It was just over two
years ago that I had the honor and privilege of going on a pilgrimage in
Turkey with Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan. Our Turkish tour
guide was an archeologist by trade but a tour guide by necessity to make
a living. We visited a number of sites in what we know as
Cappadocia (they refer to it with a different pronunciation), in ancient
Turkey where there are a number of caves. These caves are in the
ground, caverns that are dug in some very soft but yet very strong
stone. One of those caves, in the town of Kumusler, was a monastery
that was abandoned for 1,000 years and recently reopened. Inside
that monastery there was a chapel, where our group gathered of about 40
people, and filled that chapel. In the chapel were these
incredible paintings on the ceiling, very ornate, depictions of the
gospels and disciples and Jesus, incredibly beautiful.
At one point the tour
guide turned off the light so we were in total darkness inside this
cave. And then Marcus led us in the Alleluia (part of what the
choir just sang), and we let that sound just reverberate in this
cavern. And afterward, in the stillness of that silence as the
sound died down, Marcus said to us: "We have reminded the
walls of the witness to Christ that they had not heard for over 1,000
We sometimes forget
that what we do here every Sunday, though the music and the style and
the format has changed, continues a practice begun a thousand thousand
years ago, and hence we are connected by this practice to those
worshiping communities throughout all of those years. And that is
a very sobering thought.
So just who is it
that we worship throughout all of these ages?
On that same pilgrimage
through Turkey, Borg and Crossan invited us to ponder four essential
is the character of your God?
is the content of your faith?
is the purpose of your church?
is the function of your worship?
And those questions
came to my mind again as I read this Psalm, because it alludes to those
themes in various ways. And I thought especially appropriate on
this Sunday as we prepare in worship for our annual meeting immediately
following the service:
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
2Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
3Full of honour and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures for ever.
4He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and
5He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
6He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
7The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
8They are established for ever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
9He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant for ever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
10The fear of the Lord
is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practise it have a good understanding.
His praise endures for ever..
So what is the
character of our God? Two
Sundays ago I took exception with a prominent preacher who sought to
be a politician, and last Sunday I took
exception with a politician who sought to be a preacher. The
preacher (Pat Robertson) and the politician (New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin)
both contended that the recent hurricanes were signs of the activity of
God. And it is my contention that such portrayals come from a
fundamentally flawed image of God.
And I don't want to
talk any more about those particular quotes and that situation.
This morning, instead, I want to talk about that character of God as the
absolutely essential basis of our faith, which stands in direct contrast
to the popular images sometimes portrayed in the media and often held by
This particular Psalm
(111), speaks of God as being gracious, tender-loving (in the
translation used during our reading), and merciful (in the New Revised
Standard Version). And later it speaks of God as being faithful and
just. This is as concise of a description as you will find
anywhere in all of scripture. Does it describe the totality of
God? No. No single description does. But it does
provide a helpful characterization of God by which we can measure all
God is gracious and
merciful, faithful and just.
Can a God who wipes
out entire communities under a torrent of wind and waves be considered
"gracious and merciful"? I think not.
But what about Sodom
and Gomorrah, you say to me, what about Jericho, what about all those
stories when God orders God's people to wipe out entire cities?
Well, first of all we have to say that not all stories in the bible are
descriptive of God. Some reveal more about human justification for
cruelty and war than they do about divine intent on retribution and
vengeance. Secondly, we must weigh those stories against other
stories: the woman caught in adultery taken to Jesus for stoning,
the sparing of Nineveh from destruction in the story of Jonah, the
description of God as love in 1 John. And ask: which rings
more true, which is more consistent with our own experience? And
most importantly for us, which fits with the teachings and the example
and the life and ministry of Jesus Christ?
And thirdly, it all
comes down to a question of violence. Does God use violence to
achieve some divine purpose? And the answer to this question, I
think, probably is the reason above all others why I am a
Christian. For in the central image of Christian faith--the
cross--we see the answer to that question. Just as the crucifixion
of Jesus represents the victory of violence over Jesus, the resurrection
of Christ represents the victory of God over violence.
entire life of Jesus as told in the gospels is one of non-violent
resistance to the imperial power. From the royal homage paid by
the Magi at the birth of Jesus to the sign posted on the cross above
Jesus' head, the entire story points to Jesus as the alternative to
Paul takes this
message one step further and proclaims across the Roman empire
"Jesus is Lord". Directly counter to the central message
of the Roman Imperial theology which was grilled into our heads over
& over again on that pilgrimage tour throughout Turkey.
The central message of Roman Imperial theology was 'Caesar is
Lord'. And here is Paul, going to the very capitals of that same
empire proclaiming Jesus is Lord. But at no time does Jesus, or
Paul, or any their followers suggest that such a bold claim means that
they should take up arms to kill their enemies. Instead, they take
up the cross to love them. To win them to the way of God, the way
of compassionate non-violence. The way of justice and peace.
Rather than to defeat them with the way of power and violence.
If God is a God of
resurrection and life, then God cannot be the God of crucifixion
and death. If God is the God of love, then God cannot be
the God of violence. If God is the God of peace, then God cannot
be the God of war.
Therefore, I believe
it is critical that we firmly, unequivocally, and publicly reject all
characterizations of God which are violent and destructive. So let
us be clear and let us be adamant. A God who takes innocent lives
to punish the guilty is not the God we worship. A God who condones
violence and oppression is not the God we worship. A God who fosters
fear and foreboding is not the God we worship.
We worship a God who
is gracious and merciful, faithful and just.
I am taking a little
more time on this first point simply because we live in a world today
where we either learn how to end violence or violence will end us.
If we worship a God who not only condones violence but who calls us to
use violence against our enemies, then we as a people will perpetuate
our own destruction.
There's some who
believe the solution to religious support of violence is to denounce all
religion. Sam Harris, for instance, in his book The End of
Faith, in essence, claims that faith is dangerous and only reason
and science will save us. The great religious traditions, on the
other hand, teach us that the cosmic struggle between good and evil in
reality is a spiritual issue which reason cannot solve. Reason
does not address the source of evil, instead it can only address the
evildoers by removing them from society or destroying them. And
hence all we end up with are more prisons and more war.
Whereas faith teaches
us evil cannot be destroyed with human means, evil can only be purged
from the heart with divine love. This is the wisdom that comes not
from science or philosophy, but from faith in God. And so this
Psalm proclaims that wisdom begins with knowledge of God.
"The fear of the Lord" is actually the term used in the Psalm,
which is an old English way of simply saying the way of knowing God and
relating to God, but not in the sense being afraid of God, but having
healthy respect for God as demonstrated in your life, living as God
would want you to live.
And so we come to the
answer to the second question of Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan -- what
is the content of your faith? To know God. Not to know about
God, but to know God. Such knowledge of God is intensely personal,
but it's never private. It's not about me and God, it's about the
relationship I have with God in the community of faith. One
supports the other. The community exists to nurture that
relationship with God, and that relationship calls us to be in
community. To be the body of Christ. It is the place where,
as this Psalm says, the requirements of God are to be performed with
faithfulness and uprightness.
What are those
requirements? I think the prophet Micah said them well: What
does the Lord require of you but to do justice, to love kindness, and to
walk humbly with your God.
That leads us to the
answer to the third question, what is the purpose of our Church?
And it's simply this: to take that knowledge of God, that
relationship we have with God, that knowledge of God's mercy and
justice, and to do something with it. To make good happen.
To proclaim the good news. To bring heaven to earth. To
practice God's wisdom. To make the reign of God present here and
now, so that the people can get a glimpse of what that realm is
like. So when they look at the church, really look at the church,
here is a picture, here is a glimpse of God's reign, here, present in
Our mission statement
in our bulletin describes that very well:
has called us to be a light to the world in the heart of Eugene.
We commit ourselves to live as spirit filled, Christ-like people,
growing in the Community of God as envisioned by Jesus, strengthening
our relationships with God, with each other, with our families and with
That is making that
reign of God present here in our community. Making it visible and
Finally, what is the
function of our worship? This Psalm, like many of the Psalms,
begins and ends with praise of God. It tells us that we are to
give thanks to the Lord with our whole heart, our whole body.
Praising God is not so much about what we say with our lips as it is of
what we feel inside of us. Praise, therefore, is the instrument of
worship, but not the function of worship. The function of worship
is empowerment. To be connected to God. To feel that
presence of God. To be united with God. It is the place
where we come, that 'thin place' in Celtic Christianity, that place
where the barriers between us and God come down. That we might
better know God and serve God by witnessing to the character of God in
the way that we live in the world.
And thus we come full
circle, back to where it all begins and ends -- the character of
God. Get it wrong, and we likely will get little else right.
Thus our world is filled with those who, with their distorted image of
God, wreak havoc and destruction upon Him.
But get it right,
give yourself to the God who is gracious and merciful, faithful and
just, compassionate and non-violent. Trust in that God, and we
will make God's realm present here in the world.
And that will change
us, and it will change our world, here and now. May it be.