20 Jan 2013
“You shall be called ‘My Delight,’ and your land ‘Espoused.’ For the Lord delights in you and makes your land His spouse.” (Isa. 62:4)
In the name …
Last Sunday we spoke about the Christian virtue of love, the power to come together and stay together as a community that cares about each other. Paul was making crystal clear that we can’t separate our lives into what we do for God and then what we do for each other. Christianity is a religion that insists we put our faith in God to work by trying to make this a better world. If we only think about faith as what takes place in our souls or in heaven, and we don’t really show the difference in our daily lives, then Paul said it’s only a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. So church is not only about worship. Church, we spoke about last Sunday, is equally about community. We come to church because Christianity demands community.
Then this week I get an email notice from the Templeton Foundation. Any one of you can sign up for their studies of religion and its impact in the modern, scientific world. A grant from the Templeton Foundation led to a survey of 1,200 people—both religious and nonreligious—from across the United States. The survey finds that 80% of Americans have experienced an emotional, personal, direct occurrence of God’s love. This personal encounter is found in all denominations and among the unchurched, and is more important than any other factor in accounting for experiences of divine love. In other words, it’s felt not taught, not mediated. And by almost the exact same percentages the ones who have felt for themselves the personal reality of God’s love are then able, in turn, to show Christian love toward others through acts of charity, compassion and efforts to make our world better. If you want to read more about this survey and its implications, you can pick-up a copy of the book The Heart of Religion.
So Christianity demands that we be a loving people, that we show compassion and charity and work for a better world. And then we discover something that Christianity has already known for a long time, but that now has scientific-psychological evidence as well, that we are able to love because of God’s love for us. Isaiah revealed God’s words in the ancient past that His people would not be forsaken, but that they would called by the almighty “My delight.” John the Evangelist tells his readers of Jesus’ first miracle. It’s reported as the changing of water into wine at the wedding feast of Cana, but maybe the more important wonder is that our God was enjoying Himself at this festive gathering in the first place. In Jesus, our God may have danced, sang and laughed among all of those family, friends and strangers. So many times we try to make our God into such a solemn, inflexible figure that a smile almost seems sacrilegious, but Jesus has shown us that not only does God love us, God also enjoys us.
The other evening I was driving around and listening to Fresh Air on NPR. Terry Gross was interviewing the recently retired Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire. At one point she asked him as a bishop if his very role as a bishop was a hindrance to some people’s faith. A good many Americans, she said, belong to no church denomination because they are looking to be able to have a more flexible and personal interpretation of their spiritual experiences. He answered her in two parts. One was basically what we spoke about last Sunday: the importance of an organized community to our faith. It can become narcissistic, he said, egotistical, to believe all alone because then we don’t have others constantly testing our understanding of God. We define God according to our own personality when we do religion alone. No one tests that solitary image of God against the witness of Scripture and thousands of years of tradition, and no one tests it by asking us to live-out in ordinary ways all of those wonderful things we think about God.
But the bishop also said that a lot of people who are searching for God by themselves are there because they have been turned-off by the church’s rigidity. They come to churches looking for God, said the bishop, and churches give them religion instead. They are looking for a personal relationship with God and churches too often give them theology. They want to hear the almighty call them “My delight.” They want to meet a Saviour who like Jesus will sit at table with them and laugh. They want a church that still breaths life, that lives in the 21st century not only the 1st. The word in both the Templeton-Foundation-survey and in the words of Bp. Robinson is personal. People are looking to feel that emotional, personal, direct occurrence of God’s love. As church that’s the experience we need to aim for, to bring people into contact with the love of God, to bring them into that amazing context of worship and community that helps them to have a real relationship with Jesus.
St. Paul gives the church a lot of her theology, but he also gives us these words to keep it all in context: “For one believes with the heart and so is justified,” (Rom. 10:10) is made righteous, is made right with God. An emotional attachment to the faith, to Christ, is what people are looking for. It is those exceptional moments when people feel the personal love of God that makes them able to believe and to want to believe even more. Tomorrow the nation remembers the Rev. Martin Luther King. He was a peaceable Christian in the face of savage hatred and virulent prejudice. He was a man who relied on his personal relationship with God so that even jail, bombings, assassination attempts and finally even James Earl Ray’s bullets could not silence him. No matter what happened to him, he knew he was loved by God, and that helped him to keep loving no matter what. This is the kind of strength and power that comes when a person knows that God can look at us faults and all, and still name us “My delight.” May the sacred gifts that Jesus has entrusted to His church, may this place, time and people all help us to build a relationship with the almighty, so that we can believe with our hearts. For this we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo