The Lord's Covenant: Risk and Trust
April 06, 2003
Jesus answered, "Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, 'You must be born again.' The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit."
Nicodemus said to him, "How can these things be?"
Jesus answered him, "Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? Very truly I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven: the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
"For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him." (John 3:1-17)
Reading from Swedenborg
"A covenant" means nothing but rebirth and everything that relates to it. This becomes clear from many places in the Bible where the Lord himself is called "the Covenant." For it is he alone who brings about our rebirth, to whom we look when we have been reborn, and who is the All in all of love and faith. (Arcana Coelestia #666.1)
My sermon is very clearly entitled "The Lord's Covenant: Risk and Trust." And while I don't think I mention those words once throughout the whole body of the sermon, it is still very much about risk and trust--which is perhaps one of the aspects of the definition of faith. Faith means a system of belief that we hold to be true. But faith also means the willingness to take some risks based on what we trust to be true. This is very much an aspect of our religious faith.
This morning I would like to offer you some thoughts on my own covenant of faith--and specifically, on my own process of becoming a Christian.
I went to church and Sunday School throughout my whole childhood, right up to the age of eighteen, when I left home. And it was at that time--when I left home--that I left the church, never to return again until I was well into my thirties. This wasn't because I gave up God (although I think there was a little time in there when I thought I was an atheist). It was more that I was just bored of church. And like all young people, I was on my search for who I was.
But I came away from my childhood church upbringing with one concept deeply ingrained in my soul. Wherever I was, whoever I was with, whatever I was doing, except for that one brief span, I never questioned that there was God. It was always a given. And this God was loving and forgiving.
And I could not reconcile my deep belief in a loving God with a teaching that said that if you did not believe in Jesus Christ, you would suffer for all of eternity. There were and are so many ways and reasons that people do not believe, or even hear about, Jesus. I just could not accept that God would simply say, "Sorry, I know it seems unfair, but you burn in hell for the rest of your life." I knew in my heart even at eighteen, just as I believe deeply today, that in some way I can't quite explain, there is human misunderstanding at work here of what God--of what Jesus himself--was trying to get across.
Now, as I mentioned, I left the church for almost twenty years. In all that time, I honestly believe I only stepped into a church maybe four or five times, and that was to attend somebody's wedding. But I never stopped believing in God. I did, however, investigate every approach to knowing God and responding to God that I could find. I tried them all: Buddhism, Baha'i, Sufism, Taoism, the Maharaji, Native American religion, the guys in orange bathrobes you see at the airports--and in the greatest of ironies, I was even going to convert to Judaism.
Yet all through this, even though I discovered wonderful new insights, truly inspiring ways of thinking about God and life and what it means to be a human being, I never found anything that was as emotionally comforting and as intellectually satisfying as the religion I grew up in.
What I did learn was that God is. And I learned that all religions are human responses to God, and at their best, are sincere attempts to know God and live in the presence of God. And that all religions, because they are human responses, are susceptible to error in thinking and understanding. This is especially true the farther away a particular religion gets from the fundamental principles of love and wisdom and selflessness that nearly all religions share at their core. And the farther a religion goes into the details and legalities of attempting to impose morality on people, the more susceptible it is to error.
What I realized was that all of my searching was driven by my attempt to deny Christianity because when it came right down to it, I didn't very much like Christians. I didn't like their "goody two-shoes" image. I didn't like their arrogance, and the smug sense of moral superiority that was part and parcel of going around telling people that they were lost to God if they didn't worship God with the same vocabulary and set of rituals that they did.
Today I understand that this was my own prejudice, and my own narrow-minded vision of Christianity at work. But this brings me to the two bumper stickers I saw yesterday. I'm a fan of bumper stickers, and these were great! They made me laugh right out loud. And at the same time, they made me realize once and for all that like it or not, I am a Christian. I still cannot say those words with out a certain sense of panic, and behind that a certain anger and resentment. But I'm learning to deal with that. And for today, I want to set aside the question of all of the non-Christians who are good and sincere people, and who live consistently with what they understand to be true; for I trust that God has a place for them in heaven, and not in some fiery lake with guys in red suits carrying pitchforks.
Today I want to talk about why I am a Christian; why I do believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God. And the best way I can do that is through these two bumper stickers. I laughed at the first one because I realized it was what I had been saying all my life, and still say from time to time: "Dear God, please save me from your followers." I read that, and I realized that all my life I had been rejecting Christ because of Christians. And that really isn't fair to God.
I've never had a problem with Jesus. In fact, I truly loved Jesus. As I look back over my life, even in my darkest and scariest times, the teachings of Christ were central to my worldview. They were the basis on which I made my decisions of how to respond to the circumstances I found myself in. And I would say that because this is true, I am still alive today.
I had rejected the church that kept me at a distance. Yet here I am, after four years of seminary and sixteen years as a minister, speaking every Sunday about the Christian life. I am a devoted Christian in spite of those fellow Christians that I have such problems with. I have come to realize that if I can have compassion and understanding for Buddhists and Jews and even good-hearted atheists, I can certainly find compassion and understanding in myself for Christians--even those with whom I have disagreements on some of the finer points of theology. So I laughed at that bumper sticker because it said, "Save me from your followers." I also recognized that it was saying, "Dear Lord, save me from myself: my own prejudice, my own hard-heartedness, my own unforgiving heart and closed mind."
Now, while that bumper sticker speaks to how I came to acknowledge myself as a Christian, the other bumper sticker is the real key as to why. And mind you, both these bumper stickers were on the same car. I so much wanted to give the driver of that car a big hug! The second bumper sticker said: "Give me ambiguity, or give me something else." You all know what "ambiguity" means, don't you? There is no shame if you don't; it is a fairly obscure word. But if you don't know what "ambiguity" means, the rest of my sermon isn't going to mean much. It means "doubtful or uncertain," but more importantly, "capable of being understood in two or more possible senses."
Most people go to church and become Christians because they have so many questions and they want answers. And many Christian churches will give them answers. And quite a number of those churches will not only give them answers, but will say that if you do not accept these answers and swallow them whole cloth without doubt, well, I'm sorry, but you're going to hell. And there are many people who want to be told what is right, and are willing to believe it simply because they cannot stand wrestling with, let alone living with, ambiguity.
Let me be clear: I am a Christian, I believe in Jesus Christ as my personal savior. That is not because somebody else said I have to or I will fry, but because I choose to. Nothing else has worked for me.
Still, this does not mean that I therefore have no more questions. It does not mean that somehow I miraculously understand everything that there is to know about God and Jesus and the Bible and how life works. There is plenty of ambiguity left in my belief system, even though I believe in Jehovah the Creator of all of life, and Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit; because I also believe Jesus' words, "Hear O Israel: the Lord your God is one Lord" (Deuteronomy 6:4). And I'll be honest: I don't fully understand how the three are one. I believe in the Lord's resurrection without doubt; but I don't understand it. I believe that Jesus walked on water and that Peter, in responding to the Lord's invitation, walked on water, and that by extension we could all walk on water and move mountains and heal with a word and the touch of a hand if we only had the faith. But I don't understand how. And I don't even understand why we don't.
I laughed at that bumper sticker a laugh of recognition because I recognized that I was a Christian because I can accept that I do not understand everything about what it means to be a Christian. And I can comfortably live with that ambiguity. I have many questions about how God and Christ are connected. I have even more questions about how to love and live with images of turning the other cheek side by side in my head with driving money changers out with a braided rope. I have many questions about what it means to follow Christ when I think of his gentle words of love and forgiveness on the one hand, and then the words, "I come not to bring peace, but a sword" (Matthew 10:34) on the other hand.
But I have far fewer questions about what it means to be a Christian when I think of the story of the Good Samaritan, or the Roman Centurion, or the Prodigal Son. And when I think of the simple people Jesus sought out and loved and spoke to with words of love and hope and healing, and then think of the very different words he had for the rich and powerful, and for those who hid their selfish cruelty and hypocrisy behind positions of authority and self-righteousness, then I begin to know, with a passion that I rarely admit even to myself, why I am a Christian.
It is not because the Bible answers all my questions--although the Bible has shown me more about myself and God than any other book I have ever read--and believe me I have read a lot of books! It is certainly not because some people calling themselves Christians told me I would end up in hell if did not join them and believe the same way they did. I've heard that plenty of times--and if that is the choice, I'll take hell. And it is not because Jesus' teachings are unambiguous, for I will gladly spend an afternoon setting one quote against another and challenge you to resolve the contradictions.
I am a Christian because Jesus the man is a human being whose life I can admire and respect without question; because I admire and respect his teachings; because Jesus the Christ--in spite of the words I do not understand and the moral standards that I can only aspire to, and the miracles that I cannot explain--is the one and only image of God that I can understand, and most importantly, when I search the depths of my heart, that I can find.
That is why something significant has changed within me. As time goes on, increasingly I am growing less comfortable with calling myself a Swedenborgian, and more and more comfortable simply calling myself a Christian. Now, be assured of this: without Swedenborg, there's no telling where I would be--but I can assure it would not be here. However, I do not worship Swedenborg. Swedenborg was simply a man blessed by God with incredible insight. He was man who opened my eyes to what is truly divine in the Bible and in Jesus Christ and in life. But I do not worship Swedenborg. I worship the Lord God Jesus Christ. And so, like it or not, I realize that I am a Christian.
Next week we enter Holy Week. Beginning with the joyous celebration of Palm Sunday, moving through the heartbreaking sadness of Maundy Thursday, the infuriating betrayals of Good Friday, and culminating with the life-giving resurrection of Easter morning, it is the most important spiritual holiday of all. It is a time to search ourselves and ask questions such as: Why am I here? Why am I a Christian? Where and how is God in my life?
Please don't expect to have all questions answered completely. Ambiguity is not a bad thing. It might be better than something else. I'm not sure. It is in asking; it is in searching out answers; it is in seeking to understand more deeply what is already familiar, that we come to know and deepen our relationship with God. It is how we truly engage the covenant that asks us to leave what is comfortable and familiar, and follow God into something that is holy and divine--something that we cannot fully understand.
I am not one to tell people what to do, but I can tell you this: there is nothing more important in this life than knowing why we believe in God.
Dear Lord, we give thanks for this day. We give thanks for the signs of the changing seasons, for in this way we know that the world continues to unfold under your care. O Lord, you are the Creator of all things and of all life. You watch over creation as your own. You watch over each one of us as your own. And Lord, we give thanks for your many blessings, knowing that the good and true things in this world do not come to us of our own making, but originate in your heart--the heart of all hearts, the source of all that is loving. Lord, we come before you today with grateful thoughts, approaching you not because of our own strength and goodness, but trusting in your love and grace, and your promise of forgiveness to all that repent and turn to you. Amen.
Rev. Ken Turley