Sermons since the New Year: 15 January 2012

15 January 2012 – The Ground of Being – Psalm 139; Acts 17.22-28; 1 John 4.7-8, 12, 16b

It seems that every human person, religious or not, senses something of the mystery of life, the mystery that is life.  We sense something transcendent, to use the language of the philosopher.  We sense something divine, to use the language of the theologian.  We sense something numinous, to the use the language of the mystic.  We sense something bigger than ourselves, to use the language of the common person.

This encounter with or experience of something beyond ourselves is described in many ways and is labeled with many names.  Some conceive of this mystery as an external being distinct from and outside of time and space, that set the system of life into motion and either watches it all play out as planned or breaks into our world every now and again to keep things running smoothly.  Others describe this mystery an abiding force or presence, distinct from yet dwelling within time and space that continually influences our lives.  For still others, this mystery is life itself, the energy of life, “the ground of being” of which we are all a part and in which we all participate.

The list could go on and on, as there are almost limitless ways that people have sought to express and explain what most of us call “God.”  There are probably as many formulations as there are people, for no two people explain the transcendent, the divine, the mysterious realm beyond us in exactly the same way.  There is a saying that “if horses had gods they would look like horses.”  I believe this holds true for humans as well and it helps explain the many different perspectives about “God” or the divine presence between and within religious traditions.  In brief, our formulations about “God” reveals a lot about us, because our descriptions of the divine often look a lot like us, just in superlative or super-human form.  As the saying goes, “God formed humanity in God’s image and ever since humanity has been returning the favor.”

While this is unavoidable when describing one’s personal encounters with the transcendent mystery we call “God,” this isn’t necessarily negative.  If the individual or group is loving, kind, compassionate and concerned for the good of all, then their understanding of God will affirm, support and encourage these life-giving practices.  However, if the individual or group is hateful, bitter, judgmental and concerned only with their own self-interest it becomes problematic, because their understanding of God will affirm, support and encourage these destructive behaviors.

An example of a positive, life-affirming conception of “God” is found in the (oo-paan-ee-shaads) Upanishads, a collection of Hindu philosophical texts, in which there is this wonderful saying: “When before the beauty of a sunset or a mount[ain] you pause and exclaim, ‘Ah,’ you are participating in divinity.”[1]  This is a theology of one who experiences “God” within creation, as part of creation, and as that which brings joy and promotes life to all creation.  It is a theology that is present in the first two verses of our opening hymn for this morning, “How Great Thou Art.”  And it is a theology that finds “God” in everyone and everything that makes possible abiding joy, gladness, harmony and love for all living things.

Similar sentiments are found in both the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, such as Psalm 139 where the psalmist praises God for being a life-giving, life-sustaining presence within the world.  In the same way, in our reading from Acts, Paul images the divine as a mysterious force in which we live and move and exist.  In the psalm, God is described as a universal, permeating presence, and in Acts God is described, in the words of theologian Paul Tillich, as “the ground of being,” that which upholds and sustains life, that which is the essence of life.

In short, this perspective believes the transcendent mystery we call “God” is present within and throughout creation.  It experiences “God” as an unbounded presence that promotes the life and well-being of all.  And it reverences, respects and promotes every expression of life that is kind, loving and compassionate toward all.  Therefore, it does not try to limit the favor of the divine presence to any one group or nation or tribe or tongue or gender or sexual orientation or religious tradition or theological framework within a religious tradition or any other line that divides or diminishes life.

On the other side are theological systems that are tribal conceptions of divinity that reverence and respect only certain groups.  These are exclusive, life-diminishing understandings of the divine presence that spends a great deal of time and effort disparaging anyone outside the group, because they are convinced that God dislikes what they dislike and that their enemies are God’s enemies.

This perspective is present wherever the term “God” is invoked by one group to exclude, ostracize or denigrate another group.  It is present when God is invoked to bless one nation more than or to the exclusion of other nations.  And it is manifest when one religious tradition (or one perspective within a religious tradition) exposes its own insecurity and uncertainty by denigrating another religious tradition (or group within its own religious tradition) and by denying anything good, holy, loving, truthful or holy within it.

In short, this perspective believes the transcendent mystery we call “God” is present only within certain bounded places and only reverences and respects certain expressions of life.  Therefore, it tries to limit the favor of the divine presence to a particular group or nation or tribe or tongue or gender or sexual orientation or religious tradition or theological framework within a religious tradition or any other line that serves to divide and diminish life.

Our psalms’ text (aside from a brief fall into the bounded perspective I’ve just described from which the psalmist soon repents), as well as our Acts’ text, both express a broad, inclusive, unbounded and life-affirming theology.  For these writers, the transcendent mystery we call “God” is a pervasive presence that undergirds, upholds and promotes any expression of life that promotes love, grace, compassion and a heightened experience of life.  And these writers proclaim a transcendent mystery, apower that enables and encourages life, a presence from which we cannot escape because it is part of the fabric of life itself—in this presence and by this power we “live and move and exist.”

So, if what we call “God” is that which undergirds, upholds, sustains and promotes life, if God is “the ground of being,” to quote Tillich, or that which allows us to live and move and exist, to quote Paul, or that which forms and sustains and guides us and all creation, to quote the psalmist, then the question is: What is the essence, the defining quality or characteristic of this transcendent mystery we call “God”?

This question brings us to our 1 John text, in which an early Christian writer was wise and brave enough to find a way to conceptualize “God” without removing the mystery left by the psalmist and the apostle Paul:

“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  Though no one has seen God, if we love one another, God is incarnate in us and the God who is love is perfected, is complete within us.  God is love and whoever lives in love lives in God and God in them” (1 Jn 4.7-8, 12, 16b).

Faced with the transcendent, pervasive presence we call “God,” the writer of 1 John proclaims that that God is love.  Therefore, all who are in-touch with God are in-touch with love, and all who encounter love encounter God.  This helps us understand what we speak of when we speak of “God,” it helps us distinguish between positive and negative conceptions of “God,” and it avoids removing the mystery, because even though we know when we’ve encountered love, love remains a mysterious presence and power that cannot be contained or bounded or fully explained or finally controlled.  After all, we can all point to moments when we have loved or have been loved in some mysterious, divine or transcendent way, but how would you seek to fully or adequately define love?

“Love is patient, is kind, is not envious or boastful, is not arrogant or rude, does not insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful of others, does not rejoice in what is false but rejoices in what is true” (1 Cor 13.4-6).  This is the beautiful, poetic definition of Paul.  And yet love remains mysterious because love, like God, is a transcendent, unbounded mystery that pervades all of life and has the power to transform individual lives as it seeks the betterment of all.

Love, like God, is always breaking the boundaries we erect to limit its power and influence, which is a central theme in our timeless, transcendent literature such as Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet in which love breaks through bounded places of society and culture and Dickens’ A Christmas Carol in which love breaks through the bounded places of the human heart.  Love, like God—or, more accurately, the love that is God and the God that is love—is a mysterious power and transformative presence that seeks to bring life, full and free and abundant to all, which is why love is at the heart of much of the timeless stories of humanity.

To embrace the mystery that is God, the mystery that is love is to unite oneself with that which gives, sustains and is life itself, and this requires great courage.  It is a daring act to open oneself to love others, not from biological impulse or attraction or religious obligation or imperative, but from a free decision of the will.  It a brave choice because, as the saying goes, “to love is to suffer and to love much is to suffer much.”  To love is to suffer because to love is to willingly open your life, to offer your life to another, which opens your life to pain, to hurt, to disappointment, to abuse, to exploitation.  This is, perhaps, why Paul also said that “love bear all things and endures all things” (1 Cor 13.7).  But to love another also enables you able to find the abundant life that Jesus experienced and offered the way toward—life fuller and freer than anything you’ll ever know apart from choosing the way of limitless, profligate love.

To not love—to not will and wish and work for the good of all—is to be separated from God, from the mystery that gives and sustains and is life.  Love is the way to abundant life because love and God are, according to 1 John, synonyms for the same mysterious presence and power of and for life.  So, whatever pain choosing love may bring, the good news of Jesus—the one who was fully open to love and who became one with God by opening himself up fully to love everyone (even his persecutors)—is that love cannot finally be overcome by suffering or snuffed out by death, because love, because God, always finds new life, finds resurrection precisely when it gives itself away fully and finally and completely.

So, brothers and sisters, let us choose love for no other reason and no other motive than that love is from God and love is of God and love is God.

Let us choose love because to embrace love is to reach beyond all boundaries and barriers that divide person from person.

Let us choose love because to do so is to become one with the transcendent mystery of life and to become fully human at long last.

May this be true of every last one of us, because, as Mother Teresa put it so well, “Where there is love, there is God.”  AMEN.

[1]                   Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, (New York: Anchor Books, 1988), 259.


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