Monday, June 8, 2015

June 7 Sermon: I Believe in God, the Father Almighty

(To hear a version of this sermon as preached, click here.)
Matthew 6: 9 - 13
“Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.
Well, as I have said, we’re starting our summer series, Constructing our Faith, and we’re going to be looking at the Apostle’s Creed, block by block, exploring what it means as we look at our faith from ground up. And I should begin by acknowledging that I am the typical sort of person of my age and station who doesn’t like to be told what to think or believeso I have always struggled with the idea of the Apostle’s Creed, and creeds in general to be honest. It all feels too much like a test, like a trick, like something doesn’t so much welcome people in as much as it keeps people out when they have trouble believing every. Single. Word. that’s in the creed.
But that’s not what it is, and one reason I want to spend the next three months going through all of this is that I want to talk about what belief is, what it means to believe at all, because it’s not about agreeing something is true as much as it is holding dear something that is truth. It’s not about judging yourself against every letter of the Creed as much as it is living into a statement of belief the church has been reciting for centuries. That’s not to say that just because it’s old it’s true; that’s certainly not the case. p it’s to say that after two thousand years, the Apostle’s Creed s smooth, well-worn from the many hands that have held it, this profound story of faith.
And that’s what it is: a story. The Apostle’s Creed that we’ll be saying each Sunday this summer, isn’t a litmus test. The writer Nicholas Lash says that when we say “I believe,” it “does not express an opinion, however well founded or firmly held, concerning God’s existence. It promises that life and love, mind, heart, and all my actions, are set henceforward steadfastly on God, and God alone.” In some ways, that’s even harder than a litmus test, though it is also the case that it is much more meaningful.
A story. It’s a story. It is the story of God, all of the Holy Scriptures distilled down to their very essence. James Howell says that the Creed is not a list of facts so much as it is an act of worship an act of prayer. I would say it this way: I am something of a cook, and once or twice a year, I like to make my own vanilla extract. I’ll take a jar, and cut
open some vanilla beans and put them in there with some alcohol to leech out the flavor to make vanilla extract. It concentrates the flavors so that the essence of the vanilla comes through everything with which it comes into contact.
And this is like the Apostle’s Creed. It is Faith extract, and, we hope, that the essence of that faith comes through everything with which it comes into contact, comes through in the way we do our worship and live our lives and go out into the world.
Now, I have shared this story before, but I once heard a minister tell the story of a prominent family in his church. When this new minister came along, the church was resistant to him, as tends to happen with new ministers.  But this family embraced him, trusting that God would use him in a way that would please God and help the church grow.  These were good people, loved by everyone in the church.
And on Saturday evening, as the minister worked on the final bits of his sermon for the next morning, he received a phone call from a church member.  There had been a tragedy.  The family’s private plane had crashed, and there were no survivors.  The husband and two young children were dead.
The minister struggled with what to say about the tragedy.  He stammered through his sermon the next morning, unsure about how to go on in the face of such an awful experience.  And he spent hours in front of his Bible and computer as he tried to write the funeral sermon.  He would speak of the man’s business accomplishments, of course, and of the delightful sounds made by the children as they ran through the hallways of the church.  He knew of the goodness of this family, and so he had much to say about them.  What he struggled with was explaining the goodness of God in the face of this tragedy.  He knew what to say, of course; he had spoken in many a funeral service.  But in this service, in a tragedy that struck him in the center of his heart, he had trouble believing.
The funeral sermon came together just in time; the sermon has a way of coming together.  And the surviving family, sitting on the front row, was as heartbroken as you might expect; I heard someone one once say that the only proper response to the death of a child is to roll over and play dead, and that’s what they looked like they wanted to do.
And yet it wasn’t the sermon, beautifully crafted though it was, that served as the greatest comfort to the family. As the minister counseled the family in the days and weeks after that service, he learned that it was actually the Apostle’s Creed that proved most helpful to them, as those gathered for the funeral filled the pews and stood in the aisles, and at the appointed time, spoke the same historic words we will speak later this morning,  “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, maker of Heaven and Earth, and in Jesus Christ, his only son our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified dead and buried.”
And though the family, in the wake of such profound grief, could not have been expected to believe in God on that day, the entire group gathered surrounded them with this historic affirmation of faith.  It was, the minister said later, “as if the congregation, knowing of the doubts carried by the family on that day, believed for them until they could believe again.”
This is the power of the Creed, and we might as well start at the beginning, with what is the most profound and probably controversial part of the Creed: I believe in God, the Father Almighty. I don’t think it’s controversial because of the bit about God being Father; there are other places in scripture that talk about God as Mother, so that’s not too out of place. And I don’t think it is the almighty business, though it can be difficult to conceive of what that means. I think the controversial thing is simply that when we say I believe in God the Father Almighty, what we are essentially saying is this: I believe in God, and God is not me.
Now, maybe that sounds obvious. It does at least a little, I am sure, because nobody wants to admit that they think they’re God. That’s the height of hubris! You’d never . . . admit that, but everybody thinks it, at least a little bit. You may not literally think “I am God,” but you certainly have moments in your life when the idea that you are in charge start to creep in, moments in which your own well-being is the thing that matters most, moments when you feel like your own sense of safety and security is the whole ballgame, and everything that gets in the way of that is less important than that which benefits you!
This is what it means to think you are God. Not to stand on a pedestal in a toga and declare that everybody else is your subject, but to stand in your room, or to sit in a pew, and believe that your own way is best. And to say the Creed is to join with two thousand years of people who would argue with that assumption. It is not some regressive, non-thinking thing, but rather an act of radical obedience, a radical reminder from two thousand years of Creed-reciting Christians that your own way isn’t always the right way.
I haven’t yet met anybody immune from this struggle. We may struggle to varying degrees, but we do. And yet, this struggle isn’t even the hardest part of the creed! You know what I hear from people is the hardest part of the creed for them? It’s the first two words. I believe.
When we say what we believe in, it defines us, and I’ll speak for myself here, I don’t really like to be pidgeonholed. I like to define myself, thank you very much. And not only this, but when I declare belief in something, it means that there are whole lot of other things I don’t believe in, just like declaring that God is the Father almighty means that I am not God.
You know, maybe because I am a little younger, I don’t know, but I sometimes have occasion to counsel young people who just can’t figure out what to do with their lives. I have family members like this, who want to do eight thousand things with their lives and it can be crippling, being in that position, like you are carrying so many potential lives around that you can’t even move. The problem is that you really can only carry one life: your own. Your legs, your mind is not strong enough to carry more than one life for any length of time, and the issue that many young people run into when they try to choose a life, or at least, choose a direction for a life, is that they recognize that when they choose a life for themselves, all the rest of those potential lives die off. And it just seems inhumane, you know, to let go of all that possibility, and it can be hard to choose.
I resonate with this dilemma. When I decided to go to seminary, when I discerned God was calling me to do that, I struggled. I was a political science guy, so I was headed for law school, probably, or to work on campaigns, or to do something in media, but when I decided that seminary was right for me, that being a pastor was my life’s direction, it was hard to let go of everything else. And yet once I was able to do it, it was the most freeing thing, like though I had killed off the rest of the possibilities of what my life could have become, I was able to move with new freedom, and besides, even with the loss of what my life could have been, new possibilities emerged around every corner.
That is to say this: in choosing, I lost something. But what I gained was wholeness, peace, fulfillment, new possibility.
And so it is with belief. Yes, declaring that you are going to life your life in one way, to follow with the theologian Eugene Peterson calls a long obedience in the same direction, that’s not easy, because it means you’re going to let a lot of other possibilities, a lot of other things you could believe in fall away. But once you recognize that to say “I believe,” to stand with everyone else, with their problems and confusion and frustrations and say, together, “I believe,” that’s not to say we’ve got it all figured out. It’s to say, I choose to live this particular way, to follow the way of this particular, peculiar God, the one who became flesh and lived among us, the one who watches out for us and, who, though God is almighty, finds the truest expression of God’s own being in love, of all things.
There are a lot of things I could say about this first phrase, I believe in God the Father almighty. We could talk about it for a year. You could spend your whole life figuring out what that means. But the good news is that you don’t have to figure it out. That kind of statement lives beyond logic, which is good, because it means you don’t have to be there 100% before you become part of God’s church.
You know, it used to be the case that people believed in God and then became part of a faith community, but it is the case now that many people belong before they fully know how to believe. They belong first, and then they believe. When you think about it, it makes sense, if the role of the church is to help you form your beliefs and uphold you as you do. But it is a challenge for the church, for it is a new dynamic. It means that we welcome people no matter where they are, however far they have to go, welcome them as they are with no preconditions and allow the Holy Spirit to do the work that the Holy Spirit does best.
Of course, as John Wesley, the founder of Methodism famously said, we’re all going on to perfection. You don’t have to be there before you come to church. In fact, unless you’re in church, you can’t, because church, being the body of Christ is part of the deal. This is not a new idea, really, the belonging before believing. It’s as old as Methodism itself, as old as the church itself.
Look, I don’t know how you’re doing today. I don’t know how you’d rate yourself if you were asked the question, on a scale of 1 to 100, how fully do you believe in God the father almighty? But that’s not a helpful question. That’s not what it means to speak the creed.

To speak the creed is to join with all those who have come before: Joan of Arc, St. Francis of Assissi, your grandmother, perhaps, the first Disciples, of course, even God’s own self in the form of Jesus Christ. It is to align yourself with an awfully great clout of witnesses, such that when I say that I believe in God the Father almighty, those words don’t just come out of my mouth, but they seep out of my life, they flavor everything with which I come into contact, and thanks be to God for that. In the name of the Father Almighty, the gracious son, and the Holy Spirit, amen.

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