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Dan Matthews

Lenten Noonday Preaching Series
Calvary Episcopal Church
Memphis, Tennessee
March 17, 2000


What is Your Concept of God?
The Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Matthews
Rector, Trinity Church, Wall Street
New York, New York

God, take our minds and think through them.
Take my lips and speak through them.
Take our hearts and set them on fire with love for Thee.
Through Christ our Lord, Amen.

I can't resist starting a Saint Patrick's Day sermon with an Irish joke. It seems as though a man died and went to heaven. He walked up to the Pearly Gates and met Saint Peter. Saint Peter said, "Welcome, Patrick O'Malley. Welcome to heaven. See, Patrick, there's just one issue about getting into heaven, just one little requirement. You have to spell a word." Patrick said, "Fine. Tell me the word." Peter said, "The word you have to spell is love." Patrick said, "L-o-v-e." "Fine," Peter said. "Come on in. Welcome to heaven."

A few minutes later, Saint Peter turned to Patrick and said, "I have to go run some errands in Heaven, do some things. Would you stay here at the gate for a few minutes? I'll be back in a little while." Patrick said, "Fine, I'll stay here." "You know the little requirement, right?" said Peter. "Sure, sure," Patrick answered.

Well, lo and behold, up comes Patrick O'Malley's wife. She comes to the Pearly Gates, and Patrick says, "Honey, what are you doing here?" "Well, the minute I left the hospital," she said, "a big old truck ran into my car and killed me. Here I am." He said, "Well, my goodness. Honey, there's just one requirement. You have to spell a word before you can get into heaven." She said, "Well, fine, honey. What's the word?" He said, "Czechoslovakia." In New York, we tell it the other way. It would be the woman giving the requirements.

Ireland - it's a beautiful country, spectacular traditions, a gorgeous place to visit. Part of the reason humor centers around Ireland is because it doesn't change much. You drive your car into the countryside, and you feel like it must look just as it did fifty or a hundred or a hundred and fifty years ago. The theology in Ireland doesn't change much either.

We're probably more affected by Irish theology than any of us realizes. Remember Bing Crosby in the movie where he plays an Irish priest? We learned lots of theology from seeing movies like that, and many others that had their foundation in the conservative Catholicism of Ireland.

Today you and I are challenged in ways we don't like to be challenged. We have to think about God in ways that mother and daddy, grandmother and grandfather didn't have to. You and I are fundamentally challenged with how we see almighty God. We can't stay where we've been, with an Irish theology or a theology from our grandparents and parents. The challenge for those of us who follow in "the way" is that we're being asked to rethink the limits that we have placed on God. Those limits are being expanded, and we're kicking and screaming all the way.

If you listen to Dr. Marcus Borg, you'll hear probably one of the greatest minds in the world who for the last 25 years has been struggling to take the Scripture and do just that. You and I are doing it all the time. We don't acknowledge it. We don't spend a lot of time saying, "I'm increasing my wisdom and concept of the nature of God," but we are. It's happening all the time.

In the 13th century, there was a marvelous giant of a man, who was for Germany much of what Patrick was for Ireland. His name was Meister Eckhart. Meister Eckhart was a great preacher and teacher, a fascinating individual, but the reason he was so gifted was that he had an enormous inner spiritual life. He was really a mystic. Meister Eckhart went so far with changing the concept of God for his people that the church began to try him as a heretic. He died right before he was to be condemned as heretical.

Here's one of Meister Eckhart's famous statements: "The eye with which you see God is the same eye with which God sees you." Now, let me say that again in a couple of different ways. If you tend to see God, let's say, as a policeman, the only way you can feel God coming into your world is as a policeman. Or if you see God, for example, as a Santa Claus, whatever that might be, the only way you can receive God's presence into your life is as a Santa Claus figure. How you and I perceive God is the way we understand God's presence in our lives.

So it behooves you and me to constantly try to take that lens with which we see God and make it more of a wide-angle lens rather than a telephoto lens. We want to expand it as much as we can so that we might receive from God more than we have ever received from God before in our lives. The more we can do this, the more we're blessed by the enormity of the presence of God's love and compassion and acceptance of me and of you. Lots of us are stuck with a telephoto lens.

Jesus had a fisheye lens of God. He was constantly exhorting the people in his day to think bigger about the nature of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Almost everything he said was challenging people and making them think a little differently about how they had perceived God in their tradition. Every hair on your head is numbered. Remember that? That was a wild idea. What do you mean every hair? God doesn't care about the hairs on my head. Oh yes, he does, everyone. I remember a little boy hearing that in Sunday school. He reached up and pulled one out and thought, I wonder what number that is.

Remember Jesus saying, "Not a sparrow falls." That again was one of those lens-opening moments. A sparrow - it wasn't worth a penny or two. Oh, your God cares even about the sparrow. He even told some stories about a good Samaritan. There was no such thing as a good Samaritan. All Samaritans were bad. Imagine what it was with that lens - when Samaritans can be good. No wonder they put him to death. Or the one that's even worse, about the prodigal - the prodigal can be forgiven. Not the prodigal, maybe other people. The nature of Jesus was to say, "Open your lens a little wider, get a little bigger view of the nature of God."

One of the things we try to do occasionally in Trinity Church on Wall Street is talk about God. Not just God the Father, but God the Mother. I remember the first time I heard that I was at a conference in Kanuga, North Carolina. This guy stood up, and he said, "Mother God." I thought, I'm going to get up and leave right now. My lens couldn't handle it. I had to work to open it. God isn't any more a woman than He is a man, a man than He is a woman. I'm saying, "He." Of course we need these images, but we need to increase our images so that they encompass a whole new understanding of the nature of God, like Jesus requested.

Paul wrote more of the New Testament than anybody else. I had a professor in seminary who loved to teach a course that started with Paul's first letter and Paul's theology -his lens- when he wrote his first letter, and then traced how Paul's lens got bigger and wider. It took a whole semester and it was a fascinating course. I remember him saying, "If you just took the first two letters of Paul, First and Second Thessalonians, you would see his narrow, little telescopic lens right after his conversion. He was saying to his people don't get married, don't buy anything, don't do anything, just hold on because Jesus is coming back just any minute. Hold on, hold on." I remember him pointing at me in the class and saying, "Now, if you grew up in the South, you'd read just those two books, you'd get yourself a big old bucket of paint and a paintbrush, and you'd find the nearest barn on the highway, and you'd paint, 'Prepare to meet thy God.'"

It's right there in First and Second Thessalonians. It's there. Hold on, get ready. God's coming back just any day. But then he took the lens and opened it a little wider. Paul didn't say those things again, only in the first two letters. Later on his lens got bigger and bigger until by Colossians, his lens included the whole universe. He talks about Baptism as baptizing you into the death of Jesus, like the Baptists do right down into the water. You die to the old person, and you're raised up into the glory of God. You're on your way, heaven-bound right there.

Where are you? Are you still with the fourth-grade Sunday school concept, still with Bing Crosby? Where is your concept of God? Of course that's the challenging thing. Nobody wants to change it. It's too painful. It's too difficult, and yet perhaps the most important issue facing us is that of opening the lens a little bit wider and in turn receiving a little more grace.

I think the most popular story in the Bible - certainly with children - is the story of Noah and the flood. As I tell this story, you'll notice that I move close to Meister Eckhart and get into heresy, but you'll allow me that this one time, as I'm leaving town. God said to Noah, "Get the animals, build the ark." He did, he gathered them together, and the flood came. And God created such a flood that everybody, save Noah and his family, drowned.

Remember the story about the rainbow? God said, "I learned something at this. I'm not going to do it again. I'm going to put that rainbow up there so that you will know that I'm never going to do this again. I made a mistake. I didn't do the right thing. I didn't, but I learned from it." And the rainbow was assembled. For you and for me, having grown up with omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient as the basis for all that our lens would need, think about God as the ultimate learner. That's a real challenge, isn't it? If God is learning, God is a learner. God is on a journey. I need to be on a journey to be God-like, growing and learning all the time, so that the older I get, the bigger the lens gets and the more grace I'm able to receive from the power and presence of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

It's a real challenge for you and for me to increase the size of that lens. Sometimes we stay about the fourth or fifth grade and never allow that nature and understanding of the person of God to include not just Father but Mother, not just policeman and Santa Claus, but compassionate forgiver of my foibles and sins. A God who loves and cares for people outside of my vision, like whoever might be my Samaritans or prodigals today. That's the big challenge for each one of us. As we stretch our understanding of God, we open the lens a little wider. Can we accept a God accepting people we don't accept?

Yes, that's a real challenge for this world we live in, and it's a real challenge for those of us who are faithful believers. That feels to me to be the challenge for the journey to be faithful. How are you doing with your lens? Use this Lent to increase the scope. Become by God's grace wider in understanding so that you might be wider in receiving. Amen.

Copyright 2000 The Rev. Dr. Daniel P. Matthews

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