them. Does that mean everything I every learned about the universe it wrong? Or that I can't be part of this community because I find this statement to be, well, quite frankly, nonsensical. What if I say this to the Minister, what will she say back to me.
Let me switch hats, and go back to being the Minister so I can tell you how I would answer that question. I would say that the United Church of Canada is not a confessional church – i.e., you don't have to confess to a doctrine of belief to be welcomed as one of us and to worship with us. That the understanding of God as Creator is pretty loose, and understood differently by different people – yet it is there; not as a stumbling block, but as a way to begin thinking about God; that we encourage questions and deep thinking; that faith is something we grow into; and that God is beyond knowing.
On the other hand, we do ask some pretty direct questions on faith if you should want to become what we call “in full membership”, one of them being about God.
Here are the 3 optional wordings of the question as provided in our Service Book – Celebrate God’s Presence:
Do you believe in one God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
Don't like that one?, How about this?
Do you believe in God, who has created and is creating,
who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new,
and who works in us and others by the Spirit?
Still uncomfortable with these words from The New Creed? Then are you able to answer "I do, by the Grace of God" to this one?
Do you believe in God, Source of love; in Jesus Christ, love incarnate; and in the Holy Spirit, love’s power.
You can choose which one resonates the most with you. The answer we ask you to give only if you can honestly so:
I do, by the grace of God
Not simply “I do”, but “I do, by the grace of God” for to be able to answer positively is not taken as being an easy thing, but as a place we grow to – and to get there is both gift and grace.
As for our statements of faith, they are not doctrines that you must say you believe every word of in order to belong. And, because of recent remits to Presbytery, after the next Manual is printed, probably in 2019, it will not longer be a requirement to be a “full” member to vote on spiritual matters. So, if you like the United Church congregation you are in and want to be able to vote on the work of the Congregeation, all that is required is for those who are "full" members to pass a motion to give voting privileges on all matters (spiritual and otherwise) to regular attenders; and that usually happens at our meetings.
As for our various creeds and statements of faith, they are a starting point to help us in own relationship with God; they are a distillation of the collective wisdom of the larger community of the United Church of Canada at different points in our journey toward God. They say this is our understanding at this point in time, but we are still working on it, . . . nonetheless, this is what we believe on this date.
It should be obvious by now that the United Church of Canada does believe in God – and even in God as Creator – and most certainly a relational God.
Perhaps that is why, when Gretta Vosper (author of With or Without God and Prayer Beyond Belief) – when Gretta spoke at Spring Park United Church while I was there, I was somewhat taken aback in her talk as kept she pointing out the fact that she and I attended the same Theological College and began including me in some of her statements about what the Divinity School at Queens taught. While she was making some very good points about the things taught there, she somehow came out in a very different place in relation to God than I did.
After that event at Spring Park, I spent a long time mulling over Gretta's decision to omit comments on omitting the word “God” from her Sunday Services, and the admission that she is support person for atheist Minister’s. I wonder, and wondering why it has taken the United Church so long to bring her order of ministry status under review. My own feeling is that it is Partly it is the inclusive nature of the United Church, and partly the complicated structure of church courts . . . where the review is now, I am not quite sure. How she got to declaring herself an atheist minister, while I got to a place where I consider a growing relationship with God the strength of our faith, I don't know. For my part, when life in general baffled me – when I found it hard to feel the presence of God in what was happening around me – I sought out help from people experienced in the journeying with the Divine. First, it was the Spiritual Directors of the Sisters at Providence House, a Roman Catholic Retreat Centre near Queen's University, and my journey continued from there.
From the Spiritual Director with whom I worked, I learned to trust in the presence of God; more importantly to trust in the LOVING presence of God, in all circumstances. I learned to look for God everywhere, and I learned to pay attention to those moments of indescribable connection with what I can only refer to as a divine energy or a loving presence. The more I learned and trusted, the more I trusted and learned.
The universe does not have to be created in the manner described in the Bible for it to have been created with intelligence; nor do we have to understand God as ultimate Creator in order to find Divine Presence within the universe.
Another United Church Minister, Bruce Sanguin in his book Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos connects the awesome discoveries of science as evidence in favour of a Divine Presence. For instance, he points to the great “Flaring Forth” aka “The Big Bang Theory” as a miracle in and of itself. The heat at the first moment of creation was immense. If the expansion that became the universe had happened one trillionth of a second slower or one trillionth of a second faster, we would not be here. Bruce does not take this as happenstance, but as evidence of the wonder of that divine creative nature we call God. He does not argue with science or with the reality of God, but looks with wonder at creation and praises God.
The purpose of the community of faith such as ours is not to tell you what to believe, but to help you in your own journey of discovery. As our Introit (#283 in Voices United) states, “God is the one whom we seek together”. We start with the possibility of God and grow to uncover God's possibilities for us.
Images of God are helpful in getting us to come to some sense of the Divine Presence that permeates our living; but images can also restrict our understanding if we hold them too closely, for none of our images can completely describe God.
In an article on the changing images of God in an American Catholic online newsletter called “Update Your Faith”, Pat McCloskey, O.F.M. notes:
Childhood images of God reflect a childhood faith. Fair enough; we all have to start somewhere. An adult faith, however, requires more adult images of God, that is, new mental pictures which can help adults better understand a God never fully captured in human language. . . Childhood images of God may need to grow if we are to have a vibrant, adult faith.
As part of my early journey at Queen's Theological College, I was invited to participate in a small extra-curricular group of spiritual seekers who met weekly. It was led by a lay catholic counselor who was studying at Queen's Theological College. It members consisted of a classmate of mine, a young doctor who had just returned from South America, two sisters from Providence House, myself and a couple of more people whose occupations or inclinations I can't remember.
One evening as we sat on chairs or the floor in a circle around a small table with an object on it, we were asked to describe the object. The descriptions included a small vase with a painting of flowers, a large mug with no flowers, a pottery drinking vessel – the responses included differences in the colour or pattern depending upon our angle or perspective. The ones who saw a mug were able to see the handle, others could not. The point: paradoxically though it seemed each of us saw a different object on the table in the middle of the room, we were all seeing the same object – but from our own unique vantage point.
And so it is with God. We may each of us catch of glimpse of the
God is [who is] Holy Mystery,
beyond complete knowledge,
above perfect description
but our descriptions will depend a lot on who are and our own experience.
There really is no need to argue the existence of God – since for or against the existence of the great “I Am” cannot be argued satisfactorily anyway. It is more profitable to put together our glimpses and to seek to deepen our own relationship with the Divine Presence that permeates all of our living.
And so we gather in community, in faith and in hope; and so we act individually or as community, remembering God as love. God is the one whom we seek together, by the grace of God. Amen.
United Church of Canada Statements and Creeds on the Nature of God
1925 - Basis of Union:
2.3.1 Article I . Of God. We believe in the one only living and true God, a Spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in His being and perfections; the Lord Almighty, who is love, most just in all His ways, most glorious in holiness, unsearchable in wisdom, plenteous in mercy, full of compassion, and abundant in goodness and truth . We worship Him in the unity of the Godhead and the mystery of the Holy Trinity, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, three persons of the same substance, equal in power and glory .
2.3.2 Article II . Of Revelation. We believe that God has revealed Himself in nature, in history, and in the heart of man; that He has been graciously pleased to make clearer revelation of Himself to men of God who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit; and that in the fullness of time He has perfectly revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, who is the brightness of the Father’s glory and the express image of His person . We receive the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, given by inspiration of God, as containing the only infallible rule of faith and life, a faithful record of God’s gracious revelations, and as the sure witness of Christ .
1940 – Statement of Faith, 1940
2.4.1 I. God We believe in God, the eternal personal Spirit, Creator and Upholder of all things . We believe that God, as sovereign Lord exalted above the world, orders and overrules all things in it to the accomplishment of His holy, wise, and good purposes . We believe that God made man to love and serve Him; that He cares for him as a righteous and compassionate Father; and that nothing can either quench His love or finally defeat His gracious purpose for man . So we acknowledge God as Creator, Upholder, and Sovereign Lord of all things, and the righteous and loving Father of men .
1968 (rev. 1980, 1995) - .A New Creed
2.5 We are not alone, we live in God’s world . We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, who works in us and others by the Spirit . We trust in God . . . . . . In life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us . We are not alone . Thanks be to God .
2013 – A Song of Faith
God is Holy Mystery,
beyond complete knowledge,
above perfect description.
the one eternal God seeks relationship.
So God creates the universe
and with it the possibility of being and relating.
God tends the universe,
mending the broken and reconciling the estranged.
God enlivens the universe,
guiding all things toward harmony with their Source.
Grateful for God’s loving action,
We cannot keep from singing.
With the Church through the ages,
we speak of God as one and triune:
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We also speak of God as
Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer
God, Christ, and Spirit
Mother, Friend, and Comforter
Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love,
and in other ways that speak faithfully of
the One on whom our hearts rely,
the fully shared life at the heart of the universe.
We witness to Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love.
God is creative and self-giving,
in all the near and distant corners of the universe.
Nothing exists that does not find its source in God.
Our first response to God’s providence is gratitude.
We sing thanksgiving.
Finding ourselves in a world of beauty and mystery,
of living things, diverse and interdependent,
of complex patterns of growth and evolution,
of subatomic particles and cosmic swirls,
we sing of God the Creator,
the Maker and Source of all that is.
Each part of creation reveals unique aspects of God the Creator,
who is both in creation and beyond it.
All parts of creation, animate and inanimate, are related.
All creation is good.
We sing of the Creator,
who made humans to live and move