08/09/2020 ~ Tenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ “Descriptions of God”

08/09/2020 ~ Tenth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Proper 14 ~ 19th Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Genesis 37:1-4, 12-28; Psalm 105:1-6, 16-22, 45b; 1 Kings 19:9-18; Psalm 85:8-13; Romans 10:5-15; Matthew 14:22-33 ~ Parking Lot Service at Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine.

Descriptions of God

“Elijah answered, ‘I have been very zealous for Yahweh, God, Omnipotent.’” — I Kings 19:14a.

In what is commonly referred to as the American Main Line Protestant Church— and the Elijah Kellogg Church is within that grand tradition— most of the time, with minor exceptions— pastors have both a Bachelor’s Degree and a 90 Credit, three year Master’s Degree, called a Master of Divinity Degree. Sometimes it is said in the Congregational tradition we have a learn-ed clergy.

I would be remiss if I did not note that in the context of the American experience, simply by dint of that educational level, this places both our churches and our clergy among the privileged. That reality alone at minimum deserves a three sermon series, so since I am filling in for Pastor John I am not going there today.

Needless to say, both John and I have the aforementioned certification. However, my acquisition of those credentials was not always smooth. I often say my first degree was not from any academic institution but from the school of hard knocks.

Here’s the back story on that. In the 1950s and 60s my youth was spent on the mean streets of Brooklyn. No, that is not Brooklin, Maine. That is Brooklyn, New York.

The first time I tried to go to college— notice how I put that— my academic journey was not always smooth— the first time I tried to go to college I dropped out. And you may remember there was a little skirmish going on back in the late 1960s.

So shortly after I dropped out I was wearing Army green, walking the mean streets of Saigon. In one sense I’ve done post-graduate work in the school of hard knocks.

Back to my formal schooling— for reasons quite beyond me when it comes to languages other than American English, I’ve studied Latin, Spanish, German, French, Hebrew and Greek. This study was done among the other wonderful benefits of a liberal education.

To be clear, while I studied all those languages I am neither fluent nor proficient at any of them. Sometimes I even wonder about my proficiency with American English.

Now, one thing which might be gleaned in the study of language— especially a range of them— is each language comes with its own baggage, its own preconceived notions of what words are, what they do, how they operate, how they work in the context of that given language. Let me illustrate this with a church story.

I have a friend who was on a Search Committee to find a new pastor. It is fairly normal for such committees to take a survey of church members.

This is one of the survey questions the committee developed. “On a scale of one to ten the Bible is— one: word for word the word of God— to ten: the Bible is an interesting book, worthy of study.”

My friend shared this question with me. “Gee, that is fascinating,” I responded. “You see, if you ask me that question in Hebrew, then the Bible is word for word the Word of God. But if you ask that question in Greek then I’d say the Bible is an interesting book, worthy of study.” (Slight pause.)

You see Hebrew words are living, breathing beings, difficult to pin down. In Hebrew the meanings of words are flexible and can change before your eyes.

So if that question is asked in Hebrew, then Scripture would be word for word the Word of God since the language treats words as dynamic. Greek— not so much— in Greek words are set, solid, concrete. And that is language baggage. (Slight pause.)

This is what we hear recorded in I Kings: “Elijah answered, ‘I have been very zealous for Yahweh, God, Omnipotent.’” (Slight pause.)

English, like Greek, is a Western language. Words lean toward being set, solid, concrete. And God is referred to as omnipotent in this passage. In English omnipotent means all powerful. But the baggage carried by American English associates omnipotence with naked power, brute force.

This poses a question for us: what does it mean to say God is omnipotent? Is God about brute force? (Slight pause.) Let’s look at a different part of this reading for a clue.

We hear there is a strong wind, an earthquake, fire. All these phenomena reek of force, power. But God is not in the wind, the earthquake, the fire.

And then…. and then… Elijah pulls a mantel over his face, goes to the mouth of the cave and listens to…. silence. Silence— that is not a word we associate with any kind of force or power, is it? (Slight pause.)

The mantel indicates Elijah recognizes the presence of God. Elijah hears the voice of God speak and that voice is enfolded in… silence. (Slight pause.)

So, what does this tell us about God— God who is both heard in silence and is omnipotent? Perhaps the omnipotence of God is not about brute force, power. And if the omnipotence we attribute to God is not about brute force, what is it about? (Slight pause.)

Well, let’s look at what happens in this reading. God calls Elijah to a mission. Elijah responds.

Therefore perhaps we should ask, ‘What is our mission?’ That is neither a trick question nor a hard question. Indeed, there is a clear answer.

We are called to share the love of God. So let’s suppose for a moment that the omnipotence of God is not about brute force, naked power but about love— limitless love. You see, force, power is temporal, temporary, fleeting. Love is eternal.

Indeed, Elijah carries out a mission, but after what we read today Elisha appears and becomes a disciple Elijah. Then that sweet chariot we sing about in the spiritual swings low and scopes up Elijah. The work of this prophet is done. But Elisha carries on the work of God. (Slight pause.)

This is clear to me: we never know where trying to do the work of God, the work to which God summons us, will take us. But we can know this: all we are called on to do is our part.

Indeed, when we heed the call to do the work of God, work which is about love, we may never know the consequences. But the work of God will continue beyond us, if we but remain faithful to doing our part— if we respond by sharing the love of God.

So let me suggest when this service of worship is finished, the work to which God calls us— sharing the love of God— will be all around us. Indeed, all you have to do is look the headlines and you will know that spreading the love of God is in sore need in the world.

So to reiterate— I maintain God can be described as omnipotent when one thinks of this omnipotence in terms of overwhelming, unconditional love, when one thinks in terms of God who walks with us in love, no matter what the circumstance, no matter where we are at.

Hence, this is the challenge for us— are we willing to hear the call of God to unconditional love? And are we willing share that love with everyone we meet? Amen.

Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak before the Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “A rabbi asked some students: ‘There are prayers done at night, others in daylight so how do we know when night has ended and day begun?’ One student said day is here when I can distinguish my field from my neighbor’s; a second said when I can distinguish my house from my neighbor’s. Another when I can tell a cow is mine, not my neighbor’s. ‘No!’ the Rabbi shouted. ‘You divide, separate, split the world into pieces. The world is broken enough. You can tell night has ended and day begun when you look at the face of the person next to you and see your brother, your sister, your neighbor and see that you are one.’” [1]

BENEDICTION: We are commissioned by God to carry God’s peace, the presence of God into the world. Our words and our deeds will be used by God, for we become messengers of God’s Word in our action. Let us recognize that God’s transforming power is forever among us. And 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 and nothing else. Amen.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, Thank You for Being Late (New York, Farrar, 2016) 357-358; adapted for this use.

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