I was driving in the car, running an errand and I turned on the radio and caught the middle of a program that I guess was about faith and atheism. The person talking mentioned a debate about God between Rick Warren – the megachurch pastor – and Sam Harris – the influential atheist. It was apparently a respectful debate between the two. But afterwards, after the tapes stopped rolling, Rick Warren said to Sam Harris something like, “You know, when I get to heaven, if I find that you’re there too, to be honest, I’ll feel disappointed. I’ll feel cheated.”
Now, I’m not above yelling at the radio when I’m driving alone. But, when I heard that, I just felt sad and disappointed. I groaned: C’mon Pastor Rick, where’s the love, man? Where’s the good news of God’s grace? I’m tired of the most public representatives of my religion not showing the world a whole lot of that humble, unconditional Christian love.
Now, I don’t want to bring this up to get all judgy on Rick Warren as a person. He’s helped far more people than I ever will. And he really gets something about the Good News that has changed people’s live. Now, he’s also done his fair share of damage, too. But I am not fit to stand in judgment. God is the judge of souls – that’s not our business. And I believe we will discover that the way God does the business of judging involves much more mercy and grace and true justice and unconditional, universal love than the way we do the business of judging.
The reason I bring up this thing that Rick Warren said, is because it’s a public example of a very pervasive approach to Christianity, which seems to be motivated – when you really get down to it – by pride and fear. Fear and pride: The fear of eternal damnation, and the promise of eternal reward, which feeds our pride by setting us apart as better than other people.
Now, again, I can’t get too judgy about this because there are plenty of folks leading wonderful lives doing a lot of good who hold these kinds of beliefs. But I have to be direct about it because we all know how religion rooted in fear and pride does a lot of damage. Our church is kind of like the recovery church for folks hurt by church.
This month we’ve been focusing on uprooting the ways our Christianity can be damaging, and feeding the ways our Christianity can be truly life-giving and full of grace. The trick is to do this without being self-righteous. Our religious and spiritual lives have stages and growth and development. So, it’s important to not be judgmental of where other people are at, even as we seek to grow and encourage growth. So, for instance, our three-year-old recently has been asking a lot of questions about God and Jesus, which is awesome. A few days ago, she told us, “I love God!” And then she asked “Does God love me?” We said, “Yes, God loves you. God loves everyone.” “No,” she said, “only me!” And that’s fine, that’s a three-year-old stage of development. I’m not going to judge her for where she’s at, even as I encourage her to grow. When it comes down to it, we are all at various stages of knowing what it means for God to love us, and knowing what it means that God loves everyone one else as well, and knowing what it means that “everyone” means everyone, all the time.
So, for the sake of that growth, I propose that rather than fear driving our religion, the healthier motivation is Humility. Humility is healthier, wiser, and more faithful to Jesus. And rather than pride, a healthier, wiser motivation is Dignity. Humility and Dignity, as opposed to fear and pride.
Now, I put fear on the one hand and humility on the other, because they are two different responses to the fact of our human limitations. When it comes to ultimate reality, we are utterly powerless and utterly imperfect. This can feed our fear if we do not trust in the Holy One. Or this can feed our Humility, if we do surrender and trust.
Pride and dignity are two different responses to the fact of our human value. When it comes to ultimate reality, we are powerless and imperfect, yes, but also endowed by our creator with meaning and value. This can feed our pride, if we try to prove that value by puffing up our ego and putting other people down. Or this can feel our Dignity, if we let our meaning and value stay rooted in the fact that we are each and all children of the Living God.
So, to repeat: Realizing our Humility before God and realizing our Dignity before God are both part of a healthy, wise, life-giving, Jesus following relationship with God’s Power and God’s Supreme Love.
This brings us to Psalm 139. Psalm 139 is an deeply moving expression of this Humility and Dignity before God’s Power and Supreme Love.
“O HOLY ONE BEYOND NAME, you have searched me and known me… Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there. If I make my bed in the realm of the dead, you are there.” This Psalm is a hymn to what in Judaism is called the Shekinah, which is God’s presence as it dwells in a place or in a person. It’s often spoken about as indwelling Spirit, light, or glory. “Glory” is the meaning of the Greek word in the New Testament.
So, it is the Shekinah that Jesus is talking about in our reading from the Gospel of John, when Jesus prays to God about his disciples (John 17:20-23): “The glory that you, my God, have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one.”
And it is this Shekinah as present in Christ that we hear the Apostle Paul sharing about: “Nothing can separate us from the love of God that has been made known to us through the Anointed Jesus, our master.” (Romans 8: 38-39)
Psalm 139 is an ancient Hebrew testimony to the Shekinah. The psalm is about how an experience the Shekinah leads one to feel completely known and held by God. This leads to profound humility – in God’s presence, we can’t keep anything in the shadows. “The darkness is light to you, O Holy One.” All our faults and fissures, our guilts and wounds, all the ways our soul is out of joint, this is all known to God. In God’s presence we can see clearly the consequences of the ways we are out of alignment with God’s love. The consequences are suffering and alienation.
This isn’t because God is searching for ways to punish us – it’s just a clear view of moral reality. When Jesus talks about anger leading to the fires of Gehenna – he’s not saying God is going to throw you into eternal hell if you get hot under the collar every now and again. (Matthew 5:21-22) No, it’s in line with what the Apostle Paul teaches, “Be angry, but do not sin. Do not let the sun set on your anger.” (Ephesians 4:26) What Jesus is doing is bringing a clear light, the clear light of the presence of God, to the fact that if we nurse anger and resentment, if we let it possess us, we’re already in hell – suffering and alienation and judgment describes the condition that our soul is in. And if that becomes the habit of our soul, then it may well be hard for us to let go of our little ego when the time comes to surrender ultimately to the Power and Love of God.
So we practice letting go of judgement, and letting in the Spirit of God. Which is its own reward. The idea of being humble before the presence of the Power and Love of God can feel terrifying if what we’re expecting is a vengeful God. But what Psalm 139 makes clear is that the experience of God’s Shekinah is glory beyond words.
The song is full of amazement, wonder, joy – humility, yes, but for the sake of a much more profound fulfillment than pride can ever give us.
“I praise you, my God,” the psalmist sings, “for I am awe-inspiring and wonderfully made. Wonderful are all your works, that I know well.”
The presence of God our Creator searches us and knows us, empties us, and fills us, lifts us up into the fulness of our Dignity as children of the living God in and among an entire world that is broken and beautiful and full of God’s glory. For that I am more and more grateful.
Thanks be to God.
(Delivered Nov 25, 2018, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)