Sermon – May 22, 2016

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollySimple Wisdom

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“Does not Wisdom call, does not Understanding raise Her voice?” — Proverbs 8:1.

Bart Ehrman, is a New Testament scholar, who currently teaches at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Ehrman has written 30 books, including college textbooks.

Not simply an academic, he is a popular author who has written five New York Times bestsellers, all on the topic of Scripture. In Ehrman’s younger years he was involved in a Fundamentalist church. Now he is on the other side of that spectrum.

In a recent blog post this scholar asked a provocative question. “Whom do we consider a Christian?”

In those early years spent in a Fundamentalist church the answer for Ehrman was easy, clear, straightforward. If you had not— to use the term often used— been “born again,” you were not a Christian.

What you believed or where you worshiped or how you lived your life did not matter. Being born again is what counted.

In the eyes of those who made a claim about bring “born again,” wrote professor Ehrman, this meant many people who called themselves Christian were not. Generally at least, the “born again” litmus test excluded those in the so called “Main Line” Protestant traditions and those in the Roman and Orthodox traditions. These do not hold the “born again” statement as a central tenet of what it means to be a Christian.

There are people, said the professor in that blog, who have an even more rigorous definition of what it means to be a Christian than that simple “born again” test. Ehrman knew a person who claimed if you had not been baptized in his church (that actual local church and no other church), you were not a Christian.

So, there are billions and billions of people in the world but this person insisted only a few hundred would go to heaven. One wonders what the answer might be if you asked this person ‘how much does God love the world?’ Does God love the world enough to condemn billions and billions of people to hades? [1]

Indeed, when I was in my twenties I knew someone with a similar opinion to that. So I know that opinion is out there, first hand I know it. (Slight pause.)

Ehrman’s initial question was: “Whom do we consider a Christian?” Is it a commonly asked question, in fact. Many people want to know ‘who is in and who is out?’ But is that a theological question, a question by which one defines who is really a Christian, or is it even an accurate question?

Indeed, is a definition of any kind even possible? (Slight pause.) Well, let me tell you a story. (Slight pause.)

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, back when I lived in New York City I got into a discussion with an Episcopal priest. This cleric told me that upon ordination he had taken a vow to preach what the church believed.

That’s interesting, said I. You’ve taken a vow to do something that’s impossible to do. You cannot preach what the church believes. All you can do is preach what you believe to be what the church believes. What the church collectively believes and what you believe the church believes may be very different things.

Further, given all the people in the church, what the church collectively believes is likely to cover quite a very broad range. So it is, at best, difficult to even say the church has a specific list of beliefs. (Slight pause.)

As was stated earlier, today we celebrate the feast known as Trinity Sunday. What we celebrate with this feast is that the ancient church came to a way of describing God— not defining God but describing God.

And, as my interaction with that Episcopal priest suggests, we need to be careful about how we frame definitions. Definitions, you see, can be used as cudgels, as weapons of force against others. When used that way they are not definitions. They are weapons.

If definitions are, on the other hand, used to try explain things, to try to describe things, then— at least as much as is humanly possible and as far as the limits of mere language will allow— then they are not being used as weapons. So, lets try this definition, this description on for size. The goal here is simply explanation.

Judaism— Judaism… is commonly described as a monotheistic religion— a monotheistic religion— One God. Islam… is commonly described as a monotheistic religion— One God. Christianity… is commonly described as a monotheistic religion— One God.

But Christianity has an additional, slightly different description. We claim God is One— a monotheistic claim— and we claim God is three persons— a Trinitarian claim. Hence, in terms of description, we are monotheistic Trinitarians or Trinitarian monotheists.

Now, to me it is of little consequence if you do or do not buy into that explanation. I think what matters is, given human history over the last 2,000 years— please note: I did not say given religious history, I said given human history— given human history over the last 2,000 years with the violence of which we are aware among these three world religions and given these aforementioned definitions, these descriptions, one needs to wonder what all the fighting is about?

After all, these definitions, these descriptions, seem docile. That’s because, as definitions go, they are simply ways of describing God. And as descriptions, they clearly should not be flash points, nor should they be used as flashpoints.

To be clear, I believe I can tell you what the violence— human violence, not religions violence, human violence— I believe can tell you what the violence is about. The violence is about human self-centeredness and human self-righteousness. The violence is about people believing they are the center of the universe— self-centeredness— and that they are right because they are the center of the universe— self-righteousness.

Given that, people use God— or rather people use the excuse of God— to draw lines, create barriers, walls. Here’s the way the wall works: you are over there on that side of the line that I just drew and I am not. And, since I am right, you— on the other side of the line— are not right. And you must, therefore, be less than adequate, perhaps even less than human.

Why? Because my self-centered and self-righteous understanding of God must be the only way to describe God. It is at that point— a point of self-centeredness and self-righteousness— that people inject violence into definitions. (Slight pause.)

In a couple minutes you will be invited to recite The Nicene Creed, one of the most ancient of Creeds and the first proclaimed by a council of the early church. In our era we might be tempted to recite these words as if they were long list definitions, a list of facts, data. That is not how they were intended.

The first words of the Creed are commonly translated as, “We believe in one God,…” as if this were a statement of fact. But in the underlying language the words mean, “I give my heart to God.”

Further, if you look closely at the words of this Creed, you can see it contains both non sequiturs and illogical statements. This Creed is not meant to be logical, not meant to be a series of facts. It is meant to be theo-logical. It is meant to be about giving one’s heart to God, about loving God.

Obviously, giving one’s heart to God is very different than listing a fact. Giving one’s heart to God is not a fact— not a noun— but an action— a verb.

That brings be back to the words we heard from Proverbs. (Quote:) “Does not Wisdom call, does not Understanding raise Her voice?” As was stated when this reading was introduced, this is not a logically structured argument we heard in Proverbs. It is an arresting poem impregnated with metaphor and personification. In short, it speaks in the language of poetry, not in the language of data.

So, what is this Wisdom of God, this understanding of God? I believe the wisdom of God is a lot less structured than we like to think, especially we Westerners and we Americans. The wisdom of God can be seen in a blue sky, in modern inventions, in a rushing stream, in an alabaster city, in the love of friends and family.

These are places God can be found. These can, with great clarity, not define God for us but describe God for us. And, of course, these are not definitions. These are experiences. And experiences are actions. (Slight pause.)

One more thing: for me, a prime way God is defined is by listening, by being passive enough to listen. So, I suggest we attentively listen to and listen for wisdom and understanding. Listening for wisdom and understanding is more art than science, more poetry than lists, more experience than analysis, more heart than mind.

Hence, I think we must act— act, a verb— we must act to embrace wisdom and to seek understanding. In the action of embracing wisdom, seeking understanding, I believe God is and will be revealed to us daily. (Slight pause.)

Today my sermon title is Simple Wisdom. Paradoxically, there is nothing simple about wisdom. That’s because wisdom is an art.

So, let me leave you with the words of an artist, poet Ralph Waldo Emerson. “The remarkable mark of wisdom— the remarkable mark of wisdom— is to see the miraculous in the common.” Amen.

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Hugh L. Hollowell a Mennonite Pastor has said this: ‘Every time we use religion to draw a line to keep people out Jesus is with the people on the other side of the line.’ And, indeed, that is about heart, not about mind”

BENEDICTION: May the God of Trinity, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier, be with us in faith and in love and guide us in truth and peace; and may the blessing of this God be among us and remain with us always. Amen.


Note: the comments from Ehrman’s Blog are edited but the whole thing is a worthwhile read.

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