Remaining at the Beginning

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God

A Sunday school teacher was watching one of her student drawing furiously during class. “What are you drawing?” she asked.

“I’m drawing a picture of God,” said the boy.

“But no one knows what God looks like,” said the teacher.

“They will when I’m finished,” the boy replied.

That may be a humorous story, but it show how most of us really approach God. The God we worship tends to be, at least to some extent, a god of our own making. We have ideas about God that come from various experiences and   in our lives. For example, when I was a young kid, I remember when we were learning the Apostle’s creed in Sunday School. We got to the part about God the maker of heaven and earth, and the first thing that popped into my head was, If God made the heavens and the earth, then who made God?” which caused a little consternation from my Sunday School teacher, not for the first or last time I might add. And for some reason, I got the idea that God used his hands to make the world. I probably got that from a cartoon, or a movie. And the hands appeared first, and the hands created the rest of God. That satisfied me for a while, as least better than the Sunday School teacher’s explanation that there was nothing before God, and God always was. Yeah right. But then I had to ask myself, where did those hands come from. Who made the hands? As an adult, I now know that was a ridiculous idea, and I have since learned much more about God, but, to be honest, there is a small part of me that still favors the idea of the hands of God.

We all have our individual conceptions of God, some healthy, some not so healthy. Whenever I meet someone who tells me they don’t believe in God, I always ask them, What kind of God do you  not believe in, and they usually say something like they don’t believe a capricious god, who sits in heaven just waiting for us to mess so he can send us to hell. I tell them, I don’t believe in that God either.

Now this is not as big a problem as you might think it is. True, we do have our own, mostly individual conceptions of God. And to the extent they are unhealthy conceptions, like that of God as a cruel judge, we need to deal with that. But that our conceptions of God are incomplete and to some extent inaccurate is not a real big issue.

A long time a theologian named Anselm called God a Being than which none greater can be conceived. In other words, take the biggest thing you can think of. God is bigger than that. Take the most powerful thing you can think of. God is more powerful than that. Take the most loving thing you can think of. God is more loving than that. No matter what we think of God, our thoughts are at best incomplete. Another older theologian, Thomas Aquinas, said that God was pure being. He gets that from the passage in Exodus we heard this morning. Moses is told by God to go to Pharaoh and to tell Pharaoh to set the Hebrew children free from slavery. Moses asks a pretty pertinent question: When I tell Pharaoh that a god has told me to tell you to set the Hebrews free, he is going to ask, “What is the name of your God? Who told you to do this?” God replies, “Tell Pharaoh, I am who I am. You want a name? I AM.” Of all the things we can say about God, this is the only one that really captures the essence of God. God Is. Every other statement is incomplete. Every other statement is merely us groping blindly, with inadequate language, and inadequate ideas to describe the indescribable.

 

Father Almighty

We start off the Apostles’ Creed with a pretty controversial statement, at least one for our time. I believe in the God the Father…

Why is that controversial these days? There are a couple of reasons.

First, it assigns a gender to God. When we say the words God the Father, there is a tacit or overt assumption that God is male. While we might call God our Father, there is no way we can affirm that God is male, or female. God is beyond gender. In Genesis, when God is creating human beings, we hear, So God created humankind in the image of their creator, in the image of God they were created; male and female they were created. I heard someone say, “If we assume God is male, then men assume they are god.” In fact there are more than a few feminine images of God in the Bible. God gathers us like a mother hen gathers her brood.

The second problem is that there are a host of people who have real problems with their earthly fathers, and to call God a father just brings all that back. Some who had an abusive father, someone who might have been sexual abused by their father, someone who had an absent father is going to have a hard time seeing God as a loving Father.

And yet, for centuries Christians have said these words: I believe in God the Father. Should we just do away with it? Toss it into the theological dustbin, with other outdated concepts? Or is there a good reason why this is in the Creed? I think there is.

I just finished saying that God is far above and beyond our ability to understand, and that anything we say about God is incomplete. Including the statement “God the Father.” If you read the works of many theologians, you get the impression that God is so far beyond our ability to understand, that we cannot know God at all. But then we run into this: I believe in God the Father.

The word father assumes a relationship, and beyond that, a kinship. We don’t confess that we believe in God Almighty. We say we believe in God, the Father, Almighty. We believe in a God who has a relationship with us. If we strip that away, then we are left with an impersonal divine being, and any talk about the love of God, would be nonsensical. And if you strip love and concern from God, you no longer have the God of the Bible, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of Jesus Christ. Paul writes in I Corinthians 8: Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.  Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge; but anyone who loves God is known by God.

In the end, the primary conclusion we can draw from the Church’s historic confess of God the Father, is that God is a God of relationship. The word Father implies a child.  I did not become a father until I was 29 years old, when my oldest child was born. Before September 30, 1989, that word could not apply to me.

I have previously said that almost all of our talk about God is incomplete. Our best and most eloquent attempts to describe God are mere baby talk. If that is true, then we don’t need to put too much freight into any one description of God. Given the fact that God is not male, and that the notion of fatherhood can be problematic for some people, we don’t need to be wedded to that one term. We can talk about God as parent, although that sounds a little too institutional for my ears. We can talk about God as mother, for if indeed God is beyond gender, than nothing prevents us from switching from one gender to another. The exact words we use are of secondary importance. What we cannot lose is the essential belief that God has a relationship with us.

 

Creator

I believe in God the father almighty, Maker of heaven and earth.

Maker of heaven and earth. Not only do we believe that God has a relationship with us, we also affirm in the Creed that God our Creator has a relationship with creation. Now too often we get tangled in the wrong things when it comes to God’s creative actions. It is not hard to find vociferous and often vicious debates on exactly HOW our make made the world. You find people who believe in a literal, six-day creation, against those who believe in what is called intelligent design, against those who believe that evolution was part of the creative process of God.

And these are not recent struggles. St. Augustine, in 400 AD was struggling with how to interpret the first chapters of Genesis, and whether, as a Christian, he had to believe in a literal, six day creation. He finally decided that the first part of Genesis was allegory, and not to be taken literally. But he was not the first. Others before him and since have struggled with that. It is easy to get stuck on how God created the world, but Augustine, Origen, John Duns Scotus, Thomas Aquinas, and Bonaventure, all born before the 1400s, decided to  scratch the hows of creation, and went right into, what does it mean for us.

I’ll cut right to the chase and say what it means for us, is that God is a part of creation. The Psalmist says that the heavens display the handiwork of God. Back when I was in college I heard music from a new band, called Dire Straits. When I first heard I thought, “This sounds like Bob Dylan’s last album.” Well there was a reason for that. They were the back up musicians on Bob Dylan’s last album. Their character was a part of the music they made. It was uniquely theirs. The art of Van Gogh is uniquely his, and you don’t have to know a lot about art to recognize a Van Gogh. After listening to a lot of Jazz, I can Miles Davis, from Freddy Hubbard, or Don Cherry. Their character is in their art. So is God’s character in us, and in the world. There is a part of God in all of creation.

There is one other aspect of the creation that is important. The earth is not ours. It is God’s. We are stewards, caretakers of God’s creation. Now good people can disagree on various policies concerning the environment, but in the we will be called into account for how we take care of the creation. There will be a reckoning. When we care for it properly, we can see God in the world. When we don’t, we mar the image of God in the world.

 

 

Stay at the Beginning

The study of God, otherwise called theology, can be a very complicated subject. I personally enjoy it, and the more complicated the better. You would not believe how many things I deleted in writing this sermon, because a) we don’t have all day, and b) I had a hard time keeping it understandable. And that is important. In one of the books we are using for the Creed class, Ben Meyers, says, “In discipleship, the one who makes the most progress is the one who remains at the beginning.

The point of faith is not learning all you, although learning is good, and in world, fun. The point is the relationship. When you have a child, a lot of parents read parenting books, to try to get a handle on what it means to be a parent. And you can learn a lot of helpful things from the books. But at its heart, the essence of parenting is the relationship you have with your kids. Our faith starts with the relationship we have with God, and it should also end there. Yes, there is reading and learning along the way. That is helpful. But what matters is what mattered at the very beginning. The relationship.

I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth. Amen.

About tmrichmond3

I am the pastor at the First Presbyterian Church in Medford, Oregon. I believe that faith should be able to sustain us, not oppress us.
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