Most of you know that our First Congregational Church of Manchester has a history that goes back to the early 1800’s. But the denomination we belong to, the United Church of Christ, has only been around for 63 years now. The UCC began in 1957 with the joining together of two separate denominations; the Congregational Christian Church and the Evangelical and Reformed Church. Shortly after this union came to be, a group of 30 people were commissioned to produce a common faith statement. Allen Miller, one of the participants, described their work in this way: “We began… by studying carefully all the creeds and confessions of Christendom… We then asked ourselves what were the faith affirmations most precious to us that could become the wedding vows of our two uniting churches.”
Isn’t that lovely. The UCC Statement of Faith was created as a “wedding vows” document for the new denomination, based on the “most precious” faith affirmations that Christians have made throughout history. I just think that’s terrific. Christianity can be so complicated, with all the different denominations and worship styles and histories. If we’re not going to be swept away by it all, we need some clarity about who we are and what we believe. For me, the Statement of Faith does that in a beautiful way. Despite its origin, the statement is not about the UCC at all. Rather, it’s a great little “thumbnail sketch” of our core theology as Christian people; what we believe about God and about our relationship with God. It expresses some of the most important things Christian people affirm. If you have a copy of our Chalice Hymnal handy, you can read it for yourself. Maybe after I’m done here. It’s listed as number 361 in the hymnal. It begins like this. “We believe in you, O God, Eternal Spirit, God of our Savior Jesus Christ and our God, and to your deeds we testify…”
Now, I’ve had lots of conversations over the years about God, I’m sure you can imagine. More than a few times people have wanted to know, “What proof do you have that God even exists?” A woman came up to me one time at a community picnic clear back in my first church. Without preamble, she looked me right in the eye and said, “So you’re the new minister. Well I’m an atheist. What makes you think there actually is a God?” We had a pretty lively discussion that afternoon. People gathered around. It must have looked something like a tennis match, the two of us going back and forth. I don’t know how well I defended God that day, but all these years later, when someone tells me they don’t believe in God, I always want to say, “tell me about the God you don’t believe in.” We usually discover we’re not as far apart in our beliefs as it might seem.
But really, what do you say about God in fifteen minutes? When I think about God, the first word that usually comes to my mind is “infinite.” All the major religions of the world, each in their own way, affirm that God is without limits, without borders or boundaries, without beginning or ending, infinite. But clearly, sermons are not infinite, even though they might seem like it at times. And, I have to tell you, there is a fundamental absurdity in this. Every preacher knows, that not in fifteen minutes, or fifteen years, or fifteen lifetimes could we ever adequately describe the vastness of God. Yet week after week, we all set about the business of trying to talk about this infinite God in some finite way. Obviously, whatever we do say will always be so much less than God actually is.
A woman named Denise Carmody once said, “God is always more unlike what we say than like it.” Very true, and that’s actually why, in the Jewish tradition, making an image of God is forbidden. We call it idolatry; that is, setting something up as an idol to worship, something that is less than God, like the golden calf in the wilderness. This prohibition of idolatry is so important in faith. It is exactly where the ten commandments begin: Thou shalt have no other God’s before me. Thou shalt not make for yourselves an idol of any kind. God is infinite. God is infinitely beyond all our images. But the problem is, infiniteness is really hard for us to relate to.
So, when we talk about God, we do use images, analogies or metaphors. We don’t treat these images as idols. They are not God. We don’t worship them. But they do give us a sort of snapshot, a word picture, of some aspect of God that we have come to know and need to talk about. There are lots of them: Father, son, spirit, rock, fortress, redeemer, creator, king, sovereign, lord, light, love, peace, shepherd, physician, womb, fire, wind, vine, cypress, burning bush, still small voice, the force, the essence, the unmoved mover … just to list a few. All of these images shed light on some aspect of God. They give us a way in, if you will.
Think of it this way. Somewhere at home you probably have a photo album. In it there are pictures of you that were taken at significant moments throughout your life. There’s the picture of you as a baby, naked with green stuff dribbling down your face. There’s you in your first three-piece suit or party dress, at your first football practice or music lesson. There are pictures from your birthdays your vacations, your graduations, your wedding. There are pictures of you at the Grand Canyon or in New York or Paris; pictures of you on your boat, your motorcycle, or your surfboard. We love to take pictures, especially now that most of us have cell phones with fancy cameras. We are a nation of people with photo albums.
Now, in your album, each one of these pictures captures a moment of your life. Each one represents some small aspect of the total picture of who you are. But no one would ever make the mistake of assuming that any one of these pictures, or even the whole collection together, could ever take the place of who you are in living, breathing reality. This collection of images, no matter how good they are and no matter how many there are, will never be you.
The same is true of God. In a sense, all the world’s religions are essentially photo albums of God. Each faith has its own collection of images and metaphors that help their people know God in their own particular way. Our statement of faith uses some of the images that are common to Christianity. In a few short sentences it pictures God as Creator, Savior, Spirit and Lover. God is Holy, Eternal, invested in human affairs and committed to justice. Each one of these images is a picture in our album of God. Each one could easily be a whole sermon or a whole series of sermons all by itself. These images show us important aspects of God’s nature, but they can never take the place of God. They can never be full and complete and final descriptions of God all by themselves. But they do capture, in beautiful and creative word pictures, some of the amazing ways that God has been revealed to us.
If I could go back to my atheist friend for a moment, in my experience, when someone makes a point of saying they are an atheist, it usually means they don’t like some of the images of God that are out there.
Maybe they don’t like to think of God as a Father, or a Judge. Maybe they don’t like the idea that God is only going to let some people into heaven. Honestly, I don’t like that one either. But rejecting an image of God is not the same thing as rejecting the God that exists beyond all of our images. If we’re going to talk about God at all, we have to use images. But it’s important to remember that the God that truly is God is not limited to our images we use to talk about God.
Now why, you may be wondering, am I making such a big deal about this? Well, it’s because being faithful to God is a matter of tuning into and lining ourselves up with what God’s spirit is doing in our lives at any given moment. Because we are finite, we don’t have it in us to be in touch with the whole vast infinitude of God. But we can tune in to the most important aspects of God that go along with what we’re experiencing right now.
For instance. We’ve all been witnessing an upheaval of anger these last two weeks over racial injustice and police brutality. There have been lots of calls for social change, and hopefully there will be some positive changes that come out of this time. But part of understanding what changes need to be made, comes from remembering that God is invested in justice right along with us. Justice is one of our key images of God. The bible is filled with passages that talk about caring for widows and orphans, welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry, and treating others as we ourselves would be treated. The God our scriptures reveal to us clearly is one who calls for justice. All people are God’s children. All people deserve fair and humane treatment. The idea that people with white skin are somehow better or more deserving than people with dark skin is appallingly out of keeping with the God of justice. Red or yellow, black or white, they are precious in God’s sight. How do we know this? Because it is part of our imagery of God.
Let me give you another example. This one a little more personal. Most of you know by now that my wife has cancer. Pamela and I just found out a couple of days ago that she will need further treatment over the summer, and this has thrown us for a loop let me tell you. I am profoundly grateful for all the support That we have already been getting from our beloved faith community, family and friends. I want you to know, what a blessing it is to be held in your thoughts and prayers.
But being a minister, it is impossible for me to completely separate out the personal from the professional. It’s impossible for me to not think of what we’re going through in terms of what God’s spirit is doing in our lives right now. Personally, as important as the protests are, Pam and I are not currently focused on God’s justice. We are focused on God’s healing, God’s comfort, God’s peace. We’re focused on receiving each and every day as a gift of God’s grace, and the fact that God has promised that neither death nor life nor anything else in all creation can ever separate us from God’s love.
As a pastor, I have sat by countless bedsides, praying for healing, reassuring families that nothing is ever lost in God’s love. It is strange to me, to have my own reassurances now coming back to me. But those prayers were true and faithful because they lifted up true and faithful images of God. Images that have been revealed to us. Our God is compassionate, loving, and healing. We worship a God who suffered with us and for us, as a way of leading us out of our suffering. Pam and I do not know what the future may hold, but in our faith, we do know and we affirm who it is that holds the future.
The images of God we choose are vitally important, because they shape our lives. The fact that Christians hold dear a God who is known as loving and compassionate and just means that, if we are to be in harmony with God, we must be loving and compassionate and just ourselves. When we accept an image of God who is deeply invested in our lives, we must ultimately learn to see ourselves as loving, healing, just, and precious in God’s sight.
What is your image of God? We shouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that any one picture can ever capture God’s true, complete or final nature. That’s where exclusivity and religious intolerance come from. It’s always good to remember that God is infinite. That God will always transcend our best and highest understanding. But our images of God are very important. They not only reveal the nature of God in ways that human beings can get a handle on, but they also reveal who we are called to be in God’s grace.
In closing, I’d like to share one last image of God with you. It’s one of my favorites. It comes from a poem called…
“The Extravagance of God”
Have you ever thought about the extravagance of God?
More sky than we can see, more sea than we can sail,
More sun than we can bear to watch, more stars than we can scale,
More breath than we can breathe, more yield than we can sow,
More grace than we can comprehend, more love than we can know.