Sermon – October 11, 2015

Categories: Church,Sermons

Rev. Joe ConnollySeek Good

by Rev. Joe Connolly

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“Seek good and not evil, / that you may live; / so Yahweh, God, / the God of hosts, / God the omnipotent, / may be with you, / just as you have said, / just as you have been claiming.” — Amos 5:14.

I was in the Adirondacks when Pope Francis came to this country— the Adirondacks, a place some call ‘the land of no television signal.’ Even though I was without television, it probably will not surprise you that I followed the visit both in the printed press and online.

From all outward signs it appears this Pope confounds a lot of people. Francis does so by raising two obvious, very secular but polar opposite questions: Is the Pontiff (pardon the expression) liberal? And some answer ‘yes.’ Is the Pontiff (pardon the expression) conservative? And some answer ‘yes.’

One New York Times column said the answer is neither. Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, author of The Conservative Heart, labeled the message of the Pope as ‘subversive’ while seeing that in a positive light.

The media, said the article, portrays Francis as someone with a loving charisma, a gentle demeanor, unthreatening but still cheerfully sanding down the sharp edges of the church. Hence, many thereby picture this pope as a kindly, secular, philosophical figure.

Within that misconception, the article insists, lies the true subversive genius of Francis. That’s because what looks to some like a smiley-face sticker is actually an invitation to total change.

And what kind of subversiveness, what kind of change might be afoot? The article argues the central theme of the visit by the Pope was a call for unity. The Bishop of Rome frequently urged people (quote:) “to dialogue together, to shorten the distance between us, to strengthen our bonds…” With respect to the church, itself, Francis exhorted priests to be “shepherds living with the smell of sheep.”

The unity being espoused here goes quite deep, Brooks insists, deeper than most people are willing to go. The Pope challenged people to not just acknowledge and love the other but to embrace the other.

Two examples of subversiveness: in Cuba, Francis exposed a central error of Communism. It conflates a unity with shallow sameness. “Unity is often confused with uniformity,” said Francis. “This is not unity; this is conformity.”

In the United States a warning was presented to not let material prosperity divide people by economic class. While some might see a hidden message leaning left in this sentiment, no American should find it objectionable, said Brooks.

After all, unlike what happens in much of the rest of the world, in America there should be no shame in starting poor. Neither should pride emerge from being born rich. Neither should origins— familial or cultural or religious origins— be a constraining trap. The secret to any American unity, says Brooks, is not giving alms to the poor. The secret to American unity is remembering and knowing we are the poor.

Echoing the 11th Century theologian Anselm, Francis also says, with unity faith and reason are inseparable since faith is reason seeking meaning. Hence, faith does not suffocate or diminish human reason but reinforces it— this the writing of Arthur C. Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute on the ability of the Pope to confound the entrenched polar opposites we so often find of our world. [1] (Slight pause.)

These words are in the Tanakh in the section known as the Prophets in the portion known as the Scroll of the Twelve in the work called Amos: “Seek good and not evil, / that you may live; / so Yahweh, God, / the God of hosts, / God the omnipotent, / may be with you, / just as you have said, / just as you have been claiming.” (Slight pause.)

Unity— now that does seem hard to come by. Nearly daily we hear about both sides in politics and in religion entrenched in opposite stands. Why? (Slight pause.)

I’d be the first to admit I may not be right, but I want to suggest fear— raw, naked fear— plays a large part in why entrenched opposition is a way of life today. And therefore, fear produces these polar opposites.

Now, instead of trying to dissuade anyone out of any entrenched position with facts— since facts are amazingly useless tools in the face of fear— I want to ask instead ‘why might fear be playing such an important role?’ Put another way, instead of reason ruling the day, what makes fear so potent, what makes fear an effective weapon? Indeed, could there be a theological reason fear currently overcomes the opportunities for love presented in the kind of unity the Pope addressed? (Slight pause.)

In the course of the first sermon I offered from this pulpit over 19 years ago, I suggested everyone has a theology, an idea about Who God is. I want to suggest we also all have an idea about where God is, where God is located and how that location relates to the world. The fancy term naming where God is, the location of God, is cosmology. So, we— each of us, all of us— do not just have a theology. We all have a cosmology, a location for God.

Now, elevator cosmology— some kind of top-down concept— is quite popular. It suggests there are really only three locations in the universe: heaven, earth and “h-e double hockey sticks.”

This cosmology explains the location of God, the location of life and the possibilities of afterlife. Many people are very comfortable with this cosmology, especially if we claim our personal elevator only goes (pardon the expression) up.

In her most recent writing, the book Grounded, Diana Butler Bass says this three tiered cosmology may be part of the problem. It may be why so many people are entrenched and fear is so prevalent.

You see, that cosmology may be beginning to disappear. After all, we have sent spacecraft past the bounds of the solar system, landed them on other planets and humans have landed on the moon. We have gone to the depths of the oceans. Having done all that, it becomes hard to have a heaven, an earth and the classic “h-e double hockey sticks”— that elevator kind of cosmology anymore.

Indeed, ask yourself ‘where is heaven located?’ Where is God? I think most of us would say, “God is everywhere.” But everywhere includes all time and space, what we believe to be at least a 13.7 billion light year universe, an idea was inconceivable just 100 years ago. And, given that, a three tiered cosmology becomes seriously problematic.

Further, if God is everywhere in a 13.7 billion light year universe, who does God love? Everyone? (Slight pause.) So, if God is everywhere and loves everyone, what happens to an elevator cosmology, a cosmology which selects out winners and losers. (Slight pause.)

There has been a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth in churches, all churches— mainline, left, right and center, it makes no difference— much wailing and gnashing of teeth about loss of members and lack of young members. Butler Bass suggests one reason this is happening is people no longer buy into elevator cosmology.

Why? An elevator cosmology does not allow for an understanding of God who is both universal and personal, a God who is both transcendent and close.

The experience of people, she says, is that God is both everywhere and close. The experience of people, she says, is God is known by people as a spiritual experience, a spiritual presence. And therefore she says, God is not experienced in a top-down way. And many churches, even if they are not top-down, still preach an elevator universe.

Top-down, you see, does not allow for an embrace of the other, an embrace of all people, since some people in a top-down system are clearly singled out as losers. Top-down, you see, often means uniformity and conformity.

Top-down does not allow for dialogue but allows only for commands and dogma. And that is no longer the way people understand theology, understand cosmology, understand… God. (Slight pause.)

All that brings me back to our polarized society, a fearful society. I think when ones understanding of how the world works, when ones theological concept of how the world works is challenged, threatened, a natural response is a combination of denial, belligerence and intransigence. Since an elevator theology, an elevator cosmology is no longer particularly operative people who hold on to that cosmology feel threatened.

And that threat to how God is understood spills over from theology into everyday life. People dig in therefore and will not move, will not listen, insist everyone is against them, insist they don’t want to be associated with losers… and they become fearful. (Slight pause.)

I am loathe to say this next thing but I must. There is no cure for polarization. There is no cure until and unless, as the Pope suggested, we (quote:) “…dialogue together, to shorten the distance between us, to strengthen our bonds…”

How can that happen? How can we dialogue when intransigence is a common strategy? Perhaps Amos got it right all the way back in the Eight Century Before the Common Era. (Quote:) “Seek good and not evil, / that you may live;…” (Slight pause.)

I think a key to seeking good is to seek unity. And unity means understanding God is with us all, not just with some. Unity means winners and losers are meaningless categories. Unity means true dialogue is when we both listen and speak. Unity means seeking good for all. 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 Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “Is the Pope liberal or conservative? The pope is pastoral. Conservatives tend to like sharply drawn lines— liberals, not so much. Hence, the challenge to conservatives is pastoral makes lines fuzzy. The challenge to liberals is pastoral means lines have not been eradicated but the question as to where they will be drawn becomes a difficult one which needs to be addressed and not blithely ignored.”

[1] Note: the thoughts of Brooks are here paraphrased but I think the meaning survives intact.

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