As a young boy I remember a great feeling of solace in reading the inscription on the cornerstone of our parish church. The inscription read: “Holding Forth the Word of Life.” Even by a young age I already knew that life was full of changes, most of which absolutely delighted me as I growing up. And yet I still needed the assurance that some things did not change, most especially God. It seems to me that there is an innate need, consciously recognized by many, for a sense of God’s identity and presence and provision amidst the changes and chances of life. The youngest of child will often grasp or cling after his or her parent when the child is unsure or frightened by the unexpected. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in the scriptures we are consistently called “children of God” (not “adults of God” but “children of God”) and some of this need for steadiness and stability we simply do not grow out of, no matter our age. The Psalter is full of “predictable” images of God: “Though the earth be moved, and though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea… the God of Jacob is our stronghold.” [i] The Psalmist sings out how God is our “rock,” our “fortress,” our “shield,” our “tower,” “our light in darkness,” the one who “lifts us out of the mire and clay and makes our footing sure…” [ii] In the Psalm appointed for this eveing, Psalm 15, we hear that if we do what is expected by God, we “shall never be overthrown,” no matter what we have to face. God will be “there for us.”
Before I came here to our community I was a parish priest, and I recall having a conversation with a distraught parishioner. She was terribly upset after some renovations in the church sanctuary requiring that the pulpit be moved. The parishioner was well-educated, much-traveled, and very successful in multi-national business ventures, but our moving the pulpit was more than she could take. She finally said to me in utter exasperation, “I can handle almost anything in my business and personal life, but don’t mess with my God!” And my heart went out to her. I personally had little attachment to the physical location of the pulpit, but I knew very well what she was talking about.
Going back to that cornerstone on my childhood parish church – “Holding Forth the Word of Life” – the “Word” for me as a child was the Bible, which was a way of getting my hands or my handle on God. Not one dot, not one iota could change in the Bible. [iii] The ink simply did not bleed. I hesitate to tell you how old I was before I gave up the notion that Moses and the prophets and Jesus simply did not speak and write in leather-bound, King James’ English. Even in seminary, when it came to the “critical studies” of the Bible, I was ambivalent. I was simultaneously resistant to and fascinated by what the earliest manuscripts of the scriptures probably did (or did not) say about the Word of God. On the one hand, we worship a God who gives the word and things come into being. [iv] In the Genesis creation account, God simply says, “Let it be…” and it happens. [v] “By the word of the Lord were the heavens made…; for he spoke, and it came to pass….” [vi] The Psalmist satirizes other gods who are mute: “They have mouths, but they cannot speak….” [vii] But we worship a God who gives us his Word. We are reminded in a number of places in the Hebrew scriptures that ever since the beginning, this same Word remains active in the universe, ruling the stars, [viii] the waters of the deep, [ix] and the totality of the natural world. [x]
Now there seems to be a principle that, down through the centuries, what is to be remembered often gets codified. And so the Word (which is God) is remembered in word form (which is the Bible), revealed by the Word, which is another name given for Jesus the Christ. It’s sort of a pun in English and in Hebrew and in Greek: “Word,” the “Word of the Lord.” When we say “word,” are we talking about the proclaimed authority of God, or are we talking about a text which we call “the Bible,” or are we talking about a person, Jesus the Christ? The answer is ‘yes’: all of the above. Which is exactly where the gospel according to John (appointed for today) begins. [xi] We read: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word (Jesus) was with God and the Word was God. We read at the end of John’s gospel that many more words could be written about the things Jesus did, “if every one of them were written down… the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” [xii]
I mention all of this interplay around “the Word” because I have the sense that “the Word” – in all the Word’s forms or manifestations or metaphors – “the Word” is not static or immovable or unchanging, but rather I would call the image of “the Word” rather fluid, in process of becoming. And yet, I said at the outset that I think there is an innate need that many recognize for a sense of God’s steady identity and presence and provision amidst the changes and chances of life. Is the Word clear enough or fixed enough or “there” enough to believe in? I would say yes, but not like I once thought.
Much as I would like to be a fundamentalist some days, and to be able to look at the Word of God (called the Bible) as some kind of final and “permanent” authority, I know too much, and you probably do, too. Part of my reticence in being a “biblical fundamentalist” is recognizing the extraordinary diversity within the Christian faith, where the Bible can be faithfully understood in varying and diverse ways. Part of my reticence in being a “biblical fundamentalist” is knowing how the Bible has been misused down through the centuries. One need only recall the genocidal atrocities and the most unconscionable kinds of prejudice, continuing even to this day and committed in the name of Christ, to know how one can make the Bible say and support almost any cause one chooses. We also know that not all the ancient texts are what we thought they were, nor say what we thought they did. (A good many biblical texts have been unearthed by archeologists in recent years.) We also, as Christians, believe that the Spirit of God continues to show forth God’s revelation and “to lead us into all truth.” [xiii] We do not worship a God who is “packagable,” but rather a God who is always More. And so as Anglicans we would recognize the Word as being alive. And insofar as the Bible is a faithful revelation of this Word, it seems to me that we need to offer both reverence and reticence in our interpretation of the Bible, using the complementary witness of the Bible, of tradition, of reason, and of our experience in life to check each other. (That’s a typical Anglican formula for authority: the complementary witness of the Bible, tradition, reason, and our experience in life to check each other.) I think that to look at the Bible as some kind of fixed and final Word of God is a canon firing in the wrong direction. The Bible is part of the movement of God’s revelation, which is continuous.
Likewise, I don’t think we’ll be satisfied to look at Jesus, who is called “the Word of God,” simply as a fixable person whom we can nail down in history. We know at least some of how Jesus continued to grow and develop during his earthly life: how he grew into his identity as Messiah. I don’t think he asked to be the Messiah any more than any of us asked for the deck of cards that was handed to us in our birth. But Jesus grew into the acceptance of his humanity, his gifts, his limitations, his mission, and his unfinished business, facing the same developmental issues that we all do in growing up. We say in our own baptismal vows that “we have been baptized into Christ,” and we believe that Christ has come to live within us. Which is to say, we see with the eyes of Christ, and hear with the ears of Christ, and speak with the words of Christ, and feel with the sacred heart of Christ. And so, when we hear Jesus’ saying from the cross that “it is finished,” in some other ways it isn’t. Jesus’ earthly life did come to a close, but the real presence of Christ continues to grow, develop and be lived out in all of us, his followers. Insofar as Jesus Christ is also the Word, well the word is… that we all somehow participate in the word and work of God. To simply picture Jesus as some iconic image which we hang on the wall, or to keep a picture in our mind’s eye of a Jesus on a wooden cross is too small a picture of what’s going on. We re-present Jesus, who is alive, still… and in each of us.
And insofar as the Word is also the God whom Jesus called Father, can we fix an identity on this God, whom we worship this evening? I want to say yes, but I think I now believe almost opposite what I would have told you not that many years ago. I don’t think that the God whom we worship and adore is mostly concerned about us. I don’t think that we, God’s beloved creations, are the focus of God’s attention and at the center of God’s heart. I think that God is at the center and that we belong to God. We have been created for God’s good pleasure, for God’s glory for the life of God. And God will do with us what God will. I’m not saying that we don’t matter to God. We are “the apple of God’s eye.” [xiv] I think we eternally matter to God insofar as God longs to be united with all that God creates. That is the nature of God: a God of union and communion. On the one hand, we’ve been created in the very image of God. On the other hand, we’ve been created out of the dust of the earth. On the one hand, we are a part of God’s becoming. (God is still alive and at work in us and with us and through us.) On the other hand, we are usable and “expendable” in God’s way and on God’s time. It’s a paradox. [xv]
It seems to me it’s not helpful to try to “do theology” inside a Martha Stewart-type box and pretend away the awful and messy things we read on the front page of the newspaper each day. This is a very complicated and tragic and incredibly beautiful and wonderful world that God has created and in which God is living and becoming. And what it comes down to, for me, something I can get my hands on or get a handle on these days with regards to God, is the very thing we are doing here at this Eucharist: the offering of our life and labor to the Lord. And even though I know this is troublesome language for some people – perhaps even for many of you here – the old language of the 1928 Prayer Book and of Rite I speaks truth to me: that what we are doing here is to “offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy and living sacrifice unto thee.” God hungers and thirsts and longs for us . [xvi] This is what we do “in remembrance of Christ.” We are acknowledging what even the most cursory reading of history affirms: we are not in ultimate control of our lives. That we are participating in the life of God and the “becoming” of God who loves us as God’s own, and who will use us and expend us as God chooses, and that out of this crucible of life on this earth we shall be united with this God forever.
It’s not the kind of clarity I longed for. But it seems to me that it has some integrity insofar as we participate in life on this earth with tens of millions of people, so many of whom suffer so greatly. What hasn’t changed about God is, I would say, that God continues to change. And we are a part of that change. And these days what I hear in the Word of God is a new word from God – to me and to you. And that word is: God is More, always More.
The great poet and pastor, Rainer Maria Rilke, speaks to this, about God being More. Rilke, writing as a prophet almost a century ago, predicts:
Everything will be huge and powerful again.
The lands simple and the waters rippled,
the trees enormous and the walls very low;
and in the valleys, strong and diverse,
a race of shepherds and tillers of the soil.
And no churches, which fence God in
like a fugitive and then harass him
like a trapped and wounded animal –
the houses hospitable to all knocking
and a sense of boundless self-offering
in every action and in you and in me.
No waiting for a future and no peering out to a beyond,
only the longing to keep death sacred
and to practice the serving of earthly things,
and thus to no longer be estranged from his hands. [xvii]
Blessed be God, for ever and ever.
[i] Psalm 46:2-4.
[ii] See, e.g., Psalms 18:2; 31:3; 40:2; 61:2-3; 144:2.
[iii] Matthew 5:18.
[iv] Isaiah 44:7f; Psalm 33:6-9; Lamentations 3:37 ; Wisdom 9:1.
[v] Genesis 1 & 2.
[vi] Psalm 33:6,9.
[vii] Psalm 115:5.
[viii] Isaiah 40:26.
[ix] Isaiah 44:27.
[x] Psalms 107:25; 147:15-18; Job 37:5-13; Sirach 39:17, 31.
[xi] John 1:1-14.
[xii] John 21:25.
[xiii] John 16:13.
[xiv] Psalm 17:8.
[xv] “Paradox,” from the Greek paradoxa : God’s glory revealed in a way other than we might have imagined.
[xvi] I would presume that our hungering and thirsting and longing after God is a reflection and response to God’s hungering and thirsting and longing after us, i.e., our experience of the “real absence” of Christ. See, e.g., Psalms 42:1f; 63:1f; 84:2f; 107:9f; 143:6f.
[xvii] Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926).
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