First Congregational Church, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

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Learning for Eternity
September 24, 2000
Psalm 19, James 3:13-18           The Rev. Ralph DiBiasio-Snyder

Introduction to the Scripture:

As you may have discovered in your meditation time, we went from seeing God's glory in the heavens, to hearing God's word in torah, the written Scripture, to in the last section of the psalm looking within and seeing one's need for forgiveness. The heavens declare God's glory, the sacred writings tell us how we are to live, and the love of God accepts us when we fall short of God's purposes for our lives. The reading from James makes faith extremely practical - much easier to understand that the infinite heavens or even piles and piles of laws and rules, decrees and precepts. Here is what faith looks like, lived out, says James. Here is "wisdom from above." Let us listen now for God's word to us.
          Psalm 19, James 3:13-18

          "Going up north" is one of the great privileges of living in Wisconsin, especially when we are not very far away from "up north" in Wisconsin! Carol and I and Jeff spent a week in August directing a family camp at Moon Beach Camp, one of our two fine UCC camps in the state, about 4 hours due north of here. It is a lovely, old camp on the shores of a small lake nestled in the pine forest. I hope you can go there someday.

          The week we were there the Perciad meteor showers were scheduled to put on a display for the glory of God. On Wednesday the forecast was for a clear, if cold, night. So at midnight off we went to lay flat on our backs on the dock, to gaze upward, awaiting the hundreds and hundreds of shooting stars surely coming our way. We waited. And we waited. And waited some more. A few meteors did in fact make an appearance for us. But something even more wonderful happened as we shivered, wrapped in our blankets. Well, actually two wonderful things.

          The first were the northern lights that ever-so-slowly crept up over the pines. We almost didn't notice them, at first, so intent we were on seeing shooting stars. But before long the glowing, shimmering, mysterious white lights arched over the entire sky, and we were awe-struck. One of the counselors on staff there was from Germany, and had never seen this wonder of the north. She was even more amazed than the rest of us, seeing this grand show of earth and sky as if through the eyes of a child, making the experience even more wonderful for us all. "The heavens were telling the glory of God."

          The second wonderful thing that night was far more mundane, but just as telling of God's glory. On that cold dock some of us said that the only thing that could make the evening more perfect would be if you had a mug of hot chocolate in your hand. And soon, unasked, a couple of the staff appeared out of the darkness, a tray of hot chocolate in hand. And it struck me that they, like the aurora borealis miles and miles above us, were reflecting God's glory in that simple act of thoughtfulness, the servants that Christ called them to be. They too were "telling the glory of God."

          The experience of sensing God in the beauty and wonder and grandeur of the earth and indeed the universe is an experience common to many of us. Whenever we ask a group of people how they experience God, without fail someone - often many - will tell of a shimmering gold sunset or a towering forest, a still, quiet lake or a majestic mountain: some special place and time away from the noise and congestion of the "civilized" world where they can sit and think and feel what they can only call "God." It is in nature that many of us feel most in touch with our Creator.

          The heavens, we say, announce God's glory - God's might, certainly, and majesty too; but also we see in nature God's beauty reflected in the beauty of the earth, the intricacy, the complexity of God shown in the complexity of the world, the shear joy of God's being manifested in the joy of the natural world. If the universe we see is like this, we say, then surely the One who created it must be like its creation. Just as we can learn about an artist through his or her art, so we learn about the Creator - that greatest of all Artists - from the creation around us, the creation that we ourselves are part of. This, we say, must be God's doing.

          But let us be honest here. Not everyone who looks up at the starry sky, even with the northern lights dancing across the fathomless expanse - not everyone sees God there. Some see a mechanistic universe bound by impersonal law, simple acting as it must, a product of unimaginable, for us, processes over billions of years, in meaningless and endless cycle. Some look up and see despair: a heaven this gigantic, and me so small . . . who am I in comparison? What does the universe care about me? Or even a million of us? And some gaze upward and wonder, if there is a God who can do all of this, why doesn't that God do a little more for us down here, for God's creatures who suffer so unspeakably? The heavens may be telling the glory of God, but not everyone is buying it.

          If all we had were nature, I'm not so sure I would believe in God. If all I had were the heavens, as marvelous as they are, I'm not so sure I would believe in a good God. If the only clue I had to God's nature were the night sky, I'm not so sure I would be convinced of a God who cares about the world, least of all me. I need that second part of the psalm; I need torah, instruction about what I am seeing in the stars. Thus the need, to put it another way, for what we call "sacred story," stories out of which have arisen those precepts and decrees, the "law of God" that is at the center of the Judeo-Christian tradition:

Stories of how men and women over the centuries and millennia have experienced God in their lives. Stories of how God acted among us in the past.

          For it is in the sacred stories of our faith - the stories of Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David and Solomon, Esther and Ruth, Mary and Joseph and Peter and Paul and ultimately and supremely it is in the stories of Jesus, the Christ - that we learn of a God who created all things, and cares for that creation. It is the sacred story, or more exactly, what those sacred stories tell us about God, that allow us as people of faith to look up at a night sky and say that the power behind this wonder is good, and worthy of praise. It is the written "word" - expression of God - that informs us about what the living Word - the living Word who created all things - is like, and how we are to live in response to that living God.

          This is why that word is, to the psalmist, "more desirable than gold," and "sweeter than honey!" It is through the revealed torah - not the heavens - that we know of God's love. It is in sacred story - not the stars - that we learn we have not been left alone. And it is only through that written word that we discern how to live in the world - by the lofty ideals set for us by James, for example.

          Now notice what I've got going here! We have the infinite, all-knowing, Creator of that starry night sky with those northern lights leaving us awe-struck and speechless. And I am saying that infinite Being is poured somehow into sacred stories, reduced to thoughts, to words, through the medium of frail, fallible human beings. There is an inherent difficulty there - even, impossibility here, this idea that infinite Reality and Love can be expressed in finite language, even if it is in a holy book. The Scripture stories that that form our faith, that we teach our children, that we read and remember through all our days - those stories are not simple and clear statements about God! We learned that even in the parables of Jesus that we studied this summer.

          I heard a preacher on the radio this week make this statement: "If someone says they can't understand the Bible, it's because they haven't read it." But I say, "If someone says they understand the Bible, they must not have read it very deeply." The study of Scripture is not a simple matter. It can be read on many levels, and will speak to us differently at different times in our lives, surely. And at times the very simplest of verses may well provide unimaginable comfort. But its subject matter - the God of the universe - refuses to be tamed by anyone's theology, and so we should expect that a collection of writings about that God would be untamable too. We are dealing here not with pious platitudes; we are dealing with Spirit and with the very toughest questions of life. And so we dare not expect it to be simple; but we can expect it to be real. And genuinely meaningful.

          This is Christian Education week. Today we remember and celebrate lifelong learning, growing, and changing. Today we remember that learning and growing in faith is not something only for our children and youth - as if once a person is confirmed their faith is complete and whole, and ready for all the "slings and arrows" life has for us. It is not. Faith to be sustainable needs to be always growing, learning, and doing.

          Ours is a faith that demands a lifelong commitment to change. Often that change comes at times of crisis: the loss of a loved one, the pain of divorce, the loss of a job. It seems that for many of us it is in the midst of such crises that we stop and ask the hard questions of God and of ourselves. Our previous assumptions about God and life just don't fit any more. And so we are open to learning and to growing, and changing. I believe that such maturing as people will go on not just for a lifetime, but for eternity.

          Madeleine L'Engle, a wonderful writer familiar to many of you, says this about her faith, and I trust it is true of ours as well:

What I believe is so magnificent, so glorious, that it is beyond finite comprehension. To believe that the universe was created by a purposeful, benign Creator is one thing. To believe that this Creator took on human [form], accepted death and mortality, was tempted, betrayed, broken, and all for love of us, defies reason. . . . tidy Christianity with all the answers given is easier than one which reaches out to the wild wonder of God's love, a love we don't even have to earn." (Penguins and Golden Calves, 31)

          It is the "wild wonder of God's love" that is the goal of true Christian Education. The purpose of studying the sacred stories of Scripture is that we might grasp just a bit more fully that wild wonder. And so let us renew our commitment to growing in our knowledge of and experience with the living God. If you love to read, read something that will inform and challenge and expand your faith. Subscribe to one of many good Christian magazines and journals being published today.

          If you're not a reader, find a film that will not simply entertain, but will broaden your understanding of God. Many of you have cable - the Odyssey channel is a wonderful resource for learning about faith.

          Find a retreat to attend - dozens within easy driving distance are held every year.

          Worship every week. It is in the company of other travelers that we learn more about the way of Christ.

          Pray every day - be on speaking terms with the God whose glory is announced by the stars.

          Dare to talk to others honestly about your faith and your doubts; share with each other what you have learned, and what questions you have.

          And find a place of service in the world. For it is in serving others, in being engaged in the needs of the world, that we know what questions to ask, and sometimes find the best answers. Ironically, one of the best places to learn about your faith is to teach that faith. I can't tell you how many people over the years have told me that the place they learned most about their faith was in teaching a Church School class.

          Truly the heavens are telling of the glory of God. And truly the sacred stories of our faith are telling of God's glory as well. Let us renew our commitment to be taught by both the heavens, and the Book, that we might be servants of the living God. Amen.

Rev. Nancy A. Taylor - Pastor - Contact FCC OR Contact Staff
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