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Mark 5:21-43 (Common English Bible translation)
In the early 1900s from a small desk in a patent office in Bern, Switzerland, a young unknown proposed a theory that revolutionized the known laws of physics. It came to be known as the general theory of relativity and that unknown was, of course, Albert Einstein – a far from unknown now, considered perhaps the greatest genius of the 20th century. He was, as you might know, working off of Sir Isaac Newton’s theories of gravity, thereby superseding 200 years of mechanical theory once dreamed up by Newton quite in opposition to the prevailing theories of Newton’s time. And before them both came Galileo, who was declared a heretic by the church for daring to assert that the earth revolved around the sun and not the other way around, despite his ample body of work describing what he termed “God’s creation” all around them. All of them groundbreaking genius and all, we are slowly discovering, wrong, or at least not totally right, in their assertions about how the universe works.
Science has, at least for all of our lifetimes, been the language with which we describe the world and talk about “reality.” We use it to explain things all around us, the things we can see, like trees and stars, and the things we can’t, like viruses and atoms. And yet science, we must admit, is wrong, or at least not totally right. Just when we think that we have something figured out, a new discovery is made, a new theory proposed, our previous understanding expands.
The same, I believe is true of this something we call God. Any general reading of the Bible would leave you with a rightly confusing picture of the character of God. Is the God of Exodus, liberator and provider, the same God as the God of Job, who seems to punish a poor guy on a bet? Is the God of Jesus, who accepts people across the boundaries of tribe, race and even religion, the same as the God of Revelation, who comes with fiery vengeance to slay the enemies of “God’s people,” enemies who, we suppose from the previous version of God, are also God’s people? Is the God who walks beside Adam and Eve in the garden the same as the God who the Psalmist cries out to, saying “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Are these different gods, or just different interpretations of God? Are some wrong and some right, or, like scientific theories, do we just get a portion correct as we seek to define the nature of God, a nature that is ultimately undefinable? Maybe these are simply all a reframing of God, made when we get more information or have different experiences.
The woman who is suffering from a hemorrhage in our gospel story this morning lives in a world where God works a certain way. She’s bee told over and over that God is static, certain and predictable. If she is suffering from this bleeding, or any illness for that matter, if she has something bad happening to her at all, then it is because she has done something bad. That’s how God works in that time and place, only Jesus has different ideas. Some of his followers 2000 years later seem not to have gotten the message but I hope we can notice this morning that Jesus does not follow the same equation. He points out that the woman reaches out for him anyway, despite this punitive God image she has been saddled with, and he calls that something remarkable – faith. The equation of Jesus is, “do not fear, but be faithful.” In other words, don’t assume that because you think God zigs, God can’t zag. Or, even another way, the way you practice God is at least as important, if not more so, than what you think about God.
This is a difficult think to understand. It was difficult for even the disciples of Jesus, as it is difficult for us today. Once you think you have God grasped and contained, you no longer have God. Taoism says it like this – the tao that can be told is not the eternal tao. The name that can be named is not the eternal name. God, and all of this language we use about and around God, all of our liturgical rhetoric and hymns and sermons and scriptures, they are all words about God, not God. They are symbols for God, a way to grasp at the ungraspable, a way to speak of that which cannot really be described, so we use words that approximate – God is like a Father, or a Mother, or a Son, or a Spirit. God is a burning bush or a still, silent voice. These are all symbols, but when we combine that symbolism with the reality that we have a hard time as human beings separating the symbol from God, it becomes critical that we pay attention to our symbols, that we are aware of their power.
This is the kind of conversation I am having in lots of different ways with people a lot like you – those who grew up with a different theology and are now trying to re-imagine not only their faith, but finding that challenging without re-thinking God. Maybe you grew up thinking that the highest good was “getting saved”, but now you witness the actions of people who have “been saved” and you question if that alone can be something called salvation. Maybe you question a lot of what it means to appeal to our highest good, what exactly makes up our most profound truth, or what constitutes beauty, life or love. For some that means that they abandon the idea of God, though when I encounter people who have claimed the title “atheist” I typically ask them to tell me about the God they don’t believe in and, wouldn’t you know it, it’s an angry, punitive God with a long-white beard who lives behind that cloud up there. So then I tell them, hey, I guess I’m an atheist, too because I don’t believe that God is a person at all. Rather I understand that we talk about God as if God were a person because we have to use metaphors to describe something that is really beyond our ability to describe. God is what we call the energy that binds us all together, the unknowable “X” in the equation of the Big Bang, the force behind gravity, the deep sense of awe or reverence if you’ve been lucky enough to see the Milky Way stretched out across the sky on a clear summer night away from city lights. God is the source of the warmth we feel in our hearts when we see someone we love, or the compassion we feel when we see suffering, but that’s very hard to work into liturgy or a hymn, unless we say that God is spirit, or love, or a mystery, which is what we often do say…what else is there to say?
I happen to believe that all of this wondering about God is a good thing, even with no resolution. Engaging with something we don’t have all figured out is good for our souls, particularly right now as the uncertainty and chaos of the times in which we live fills us with anxiousness, for it helps us build that soul muscle that doesn’t need to be able to see something to trust in it. And when we do not know what the world has in store for us, it is good to have a well-developed sense of trust that this something we call God, which is elusive and feels sometimes absent does in fact hold us fast—as if arms were wrapped around us, personified as the voice of a loving parent, giving us peace and security and even courage for the living of these days.
That is what we are trying to reinforce with this worship. This is a chance to hear some carefully chosen symbolic language and also to have no language, to let time and music, prayer and spirit work on us, nourishing our souls by engaging the rituals of our tradition, focusing our attention on this table of welcome and inclusion and opening ourselves up to where God might be present for us this morning…this God who is more like the wind than this solid table, more like a poetry than prose,
more like a tiny, flickering candle than a giant neon sign.
So, here in this space, where we have some room to move around, we have…
- a prayer bench, with pillows if you want to kneel
- a candle-lighting prayer station, where you can bring some of that mystery forth, turning over your troubles, your joys to the soft flicker of the candle
- an offering station – where you may give of your time and your treasure, drop your offering here or volunteer your time in service to your community
- and, of course, communion – which will be done both through intinction (dipping)
and with a tray, the familiar cup method, because welcome and inclusion necessitates
flexibility and choice…
If we believe God to be changing, or at least our perception of God to be changing…if we trust that God is a God of creativity and newness…if we hope that as we do not see a way for God to act, God can indeed act…then our worship ought to reflect those things. It doesn’t mean we can’t have some foundations, it doesn’t mean that we can’t have reliable and familiar, it just means that if we don’t make room for God to be present with us…if we expect God to always show up in the prescribed format…maybe we’ll miss the God who is still spinning the galaxies, sprouting the new tree, infecting us all with new possibility, new hope, new life…as we seek to comprehend the mystery that is God, with our hearts, our hands, our voices and, yes, even our heads…
May God be with us…in all Her mystery.