5 Mar 2023
In a book I am currently reading, the author was fretting about a sermon he wrote and called it “crap.” He couldn’t figure out what really should be/needed to be said. Then a voice said, “I want to be known.” For the author, an experienced priest and rector of St. Gregory’s of Nyssa in San Francisco, a place of liturgical innovation, this simple statement changed everything. When I read it, I begin to think along the same lines; our worship should help us know God. Why do we gather in community? We sing, we pray, we learn, and for us, most importantly, we share Eucharist. These are all ways of knowing God. God already knows us, inside and out, and from God no secrets are hid. We want to be known by God, who already knows us; but why would God want to be known by us? God lacks nothing. Yet God wants to be in relationship with us. I think that all variations and permutations of Christianity say that in one way or another. The devil is in the details.
Back to my question of why we gather in community. By “we” I am creating a narrow definition of the word. “We” means this small group gathered. It is not for us to answer for others; that is the great sin of religions: to presume to know the mind of God for themselves and by implication for everyone else. I am adding Nicodemus to our family, for he had quickly surmised that Jesus held the keys to the kindom and those keys were not based on belief but on being filled with the Spirit and in being in relationship with God. God wants to be known by us!! God is not satisfied being viewed as someone, or something, far away, existing only as sort of black box, all powerful, all knowing, eternal, but completely inaccessible. Nicodemus sensed that his life was incomplete; something essential was missing. It was not belief that was missing; it was the idea of trusting God. The Greek word we almost always translate as “believe” can just as well be translated as “trust.” Words matter and, for me, it makes a profound difference. I can believe in God the omniscient, but that is not who I can trust or who I can know. The relationship I want to have with God stems from trusting and knowing God.
Nicodemus came to Jesus at night; he was taking a risk and was, perhaps, afraid not of Jesus but of what others might infer. I don’t think I have ever risked my life for Jesus, many people have. Some have done so for reasons I consider bizarre (such as the Crusades with their promise of heaven for those who were killed). Others have taken risks because they embodied the very ethos that Jesus taught. Perhaps Nicodemus was “converted” after his encounter with Jesus, for it was he who reminded the Sanhedrin an accused person had the right to be heard when Jesus was to be tried and it was he who assisted Joseph of Arimathea in preparing the body of Jesus for burial. I think Nicodemus trusted Jesus and wanted to know God just as God wanted to be known.
Our lives are dedicated to learning to trust in God, for trust is the way God wants us to know Godself. I was never really comfortable with the God of my childhood; the God who was distant and to be feared not with Holy Fear, but with regular hell and brimstone fear. I had a visual image of God as an austere old man; maybe you had an image in childhood and my guess is that it is different now.
Paul says if you work for someone, they owe you wages. We would, I think, agree. I expect my paycheck every couple of weeks. But what if you are simply chosen because you are you? Abraham could have said no thank you, Sarah and I really like it in Ur, Moses could have walked right by that burning bush and kept after his sheep. They didn’t. Something beyond logic compelled them to say “yes” to God. God was there, waiting and wanting to be known. Was Abraham better than everyone else in town? Hardly; he was dishonest in the extreme. But he, like Moses, said “yes”. Now it is our turn; we made a baptismal covenant; we made the pledges or they were made on our behalf and we grew into them. We have grown and matured in our faith and I hope in our trust, turning the idea of consent to beliefs and believing in the Father and the Son into trust in God the Father and Jesus. I might not be willing to die for someone I believe in, but I will for someone in whom I put my trust.
Our liturgy draws me into deeper relationship with God. As Cranmer’s collect for purity so beautifully says, our hearts are open, we have no secrets from God and we ask for a deeper relationship by cleansing “the thoughts of our hearts”, not our minds where logic lives, but our hearts where are true being resides. So we pray. We sing, or at least make a joyful noise, and that singing takes us to God and brings God to us in yet another way. We hear the word and “inwardly digest” it. Then we make a meal together. This is where we are invited to know God in the most intimate way and that is why Eucharist is the center of our worship.
I was listening to a podcast where one of the people was describing communion in a very evangelical church. It was sitting by the exit and you could grab it on your way out, like an afterthought. There was no community in communion. The body and blood of Christ are not afterthoughts; they are at the very heart of what it means to trust Jesus, to put our faith in him. We do this together because in the end, it is the community and our collective trust in Jesus and, because we are all children of God, our trust in one another that is at the heart of the Gospel.
When God reveals himself to me, I see love. I see a love that encompasses all people. In a number of bills being considered by our legislature there is a lack of love and compassion for vulnerable members of our society. I have been married for over five years and there are folks who think that love is wrong and vile. I see belief and power trumping love and concern. It is nothing new under the sun.
We look at scripture through the lens of our own lives; my friends who are Black or Latino and Christian see a very different Christ than I do and as a queer and female. I am loved, not because of or in spite of being queer but just because God loves all of us. We are blessed by all the voices and what they give to us.
For you belief may be at the heart of your faith; that is not wrong; belief is crucial. I would ask you to also look through the lens of trust, especially reading John 3:16, you will know that Jesus will set you free, just as he did Nicodemus and me.