Come, Experience God, Sermon 03.25.12

Come, Experience God, Sermon 03.25.12

Jeremiah 31:31-34 and John 12:20-33

Last Sunday afternoon, when I sat down to read our Scriptures for today– Jeremiah’s new covenant and John’s Gentile coming to Phillip wanting to see Jesus… as I read these texts, I couldn’t help, but think about the new covenant Old First is moving towards… It’s too early to have any idea of what it might look like.

But as Steve Wilhite announced at the beginning of last Sunday, we’re coming to the end our Covenant Ministry, the 3 years I’ve served as your revitalization pastor. And inevitably, as we close one formal covenant under which we’ve done ministry, the obvious question is: What will God ask of us next? What will be the next covenant by which Old First will go forward with God, serving in faithfulness?

This degree of deliberateness– to remember that who and how we are, and what we do as a church– to be conscious that all these are not our choice, but our willingness to aim to live out God’s will…
I find the challenge “not to do our will, but yours, God” exhilarating. It elevates our every day, redeems the lowliness of all our humblest decisions and undertakings!

As I did in this week’s e-pistle that came out via e-mail on Friday, I encourage you to complete the evaluation of our Covenant Ministry– your input is crucial… will be a real help as we move towards discerning our next Covenant… As I announced in the E-pistle, if 100 people return their surveys, I’ll walk myself down to DOT and get a driver’s license! It’s against my strict environmentalist nature, but it will make a few of you happy. And, incidentally, the new PA voter i.d. law requires I have state i.d. if I want to vote. In my defense, I did learn this week, technically, I can’t get living in the parsonage where I don’t have a utility bill in my own name to prove residency! …An awful lot of impediments to voting for a lot of people, people who for the most part are not like me, well, except for us parsonage captive pastors! )

This Sunday before the beginning of Holy week, we prepare for New Covenant. Throughout Lent this year, we’ve looked at the series of Covenants throughout the Hebrew Scriptures… the covenants with Noah and Abraham and Moses. Now we turn to another covenant, one God’s writing upon our hearts
where we are to see and know God, where God forgives our sins and remembers them no more.

Jeremiah, speaking to people who continually failed to remember God and their part in the covenant, brings a message of hope. If you just thought about the Jews and how the Hebrew Scriptures recounts the troubles they had living according to God’s will, you’re misunderstanding the meaning of the Bible. Jeremiah’s prophecy is to his hearers– God’s warning you and me who we have failed to remember God and our part in the covenant. And God is promising us the promise of a covenant that is unforgettable, not written in the sky or in future promises or tablets of stone, but on our hearts.

In our New Testament passage, Jesus, responding to a person who has not known God and to those who think they have, speaks of suffering and death, and of God’s glory in servants who vow to follow…

Together, these Scriptures promise a Divine immediacy — God’s presence available to all, right here and now. Faith isn’t only about what the tradition passes down. And it’s not about what the pastor says.

Religious folks get knotted up so easily… in defending the right faith or in advocating sound teaching. Ok, we’re UCC, so our church life doesn’t sound quite like that! But we have our sacred cows too, beloved. We lose our way and think God and church, faith and theology are some mental exercise, a matter of right understanding, or left politics, or some list of kosher beliefs or actions.

Beloved, if we’re going to try and approach God exclusively through what our minds can comprehend, what we can understand, we set ourselves up to fall short. To be sure, we’re the kind of church that never asks us to check our brains at the door. But faith is more than what we can understand. God is bigger than our capacity to reason.

Encountering God is about accepting surprise, mystery, wonder. There will be unanswered questions. Maybe even, inevitably, apparent contradictions. A personal experience with God, pretty much like truly meeting another person, is about letting go of being in charge. You’ll be changed by the encounter in ways you can’t foresee. But because we’re talking about relating to God, it’s also about a willingness to follow.

This, the Sunday before Palm Sunday, I want to lift up a crucial element of our walk of faith: experience.
Thinking about God, talking about God, trying to figure out God can only get us so far. The deeper demands of our souls call us also to experience God.

At the end of the day, all my ideas about God aren’t ever enough for me to believe. Faith comes of experiencing God, though in ways that are often hard to describe in words. That’s where, how God is rather indelibly imprinted on our hearts. In ways that have changed us forever on the inside. And that continue to affect us, transform us outside too.

In preparation for Holy Week, I’m pointing you to those times and places where God in Divine love for you has reached into your world and touched or turned you. I’m not talking about some revelation where God showed up to insist:“I exist.” I’m talking about when you have felt God’s presence assuring you: “No matter what, I love you.”

Beloved, we struggle with the things of faith, a lot of the time we’re more sure — or overwhelmed by — our doubts. But you don’t have to be some giant in the faith to trust that God loves you. “Jesus loves me, this I know…” It’s that element of first hand experience of the Divine, sometimes our tradition’s not so comfortable with this… We’re not comfortable with what we can’t explain. We get a bit nervous about anything too emotional. We’ve all seen believers who get so caught up in some religious experience they’ve become enamored of it. Make it their idol. And their faith begins to look more like an addict seeking his or her next high.

But I think the strength of our intellectual tradition can also be our challenge: so committed to having an explanation for everything, we can miss what we can comprehend. The miracles don’t register. We even shy away from the supernatural.

I’ve been in a conversation with one of you who comes to church in the hope of believing. Sort of like the Gentile coming to Phillip with the humble request: “I want to see Jesus.” This beloved person is struggling… wants to believe in Jesus, but worries he hasn’t experienced Jesus the way others here do. Worried that without belief, he can never experience Jesus.

How does anyone come to faith? Is seeing believing. Or believing seeing? As a pastor, I always invite people in such situations: …live as if you believe. Go through the actions of faith. Pray. Worship. Love. Serve. Not as a Pharisee faking to fool others. But in humility, with an openness to God… and how meaning can be added to your actions, given by grace to the obedience offered with an openness of heart.

How can we know God? Lord knows, we can hardly ever know another person, even our most intimates– our spouses or children or ourselves. We can’t figure people out. But we can walk with them. Stay with them. Be surprised by them. Somehow miraculously be in relationship with ones we don’t completely understand.

Church, I want to invite us all to walk closely with Jesus for this next couple of weeks. Whether you are a person of unshakeable faith, or if you’re not even sure you have faith the size of a mustard seed.
Walk with Jesus and with us next Sunday into Jerusalem.

And on Maudy Thursday, sit with Jesus in the upper room for the Holy Meal and his love and commandment that we love one another.

Gather again on Friday to witness the suffering inherent in God’s love for our world.

And on Easter, we go to the Tomb — to experience what we can hardly believe: the incredible news that God will never let us go.

There’s no test of faith for participating. For hoping. Just the prayer that each of us will be open to being surprised… open to God… open to and by God’s love for us, and our love for God. Amen.