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Based on the Scripture readings:
2 Corinthians 5

2012 June 10
Village Day in Newton Highlands
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth F. Baily, Senior Pastor

Speaking of God

Saint Paul, the first Saint Paul, loved the church, and he loved God. Scholars say that he wrote five letters to Corinth, and we have parts of three of them collapsed into two books, and today I'm going to focus on just one word there, written around the year 55.  It is a word that Paul used 51 times all together, but that's enough for numbers.

Before I tell you Paul's word -- this fifty-one times used word -- I want to say a word about being here today. I am thrilled to be here. Because, frankly, I couldn't preach this sermon that I have in my own parish. I couldn't preach it because of one word that I'm going to use in my sermon, not the word that Paul used. I couldn't say what I intend to say just two blocks from here, and as far as I can tell there is no one present from my "other" beloved church, so I am delighted to be among friends who I hope will allow me to tell a story, say a word, and keep this stuff between ourselves and not let it out beyond these walls. I'll take your word that you'll protect mine, and I know that the priest penitent deal that I have with Gretchen means that she'll never tell, so let me tell you what's on my mind.

It all begins with a story. It's a story of a viral word that I heard after my computer got a virus so that my hard drive melted down a week ago last Thursday. This is my not-yet-one-year-old computer, which shall remain nameless, even as I affirm that I like it very, very much. It's a great computer. But it died just minutes after I completed writing a memorial service that Thursday night, and its only hope of rising again lay in a repair shop in Chestnut Hill, so that's where I went Monday morning with an appointment.

My appointment was at 10 AM, so I showed up at 9:55, and I was greeted by a staff person who acknowledged that I showed up when I was supposed to show up and he looked at me and he said, "Awesome." And I thought, not really. I came when I said I would. That's normal. Anyway I was then shown to the Genius Bar where I described what had happened when my computer left this vale of tears, and the genius behind the bar listened to my description and he said, "Awesome." And I thought, not really, it was just narrative English and a presentation of the facts. While the genius explored my device it came to be clear that I needed an upgrade on my warranty, which I requested, Back to topand when another staff person came to address that, she asked how I was going to pay, and I handed her my Visa card, she took it, and she said, (we can say this together) "Awesome."

Now, here's my multi-layered quandary. There is a woman at my parish whom I love, a leader, and indeed a cradle Episcopalian, who says "awesome" a lot. Maybe more than one person does that at my church. They mean well by it. Yet I didn't want these folks to hear this sermon and think that I was troubled with them. I'm not. But this much is true: showing up on time is not awesome, describing a technical fact is not awesome, and paying with a Visa, while it may be priceless, is not awesome. Unless we've neglected to check just what this word means. Or become so deadened to the promise, the possibility, and the power of the truly awesome that we start mistaking the mundane for the miraculous, and let me defend my case.

God is awesome. The word that Paul uses is "glorious," fifty-one times. And Paul's Greek word, doxa, means that God is splendid, excellent, majestic, elegant, brilliant, angelic, and preeminent. God is transcendent. God is sunrise and starlight united, symphony orchestra, string quartet, Hook and Hastings organ, woodwind section, Mezzo Soprano, bluegrass festival, Miles Davis and Adele, but even better, simultaneously. God is, according to Isaiah, Holy, Holy, Holy, and according to Martin Buber "Thou" with a capital T, "More" with a capital M for Marcus Borg, and to Rudolph Otto, mysterium tremendum, with an emphasis on transforming tremendousness. God is awesome. My computer is not. And, forgive me, I am not, either.

And when I start to compare the character of my amazing, impressive, helpful, really, really great computer - and it is all that - with what is truly awesome, I risk entering a realm of confusion, disappointment, and lost Christian passion, faith, and mission. It's OK with me if God is awesome, and I am just perfectly fine.

You probably know this perfectly well. The church in Corinth long ago was situated in a relatively new city. Corinth has been destroyed by Rome and then rebuilt, and it fancied itself the Hub of the Universe, almost, which is to say it was at a land bridge with great commercial harbors on two sides and outstanding educational offerings. It included the Upper Crust at least in the ancient world: smart, capable, monied people who almost certainly numbered about 120. That bears clarification: the city had roughly 30,000 inhabitants in those days, and there were about 120 members of the First Parish of Corinth. And even at that small size they had troubles getting along, broke into cliques, and forgot the mission of their Messiah. They thought that they were the measure of all things. Go figure. So what did Paul do? He reminded them of the basics. God is alive. Jesus is God's resurrected Messiah. Back to topOur call is to community and the covenant of service and love as well as the core of faith.

The core of faith was the glory of God. The otherness of God. The wisdom and strength, the depth and the riches, the triumph of God. The awesomeness of God.

There was once upon a time a tendency to domesticate God or to take from God various divine attributes and wear them as a mantle of our mortality. And along with the domestication of God came a measure of deification of surroundings and self, which rendered some in Corinth proclaiming just how awesome they were.

But some words are worth saving for their absolutely appropriate applications. Whether they are our favorite fricative curses or the highest fulsome compliments, they are best when things are utmost, lest they lose their power in false equivocation.

So, you wonder, aren't you awesome? Isn't this world suffused with God's awesomeness, and didn't Paul also say that people are temples of the Holy Spirit? Is this critique grounded in some dated dogma, overlooking the great Quaker claim that there is a spark of God in every person?

N. T. Wright, an Anglican, isn't the only one to say this, but he says it well. He addresses this question of being God-suffused or touched by the Holy and more. And in a nutshell he says this. Some people believe that God saturates everything, all material and more, and that is called pantheism, and Christianity does not proclaim strict pantheism, as much as we do proclaim the goodness of creation. Other people say that God is distant, separate from this world, maybe even standing back somehow and watching from a distance: our world is apart from God's world. Wright calls this Epicureanism or even deism. And our Judeo Christian family doesn't affirm this, either. The third model in this triplet is that heaven and earth, God and all creation, are overlapping and interlocking. We're not identical. We're not equal. But, like the pieces of a puzzle, or the fabric of a quilt, like the layers of a semiconductor or of baklava, there is no great gulf between us. Abraham can meet God by oak trees or Jacob at his pillow. Sarah can sense the divine and laugh, and Mary cry out in a garden. In Wright's interlocking vision we're very close, we touch, perhaps particularly at what Celts call thin places.

But we are not God. God is not limited to us. And that's OK -- it's OK to be human -- Back to topit even worked for Jesus. Also, it's OK for God to be More, Holy, Thou, tremendum.

People are amazing. Paul himself called the common of the congregation "saints." People are impressive. They are delightful, fabulous, and beloved by God. Of course they are also flawed, fixated, and fatuous at times. Paul says that all have sinned, too.

So as a person I need a glorious God. Indeed, the words that Paul uses for God imply heft and substance and weight and texture. They say immortal and compassionate and loving. And when I leave here today and walk down that aisle and through those doors, I will need that. For I will walk out into a well-educated, upper crust city myself. One that lives amidst an empire where the very hungry whom we try to feed with our food pantries and good works are literally losing the fight with poverty as we all watch wealth re-distributed to those who have plenty already. An empire where people discuss women's rights in far away Saudi Arabia often, while we remain stunned to silence by the assault on choice, economic strength, and the province of private decision-making right here on our continent. An empire that chooses drones over declarations of intent for war and focuses more on what separates Christians from Mormons than on God's clear calls to love neighbor, self, and enemy. And for me to face any of those conversations at the end of this aisle, I need a clear sense of my own identity and of the glory, wisdom, power, might, will, hope, vision, and values of an awesome God. I need a God with heft and substance, weight and texture, and if Saint Paul and Saint Paul's are right, this is our God. Our God is able. Our God is glorious.

I don't mean to change you from using that descriptive "A" word here and there. But if each time you say it, each time you hear it, you think of God even for a nanosecond, that would be good.

I have changed something about myself, though. I asked you not to tell anyone about what I said. But that's wrong. Go tell anyone. Go tell everyone. Remind each other. Remind your sisters and brothers all over. Ours is a glorious God, and it is OK for us to be simply impressive. So that we can make an impression on this world, on its poverty, discrimination, war, and hope, for the glory of God. Amen

(This sermon was preached in morning worship and is not for reprinting or publication. It is to be shared and pondered as the Spirit invites.  The sermon was preached in Newton Highlands at St. Paul's Episcopal Church as part of joint worship on Village Day.  The reference to the work of N. T. Wright comes from Simply Christian, Why Christianity Makes Sense. The Pauline scholarship is grounded in the work of Victor Paul Furnish among others.)

Back to top Copyright © 2012 Kenneth F. Baily.  Used by permission.