October 25, 2015
St. Paul's United Methodist Church, Manteca
We're celebrating an anniversary, a milestone anniversary—100 years. It is an honor to be asked to preach during this year's celebration. It is an honor to preach again in this inspiring sanctuary. The book on the symbolism of each window has been reprinted. The windows tell the biblical story from creation to Revelation and the chancel windows picture heroes and heroines of church history history. When I was pastor here, I preached a sermon on each window and it took three years! When Davie Wegstaff was on staff at the Manteca Bulletin, and the copy would come in for Friday's Church page, he would ask, “What dirty window is he talking about this Sunday?” Dennis, Davie's replacement, when told about me preaching a series of sermons on the windows, incredulously asked, “Is he some kind of nut or something?”
And it is a special honor and joy to preach here while Mark is the pastor. Back in 1974, Mark was a student at UoP when we hired him as our Intern Pastor. Incidentally, Mark's best friend while at UoP is now our pastor in Paradise Valley, AZ. Mark's primary task was Youth Ministry, piano was his primary method and what a terrific youth group we had. On Tuesdays he went to Manteca High, led a Bible study during lunch and the youth fasted—gave the money they would have spent on lunch to the Heifer Project. Any here this morning from that youth group?
Harry Emerson Fosdick, a renowned preacher of the 20th century, was told by a young man that he didn't believe in God. Rather than arguing with him, Fosdick asked him to describe the god he didn't believe in. When he finished, Fosdick said, “I don't believe in that god either.”
That young man (let's call him the “doubter”) had courage, courage not only to approach a pastor and confess his unbelief, but courage to doubt in the first place. He honored his doubts, and he asked his questions. It is okay to doubt. Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “There lives more faith in honest doubt..than in half the creeds.” Doubt is the path to faith, doubt is the path to developing your own theology, your own beliefs.
Evidently the doubter struggled with his doubts. The doubts bothered him so much he sought out a pastor. He must have been trying to believe, trying to make sense out of life and his own life in particular. He wanted to believe in God but the beliefs he had been taught made no sense to him and he questioned.
Fosdick's response that he didn't believe in that god either must have been very reassuring to the doubter. His honest doubts were not dismissed, but affirmed. Hopefully, the conversation propelled him to authenticate his doubts, and get permission to develop his own belief system.
The doubter is not alone. Christianity is in sharp decline in America, according to new research from the Pew Research Center. The number of Christians dropped by almost 8 percentage points in seven years, and the trend holds across race, gender, education, and geography. Perhaps increasing numbers find they don't believe in the god they used to, that what they were taught about God just doesn't fit the world they live in and the decisions they have to make. An old man in the sky just doesn't cut it anymore. And the tragedy is they no longer believe, no longer consider themselves Christians.
Over the years, I've heard many parents and grandparents lament how their children and grandchildren no longer go to church. They probably don't go so far as to not believe in God but the God they believe in is no longer important to them, no longer relevant to their lives. It is evidently more important for their kids to play sports than go to church.
In this Centennial year as we celebrate the beginning of St. Paul's, let's go back even further. Let's go back to the basics—God 101. What do you believe about God? My beliefs have changed considerably over the years. I describe my Faith Journey in my book (For Sale today!). Through doubting, through world-expanding experiences, my beliefs are evolving, developing, and are open-ended. Let me share where I am today.
Beginning with what God is not, God is not a man. God is not an old man with a beard up in the sky who happens to resemble Santa Claus. God is not a woman. In fact, God is not a person. God is not a being. We have long been taught that God is the Supreme Being, but God is not a being, not a person.
God is not a thing, not a statue. God is not a place, like Jerusalem. In fact, God is not a noun, not a person, or place or thing.
What is God?
God is a verb, not a noun but a verb. God is acting.
God is spirit. Jesus said, John 4.24, “God is spirit.” Not a man, woman, being, place or thing. God is spirit, spirit in its verb form, acting. God is not a spirit off in the sky somewhere. God is here, in our midst, in your life “verbing”--moving, acting, acting upon you, acting with you.
Nikos Kazantzakis, in his book The Saviors of God, calls God the Cry. God is the Cry deep within you, deep within the universe, the relentless, persistent, throbbing, pulsating Cry within all life, crying, "Stand up. Be free. Live. Create." I like the concept of "cry" better than "will." Certainly God is not up there somewhere, on a cloud, or above the clouds, willing or decreeing. God is not making this decree or that decree, "You shall do this; you shall not do that." No, God is not out there somewhere willing, decreeing. God is totally involved. God is spirit, God is energy, God is that Cry within you, within every being, within every atom, within every molecule.
God is not decreeing or causing bad things to happen to good people. God is not punishing someone by giving them cancer. God is not decreeing that a child be killed in an auto accident. “Why is God punishing me” is an irrelevant question. God is not manipulating events to punish you. A pastor asked a man who was suffering what he had done wrong. Blame the victim—a popular American pastime. Another pastor prayed for healing and when the person was not healed, the pastor told her it was her fault because she didn't have enough faith!
There are a lot of strange, vicious beliefs about God! I believe God is not out there somewhere punishing, demanding blind faith with no doubts or questions. I believe God is within the event, within the cancer bringing healing, bringing good out of evil, calling, urging you to not only cope but to overcome. The Cry is within you, within your experiences, crying, pushing, pulling you to stand up, live your life, go forward, and follow Jesus. Get outside of yourself, get outside of your small, limited world and follow Jesus into tremendous adventures.
God is involved in what you do, how you feel, how you react. God is in every heartache. God is in every child crying for food, crying for love. God is in every youth looking for acceptance. God is in every mistake, in every humiliation, in every pain. God is there, crying, "Get up! You can do it. Follow Jesus."
God is in St. Paul's Church crying “Don't rest on your past.” Yes, celebrate the last 100 years. You have an outstanding ministry to families with the preschool and Sunday School. You minister to the poor with the food pantry. You provide clothing through Nearly New. Yes, celebrate. You are a church who cares, who looks outside your door. Celebrate but don't rest on your achievements. Look to the future. Reach out. There are families in Manteca, your neighbors, who need Jesus. There are children, there are youths who need Jesus, youths who need the message of this church, who need the love of this church, who need encouraging Christians who will stand by them, stand with them. Do you have neighbors who have no church? Invite them; bring them with you. St. Paul's, get the word out. Open your hearts, open your arms, embrace Manteca. God has work for St. Paul's to do and God cries for you to do it with faith and courage.
God has work for you to do. God makes demands of you. God challenges you to risk; to step out of your comfortable routine and do God's work, knowing that when you do, you might get criticized or clobbered . Or, is your god a comfortable old shoe you put on to make you feel good? God is not some bumbling old fool who loves you anyway, who never holds you accountable, who lets you get away with wasting your life, who allows you to rationalize all your behavior and attitudes, who allows you to manipulate your god around your little finger! No, God is that Cry within you—crying “get up, get moving, do your best, be your best, Follow Jesus .” Do you want just enough religion to be respectable, but want little to do with the Creator who made you, the Jesus who loves you, and the Holy Spirit who powers you to do God's work?
What is God? God is spirit, God is a verb.
What is God doing? Crying, urging St. Paul's, urging you to be the best person you can be as modeled by Jesus, and urging you to do God's work. As we sang in the hymn, “God of love and God of power, you have called us for this hour.”
You have two choices this morning, you individually and you corporately as St. Paul's Church. Two choices: You can stifle the Cry. Tell God to go away and pick on someone else. Lord, leave me alone. Or, you can choose to heed the Cry, and follow. Get outside of yourself and follow Jesus. Yes, Lord. I will follow you. I'll go where you want me to go.
Two choices: Leave me alone, Lord. Or, Yes, Lord, I will follow you. Two choices. Which do you choose?