United Church of Jaffrey
I had a rare opportunity, last Monday, to take a day to myself, so I arranged to meet an old friend and go for a hike.
It was mid-morning by the time we got onto the trail – a little jog up the side of a mountain that promised a vantage with a view over the Squam lakes region. A thorough overcast hovered just above the hilltops, but it didn’t rain, at least not where we were. There was a nip to the air, but nothing a little walking wouldn’t take care of. We climbed through a stand of Beech, scrub Oak, and Maple. The leaves that covered the path had not been worn down by other feet. All summer long hikers passing this way had walked under those leaves. We – my friend and I – were the first to walk over them. As we gradually gained elevation, the canopy, thinned now by the winds of deepening autumn, offered glimpses of lakes and distant hills.
At length we came to a fork in the path. A sign, nailed to a tree, directed hikers to a bypass that would let us avoid a steep clamber up a rocky ledge.
We stopped to take breath. Pointing to the leaves at our feet I said:
“I prefer randomness.”
The comment made total sense to me, but it confused my friend as much as it is confusing you right now.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“Some people look at this kind of complexity – all these leaves on the ground — and insist that there must be some intention behind it all – some Divine Plan that places each leaf just so. But I don’t know – that idea makes me nervous! A micro-managing God. I like to think that leaves just floated down and landed where they ended up. Somehow it feels more beautiful that way.”
My friend is a thoughtful guy — it’s one of the things I treasure in him — so he did not respond right away. We decided to take steep passage up the rocky ledge, which required some concentration, so it wasn’t until we were sitting up on top of the rocky escarpment, looking out at an uninterrupted sweep of the land, that he took up the thread of the conversation.
“Do the people in your congregation come to you to ask about things like that — about what God is like?”
My friends — especially friends who don’t go to church much — often ask questions like that. Maybe they wonder how it is that I — the same guy they used to pal around with back in the day — has suddenly become an authority on the BIG questions that have beleaguered humanity since the dawn of time.
Or perhaps they are familiar with a different kind of church than the United Church of Jaffrey — the kind of church that has no difficulty handing down rules and regulations directly from God’s mouth. If they think of church in this way, then, quite naturally, they may wonder what I am saying about God or on God’s behalf.
This business of speaking on God’s behalf is not new. It has been going on for as long as we humans have struggled with the idea of Divinity.
The scripture passage that Deb read this morning, from the Book of Isaiah is a good example.
Isaiah, as you know, was one of the most prominent of the Hebrew Prophets of old — the chairman of the board, if you will, of Hebrew prophets — and of all the people who spoke on God’s behalf, the Hebrew prophets of old were perhaps the most audacious…
Instead of speculating about what God might or might not say, the Hebrew prophets of old would use the phrase “Thus saith the LORD…” and then, everything that followed was understood to be directly from the mouth of God.
By saying “Thus saith the LORD” the Hebrew prophets were claiming to be God’s mouthpieces. When they used the pronoun “I” — it was not Isaiah saying I, it was God.
A “God I.”
But in order for this to work, we, the readers or listeners, must give our consent to the literary pretense that has been offered to us.
We have to accept the idea that, for the time being at least, the “Isaiah I” and the “God I” are one and the same.
And we do.
When we listen to, or read stories, we do this naturally.
Take, for example, when we watch movies…
We know that the person acting a certain role is actually Meryl Streep, but for the time being we are willing to go along with the idea that Meryl Streep is “being” someone else – is talking and thinking and being a character.
The fascinating thing about this, from a religious point of view, is that this literary pretense allows us to have a much more intimate interaction with God then we might otherwise have.
In the passage from Isaiah, God is really pretty annoyed.
Isaiah’s “God I” says: “I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.”
“God I” goes on to say: bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen;
This is pretty rough stuff.
If the Jewish people of Isaiah’s time really accepted that Isaiah spoke for God, they would have to re-think the entire way that they had been taught to worship God.
With these words, Isaiah was undermining the whole idea of cultic sacrifice.
And while I have to admit that I am glad we are not sacrificing Oxen in church this morning…
I am also aware that using the “God I” is a powerful thing to do.
When prophets used the “God I” and people believed them, they had the power to change things that were at the very core of prevailing culture.
Today’s gospel reading from the gospel of Luke is also worth considering in this way.
Christians, of course, believe that Jesus has even more claim to the “God I” then the prophets.
Christians — those of us who built this church and have kept it alive for generations, believe that Jesus is the Messiah, and so, he is more than a mouthpiece.
More than an actor.
We believe that Jesus is, in some mysterious way, the human expression of the divine.
And so, when Jesus speaks, or when Jesus teaches, we are learning something that comes from God.
In today’s story, Jesus comes into town and sees a tax collector named Zacchaeus.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector — he was universally hated by the Jewish people because he collected money for the Roman Empire — so when Jesus called Zacchaeus and decided to stay at Zacchaeus’ house, all the Jewish people grumbled.
Why would Jesus do this? They ask. Choose the most reviled person in town to stay with?
When my friend asked me if people in my congregation come to me to ask what God is like,
“No, not really,”
I told him about this church community. I told him that I don’t really see myself as having any more knowledge of God than anyone else. I told him that I saw my job, not so much as being expert about God, but as someone dedicated to creating community around the love that Jesus taught us.
I hope I was right. I think I was.
We get a lot of clues from the prophets and from Jesus, that we can use to surmise a little bit about God.
But this, it seems to me, is just the beginning of the process.
A process that takes a lifetime.
A process of figuring out what is really important to us, and discerning how to act in accordance with that value.
The theologian, Paul Tillich, says that God is “ultimate value.”
God is whatever is so important that it won’t let go of our minds, our hearts, our imaginations.
In the reading from Isaiah, “God I” says:
“Come let us argue it out!”
And this makes me wonder.
What if, instead of “God I” we think of “God We.”
I think that is what we are doing in church.
We come together to argue it out…
And the emphasis shifts from “God I” to “God We.”
And when we argue it out, we learn those things in life that have ultimate value to us.
That ultimately, for example, the tax collector — the most reviled among us — is human too.
That relationship — love, forgiveness, and acceptance — are, ultimately, more valuable than social judgment.
Come, let us argue it out!
And find the “we” of “God”
In community, we will discover our ultimate value
And center our lives in faith around “the we of God.