Without question, one of the toughest teachers I’ve ever encountered was a woman by the name of Dr. Leslie Zeigler, my professor of systematic theology at Bangor Seminary. Hers was a brilliant theological mind; and she was the kind of teacher who truly inspired both respect and fear from her students. The interesting thing about Dr. Zeigler, however, is that while her vocation was theological education, her background and perspective was that of math and science – she had, in fact, for many years worked as a research chemist before entering the ministry. And so she tended to employ the scientific method in her approach to theology; in that she would speak in clear and very precise terms about God and faith, and expected her students to do the same.
For that reason alone, friends, I was convinced that woman was going to be the death of me!
It was not enough to simply say that “God is Love,” or “Christ is Lord,” and leave it at that. No, Dr. Zeigler would insist that I clearly define what I meant when I said such things, as though formulating the proof of a scientific theory. I would try for all I was worth to do so – but every answer led to another question, and no matter how meticulously I would seek to explain myself, she’d always come back with the comment that haunts me to this day: “Yes, Mr. Lowry …but what do you mean by that?”
At the time, it seemed like she was bent on challenging every precept of what I believed; but of course, what she was trying to teach me, amongst other things, was the great importance of clarity when talking about one’s faith! After all, if you’re going to be spending a lifetime telling congregations about what it is you believe about God, it really is best that you know exactly what you mean when you talk about it!
Take something as simple as saying, “I believe in God.” At first utterance, it might not seem to be all that radical of a statement. In fact, there’s a study done by the Pew Forum on Religion that reports that 92% percent of those Americans interviewed said that they believe in God or “a universal Spirit;” which on the face of it, sounds like a belief in God is still pretty much the norm in our culture. But, then again, what does it mean when you add those words “universal Spirit?” Well, that opens up a whole realm of interpretations, not all what one might consider to be a “traditional” understanding of God or how that plays out in terms of faith, tradition and practice! To wit, only 78% of those who say they believe in God also say they are Christian, and here’s something interesting: 21% of those who described themselves as “atheist” actually say they believe in a God in some form or another!
So you can see that to simply say “I believe in God” doesn’t exactly tell the whole story, and certainly the words resonate differently depending on who speaks them; from the “new believer” who’s just come to faith, to the pillar of the church who’s graced these pews every Sunday morning of her life; from those who make up the so-called “Mainline Protestant” denominations, to the growing number of “millennials” who have disavowed any notion of organized religion!
The point is that such a claim ought not to be taken lightly; and yes, Dr. Zeigler was right (!): if as believers we’re going to say, “We believe in you, O God,” then, friends, we should at least be clear about what it is we’re saying! Moreover, it ought to arise out of the deep conviction of our hearts, rather than merely a casual and by-the-numbers affirmation; indeed, it should serve as a testimony of our whole trust and confidence: as Martin Luther put it, “What your heart clings to and relies upon, that, I say, is really your God.”
So, as we begin this sermon series on our UCC Statement of Faith, the first question is, who is this God in whom we believe, and what do we mean when we say we believe in him?
It’s a daunting question, to be sure; because God is, well …God! God is great and awesome and infinite; God is what theologians refer to as the mysterium tremendum, the “tremendous mystery,” the source and end of life and being and the universe itself! I mean, given that alone, however you and I choose to define God ends up describing something far less than God! Even scripture is limited in this regard: the Bible has many names for God that have been used throughout history – Adonai, Elohim, El Shaddai, Jehovah, Immanuel, Lord, Holy One, Father among them – and each of these names describes something about God, and how God has related to his creation; and yet ultimately none of these names wholly and adequately express God’s fullness and glory!
In the end, you see, we are overwhelmed by God’s mystery; and the most we can say about who God is has to do with who God is to us; what God has done, and yes, what God is doing!
But maybe that’s enough.
I think that’s what’s always drawn me to the Psalm we shared this morning: “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth …when I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.”
I love this Psalm because not only does it say a great deal about God; it also says something about you and me in relationship to this infinite God of mystery and wonder. To confess a belief in such a God, friends, is to make the bold claim that our lives are inextricably bound to this One who has reached out to us, loving us and honoring us by his graceful presence and power.
Our statement of faith bears this out from the very beginning: “We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit.” When we say this, we are acknowledging the Spirit of God as something – someone – personal, moving in and through our lives. And this is no small thing; for this is the God who is Creator of heaven and earth; the God who has bestowed life and imagination to humanity in this and every generation; the God who even now blesses his people with spiritual gifts so that his work might be done and his purposes fulfilled. God, the Eternal Sprit, creates us, inspires us, nurtures us and empowers us: each one of us is who we are because of a living, speaking and acting God who continues to move in and through our lives here and now.
So when we say we believe in God who is the Eternal Spirit, we are saying that we do not exist alone in the universe, nor do we survive by our own devices, but that we live out our lives set forth and inspired by the presence and power of a truly awesome God.
And then, having acknowledged God’s Spirit as the source of our being, we go on to say in our statement of faith that God is “God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God.” Here’s where we get specific, acknowledging that God is at the center of our human history; affirming that God has come into the world and has entered life as we know it in the person of Jesus Christ. In other words, the same God whose spirit “swept over the face of the waters” at the time of creation and breathed the breath of life into our very lungs is the same God who came to us as the babe of Bethlehem, the carpenter of Nazareth, the Lamb of God hanging on the cross. The God of our Savior Jesus Christ is our God – and when as Christians we make this claim, we are not only denying all the “false idols” that surround us in the world and its culture, we are affirming that this is the God who abides with us and to whom we make our allegiance.
Now, if all of what I’ve just said seems rather mind-boggling; if this sort of “affirmation,” instead of clarifying things, just seems to make this divine mystery all the more overwhelming… well, you’re right; but that’s good!
In fact, I believe this might be one of the greatest obstacles we face as 21st century believers: that we’ve been unable or unwilling to let God be the “tremendous mystery;” that in trying to understand God, we’ve sought to shrink the divine down to our size (!), and in the process, we’ve trivialized God’s place and relationship in our lives. Beloved, let me say to you this morning that I believe we need a God who is bigger than our understanding. I think that our lives are better served and more fully led by a God who understands us where we are but who also challenges us to walk along pathways we can’t even begin to envision!
And I believe that that oftentimes the best “statement of faith” we can make is to risk ourselves to be tiny before the greatness of God; to humble ourselves before the Lord so that God might enter into our lives with his creativity and love and crown us “with glory and honor.” Because the truth is, as much as we would like to think otherwise, we’re not so big… but the good news is that even in our smallness, God is mindful of us and cares for us, so that we become, by design “a little lower than God.”
One August a few years ago my son Zach and I decided that we really wanted to experience the Perseid Meteor Shower as it ought to be seen, which is as far away from city lights as possible. So late this one Saturday night, on a whim we drove some 25 miles out of town to this wilderness park where it was totally dark and one could see the Milky Way stretched wide across the expanse of the heavens; and for the next several hours, my son and I (together with all the other people who’d had the same idea) saw it “rainin’ fire from the sky,” as John Denver used to sing!
And it was… amazing. It was also, I have to say, pretty humbling; one of those moments in life when you suddenly realize how incredibly puny you really are (!); just a little “clump of cosmic schmutz” in comparison to the vastness of the universe, or for that matter, in relationship to God! We really should count for nothing, I remember thinking… but here we are. Each one of us in God’s sight; each one of us uniquely created and loved and nurtured as God’s own. That awareness, even more than the stars above me, filled me with wonder …and faith.
We believe in you, O God, because in everything you are, and everything you do, you demonstrate a belief in us! And so it will be to your deeds we will testify.
What does it mean to believe in God? How does that impact our lives? What does God give to us and what does God require of us? What are we called to be and what are we promised if we follow? These are the things we’re going to be talking about in the weeks to come; but for now, it’s enough for us to simply embrace the wonder of it; to feel the presence and love of the living God with our whole being. For isn’t it true that it’s the wonder that starts us out on a walk of faith?
So let us proceed; and may our thanks be to you, O God, eternal spirit and father of our savior Jesus Christ and Our God!
AMEN and AMEN.
c. 2013 Rev. Michael W. Lowry