Prepositions Matter!, preached by Ken Pennings on Sunday, May 7, 2017

Prepositions Matter – preached by Ken Pennings on May 7, 2017

Throughout this sermon, we’ll be using 3 gestures:

1st: arms outstretched

2nd: hands together in the NAMASTE position

3r: arms crossed over the chest

I’ve titled my sermon, “Prepositions Matter.” All you need to remember from this message is about, to, and as!

 

Speaking about God…Speaking to God…Speaking as God!

 

Paul Smith writes in his book Integral Christianity about three realities of God, or the three faces of God: The Infinite God (1st gesture), the Intimate God (2nd gesture), and the Inner God (3rd gesture).

We speak about the Infinite God. We speak to the Intimate God. We speak as the Inner God.

Most of us in this congregation are quite familiar with speaking about God and speaking to God, but we’re not quite as familiar with speaking as God. And it’s this third reality of God I’d like to unpack today.

What does it mean to speak as God?

Before I move in that direction, why preach a sermon on God at all? Perhaps to answer the question “What do we mean when we say “God”?

Many of us have been asking (and will be asking) that question our whole lives. I’m not sure any of us is absolutely certain what we mean when we say “God.” And that’s a good thing, because if God is anything or anyone at all, God is MYSTERY. God is above and beyond comprehension, description or definition. If we think we have God figured out, we really don’t understand the true nature of God at all.

Some of us may not have much interest in the question “What do we mean when we say “God?” But I’m fascinated and challenged by it, largely because my ideas about God have changed radically over the years.

There was a time I used to worry about God. Oh yes, in my fundamentalist days, because I had placed my faith in Jesus Christ, I knew with absolute certainty that God had secured a place in heaven for me. But even with that certainty, I still worried about God.

Was I pleasing God? Was I living according to God’s will? Was I doing all that God required of me? Would God say to me, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” when I died?

All those questions and all my worries were based on the notion that God rewards and punishes. People who interpret the Bible literally might hold to such a notion. But I’ve come to the strong belief that the God of reward and punishment doesn’t exist. The God of reward and punishment is a human construct designed to motivate people to do good and avoid evil. Now I get that.

I don’t worry any more about God. Instead I wonder about God. And that’s a completely different thing!

Now my questions are more like “How do I experience God?” “How do I think about God?” “How do I get in touch with Spirit deep within myself?”

Paul Smith, who has served as pastor of Broadway Church, Kansas City, Missouri, for 50 years, writes, “In my ministry I have spent very little time trying to get agnostics and atheists to believe in God. I have used most of my time suggesting that Christians might try believing in a different God. Or…to see God through a different lens.” (pg. 238)

So why preach a sermon on “God”? So that we might begin to see God through a different lens.

I’m grateful to Paul Smith who has given me language to talk about God from three perspectives – Infinite Divine contemplation (1st gesture), Intimate Divine communion (2nd gesture), and Inner Divine union (3rd gesture).

The three gestures we’re using today in worship help us express (1st gesture) the wonder of the Infinite Sacred, (2nd gesture) the warmth of the Intimate Sacred, and (3rd gesture) the within of the Inner Sacred.

In John’s gospel, when Jesus said that God was greater than he was (John 14:28), he was referring to the Infinite Face of God that is beyond our understanding. We attempt to speak about this “greater God” in 3rd-person language while realizing all our attempts fall short. Yet we must reach for the widest, deepest, greatest understanding of God we can, lest our God be too small.

 

When Jesus spoke to his beloved Abba-mommy-daddy, he was relating to the Intimate Face of God. In 2nd-person language, we can connect to God in whatever intimate way is the most meaningful, personal and cherished for us. At the same time, we know that God is greater than this.

The poet Hafiz dazzles us with this face of God in “You Better Start Kissing Me”:

Throw away

All your begging bowls at God’s door,

For I have heard the Beloved

Prefers sweet threatening shouts,

Something on the order of:

Hey, Beloved,

My heart is a raging volcano

Of love for you

You better start kissing me—

Or Else!”

And finally, when Jesus said that if we saw him we saw God (John 14:9), he was identifying the Inner Face of God. He modeled this truth for us so that we can also know that our deepest “I” is the “I” of God. To leave out this identification with the Divine is to reject Jesus’ claim that we are the light of the world as he is the light of the world, that we are divine children of God as he is a divine child of God.

A poem by Hafiz:

When

No one is looking

I swallow deserts and clouds

And chew on mountains knowing

They are sweet

Bones!

When no one is looking and I want

To kiss

God

I just lift my own hand

To My

Mouth.

 

This inner face of God is least familiar to us in the Western spiritual traditions. It is a shocking idea to many Christians, sounding like heresy. In knowing our deepest Self as divine, the boundaries between us and God dissolve so that we can know and feel our oneness with God as the divine spiritual being that we are. By seeking the Inner God, we look in the mirror behind all the ego and distortions. And if we look deeply enough, we find the image of God as our True Self. The I of my True Self is God.

Eckhart Tolle calls this the Higher Consciousness. Cynthia Borgeault calls this the Eye of the Heart.

Paul Smith writes, “The traditional church believes in original sin. The postmodern church believes in original goodness. The integral church believes in original divinity!” (pg. 217)

If it sounds like I’m inviting us to consider our own divinity it’s because I am inviting us to consider our own divinity. Try it on for size! We are both human and divine.

Dame Julian of Norwich, in the ecstasy of her experienced union with God exclaimed, “See! I am God; see! I am all things; see! How should anything be amiss?”

Paul Smith devotes a whole chapter “traveling through Bibleland” exploring our divinity. He cites 14 New Testament passages which point to our divinity, some of which are included in the affirmations we read earlier in the service. Let’s read them again, this time trying on for size our own divinity .

“I am made in the image of God.” (Genesis 3:22)

“I am like God.” (Genesis 3:22)

“I am the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14)

“I am a participant in the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:4)

“I am one with God.” (John 17:20,22)

“I am a joint heir with Jesus of all that is God.” (Romans 8:17)

“I am like Jesus in every respect.” (Hebrews 2:17)

“Before Abraham was, I am.” (John 8:58)

“I am one of the gods right now!” (John 10:34)

“I am filled with the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:17)

Paul Smith shares “My deepest, highest, truest Self was never born and will never die. I can say with Jesus, ‘Before Abraham was, I am.’ Before my parents were born, I am. The same ‘I Am’ that was in Jesus is also in me. The same mind of Christ that was in Jesus is also in me.” (pg. 217)

Traditional Christianity cannot tolerate the real divinity of humankind, and teaches that only Jesus can “really” be God – never us. Paul Smith believes that one of the greatest cognitive blocks to our spiritual growth is the belief that Jesus is the totally unique and only Son of God (page 203). I agree with him — in the I of our True Selves, we are divine in exactly the same way that Jesus was divine.

Although we focus on following Jesus, we may want to give up the idea of Jesus’ uniqueness as the only person who has revealed God in extraordinary ways. And he is not one of a kind compared to you and me. He came to teach us that we are all, at heart, just like him and can realize that potential.

John’s Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me will do the works I do, and even greater ones.” (John 14:12) We seldom take this seriously. We are more likely to believe the conventional emphasis on our sinfulness and inability to do much of anything. Nevertheless, John’s Jesus had a different view of us. He believed that we could evolve to the spiritual level he inhabited and even beyond it. It seems that John’s Jesus is trying to awaken us to our own divinity.

Picture Jesus in front of us, holding his hands together in prayer-like fashion in front of his heart, bowing his head, and saying, “Namaste.” Which means “I recognize and honor the divine in you.”

Paul Smith didn’t make this stuff up. Speaking as the Inner God (3rd gesture) has long been a part of Eastern Orthodoxy.

There are 240 million Eastern Orthodox Christians around the world, and in many European countries it is the largest group of Christians. This ancient Christian tradition boldly names the idea of the future realization of the divine self in the following terms — divinization, deification, theosis, becoming god, or transforming union. Their Holy Thursday litany confesses, “in my kingdom, said Christ, I shall be God with you as gods.” (pg. 208)

Two early theologians, highly revered by the Orthodox Church, are Athanasius of Alexandria (293-373 C.E.) and Maximus the Confessor (560-662 C.E.). Athanasius wrote, “God became human so that humans might become god.” Maximus wrote, “A sure warrant for looking forward with hope to deification of human nature is provided by the incarnation of God, which makes humans god to the same degree as God’s own self became human.” (pg. 208)

To review, the fullest possible relationship to God in this life is found in the three perspectives in which Jesus knew God – (1st gesture) contemplation about God who was greater than he was, (2nd gesture) communion with God who was his beloved Abba, and (3rd gesture) union as God who was Jesus’ own True Self. (pg. 239)

The place where this thinking will most profoundly affect and change us is in our prayer life. We are generally familiar with what Paul Smith calls connecting prayer in which we talk to God. But there is an even deeper level of prayer which he calls being prayer, and which the mystics call unitive prayer in which we move away from the dualism of relationship and into conscious oneness with God. Through connecting prayer, we relate to God. Through being prayer, we identify as God (3rd gesture). We experience ourselves as Jesus experienced himself – as an infinite, divine being.

Speaking as the Inner God isn’t new to this congregation. I’ve thoroughly appreciated how we’ve entered into this mystery here at ORUCC. For example, we’re speaking as the Inner God when we say, “The Christ in me greets the Christ in you.’

…when Bruce Olson shares that he loves our communion table in the center of our worship hall so that we can see one another over the communion table and look into the very face of God.

…when UCC pastor-musician Bryan Sirchio remembers looking right into the eyes of a 4 year old girl who was begging for money on a crowded street in Haiti, and sings, “Little girl, Christ, I see you. Hungry child, Christ, I see you.” Mother Theresa called these kids “Christ in disguise.”

In another of Bryan’s songs, he sings, “Yesterday I saw Jesus. He was living in San Salvador. I saw the one who frees us. He was homeless, and landless and poor. I almost did not recognize him. You’d never know he was the king of kings. His wife and his children were beside him. They were begging for bread, of all things.”

How does this set with you? Looking into each other’s faces and seeing the face of God? I’m fine with it.

Amen