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What is the Character of Your God?

Sermon - 1/29/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 111

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 years".  

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 questions:

  1. What is the character of your God?

  2. What is the content of your faith?

  3. What is the purpose of your church?

  4. What 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:

1Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
   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 merciful.
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 many people.

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 others.  

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.

Furthermore, the 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 worldly power. 

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 world.

Our mission statement in our bulletin describes that very well:

God 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 our world.

That is making that reign of God present here in our community.  Making it visible and tangible.

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.


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