Probably like anyone who grew up with some amount of religion in their home, my parents’ faith both helped and hurt me.
My mom’s parents lived by a mix of mainline American Protestantism and Depression-era common sense. They taught her – and me – to work hard, do your best, love your mother, save money. And while I am actually really grateful for these values and how they were modeled and taught to me, they were more of the best of American post-war culture than anything that was particularly born out of faith, or any connection to God.
My dad’s family, though, had been much more religious — separatist, in fact. Which for me was a good and a bad thing. I appreciate my dad’s respect for devout faith, and when I needed it in my teenage years, this probably made it easier for me to start to practice faith. But my dad’s uneasy peace with his fundamentalist upbringing also left him inadvertently passing on quirky ideas about God to me.
The most common religious phrase I remember him saying to me as a kid was a weird blessing he would say to me sometimes at bed time or other odd moments now and then. He’d say, “May you marry the virgin Mary and have perfect children.”
This was awkward. I think my dad found it clever and said it half-jokingly, but I couldn’t tell that at the time. And especially as I got closer to and then into and through puberty, I really didn’t want to hear my dad talking to me about marriage and virgins. That was weird.
At a deeper level, though, the harshness of my dad’s religion peaked out through this joke. The idea of the blessing, if you missed it – don’t worry, it took me about 15 years – is that I’d get to be Joseph – married to a perfectly pure woman without flaw, like mother Mary and would have children like Jesus who were also perfect in every way. If my dad were here, he’d say I’m reading too much into this, but it seemed to me that being perfection – being a perfect person or at least as close to it as possible – was actually pretty important to how my dad’s ideas about God had filtered into our family life.
The home I was raised in was nothing if not critical and defensive. The first time I severely sprained one of my ankles – torn ligaments and all – and I lay on the ground unable to walk, one of my brothers yelled at me to stop complaining. We were good at being stoic and if we weren’t so good at being perfect, we were at least really good at pointing these flaws out in one another, and in ourselves.
After all, I thought, this was likely true of God as well. What did God see in us if not all of the flaws God can’t stand. God loved me but didn’t particularly like me, I assumed. Probably God would look at me with a stern, disappointed frown and sigh, Oh, Steve, because God expected better.
And fast-forwarding a little bit, did this take on God make me a better person? Well, sometimes, in small ways. It kept me out of some trouble when I was young. But over the years, I have come to discover that my belief in a God who’s usually disappointed in us largely made me a more stressed-out, critical, unhappy person.
Not Everything We Believe About God is Helpful or True
Today I want to talk about the lies we believe about God. The ideas we have about God that don’t serve us well. The notions we have about God that aren’t faithful to the nature of God as revealed in the person and teaching of Jesus.
I’m drawn to this topic today because I read a book that’s out this year. William Paul Young wrote this Christian best-seller called The Shack – it was turned into a movie as well. And this year he published a follow-up book called Lies We Believe About God, and I heard him on the Blue Ocean podcast and a couple other places talking about that book, and then I read it. I realized I’m not the target audience for the book – I’ve never read The Shack, and he talks about it a lot, and I think I part ways with Young on a few of his ideas – but I appreciated a lot of his take on a God that looks like Jesus. It’s sane and generous and wise. So if you’re looking for more where today’s sermon comes from, that wouldn’t be a bad place to go.
The other reason I’m drawn to this topic today is because of the Bible passages before us this Sunday. This summer, we’re basing our talks on the scriptures in each Sunday’s readings from what the global church calls the lectionary – a systematic read-through of the Bible every three years. We make the daily version of this available on our website, called Read the Bible Together.
And I noticed that today’s passages seem to be grappling with truths and with lies that we believe about God. Obviously, not all the ideas we read and hear about God are helpful or true, and that’s so even of the ideas about God we read in the Bible. After all, in the Bible, God lets his children tell the story. And sometimes we read about God to learn what God is like and sometimes we read and we get to have exposed what people so often think God is like, and all the problems that raises. We’ll get a little bit of both today.
First we see two great kings – one lionized and one vilified in the Bible – who both believe lies about God. All of us do this all the time. And sometimes this leads to seriously toxic results in the world.
We’ll see, though, in a minute, that embracing a more Jesus-centered view of God, has the power to deepen our connection with a good God and to promote greater health in our emotional, psychological, and relational lives and in the world at large.
It’s like that game, Two truths and a lie, but we’ll play two lies and a truth. And I won’t have you guess – I’ll give it away as we go, which isn’t really a game at all, I guess. But here we go.
First lie – the good king. It’s David, who we met as a teenage shepherd-warrior last time I spoke and who now a couple decades later is the relatively newly established king of ancient Israel.
And he wants to provide spiritual, not just political leadership, to the nation, and for him, that means placing this holy relic – the arc of the covenant – in the capital city of Jerusalem where he reigns. The problem was that while transporting the arc, a disaster occurred. And David blames it on God.
We’ll read a short excerpt here.
II Samuel 6:8-10 (NRSV)
8 David was angry because the Lord had burst forth with an outburst upon Uzzah; so that place is called Perez-uzzah, to this day. 9 David was afraid of the Lord that day; he said, “How can the ark of the Lord come into my care?” 10 So David was unwilling to take the ark of the Lord into his care in the city of David; instead David took it to the house of Obed-edom the Gittite.
Now the main flow of this story goes somewhere else. It becomes a story about the power of this holy relic to confer blessing, and David eventually bringing it into his city, where within a generation, the arc gets a permanent home in the first grand Jerusalem temple.
But for our purposes, today, let’s just notice what David believes about God, at this stage of the story.
David believes in a holy God – and by holy, he means super-powerful and super-other: utterly different and better than mere mortals. But the God David believes in is also super-unpredictable and sometimes super violent. You have to watch out around this God, so frankly, David thinks it’s better to keep your distance. Sure, there’s prosperity or power you might miss out on, but if God is sometimes this mean and confusing and violent — well, you’re probably better off without that god around.
So for now, at least, David gets what he wants. Distance from God, but also reduced flourishing. Missing out on whatever good God could do in his life or in his leadership.
Today’s readings pair David with another king, from a thousand years later, associated with another version of the Jerusalem temple. This is King Herod. Unlike David, Herod’s known as an awful king – a puppet to the Roman colonizers and an accomplice in the death of Jesus. Yet they share a lie they believe about God.
In the passage about Herod from Mark 6, which I did not print in today’s programs, Herod is haunted by his execution of a person named John the Baptist, whose ministry preceded that of Jesus. Herod is hearing stories of the work of Jesus, who he hasn’t met, and because it reminds him of the life of this man he’s murdered, he’s haunted. He thinks that God is probably out to get him for his bad deeds.
Interestingly, Herod’s view of God is much like David’s. He too thinks God is utterly powerful and could wipe him out at any moment. But in Herod’s case, this doesn’t mean keeping a distance, it means smashing down other people to maintain his own power. Herod – like far too many leaders – is haunted by his own insecurity and but he’s nothing if not a winner, so he acts out in violence, diminishing everyone he perceives to be a threat to his image and privilege.
Where David’s fear of God makes him passive, diminished at this point of his story, Herod’s makes him aggressive, controlling, tyrannical. But both men are driven by fear.
I mentioned that the lies I’ve believed about God have largely made me more stressed out and critical. The lies I’ve held onto have had personal impact for me, and we’ll come back to the personal, more private stakes of this topic in a minute.
But I want to notice first that the lies we believe about God aren’t just a private matter of religion or personal well-being. They have huge implications for public life and for history.
Both David and Herod’s lies about God lead to human diminishment. And I think that whenever we believe lies about God, for some reason, it leads to the diminishment of somebody. And often it’s lots of somebodies.
I’m going to go somewhere a little controversial for just a moment, but I think it’s important now and then to comment on the most public representatives of supposedly Jesus-centered faith in our times, and hold that up to the light a bit, and ask if it’s representing well or not.
So let’s take Scott Lively, for instance.
If you haven’t heard of him yet, you likely will this year.
Because Lively is one of our gubernatorial candidates. And he’s a pastor, out of Springfield, just down the Mass Pike. And normally, you’d think that as a fellow pastor, that would be fun for me. Hey, look at someone in my field go. Spiritual leadership, for the win.
But in Lively’s case, he’s made his name stigmatizing LGBT people, claiming that sexual minorities are at the heart of what is wrong in our country, and he claims, at other periods in history too. And this is not just casual disagreement about sexual ethics here. No, this stuff is so important to this man that when he wasn’t trying to be a pastor or political activist in California or Massachusetts, he’s taken field trips to Eastern Europe and Eastern Africa to promote anti-gay legislation in other people’s countries that has had enormously violent implications. Devastating stuff.
And the lie about God is not dissimilar to that of David and Herod. It’s again a lie about what it means that God is holy and powerful. The lie about God here is to believe that what it means for God to be holy is that we can identify one or two or three aspects of human life as what we consider to be the sins that most anger and offend God, so much so that whole societies get ruined under God’s judgment until we rid ourselves of the scourge of that sin. Which usually means ridding ourselves of the people we associate with that sin.
And because nobody likes to see ourselves as the scourge that must be punished, somehow the people who believe these lies about God always seem to locate what angers and offends God in somebody else they find strange or threatening.
This has been played out over and over again in human history.
If it’s not the worldwide violence against LGBT people that Scott Lively has helped promote, it’s the nearly constant presence of anti-Semitism in Christian history – locating the offense to God in Jews that don’t worship Jesus. Or if it’s not that, it’s colonialism and global White supremacy, locating the offense to a holy God in so-called heathen peoples that can be robbed and enslaved and killed or, in our times, merely imprisoned or deported.
Again and again, the lies we believe about God lead to human diminishment, sometimes in the form or our self-rejection or self-criticism or our fear of God and stress. But sometimes in our scapegoating and diminishment of the people we make out to be a wrathful God’s enemies.
And this, I am confident, does grieve and disappoint God.
What God Looks Like Through the Lens of Love
For thousands of years, though, we have had an alternative: a less common, but a far truer and a far more beautiful way of understanding God, a way of viewing God that doesn’t just correct the lies we carry within, but leads to human flourishing – our own and that of others as well.
And that is to believe that God must look like Jesus. That everything that is God is, that even the center of what makes God so marvelously different and other, is love. A perfect, holy, beautiful, self-giving, co-suffering, forgiving, transformative love.
Seeing God through the lens of love, and that love defined and enfleshed in the person of Jesus is is what today’s passage calls “gathering up all things under Christ”, our view of God included. Let me read this passage, and talk about what it does to the lies we believe about God, and what kind of flourishing might come about when we replace them with this truth.
There are many passages we could look at for this work, but today’s is the introduction to a New Testament letter to a church in the Western Asian city of Ephesus.
It goes like this:
Ephesians 1:3-14 (NRSV)
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 just as he chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world to be holy and blameless before him in love. 5 He destined us for adoption as his children through Jesus Christ, according to the good pleasure of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace that he freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. 7 In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace 8 that he lavished on us. With all wisdom and insight 9 he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, 10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. 11 In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, 12 so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. 13 In him you also, when you had heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and had believed in him, were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; 14 this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.
So we’re told in this poetic outburst of praise that God has planned for all time to gather up all things in Christ — to somehow, through the person and work of Jesus Christ, unite the scattered people and creatures and ideas and elements on earth into a coherent whole. Presumably this would include gathering up everything we might believe about God as well, as another letter in the New Testament that’s kind of a cousin to this one to the Ephesians puts it, to understand Jesus as the perfect image of the invisible God.
What does it mean, starting with the lens of this passage, for the person and teaching of Jesus to shape not just part, but all, of what we believe about God?
Well, it means that God chooses us, all of us. This is the language of adoption we get here. Just as Jesus continues to surprise his contemporaries with who he notices, and speaks with, and touches, God has a wider gaze and a broader embrace than we ever expected. God chooses to grow a big, big human family through adoption.
And it means that God blesses all God chooses. This is the metaphor of inheritance in this passage. That just as Jesus surprised people by all he added to their lives, God has good gifts for God’s kids.
And it means that God knows and loves us. The language of redemption is an old metaphor. It’s to claim a distant family member back into relationship, at significant cost to yourself, or to pay the deliverance cost to set a slave into freedom. So these are old images that might not speak as immediately, but they’re meant to speak to deep knowledge and deep love, just as the language of forgiveness and grace that is lavished does. This is not a picture of a stingy God who theoretically loves people that he actually can’t stand. This is God like we are with young children in our lives that we treasure. They make a mess, they’re silly, sometimes they’re even a little maddening. But my gosh, they’re adorable. Last night, my friend and I were looking at one of his girls. She had just eaten a big meal and sleepy past her bed time, and she had this totally zoned-out, spacey look across her face as she looked in our direction. And he was like – look, look, isn’t that great? Mari, this girl, was doing nothing. She was tired, she was in a bit of a food coma, but my God, our hearts were melting. Her dad, and even me, just her dad’s good friend, would do anything for that kid we so know and have affection for and love.
And this, we’re to believe, is just the tiniest hint of a shadow of how God knows and loves each of us.
A couple of chapters later in Ephesians, the author breaks out into a kind of prayer and song again, saying how high and how wide and how deep and how long is the love of God for us in Christ Jesus. It’s one of the most common prayers I pray for my own three kids, that they’d know how high and how wide and how deep and how long is God’s love for them.
And it’s a great test for us too of our ideas about God. When we consider more than one idea about God, or image of God, or notion of God, we can ask: which is more true to how high and how wide and how deep and how long the love of God is? A Jesus-centered faith actually requires we ask this question. Because a Jesus-centered faith dares us to believe that God is every bit as good as Jesus.
And just to highlight one last thing in this passage, it also says that in God’s love, we are included in the work of love. We are destined for purpose and given all of God’s self to accompany us in that purpose. In Jesus’ own life work and in his prayers and commissioning of his followers, Jesus fills out that destined purpose – which is to be active, significant participants in the justice and mercy and renewal God is working on earth. Having this purpose is love for us and love through us as well.
I find this Ephesians riffing to be such a fully-orbed take on what God is like. Because if we stop with just the language of choice, that God chooses. Well, then we’re tempted to imagine that God chooses some over others. That God has chosen us – whoever the us is in our minds – and not chosen them – whoever the “them” is to us. And that tempts us toward fears and resentments, or even scapegoating and violence I was talking about earlier.
Or if we just stick with this language of blessing, then we can be tempted to do what many religious people do in particular lies about God, which is to interpret wealth and success and security and prosperity as signs of God’s favor and love, and so poverty and failure and insecurity and marginalization as the fault of the one suffering – a lack of faith or favor. Which has all the signs of the diminishment of others that flows out of lies, not truths, about God.
But the God who chooses and blesses all God’s children, who knows and loves, and redeems and liberates and encourages – who frees us for our purpose and stays with us as God’s people through God’s Spirit who dwells with us and in us and among us – that is a way to believe in God that is just impossibly good and transformative enough that it might begin to scratch the surface of truth.
For me, as I mentioned, this is really helpful in how I actively discern or evaluate views of God and beliefs about God. As a pastor, I read a lot about God. I study people’s opinions about all kinds of aspects what the scriptures and what experience and what science and reason and other faiths might have to say to us about the spiritual, and about a life of faith.
And this law of love given to us by Jesus, that everything about God is captured in God’s yearning for us to love God with all our being and to love our neighbor as ourselves, is really helpful in sorting it all out. To ask – does this perspective help seem true to a God whose love is impossibly high and wide and deep and long? This is a useful barometer.
This is also how faith in my life can actually help me flourish.
If religion or spirituality or faith is going to make you a more stressed out, critical, unhappy, ungenerous, mean and narrow person, why would you want that in your life?
I want a faith that has power to deepen our connection with a good God and to promote greater health in our emotional, psychological, and relational lives and in the world at large. And more and more, this is my faith experience.
I entered this year in an interesting mid-life kind of moment, where I was noticing a build-up of stress, and trying to come to terms with long-held habits of being more critical than I want to be of myself and those closest to me, and less present and motivated and visionary about my life.
And I had wondered if I needed to find some new thing to do in my life – a new set of activities or marching orders, the next big thing to go after. But as I talk that over with God, I sense God tugging on me that what I actually need isn’t a new thing to do in the world, but a deeper and truer way to be in the world.
One aspect of that, related to today’s teaching, is that I’ve felt God inviting me to sit for a bit in each morning, and to consider again how God chooses me and blesses me, how God knows and loves me, how God likes me and is there for me, and what it might mean to stay in the center of my purpose to be in this love and work out of this love today.
It is so anchoring and freeing when I do this. Considering this truth of God’s love for me works good results in my life – lowers stress, increases hope, helps me be more present and motivated and creative in my life.
And sometimes I feel like I’m just getting started in considering how high and how wide and how deep and how long is God’s love for us all in Christ, and that’s when I know I’m on to something true.
This is one of the two invitations I’d love to leave you with today in our “try this” portion of our Sunday message.
I’d like to invite you to a spiritual practice of the week, which is to
1) Spiritual Practice of the Week: Choose a phrase from the Ephesians passage to mediate on this week.
Open your programs right now if you will and look it over again. Ask what line or phrase sticks out to you. I’ll give you a moment as I talk. What encourages or delights you? What surprises you or intrigues you a little? Circle something if you will.
And try just sticking with that phrase, committing it to memory, chewing on it a little bit. I’d love to hear from you if you try this this week. Let me know how much or how little you got out of it – I’m at email@example.com, and I’d love to hear what this experience was like for you, if it was anywhere near as encouraging or helpful as it’s been to me.
2) Choose a particular way to be generous toward someone you’ve diminished because of the lies you’ve believed about God.
Again, the lies we believe about God – and I think we all have them – tend to make us diminish someone, sometimes diminish ourselves in fear and insecurity, and self-rejection. And often in the diminishment of other individuals – in our criticism or resentment, and quite often in the diminishment of whole groups or classes of people.
People of Jesus-centered faith are called to notice and undo this diminishment, whether it be personal, or whether it be corporate or systemic. We’ll end with a moment to invite God to call to mind any diminishment of others that we’re complicit in, and ask how a full belief in the God of impossibly generous love can empower us to reverse course.