Sermon – July 20, 2014 – Water from the Well Weekend

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollyFor the Love of God

by Rev. Joseph Connolly

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“I am convinced, certain, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, neither things present nor things future, neither height nor depth— nor anything else in all creation— will be able to separate us from the love of God that has come to us in Christ Jesus, our Savior.” — Romans 8:38-39.

The late Arthur Clarke was a British inventor, explorer and writer of both non-fiction and fiction. I’m sure the way most know him is as a writer of science fiction. Clarke wrote the novel and co-wrote the screenplay 2001: a Space Odyssey.

A friend of mine recently quoted Clarke on her Facebook page. “The greatest tragedy in humankind’s entire history may be the hijacking of morality by religion.”

I responded with another well known quote from Clarke. “I don’t believe in God… but I am very, very interested in her.”

I, in fact, agree with that first quote. Morality is often hijacked by religion. But what we may not realize is, in many ways, commonly held morality— populist morality, if you would— is not a religious standard. It is a secular standard.

So, for instance, not that long ago the secular standard was this: to hold slaves is moral. What changed? In America at last, Congregationalist made a religious claim. We said faith insists slavery is immoral.

Yes, faith does influence moral standards. And yes, it is also true religion has hijacked morality in ways which are inappropriate way, way too often.

Interestingly, the Pew Research Center which does research on religion conducted a survey among 40,000 people in various countries between 2011 and 2013. The survey asked a simple question: “Is belief in God essential to morality?”

Majorities in all highly developed countries do not think belief in God necessary for morality with only one exception: the USA. Even in Israel, whose basis in religion is clear, only 37 percent of the population connect God and morality. But in America the number is 53 percent. [1]

My point is, at least in part, that connection— religion/morality— would seem to be culturally driven and culturally governed— not really religiously driven. Which begs the question: if religion is not about morality, what is religion really about? (Very long pause.)

Religion is about seeing the face of God. Hence, religion is about cultivating a relationship with God and a relationship with others.

In Jesus, in the Messiah, Paul sees the face of God since the Apostle is (quote:) “convinced, certain, that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, neither things present nor things future, neither height nor depth— nor anything else in all creation— will be able to separate us from the love of God that has come to us in Christ Jesus, our Savior.” (Slight pause.)

I need to point out that, for all the standards of morality some read into the writings of Paul, one aspect of that Apostle’s writings clearly supercedes all others. Paul constantly addresses the love God offers humanity. And for Paul that love is made manifest in the living reality of Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ. (Slight pause.)

This precept insists on a second question: how should we respond to the love of God? (Slight pause.) Love— unconditional love— this love God offers us is, by its nature, a gift freely given. Therefore, the love God offers does not demand anything in return.

The love God offers does, however, invite our love. And you have heard this invitation to respond hundreds of times. You have even heard the invitation to respond in words of Jesus. The invitation is simple: “love God; love neighbor.”

There are a multitude of ways to respond to the invitation. These are just a few. Feed the hungry; clothe the naked; house the homeless; care for the sick, etc., etc,. etc.

And that is where and how faith influences moral standards: when we respond by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, caring for the sick— these are the real standards of morality. And they come from loving neighbor. Love is, you see, the true and the only standard of morality. (Slight pause.)

Today we have gathered for a day when we focused on the praise of God with music. So, one question to ask is not what is religion about but, rather, what is song about? How does song fit in? (Slight pause.)

Song is also a response to the love God offers. Song is, indeed, a very human response— an emotional response, a response based in our emotional life. (Slight pause.)

Let me offer two things the famous composer and conductor, Leonard Bernstein, said about music (quote): “Every once in a while we have feelings so deep and so special that we have no words for them. Music names them for us, only in notes instead of in words.” And this: “Music… can name the un-namable and communicate the unknowable.” (Slight pause.)

Do me a favor: close your eyes for a moment. Now picture someone you love very, very deeply. Can you ever know that person completely, totally, fully? (You can open you’re eyes now.)

I think if we’re honest, the answer is ‘no’— we cannot know another person completely, totally, fully. In a different Epistle Paul named a human truth for us: now we see things dimly, imperfectly.

Well, earlier I said “religion is about seeing the face of God.” If we see dimly, imperfectly, can we fully see the face of God? Can we fully name God? If we’re honest, the answer is ‘no.’

That is a human truth. Music, however, does help us with the emotional task of naming, the emotional task knowing, the emotional task of being aware of and therefore seeing God more fully, even when that task of awareness is limited by our own humanity.

All of which is to say Paul was right that nothing will (quote:) “be able to separate us from the love of God that has come to us in Christ Jesus, our Savior.” Why? Loving God is about our emotional life. And that’s why music is so central in our prayer and in our praise. Music does name the unnameable for us. Amen.

United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York

ENDPIECE— It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Congregational Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “After all creation was formed, God called the angels together and asked them what they thought of it. One of them said, “Something is lacking: the sound of praise to the Creator.” So God created music. And music was heard in the whisper of the wind, in the chirp of the birds, in the tympani of the thunder. But that was not enough, so God gave humanity the gift of song. And down through the ages this gift has blessed, comforted and inspired many souls. This gift is a part of the covenant; we have the blessings and wonder which the gift from God bestows on and in us; and God is pleased when a joyful noise is heard.”

BENEDICTION: Hear now this blessing: May we love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. May we be so in awe of God that we are in awe of no one else and nothing else. Amen.



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