(Isaiah 58:1-9a, 1 Corinthians 2:7-13, John 18:33, 36-38)
What values root us, as a religious community? What values anchor us, keep us honest, keep us coming back to what is stable and true and good despite how we may drift, despite whatever storms may be whipping up to pull us away from them? This is what we’ve been exploring the past few weeks. What are our root values at First Congregational Church?
Last week I preached about Grace & Generosity. Grace is the heart of a Christian life – the experience, the journey of receiving grace from God, as a gift from God. This is what Jesus was all about.
There is a gift for us, whether we “deserve” it or not – we can say “yes” and receive the love of God that provides for us all that we truly need. When we this receive this grace, even little by little, that helps us to be more gracious towards others. So the value of generosity grows from the value of grace.
Maybe all of our values grow from grace, when it comes down to it … It’s probably true for this week, the root values I’m lifting up: God’s Mystery … having that first and foremost . Then the value of Humility before God’s Mystery. And then how all of that leads us to encourage Freedom in how we worship and seek to understand God And then how all that leads us to welcome the Diversity that happens when you have freedom of religion, when religion is not coerced.
So we have Mystery, Humility, Freedom, Diversity – with God’s Grace flowing through it all.
First, mystery. The prophet Isaiah received a vision in which he was allowed to draw closer to God, closer to the center of all Heaven and Earth, still at a distance but close enough to witness that around the center of God are rings and rings of angels who circle and circle singing “Holy Holy Holy, all Heaven and Earth resound with God’s glory.”
“Holy, Holy, Holy” … circling and singing that’s all we can really hope to do, when it comes to the Mystery of this “G” word, “God.” We can join in that chorus of Holy Holy Holy.
What more can we do than that? What more can we say than that?
Well, if you look at religion, it’s clear the answer is “a whole lot more than that.” We humans do and say all kinds of different things about God.
And that can be fine. We as humans simply have the need to come together to share ritual, to share worship, to share sacred stories. We’ve got the need to do what we can to be closer to the Divine.
There are different ways of doing this that are helpful, that lead us to say “yes” to God’s Holy Mystery, and to have that create in us Grace and Humility. The problems come when we start getting too attached to the human details, we lose the Mystery and Humility and cling onto the different forms and formulations that we come up with.
This is actually the kind of thing that Isaiah himself calls out, which you see in our first reading. He’s saying that people have gotten caught up in the human forms of religious devotion. They’ve been using it for their own selfish ends. They’ve been avoiding an encounter with the reality of God’s love, which humbles us and transforms us into being more gracious with each other.
Isaiah is saying that praying and fasting and doing religious practice is just a whole lot of show, unless our lives are changed in ways that show that we have devoted ourselves to the true God of Grace who leads us to give each other grace, rather than giving each other grief by taking advantage of each other and violating each other and coercing each other.
It’s that domination that’s the danger of our mistaking the map for the territory when it comes to our religion. Religion easily becomes a tool for people to use for our own sake, to control and coerce and exert power over other people.
This is why I had us hear the story of Jesus and Pilot – the Roman governor – go back and forth in the trial that led to Jesus being executed. Pilot is pressing Jesus to say that he thinks he’s a king, and Jesus says, “My Kingdom, my Realm, is not of this earth,” I come on behalf of the truth that’s beyond the human realm, and that’s why my followers don’t use violence. Pilot on the other hand, was the servant of earthly kings, who demanded worship, and who were threatened enough by the truth that Jesus represented, that they had to take his life, they had to play God with his life. — When the Congregationalists were in charge, they did their fair share of executing people who disagreed with them. This is a Congregational church, now part of the United Church of Christ. There was a time when the Congregationalists were the official religion of government, back in the Colony of Massachusetts. That wasn’t so good for you if you were a Baptist or Quaker or if someone got the notion that you were a witch. Being a Quaker – of all things – was illegal and punishable by death.
This is one big reason why we have separation of church and state in this country – the other was the experience that the early Americans had of how badly it worked out for them with the Church of England. Religious institutions should not be official political institutions.
When the Founders told the Congregationalists in Massachusetts that they couldn’t be in charge any more, the church leaders said, “Hey, that’s not fair! We took this power fair and square.” The answer is, “No, what’s not fair is for your religion to give you political privileges. That’s not the kind of republic we want to set up. Your freedom ends where my freedom begins, and my freedom ends where his freedom begins and her freedom begins. No one has the right before God to say their freedom requires the coercion of others.”
I should say, a lot of Congregationalists were actually leaders in the movement for religious tolerance. We’ve been part of some genuine repentance from abuse of religious power. And as our church movement grew and evolved over the years and unified with a couple other American denominations to form the United Church of Christ, there has been a real strong value placed in freedom and diversity in our religious journeys. That’s a big reason we are a non-creedal denomination – we have statements of Christian belief to guide us, but the focus is on deeds and needs over creeds. We know we can only honestly have humility when it comes to what the Apostle Paul said “no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor human heart even conceived” – the awesome Mystery of God.
It seems to me that that spirit is alive and well in this congregation. There are folks here from Catholic backgrounds, and Jewish backgrounds, and Unitarian Universalist and Unity Church and Evangelical and Nazarene and Seventh Day Adventists, as well as folks who were raised up UCC. We’ve got seekers and sojourners of every stripe.
I pray that in our sanctuary here there is an invitation, simply an invitation made with a spirit of grace and humility, an invitation to join together in a circle, around this great awe-inspiring Mystery – to circle together and sing “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
(Delivered February 5, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg).