For a while this past year, I have been preaching a sermon in some of our local churches called, “Making a Bigger Box for God.” In it, I make the case for sharing our faith stories more often and more transparently than we might be accustomed in the Mainline church. Sharing our stories of how God has both nurtured and challenged us, I believe, will attract youth and young adults to our churches. If some more mature folks tell of their experiences of God, young people will see and hear firsthand what a vibrant faith looks like and want to emulate it. They will see that the church and faith is alive and well in our souls and in the world and want to be part of it. The good news is sharing our stories doesn’t require any special skills, just a desire to sit around with people from our church family and share stories — perhaps even over a meal. I have seen first hand that church folks in the Iowa Conference UCC like to share food!
Read on for the whole sermon…
“Making a Bigger Box for God” by Nicole Havelka using Revelation 1: 4-8
Given the kind of ministry I do, I bet it will come as no surprise to you that I spend a lot of time talking to people in churches. Much of this talking occurs in receiving lines and during coffee hour after worship. But, I also have a pretty frequent opportunity to teach workshops in our local churches. God really blesses me during these times because I get to get to know people much better than I do during short interactions after worship services.
During many of my workshops, I often invite people to talk about their own faith journey. One of the questions I often ask is, “Tell a story about one of your most powerful God moments.” After people get over their initial fear and trembling of doing the outrageous thing of talking about God in church, they tell amazing stories of God’s presence in their lives. Most often these stories recall God’s involvement in their experiences of great loss like the death of a loved one or a divorce. Sometimes they involve people being in scary or even outright dangerous situations. People testify to how God saw them through those situations, providing them comfort and protection. People often shed tears while telling these stories because, I’m guessing, they are overwhelmed by the love they feel by this God that has not abandoned them in their time of great need.
I, too, am moved by these stories. I yearn for churches to find time to tell these stories to each other. If we did that kind of story telling more often, I would also hope that we would begin to feel safe enough to tell even more kinds of stories of how God’s presence works in our lives. I can tell many stories of how I felt comforted by God’s presence in difficult times. But, I can also tell you stories about how God has challenged me, angered me, even confused me at other times. I can even tell you stories about how I’ve refused to talk with God because I’ve been so angry and frustrated by the challenges life was handing me. I can tell you stories about times when I was pretty convinced that God had abandoned me.
These are not the stories that make us feel happy and cheerful about our faith, but they are honest. Anyone who takes faith seriously knows that our relationship with God, like any other relationship, has its ups and downs. Though God is a comforter, a protector and a healer, God is also much more than that.
When I was in seminary, one of my theology professors always said, “Don’t put God in a Box.” She said this to encourage us to use a larger “vocabulary” for God when we did our writing for class. But, she also said it because she felt that people in churches, particularly those of us who felt called to pastoral ministry, should talk about God in ever increasing ways. If we believe that God is infinite, then we need more than a few words or phrases to describe this God.
John, the author of Revelation, attempts to describe this infinite God to the seven churches to whom he is writing. The short passage we read this morning is only the greeting to the people reading the letter – something that was standard in Greek rhetoric. What John is doing, however, is not totally standard. In the three verses that precede what we read this morning, John has said that he is not just sending any ordinary letter, he is attempting to recount the vision he received from God in Jesus Christ. A sense of urgency infects his words because he believes that Jesus is coming again very soon. And, the churches need to be prepared for this, he says.
Though it was common to greet fellow believers in the name of God in Jesus Christ, John uses more than a few boring words or pat phrases to describe Jesus and God. First, he invokes the name of Jesus, not in simple terms, but by describing the witness he gave in his life, by the redemption he graced us with in his death and the miracle that occurred in his resurrection. But, John doesn’t stop there, he goes onto to name God with God’s own words, “I am the Alpha and Omega,” says the Lord God, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”
John names God as one that IS everything – the beginning and the end and everything in between.
I can feel my head stretching like silly putty when I think of the expansiveness of God. God is literally in everything that we are and what we do and what we experience, that doesn’t just mean the pretty things or the amazing things or the wonderful things — that means everything.
Given my work with youth and young adult ministries, I know that young people haven’t often haven’t often heard about this expansive God in their churches. In a book I’m reading right now called Souls in Transition, researchers from the National Study of Youth and Religion describe the world in which emerging adults (those aged 18-24) live. This world is confusing, chaotic and constantly shifting. They struggle to develop relationships with new friends and maintain old ones with family. They are trying to make their way through an advanced education and the job market. They are struggling to develop their own identity in the world.
Though this is pretty normal given their stage of development, the research revealed something interesting about this particular generation of young adults: They are forming themselves as adults without much of a foundation to draw upon. They grew up in a time when everything depends on an individual and his or her life experience. There is almost nothing external – a history, tradition or morality from which to draw.
Now it’s at this point in the story that I think church folks like you and me tend to start pointing fingers. We tend to blame recent generations who arbitrarily rejected tradition and organizations like the church. We blame society as a whole for allowing an “anything goes” philosophy to prevail. We say that people are just too lazy to make a commitment to anything besides themselves.
I don’t think we can simply point fingers any longer. If we want to reach young people, we have to testify to the awesome God we profess to believe in. That doesn’t just mean telling the stories of how God has comforted and protected us (though that is a good place to start). We must also tell our young people about how God has something to do with everything in our lives from the throws of grief to the soaring joy of our first loves and the disappointment of our first heartache. We must witness to a God that urges us to spend and give away money for higher purposes, not just our own gain. We must tell of the God that urges us not to have jobs that only pay the bills, but to have life’s work that makes a difference in our world.
We do this by simply telling our own stories, maybe even telling one of our own that we don’t share with too many people because it is embarrassing and uncomfortable. What better time than the present? Go ahead and share your faithful witness to God’s power here on this blog post.
What we have just done, through the telling of our own stories, is begin to reflect this God who is the beginning and the end and everything in between. We have reflected a God who pushes us out of our own boxes and forces us to create a bigger box for the God who we thought we knew.
In the summer of 2009, I had the privilege of attending the United Church of Christ’s General Synod gathering in Grand Rapids, Michigan. One of the highlights of these gatherings is always worship. In these enormous worship services, you get to listen to the best musicians, watch liturgical dancers and of course, hear the best preachers. One of the preachers that week was Otis Moss III, the senior pastor at Trinity UCC in Chicago, one of our denominations largest churches. He preached on the very text we are contemplating today. As we close our time together, I’m going to invite us all to listen to a small portion of his sermon, the portion in which he very poetically talks about some of the things that are “in-between” the Alpha and Omega. [Click on this link and watch from about 10 minutes, 20 second to 12 minutes]
His poetry is breathtaking, isn’t it? But, as rich and powerful as Rev. Moss’ imagery is, his description of who God is and what God has done is only the tip of the iceberg. God is infinite. Not only is God the beginning and the end, God is everything that is yet to come, everything that we have yet to imagine.
Perhaps this is what my professor was trying to get us to understand in that seminary classroom almost ten years ago – that our language, our stories are the best way we have to give witness to the incredible diversity of ways in which God works. Please remember as you leave today, “Don’t put God in a box.” Or at least make the box a little bigger. Amen.