Meeting Times at 4th United Presbyterian Church

Cafe' Worship: 9:15 a.m. each Sunday in Gathering Hall (activities provided for children; coffee; snacks)
Adult Sunday School: 10 a.m.

Sunday Worship: 11 a.m.

Bible Study: each Thursday at 6 p.m.

Community Forum: last Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. with meal (no community forum in November, 2011)

About the 4th United Presbyterian Bible Blog

Posts on this blog are from me, Rev. George H. Waters, one of the two organizing co-pastors of 4th United Presbyterian Church. Our other organizing pastor was Rev. Sonya McAuley-Allen, who is now pastor of a church in Charlotte, N.C. Since June of 2011, Rev. Elizabeth Peterson has been our parish associate pastor for new church development. The earliest posts are sermon notes from the few I have typed the last two years. Then, there is a series of notes posted on the book of Romans. After that, it varies from week to week, sometimes church news, sometimes reflections on a happening, a passage of scripture, or even some pictures. This blog is meant to open the conversation we have going on in our church to others in our community.

The picture below is of our church's sanctuary, built in 1913.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Just Words: A Meditation on the Third Commandment

Scriptures: Genesis 32:22-32; Amos 5:21, 23-24; Matthew 7:21

Right now, on this Sunday morning, at this hour, all around this city and in other cities and towns and out in the country churches, ministers are standing up and saying religious words like “Lord, Lord”, and congregations are singing and responding with religious words. And, we hope that these words: “God” . . . “Jesus” . . . “Grace” . . . “Reconciliation” . . . “Holy Spirit” . . . “Salvation” . . . we hope that these words we use open up an experience of a reality beyond ourselves, a reality that can transform life, and make life new. We hope that these words are not just words, but part of a real experience of our Creator, the One beyond all human comprehension. We hope that these words don’t just pass on a religious tradition – that is, the beliefs of others – but, we hope that these words stir in us new life, new experience of the living God.

Often we think that the third commandment – thou shalt not take the Lord’s name in vain – tells us not to use the word “God” with cuss words or as a cuss word. But, we overlook the fact that the THIRD COMMANDMENT tells us not to use language about God lightly or without meaning or without any other purpose than praising and glorifying God (that means, not to promote our own cause, etc.). Today, I am focusing on the fact that we often use religious language, language about God, without meaning. In other words, it is in vain that we say the word “God” or “Jesus” when the reality of God and Jesus has no place in our experience.

For those of us who have been to church for years and heard words like “salvation” and “Jesus” and “sin” and “grace” and “heaven” and “hell” . . . For those of us who have gotten used to saying the Apostles’ Creed and the Lord’s Prayer and “Amen” . . . Well, for us, these words sometimes become “just words.” How many times do we speak and hear religious words with no religious feeling? Sometimes religious words become empty, because there is no reality – no real experience of God behind and in those words.

It was like that in the early 1500’s when Martin Luther was raised up as a prophet of God, to speak a gracious, living word from God to the people. The language of the church had become empty – repeated over and over again were words about the sacrifice of Christ, and the sacrifice was repeated again and again through the ritual sacrifice of Holy Communion: “this is my body, broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.” But, the focus at that time was all upon what would happen after death; the Word did not speak to the conditions of the present life – the here and now.

Holy words can become empty when they become more important than the reality they are supposed to reveal – when they become the focus, and take the focus off of what’s really going on. When talk about God and rituals about God become more important than experience of the living God, well, then you’ve got trouble. And, Luther spoke a new word into such empty times.

Luther spoke of a living God who was speaking in the present, who was doing battle with the powers of evil to save us in the here and now (the material and spiritual conditions of life) and forevermore. Salvation starts in the here and now or it doesn’t start at all. Religious words, even the words “God” and “Jesus” can become empty once these words no longer arise from a living experience of God. One reason Luther’s preaching started a Reformation was that people could feel something new and alive in Luther’s words. Luther was reporting from the front lines of the struggle between good and evil, and Luther was reporting loudly and clearly that our gracious God was on our side, full of love and goodness. Luther was being moved by the gracious Holy Spirit of God. He didn’t get up and simply repeat holy words, he bore witness to the Holy God and he used words in a new way – he spoke of God and the experience of God in a way that touched people – body and soul.

He didn’t present them with some trite formula for salvation in the hereafter; he bore witness to the living God whose grace was a reality for this life and the next.

As in Luther’s day, we live in a society saturated with religious language. If we are missing God in our lives, it’s certainly not because we don’t hear enough talk about God. . . If you’ve got cable, you can hear about any kind of Bible teaching or sermon you want. In some areas of town, there’s a church on every corner of the block. There are billboards reminding you about God, Mormons on bicycles, Presidential and Senatorial candidates who talk about God and faith, Jehovah’s Witnesses at the door. And, then there are church services . . And, the word “Jesus” and the word “God” and the words “sin”, “salvation”, “peace”, “redemption” and “Spirit” are used over and over and over again . . . Sometimes we forget that religious words are still just words. Often, it seems that we think that if we say and hear religious words, then all is well – it is accomplished. Sometimes we forget that religious words are nonetheless, “just words.” And, the purpose of religious words like other words is to communicate something important. And, the purpose of religious language is to communicate something about God or, even at times, something from God. Religious words are not the thing itself; they point to a reality beyond words.

Jesus was onto the problem with much religious speech: “Not all those who say, “Lord, Lord” will enter into the kingdom of heaven, but those who do the will of my father in heaven.” In the sermon on the mount, he criticizes those who heap up words in praying. And, we say: ‘yes, we know what Jesus means – its not what you say; its what you do.’ And, that is true. But, Jesus didn’t then go on and say: ‘don’t use religious language.’ He wanted people to use language that arose out of a living relationship – that had the experience of God as its source. Jesus’ language opened up a way to the living God. He said things like: “blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth,” “blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.”

When language arises out of a living relationship, and expresses that reality, it has power to transform and bless life.

What if you were married to somebody, and they told you pretty regularly that they loved you, but never acted like it? Wouldn’t the words: “I love you” become empty? But, what if you are in a relationship with another person that is really a loving, mutually supportive and joyful relationship and that person says: “I love you.” Now, those words glow with meaning and reach the depths of your soul.

I think that’s the way it is in our words about God and Jesus and faith. If they arise from a living relationship and experience of God, then these words and others are part of a reality that touches speaker and hearer. When Jesus spoke, people felt the reality of God draw near – now, that’s the living Word of God – when that happens.

Its sad to notice how empty language sometimes becomes in a religious setting. It’s a little hard to say, but I think I sometimes hear more true religious speech in jail cells, at parties and mixed in with some rough talk in the most unlikeliest places. Sometimes, the tax collectors and sinners speak more truly about God, than priests and religious persons. God gets tired of the emptiness of our solemn assemblies at times. The Word of the Lord came to Amos: “I hate, I despise your religious feasts and your solemn assemblies. To the noise of your harps I will not listen . . . But, let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.”

One of the biggest problems in our churches today is that we have quit bearing witness to the living God, and started using a religious formula about individual salvation that ignores the present experience of the living God. We’re all about this pat formula for eternal salvation, as if we’ve become eternal life insurance salesmen. “If you believe in God and in Jesus Christ as God’s Son, and if you believe that Jesus died for your sins; then all is well and you will go to heaven when you die.” Everything becomes about “when you die” and there is no talk about “when you live.” Its as if the salvation formula is more important than praising and obeying the living God! We get our salvation formula from the Bible. “The Bible said it; I believe it, and that’s it!” Everything is settled very simply – a formula for eternal life – accept it and you’ve got an eternal life insurance policy. Problem is: obsession with this salvation formula leaves out the present experience of our gracious and holy and mysterious God who touches our souls and bodies with a life we could have never imagined, a life that we cannot contain or control. All those religious formulas and all that “God said it” and “I believe it” and all the rest . . . Well, for me, it has become empty. I’d rather go fishing and look at God’s beautiful mountains, and lakes and skies than hear one more time about the eternal salvation insurance policy. What I hunger and thirst for in my soul is to hear about and experience the touch of God, the truth of God, the love of God in my soul and heart and body, in my relationships and in this world NOW! I want to experience my God whom I cannot control, whom I can’t comprehend, who is free from all the corruptions of human life and who is alive within or without the church, its religious language, books and preachers! I want that real salvation that begins right now – in my home, in my heart, in my body, in my community, in this world; not that false salvation that’s put off to the hereafter – not that opiate of the masses that hides instead of reveals reality.

Now, I’m talking about the God the Bible talks about, not the God whose Word we can carry around in a Book! The God who heals the sick, who raises the dead, who strikes fear in the hearts of tyrants – the living God, not some religious formula or rituals we can control.

The church’s preaching has become empty as it had in Luther’s day – sometimes cold, sometimes sentimental, but nonetheless without meaning. And, sentimental, emotional religion can be just as false and empty as cold, unemotional religion. There are Presbyterians that have a calm, cold religion that is not in touch with the living God, and there are Holiness, Pentacostal Christians that have dramatic, emotional experience at church that is just as out of touch with the living God. The quiet way and the loud way – that doesn’t matter. What matters is who causes us to be quiet or loud – ourselves or God?

As I get older, I am more and more struck by the lack of reality that colors so much of our religion. . . . the lack of love, the lack of honesty, both intellectual and moral. After all these years, we still won’t be honest about Darwin’s contributions to science, and admit that he was right about many things. After all these years, we won’t teach the truth that we know about how the holy books were written and how the church decided which to include which to exclude from the final form of the Bible. Do we really think that God needs defending? Do we really think God is afraid of truth? Is he not the One, the Holy, the Pure, the Only True Being in this world? And, God is true and God is love, and there is no falsehood in God and no hatred in God!

If the church is about worshipping a God of truth, we ought to not just be able to face the truth, but we ought to further it and celebrate it wherever we find it!!!

For some, the language of the church has become empty because it does not speak to their personal needs; for others, the preaching of the church has become empty because it does not speak to the scientific realities of the day; for others, empty because it does not speak truth to power – to the social and political issues of the day. If we in the church are to serve our Holy God, we need to redefine holiness . . . And, HOLINESS IS NOT STUBBORNNESS, IGNORANCE AND BIGOTRY.

If the language has become empty for you. If the rituals have become empty for you, be still and listen . . Be quiet and wait . . Or, be loud and ask questions – hard questions, even questions critical of the church’s positions. Whatever you do, don’t settle for anything less than an experience of the living God. Jacob kept struggling all night long with the angel of the Lord. He wouldn’t let go, until he was blessed by the living God. Don’t settle for commonplace religion – press on to know the living God! Amen.

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