How do you talk about God?
Now, some of you may be thinking: “Mike, you know we are Episcopalians? Yes? We DON’T talk about God, not if we can avoid the topic.” This has been a stereotype of our faith. Many Episcopalians are really wary about the word “evangelism.” I have heard many Episcopalians quote St. Francis, who supposedly said “preach the Gospel always. When necessary use words.” We like to think that almost never necessary to use those words.
Friends, I’m here to tell you, I think we need to talk more about God. We need to talk about God for our sake, and for the sake of our neighbors. How do you talk about God?
I hear a resonance for our time from the story of Paul in Acts:
Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and
everything in it.
Paul doesn’t go on a tirade against the Athenians, as he is sometimes wont to do. Paul chooses to speak carefully to the experience of his hearers: “your own poets intuit something of God.” Paul talks about the unknown God, the God the Athenians have already encountered. This God, Paul says, this God is who we Christians worship. Let’s talk about THIS God.
A few years ago now I went to a show at the 9:30 club, a famous concert venue in Washington, DC. The band was called Volcano Choir. You may not have heard of the group. The lead singer, Justin Vernon, once had a slightly more famous band called “Bon Iver.” You may not have heard of them either. That’s okay. You don’t need to know their music to follow the story.
Justin Vernon took the stage at the 9:30 club that night in a way that seemed familiar to me. The rest of the band arrived first, re-positioning microphones in the dark, adjusting guitar straps, then the lead singer climbed up and stood behind a lectern, a substantial lectern, a pulpit really. Vernon opened up his moleskin binder, and laid it on the pulpit desk, and touched his lips before beginning to sing.
The scene was reminiscent of what we’re doing, right here, right now. I was up in the balcony, near the stage, so I could look out not just at the musicians, but also over the faces of the crowd. The fans looked on silently, waiting, for the song to begin. Their faces were trained on the singer-come-preacher.
In a way, the crowd was very Episcopalian. At a punk show or a the crowd would probably be singing along. A hip-hop crowd might have looked more Pentecostal, dancing in the aisles. This, however, was white-boy acoustic rock. So the crowd was still, giving their full attention. Maybe they closed their eyes at a beautiful phrase, but they felt self-conscious about such an obvious display of emotion, as I said, they could have been Episcopalians. The frozen chosen.
They could have been Episcopalians, but I’m going to hazard a guess that most of the people in the 9:30 club that night WERE NOT Episcopalians. I would guess, actually, that most of them do NOT go to church on a Sunday. Some of them may have grown up in church, but I’m pretty sure this was the first time that most of the people in that room had seen someone behind a pulpit in a long time.
Now, I don’t want you to think I judge that crowd for not going to church. You might think that, as a preacher, I stood up on that balcony, looking over the fans, saying to myself: “Sinners… why are you listening to this heathen music? YOU SHOULD BE EPISCOPALIAN, DON’T YOU KNOW THAT IS THE ONE TRUE FAITH?”
No, that’s not what it at all. Almost the reverse, in fact. I found myself thinking “Look at all of those faces, transfixed by beautiful music. God is here, somehow, somewhere.” In an environment as secular as the 9:30 club, something of the beauty of the music was working on the hearts and minds of the people.
I wonder are our time and Paul’s really very different? In Athens learning, money and sophistication were on display. People came regularly to Mars Hill, the Areopagus, to hear brilliant philosophers and poets hold forth. Just beyond the Areopagus lay the agora, the marketplace of Athens, lined with columns, filled with temples, shops, and sellers, a major crossroads for Rome’s empire. With the knowledge of the world at their fingertips, with every sign of wealth, every type of food, every cosmopolitan form of worship available, did the Athenians still feel a little empty? In a competing marketplace of ideas, did they still search to name of a deeper truth?
How different are Athen’s marketplace and Delmar’s loop? How many temples, churches, and Scientology Centers can you count between Skinker and Hanley? How many yoga studios? How many Christian Science Reading Rooms? How many concert venues?
Paul speaks to the Athenians and says, “what you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” Paul talks about God. He finds God even in that secular marketplace, at that unknown altar. Paul finds God present, already active, among the people. Don’t hear me say that God is not in the yoga studio. I know yogis who would say they have encountered God on the mat. Paul has no doubt, God is in Athens, God is always out there, ahead of the church. Paul does not have to bring God to the people. Paul’s work is to help them to name what God is doing, to talk about God.
And the stakes are high for Paul. The disciple is angry, angry because religion has been made mostly into a financial transaction: “God is not like gold, or silver, or a stone formed by the imagination of mortals.” Paul believes religion has been abused in Athens. He understands why people might have erected an altar to an “unknown God.” These people have a holy hunch. The gods they’ve been sold don’t merit worship. Let’s talk about the God you know is closer to you, the God who your poets claim as kin. Leave behind those transactional gods, Paul says.
In the Episcopal Church, many of us know a thing or two about abusive religion. When people ask me to describe our congregation I say: “well, maybe one third of us grew up Episcopalian.” This surprises some folks.
We Episcopalians aren’t very good about growing our own. We’re getting started on that around here, we’re going to be building up our children’s and family ministries, but historically, especially in the last 30 years, we haven’t been raising up our congregations. Only about a third of us grew up Episcopalian. Another third grew up Catholic. The final third grew up Evangelical or some other milder form of Protestant. Awhile ago our sign on Delmar said, “Refugees are welcome here.” We mean that in the literal sense, and in the figurative sense. I am glad our church is a refuge.
But being a refuge can mean it is hard to move beyond the trauma. Many of the folks who end up in Episcopal Church pews seem more sure about what they know God is NOT. If I asked you to turn to your neighbor and tell them one thing you are sure God is NOT, I bet most of you would have something to say. “God is NOT a white, bearded, man, in the sky,” many would say. “God is not a homophobe” would be popular. I’d agree with you. “God is NOT a Republican voter.” “God is NOT a Democrat” (I know there are a few of you who are sure God isn’t a Democrat. I agree with you as well.) “God is NOT an NRA member” others would say. We tend to be sure about how NOT to talk about God.
But that brings me back to my initial question. We can talk negatively, about what God is not. How do we talk about God? How do you describe God? Positively? It’s a little more difficult.
When I was a little kid, I used to get nosebleeds, awful nosebleeds. Maybe it had something to do with growing up in Denver’s dry climate, but I’d wake up sometimes in the middle of the nights, my face, and pillowcase covered in blood. I remember one particular moment, one of the many nights, after my mother came and pulled me out of bed, and sat me on the counter in the kitchen, a cold washcloth pressed against my nose. That night I remember her looking at my scared tired eyes and saying: “We’re a team. You’re going to be okay.”
My mom was just trying to calm me down, but she spoke something deeply true that night. My mother’s love and care, and her words, taught me about God. As I grew up, and learned the stories of Jesus, heard the teachings of Jesus, my mother’s teaching stayed with me. When I read words like today’s Gospel, Jesus reassuring “I will not leave you orphaned.” When I encounter Paul’s description about the God, in whom we “Live and move and have our being,” I remember that sense of safety, that sense of love. I encountered God as the abiding presence, the One who is with me, when I am lonely, scared, tired, afraid. As well when I am elated, in love, encountering beauty beyond description, God is there, always.
I offer my own description as a humble example. I am curious to know How do you talk about God?
Up there, on Mars Hill, Paul had a sense that the Athenians were groping, looking, searching for God, a god unlike the false images they were being sold. I’ve seen God out there at concerts, in yoga studios, in protests. There is a marketplace outside our door where the god who is mostly loudly proclaimed by Christians is judgmental, and angry, and at war with our culture.
How will WE talk about God? Will speak words of God’s love to those who desperately need them? Will we speak of God’s justice in the courts that are judging so many unjustly? How will we talk about God?