Eulogy for an Honest Man

When my grandfather died last week, I was asked by my grandmother to officiate at his memorial service. It was one of the most singularly difficult things I have ever done in my life… yet, I am so proud that she entrusted this delicate moment to me. Within the service, others contributed their own memories and helped tell the story of my grandfather’s life. Below are the words I shared, as I struggled to memorialize a man who influenced who I am as much as anyone else. Memory Eternal!


Children tend to have their heroes—perhaps boys most of all. My friends idolized Superman or Batman or Spiderman, or maybe some popular musician, or Michael Jordan (ok…… everyone idolized His Airness). 

But not me. My hero wielded superpowers that defied comprehension:

He was capable of threading a buzz-bait through impenetrable branches……

He reeled in 25 pound stripers on every second cast……

He could play and sing every bluegrass song that had ever been written and some that hadn’t……

He knew every human being that lived or had ever even traveled within any part of Ozark County……

And rumor had it—through a strange genetic mutation, he actually saw colors the way a fish does and that’s how he always picked the perfect bait.

He was larger than life. And he never failed me.

 

I stuck to him like a bad penny. If we were not fishing:

We were working on the boat or fishing gear, or

We were getting the fishing report at Udall or wherever down-lake, or

If he had to work in his TV shop, I would be his shadow—and I even remember going on some house calls with him.

I would talk him into bringing me to the hardware store, or the local cafe, or literally anywhere he went.

I have a theory that he started taking naps just to get away from me for a while. That’s ok though. It gave me more time to practice casting in the driveway with a 5 gallon bucket. 

When I was 16 or so, I fell through that railroad-tie bridge at Tecumseh park and broke my arm. It was early in our vacation and I was devastated; I’d been dreaming of bass for eleven months, and now I couldn’t bend my elbow or wrist. Eventually I convinced my Grandpa to take me fishing—if I could prove I could still cast safely and efficiently; with only one eye, Grandpa was always wary of stray hooks. So back to the driveway. Within a day I was taking my “test” (cast left—switch hands—reel—repeat).

Over the years, he taught me so much:

to buzz for largemouth, to troll for walleye, to jig for crappie, to jump-fish for white bass, and to cast plugs for stripers. But by golly, it took an act of desperation to get him to use live bait.

He taught me how to make a fire, how to camp, how to use a knife, and how to cook over a fire.

He taught me how to tell stories, and to play bluegrass.

He taught me most of what I know about electricity—but I must not have been a very good student, if you ask my spouse.

He taught me some dirty jokes—including what he called the dirtiest clean joke in the world—or was it the cleanest dirty joke? I do remember the joke even still, but suspect if I told it, I’d never again in my life get another slice of Grandma Dot’s apple pie.

Grandpa taught me to love biscuits and gravy, and beans and cornbread. And he was tickled to no end when I told him as an adult that I finally came around to eating leftover cornbread with milk poured on it. He used to gross me out as a kid by eating that mush; now it’s my own kids making the faces [make face].

Only recently did I realize that he taught me that it was possible to live outside what society seems to demand of everyone. Here was a person who chose to renounce the rat race, to work for himself, to work to live instead of live to work, and to truly live life to the fullest. And by golly he did.

It’s probably from him that I got

my under-appreciated sense of humor

my deep appreciation of nature

and my commitment to honesty. Grandma Dot has shared with me that he was most honest man she ever knew. She’s probably right.

As a youth, Grandpa JR gave me permission to explore the woods. As I think back, it may have been my grandpa more than anyone else that really nurtured curiosity in me. And it wasn’t until much later in life that I came to discover how strong curiosity welled up in him, too. 

I remember (as an example) when he discovered eBay. He would buy anything on eBay as long as it was $.99 and came with free shipping. I remember visiting one time and he could’t stop talking about some watch batteries he bought for $.99 with free shipping—and they came all the way from China! He marveled that such a thing could exist in the world; yet it brought him no end of pleasure to know that it somehow—inconceivably!—actually did.

Alongside it all was Dorothy—my Grandma Dot—his “long-suffering spouse.” Every now and again someone would ask him how he stayed married to the same woman for 60 years—to which he would respond that he never allowed her enough money for a bus ticket home. Every time I could come with to the music, he had some joke to offer—and (more often that not) Grandma was the butt of it. But she weathered it all—on account of the deep love they shared, and the joy, and the laughter: there was always laughter. Looking through photographs these last days, there were so many with goofy expressions, or silly hats or outfits, or just all around ridiculousness. One could not take themselves too serious in JR’s presence, nor could one put on airs. 

 

His greatest gift is one that I always envied him for—and I still do. You see, I was an awkward kid—some of you remember that for yourselves!—and it seemed that for my grandpa all that interpersonal stuff was easy. People loved him and responded to him. He inspired loyalty and love among most everyone he ever knew. His friendships have proven to be lifelong. He seemed to have superpowers to the young me.

To the older, perhaps not-wiser but certainly more reflective me, I’ve realized that his gift wasn’t about getting people to like him. He was gifted at showing people that they mattered. Everyone he met was someone who mattered, and somehow he showed that. 

Now I don’t care who you are, how old or young, where you are from, what language you speak, or whatever—we all need to feel like we matter. And for more people that we can possibly count, my Grandfather JR demonstrated that they mattered in this world and in his life—however brief their connection. Because they knew they mattered to him, he ended up mattering a great deal to them too.

 

The last part of John chapter 13 verse 1 reads: “Having loved his own who were in the world, Jesus loved them to the end” (NRSV). I happened to read that verse again earlier this week and it really struck me—that’s a pretty fitting description of my Grandpa too: Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

 

In death, we don’t often allow ourselves much grace. We think of things we never said. We think of conflicts that now seem petty. We think of how much they gave to us that we never fully acknowledged or even knew.

But I believe we should give ourselves a bit more grace. I know God does.

I’m reminded of when Jesus raised his best friend Lazarus from the dead in John 11. Even knowing that he is about to raise Lazarus from the dead—that he will see his friend restored to life in just moments—Jesus is still deeply overcome with grief. There is a heaviness in the verse “Jesus wept” that belies its brevity. If Jesus—who will see his friend alive again in mere moments—is overcome with such grief, perhaps we can grant ourselves the same grace—knowing that we may not see our beloved friend for yet some unknown time.

We can also be encouraged by what we read in 1John: that in God, we never lose a relationship of love; 1John 4:7 says “everyone who loves is born of God.” “Not that we loved God,” the writer goes on to explain, “but that he loved us and sent His Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

Death has taken JR; but, in Jesus, God has overcome death. We have the strongly assuring words of Jesus that He is “the resurrection and the life; and though a man die, yet shall he live,” John 11:26.

 

As a Christian, I believe that God created humanity with purpose and dignity and love. There have been all sorts of ways over the millennia that we humans have failed to live into God’s desires for us—this book [BIBLE] is full of such stories, and I know I could add some stories of my own. 

But more and more I am realizing that being a good Christian is really rooted to being a good human being—being, to put it simply, what God made us to be. If we believe that God made us, then we have to also believe that God wants us to be the best “us” we can be. There’s so much overlap between the Way that Jesus taught and simply being a good human being that I’m less and less convinced there’s much of a gulf between the two.

Grandpa JR was never someone who would club you with his faith. But anyone who knew him—anyone who knew his love of nature, his value for the rest of us humans, his commitment to honesty and truth, and just that abiding devotion to taking care of the people he knew—to know him was to see his faith lived out. And what a debt of gratitude I feel I owe for an example such as him.

 

There’s a verse at the end of the Gospel of John that reads: “there are many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written” (John 21:25 NRSV). I feel like we find ourselves similarly confined today. 

Just like all the time in the world would not have been enough to prepare us for his passing, there just isn’t enough time to share all the stories of JR’s life. But I know that for my family and my children and beyond—we will be trying. Generations to come will hear of Grandpa JR—his jokes, his fishing exploits, and the love that he taught us to share. 

 

Scripture also says: “Cast your bread upon the waters, and after many days you will get it back” (Eccl 11:1). In some ways, this is what we do today: we commit this body back to the dust from which it came. And while we know JR isn’t coming back to us, we know that—in Jesus Christ—we can go to him.

So Grandpa JR, you might as well cast a line out while you wait. There’s a lot of people here looking forward to that fish fry in the sky. There might even be a few coming from far-away California.

Thank you.

Saint Jesus

Scripture: Hebrews 5:1-10

Hiking

As many of you know, I love the outdoors. I particularly love hiking, and back in August I had the opportunity to help lead a spiritual retreat that was located deep in the Adirondack wilderness of upstate New York. This was a backpacking trip in terms of format—we drove as far into the wilderness as the roads would take us, and then we parked the car, shouldered the backpacks that had to contain everything we could possibly need for the next four days, and stepped into the woods. 

I had never been in that area of the country before. And after the brutally dry Kansas summer we had been experiencing, I felt like we were in a rainforest. Everything was constantly wet. We soldiered through mud, balanced on boards, hopped across boulders, and whatever we could to get through. Even when it wasn’t raining, the foliage around us was saturated and soon we were too.

This complicated hiking, to put it mildly.
That the trail was slippery would also be an understatement. 

I have strong ankles—a consequence of always being sandaled or barefoot—yet I cannot tell you the number of times I slipped and twisted one. We were all constantly slipping and falling—one time nearly off the side of a mountain…… literally!

So we would fall into a pattern that hikers have used since walking was invented. The hiker in the front would find a way of warning those behind of the dangers he himself fell prey to. Sometimes this might be a verbal cry of “root!” or “wet rock!” 

But other times, at particularly hairy sections, that hiker (once recovered from their own fall) would step to the side of the trail alongside the obstacle. Standing there at that root or rock or board or whatever, the hiker would show the danger to the travelers behind and guide them through safely.

Touching on Hebrews…

As I indicated last week, today we explore how Jesus’s kinship with us—how Jesus’s sympathy with us—enables his role as redeemer. That’s what has me thinking about hiking. 

When the author of Hebrews talks about the role of High Priest, she says that “every high priest” “is able to deal gently with the ignorant and wayward, since he himself is subject to weakness” (Hebrews 5:2 NRSV). 

Then further down, speaking specifically about Jesus, she offers that: 

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” (Hebrews 5:7–9 NRSV)

Especially when we read these words through the lens of last week’s reading (Hebrews 4:15 on screen), it is hard for me to not see a parallel. 

Jesus, in living and “walking” through this world, came across all sorts of roots and snares and stumbling blocks—obstacles that not just stub toes, but destroy lives.

But Jesus doesn’t just call out a warning to us. Jesus stands to the side of these obstacles, pointing out their dangers and guiding us through them to safety.

Patron Saints

As described this a way, this role of Jesus is something akin to the concept of a patron saint. 

Now I know that we Baptists start getting a bit twitchy when the concept of saints comes up. We don’t have a process for recognizing people as saints, though I’ve known a few individuals I’d like to nominate.

For those less familiar, the idea of patron saints is rooted in the idea that people find kinship with those who have had similar experiences. Thus, the giants of the faith naturally have a greater sympathy for people who are experiencing things like what they did (and vice versa). 

Some saints are recognized as patrons of cities where they were born or lived. Others are seen as patrons of the occupations they held. In still other cases, saints become patrons of those suffering from diseases they had, or of those whose diseases resemble the manner in which the saint died. As an example of this latter, Saint Agatha, who was martyred c. 250, was chosen as the patron of those with diseases of the breast, since her breasts were cut off when she refused marriage to a non-Christian.

These saints become patrons because there are places on the trail of life where they stumbled, or were injured, or may have even died. Their memory—in some ways—remains in that place, helping others to navigate that treacherous section of life’s journey—and experience life, or hope, or wellness on the other side. 

Saint Jesus

Whatever our opinions about patron saints may be, a lot of our language about Jesus fits the pattern. 

Saint Jesus, we might say, became “sin…so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”…… or at least that’s what Paul says in 2Cor 5:21 (NRSV).

Or as the author of Hebrews offered in 4:15, Saint Jesus was tempted in every respect as we are (c. ESV)

Or if we have a hard time with Jesus’s identification with our temptation and sin, we need only consider Jesus’ death. 

Jesus stands at death, the biggest and most dangerous obstacle we can ever encounter. It is an obstacle that no human has ever successfully traversed, without literal divine intervention. 

A cross is planted at this obstacle, and it stands as a testimony for all time that no one—NO ONE—need ever stumble here again. 

If we will listen to Saint Jesus, even this most treacherous of paths, this shadowed and dangerous valley, can be successfully navigated; and we will find ourselves experiencing the peace and light of new life.

I mean: that’s the gospel, right? That’s the good news, isn’t it? 

Through Jesus, God has made a way where there was no way.

Through Jesus, we have a hope where we were hopeless.

Through Jesus, we find reconciliation where there was only division and brokenness.

Through Jesus, we discover healing of wounds so deep they reach the core of who we are.

Through Jesus, we find life.

Saint You

Now, I want to stop there, but I just can’t. Because there is yet one further step we need to take in this journey this morning.

Commenting on this text in Hebrews, pastor Susan Andrews says:

[Jesus] suffers with us, not for us—not rescuing us, but strengthening us for the cruciform living that rests at the heart of our own baptized “priesthood.” Powerful weakness, holy humiliation, submissive authority, priestly servanthood: Jesus models for us a kind of ministry that is complete—”perfect” not in the sense of purity, but perfect in the sense of wholeness…

This priesthood that Jesus models is not set on a throne or hidden away in the rarified shadows of the Holy of Holies. Instead Jesus acts out the literal meaning of the world “priest”—that “bridge” spanning the gap between God’s dream and humanity’s need. Yes, as priest Jesus is called to be the reconciliation of God—and so too are those of us who bear his name.” (in Feasting, year B volume 4, p.184).

That’s right. If you are a follower of Jesus, then you are a priest too. As baptists, we call it the priesthood of all believers. And that means that you too are a bridge that “spans the gap between God’s dream and humanity’s need.”

It’s been said before: You may be the only Jesus that someone encounters. 

And sometimes that feels threatening…… ominous even…… because we think that it requires of us some sort of moral purity that we just know we can never achieve.

But that’s not what the scriptures (or our Savior) call us to. They call us to stand by the side of the trail of life, watching and warning others who pass our way. “Here is where and how I have fallen,” we say, “and here is how Jesus brought me through.”

There is no better evangelism than that. In fact, I’m not sure that any evangelism exists beyond that. Because that is precisely what was modeled by our Savior who calls to each of us, “Follow me.”

The Strength of Sympathy

Scripture: Hebrews 4:12-16

An Intro Completely Unconnected to Current Events

Let us imagine, just for a moment, that we were seeking to fill an important and highly valued role in society. Maybe we could even imagine that this role had a judicial dimension……and maybe even an intercessory role—in the sense of interceding in those moments requiring clarity, standing in the place that determines what is right or wrong, acceptable or unacceptable, justice or a violation….. I know it might be challenging, but try really hard to imagine it.

Because the author of Hebrews also imagines such a place and such a time. And in that imagining, the author presents us with two candidates for this high office. 

There is a dramatic difference between the two candidates, in the author’s perspective. This difference affects whether or not they are fit for the office in question…… It affects their ability to be the person they are called to be in that role by fellow humanity and by God. 

What is this dramatic difference?…… The difference between the two is sympathy.

Door #1

Our translators render in v.15: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness.” 

That’s example #1…… candidate #1…… official #1…… 

This official is one who is unable to sympathize with weakness…… Weakness…… What is “weakness” in our minds today? What do we think of when we think of those who are “weak”?

Do we think of children?

Of victims of abuse?

Do we imagine women or men?

The elderly?

What about the homeless?

Or refugees?

Or those in extreme poverty?

Do we think of specific places…way over there?

Do we think of ourselves?

Increasingly, when I think about “weakness” I find myself thinking about true disciples of Jesus. Think about it…… Think about what life would be like if we really took Jesus at his word:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” (Mark 8:34 NRSV)

“Sell all that you own and distribute the money to the poor.” (Luke 18:22 NRSV)

“Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15 NRSV)

This first high priest has none of that. [v.15 slide] This first high priest is unable to sympathize with weakness. Instead, this first high priest symphatizes—we are left to presume—not with weakness with but strength. This is a high priest who would speak for power. This is a high priest who would value those with influence, those with wealth, those with respect……

But you know what? 

According to Hebrews, that official is not the kind we need.

Door #2

The official we need is not the one who is unable to sympatize with weakness, but the one who has experienced every weakness, or to use the words of the author of Hebrews in v.15: “we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin.”

Now, next week we’re going to build on this point in particular, exploring more about Jesus’s role—how Jesus is able to function for us on account of being sympathetic with our weakness. 

Today, I am hoping to help us see both that Jesus sympathizes with weakness, and the kinds of experiences that Jesus is able to sympathize with. 

Scandal (Matthew 1)

We don’t have to get very far into Jesus’ life before we begin to see hardship. In fact, his problems started before he was even born.

The very pregnancy that bore him also bore the weight of scandal. While scripture thankfully doesn’t record the murmurings of the gossip-mongers, the accusations and suppositions against Jesus’s mother Mary became so great that Joseph thought divorce was the only option for either of them to have any type of life. One can almost imagine the violent and aggressive speech that would force a person to have to move, to get divorced, and to have their life destroyed forever. Almost, we can imagine something like that today. But I’m talking about the story of Jesus’s birth in Matthew 1, of course……

Anybody here ever face some kind of scandal?

Unimportant (Luke 2)

That family (that almost didn’t make it) had some other strikes against it too. They were so insignificant in their own extended family that they—Joseph and the severely pregnant Mary—were forced to sleep in the quarters where the animals would be housed when it was cold. Other family members more significant would have been offered the guest and main rooms upstairs. (Luke 2:7)

And of course the city of Jesus’s birth was so unimportant that the Bible—the bible—calls it one of the “little clans” (in Micah 5:2). If that isn’t a slight I don’t know what is.

Anybody here at odds with family members?

Anybody here from a family with no real fame? (or certainly no good name?)

Persecuted by Government (Matthew 2)

Of course, for an insignificant kid Jesus caused quite a stir. His birth prompts a genocide that he himself narrowly escapes from. King Herod, a megalomaniac and power-hungry king famous for siding with Rome against his fellow countrymen, decided this rumored baby-who-would-become-king was too great a threat. He does not seek to find out who Jesus is so he can neutralize this single threat; he instead decides to have all the male toddlers and infants in the whole city slaughtered. 

Most of us, I would imagine, cannot even really comprehend genocide, despite the fact it has happened and continues to happen in our own lifetime. 

But I do suspect some might know what it feels like to be on the wrong side of the law, or for the government to be a real obstacle to you or your family’s health and wellbeing. I know I do.

Refugee (Matthew 2)

Now of course, Jesus’s parents could not stay where they were. The threat of violence—a very much realized violence in their absence—was simply too great. So they did what families and individuals have done for thousands of years: they left. They abandoned home, family, friends, jobs, doctors, grocery stores, favorite restaurants, and what wealth they could not carry……and they became refugees.

Anyone here ever have to abandon their home and everything they have known in order to flee violence? I know there are some in our community who have. There may be some in our community who still need to, as well.

Prejudice against Place of Origin (John 1)

Of course, Jesus’s family didn’t stay in Egypt. After a time (after Herod died, at least), they returned to the province of Judea. They still seem to have been quite wary of the government, because they found a real hole-in-the wall to live in. I mean: if they had the Witness Protection Program back then, this is where they’d send the folks who testified against the mob. 

But it worked—in the sense that Jesus was able to grow up in complete obscurity. But it backfired too: Jesus was discounted because of where he came from (John 1:46). He faced prejudice because of where he once lived.

Anyone ever face prejudice because of where you were born? Or where you live now or previously? 

Ever disrespected because you live in Kansas, or Atchison (wherever that is)??

They brought the SWAT team to arrest him (Mark 14)

It may be that all this contributed to Jesus’s reputation as something of a hooligan. At least, that’s they way they approached him when his enemies decided to wield the state against him. They brought the whole SWAT team to that grove named Gethsemane in order to arrest him, causing even Jesus himself to marvel at how over-gunned they were (Mark 14:48-49).

Have you ever been arrested?

Have you ever looked into the barrel of a gun?

Have you ever had an enemy amass a ludicrous number of allies against you?

Unjustly Convicted of a Crime—Race Played a Role (Luke 22-23)

Jesus is arrested, of course. And even though he is unarmed and offers no resistance, his arrest is not without bloodshed. Escalated violence results in escalated violence; that is the way things have always been. 

Jesus faces not one but four trials—all of them shams, of course. The scriptures tell of perjured testimony (Mark 14:56), they suggest bribed witnesses (Matthew 26:59), they describe biased and prejudiced judges, and they relate (multiple times!) that everyone involved knew of Jesus’s innocence. There is not even a hint of integrity…… or pretense…… of justice that is offered. Jesus is unjustly convicted of a crime he did not commit, and he faces a sentence far in excess of what the law even prescribed—had he been guilty.

Have you ever been the victim of a false accusation?

Have you ever suffered for something that wasn’t your fault?

Have you ever had to experience the injustice that sometimes comes at the hand of the judicial system?

Have you ever been victimized by “the system” that it might maintain the status quo—which may be working for other people but obviously isn’t for you?

Jesus’s “Weakness”

You see, these are the things Jesus experienced. These are the “weaknesses” that were forced upon him by his culture and society. Some of them—when we speak so frankly about them—probably make you uncomfortable…… I know they do me.

But the fact remains that the people that Jesus is going to identify with are the ones who have similar experiences. That’s just how sympathy works. We sympathize with someone who has been through what we’ve been through. The people in this world that Jesus has sympathy for (and with) are the ones who are in those circumstances as well…… 

the scandalized, 

the unimportant and the discounted, 

the ones run over by the government and the falsely accused and convicted; 

prisoners and refugees; 

victims of prejudice and unnecessary violence; 

those harmed because they are the wrong race, or they won’t play by the right rules, or they threaten someone’s power.

This is what Jesus experienced in this world, so these are people Jesus has a strong sympathy with.

Back to Hebrews (v.16)

All this then drives us to the prayer of v.16:

“Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” (Hebrews 4:16 NRSV)

The fact that we have a sympathetic high priest in Jesus opens up important possibilities for us. 

Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we are able to approach the throne of God.

Because Jesus has sympathy with us……we know that the throne of God is somewhere we will find grace.

Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… all shame is driven out of us (as light drives out darkness) and we are liberated to a boldness in God’s presence.

Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we know we will receive mercy.

There’s one more thing here too, and this last one is huge but easily missed—often because, as in the NIV we read from each week, it is incorrectly translated. The NIV translators added some words (“us” and “our”) to that last phrase, redirecting the help inwardly instead of outwardly as the author of Hebrews has actually written. It’s not that we “receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” but that we “receive mercy and find grace to help in our time of need.”

Because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we discover in ourselves the grace to help others in a time of need. In other words, because Jesus has sympathy with us…… we are empowered to be sympathetic with others.

The Word of God (Outro)

Come back with me to Hebrews 4:12-13 again: 

“Indeed, the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow;
it is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 

And before him [God] no creature is hidden, but all are naked and laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account.” (Hebrews 4:12–13 NRSV)

This is the discernment piece. This is how we recognize where our sympathies and our allegiances and our actions need to lie. We receive mercy and find grace with a purpose, and that purpose is to help in time of need. 

How is it we are to discern how to help? 

A part of that involves the kind of radical honesty we see in vv.12-13… A radical commitment to exposing those darknesses within ourselves—in our present and in our past. We make this commitment because we truly believe that God already knows those things, and that God is our only and true and one righteous judge. 

And that means it does not matter much what others think of these things and of these circumstances for us.

Because sympathy—as it turns out—is a strength that proves more than sufficient……not only to draw us to God and to each other, but to transform this world: from top to bottom, from inside to out.

To God be the glory. Amen.

Experiencing God

Scripture: Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

An Experience

What a remarkable experience of God we have had already.

We have met God:

in welcome

in prayer

in song

in scripture

and in community—in each other.

On this World Communion Sunday, it seems altogether appropriate to find ourselves at this text of Hebrews, where the author—whoever she or he may have been—reflects on the variety of ways that God is made known to us, and how we encounter and experience God variously.

From the “many and various ways [of] the prophets” referred to in 1:1……

To the “testimony by signs, and wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit” mentioned in 2:4……

To the marveling with the psalmist of God’s compassionate care of we human beings in 2:6-8……

And so on.

Truly we encounter God in a variety of ways.

Some of us experience God powerfully through nature:

in the technicolor glory of a sunset

in the heart-stopping power of a thunderstorm

in the unearthly silence of freshly-fallen snow

Some of us encounter God through music:

in the clever turning of a lyric that stabs the heart

in the movement of melody that causes the spirit to soar

in the rhythm that transports you to another place

Still others of us encounter God through learning and study…

Or through silence and solitude……

Or…… well…… the list goes on and on.

Sacred Pathways

Author Gary Thomas argues (in Sacred Pathways) that there are nine basic ways that we interact with God. While he suggests that these are personality driven (and thus one of these is usually more dominant in each of us), he also concedes that it is rare to find someone who only identifies with one of them. Here are his categories (think about which ones fit you best):

Enthusiasts: Worship and celebration are words that appeal to you. You desire inspiration and feel close to God when inspired.

Naturalists: You experience God best out in nature, in God’s world. You feel closest to God on a hike, sitting beside a brook or river, or simply being outside.

Sensates: You appreciate beauty, art and music. You feel closest to God when listening to music, working with your hands, or viewing art or photography.

Activists: You want to be part of a social or evangelistic cause. You feel close to God taking faith-risks and seek growing dependence on God while striving for justice and against evil.

Traditionalists: You are drawn to God through ritual, symbol, and sacrifice. You need something tangible to do to draw close to God.

Caregivers: You love God best by loving people. You feel close to God when serving the poor, hosting people in your home, or helping with a church event.

Intellectuals: You experience God best with your mind. You love to study and have a need to learn new things about God.

It may or may not be clear here, but this diversity of approach and experience can make being the church together really complicated. But it also makes our community experience of God incredibly rich and beautiful.

There is no right answer here. Nor is there a wrong answer. 

As we pay attention to how we individually and collectively experience God, we will continue to discover just how different we are from each other. But we will also learn that the God we experience is in fact the same, known most fully through Jesus the Christ. 

Back to Hebrews

That’s the vital truth with which the whole book of Hebrews begins. Chapter 1 verse 3 proclaims that Christ “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (NRSV). For all the ways we experience God, there is none so complete, full, and reliable as our experience of Jesus of Nazareth, the Son of God. 

All other ways of knowing and experiencing God are inherently incomplete. That doesn’t mean they aren’t good, or helpful, or worthwhile. It just means that the ultimate measure of who God is is Christ. What we discover in our study, or our contemplation, or our worship, or our caregiving, our our pursuit of justice, or whatever—all of it needs compared to the measuring stick of Christ.

 

We baptists have historically fought and died for the right of each person to navigate their own relationship with God, and to be able to understand and follow the bible without the need of an external interpreter. To use our official American Baptist language, each is free to read the bible responsibly within community. But just because each person can be an interpreter does not mean that each interpretation is accurate. Hebrews reminds us how those interpretations need to be evaluated—they are to be compared with Christ: Is this what Jesus did? Is this how Jesus would respond? Is this what Jesus taught? Is this consistent with what Jesus revealed to us about God?

For all the changes in the world across the ages, these questions never cease to be relevant.

Jesus is the measure of our experience of God. And as long as that is the case, even though our paths and priorities may be different, we will discover we are indeed moving toward the same God who is intent on loving us.