Sunday, September 9, 2012

The Royal Law

 Faith without works is like a screen door on a submarine

A sermon on James 2:1-17, preached September 9, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
(c) Christina Berry

James 2:1-10, (11-13), 14-17
2:1 My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you? You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, "You shall not commit adultery," also said, "You shall not murder." Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so act as those who are to be judged by the law of liberty. For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment.

What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

I was going to preach about welcoming today.
It’s the second sermon in our series on Disciples, and this text is a good one for Rally Day.
I was going to talk about how important it is for us to welcome strangers, especially here in worship, because we want them to feel welcome, and come back. And we do welcome folks who come to worship with us. Not just people who look well-off, but all people. We do that pretty well. And then I was going to recall all the things we do to make sure that the poor are clothed and fed and cared for – all the missions we do, like FISH food pantry, and Loaves and Fishes, and Good Neighbor Emergency Center, and PADS, and how proud I am of that. That’s what I was going to say.

Have y’all ever heard of Will Campbell? He’s getting on in years now – he’s 88 years old. I got to see him in person a little over a year ago, and then after that I looked him up on Wikipedia. This scripture from James made me think of him.

I don’t know about you, but I found this scripture today pretty challenging. I can’t claim I’m one of the poor, never have been. Sure, there have been some times when I was strapped for cash, but never a time when I didn’t have any resources. I grew up hearing people’s stories of the Depression, sad stories. They really were poor, but I’ve never been that poor. Not even close.

I’ve always had a roof over my head, enough to eat, and clothes to wear. I’ve never lacked medical care, and if I missed going to the dentist for an annual checkup, it was not for lack of money but lack of courage. Even during the times when we didn’t seem to have much, we always had enough, and if we hadn’t, there was family to help if we asked. So I don’t know what that is like, to be really poor.

I also don’t know what it is like to be really rich. I’ve known a few really rich people. Millionaires. I’m sure all millionaires are not like the ones I knew. The ones that I met were pretty self-absorbed. But I’ve never been in a position of managing servants, or giving Rolls Royces to my friends, or planning a trip on my private jet to my private island or my palatial getaway in the south of France. I’ve never had to worry whether my security crew patted down my guests, just in case one of them took pictures of me to sell to the tabloids. I’ve never had so much money that I didn’t have to pay taxes because my income was not from a job but from all my money making money for me. So I really don’t know what it is like to be part of the 1%. Even though I like to imagine it. It sounds much nicer than being poor.

But I’ve always been just a regular old middle class Midwestern Christian. I know I’m a person of privilege –  stable family, educated parents, access to education, lots of opportunities – but I’m a person who cares about the poor. I fancy myself as a person who cares more about the poor than most. I care about them -- I really do.

And when I read this text from James, or others like it, where Jesus blesses the poor, and commands us to care for others, I feel pretty smug. I’m a pretty good Christian. I’m in a great church, a generous church, a mission oriented church. And I’m open minded. I welcome everybody. I don’t show partiality to the rich or mistreat the poor. This past Tuesday, in adult Bible study, we looked at this scripture. We tried listening to it from the perspective of a poor person, and from the perspective of a rich person. It makes a big difference in how we hear the text. But in the end, the message is the same. The Royal Law, as James calls it, is this: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."

We had a good discussion about our responsibility to the poor, and God’s call to welcome everyone. We talked about how we live that out, as a congregation. Then, wouldn’t you know it, Jesus is at it again – we spend the morning talking about the poor, and Jesus starts messing with us! Just as Bible study ended, Judy, our church secretary, came and got me. There was a person in her office who wanted to talk to a pastor. Inwardly, I sighed. I think I sighed outwardly, actually. I had a lot to do on Tuesday, and talking to some guy looking for a handout was not on the list.

I walked down the hall to her office and found this very agitated, very malodorous (that’s my nice Christian way of saying “smelly”) man who immediately began talking to me. I took him out to the narthex, where he talked for about 30 minutes. He was not somebody who makes a person feel comfortable – Judy and Ed and Dorothy kept drifting into the narthex, like they had all kinds of important business in the kitchen. Every five minutes or so.

This fellow had obviously had a lot of experience with churches and pastors. He knew what we all say: “I don’t have a discretionary fund. Our church gives to the agencies that help people, and I’d be happy to direct you to one of them.” He knew that drill, and he knew every reason why that just wouldn’t work for him. He had what he thought was a very pointed and cogent critique of ministers and of our churches’ charitable and mission giving.
Of course, he wanted money.

He didn’t want to go to Loaves and Fishes, or the food pantry, or Firehouse of God, or Good Neighbor Emergency Center. He wanted some money so he could get back on the road on his bike. And of course, the story he wove was pretty thin, and there were some big holes in it. There was a lot in there about other pastors, and other churches, and I thought, “This guy has a pretty good rap – he appeals to a pastor’s pride—gets us thinking “I’m not like those other guys,’ but makes it look like he is appealing to Christian charity.” You may remember that I have a little bit of counseling experience, some of it in chemical dependency. That experience told me that he was not telling the truth.

But on the other hand, Jesus didn’t say, “Talk to the poor and see if their stories check out, then give them some minimal help.” He said, “Whatever you do to the least of these, you do to me.” Of course, Jesus also said, “Be gentle as a dove and wise as a serpent.” And you just heard what James had to say about the poor. So I was in a quandary. I wanted to be helpful to this man, this child of God, in some way. And I also wanted him to leave. I wanted that a lot.

When I was thinking about this later, I got to thinking about Will Campbell. Will Campbell was born in Mississippi in 1924, and was ordained a Baptist minister when he was still a teenager. He was one of the people who served as escorts to the nine black students who integrated Central High School in Little Rock. He was the only white person present when Martin Luther King Jr. founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He got a lot of hate mail from Southern conservatives. But Campbell started to realize that he enjoyed thinking that God hated all the same people he hated – bigots, racists, excluders. He admitted to himself that after twenty years in ministry, he had become – in his words -- a "doctrinaire social activist." He had lost track of the royal law. He had let go of God’s extravagant and unconditional love for all people and substituted a kind of "liberal sophistication" that justified his discrimination.

So he changed that. He befriended Ku Klux Klan members. Visited them in prison. Took them communion. He still got hate mail, but this time it came from the other side. At the murder trial of KKK Grand Imperial Wizard Sam Bowers, Campbell went back and forth from the Bowers’ table, to table of the family members of the murder victim. When asked why he would do this, Campbell replied, “Because I’m a blankety-blank Christian!”

So anyway, here I sit, with this guy in front of me, and I don’t know if what I chose to do was right. I just know that I had been sitting at a table with a group of church folks, not an hour before that moment, and we had read these words: “But if you show partiality, you commit sin  and are convicted by the law as transgressors… For judgment will be without mercy to anyone who has shown no mercy; mercy triumphs over judgment. What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, "Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill," and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.”

Those words were ringing in my ears as I tried to listen to that guy, and his convoluted rant about prisons, and preachers, and needing to go to Chicago. And like I said, I wanted to follow Jesus, be a true disciple. And I wanted that guy to leave. But I’m a … blankety-blank Christian!

So I told him, “I’m going to give you five dollars out of my own pocket, and I’m going to give it to you in Jesus’ name. Will that help you out?”
He said, “You know it will.”
And I gave him the five dollars, and he left.

As I said, this is the second sermon in our series on Disciples, today is Rally Day, when we kick off the new season of Christian Education. And we are gathered here together in the name of Jesus, who told us to welcome strangers, here in worship, and everywhere. And we do welcome folks who come to worship with us. And we do all kinds of things to assure
that the poor are clothed and fed and cared for – and I am so proud of that. I don’t know if it was the best choice – to give that fellow five dollars. I don’t know if what Will Campbell did with the KKK was the best choice. I don’t think I could do that.

And I realized later that I should have prayed with that fellow. That’s what Jesus would have wanted me to do – to pray with him, and ask God’s blessing and protection on him, and to mean it. That’s what that Royal Law is all about – not just giving a guy five dollars to get rid of him, but praying with and for him, actually welcoming him. Actually loving him, no matter how he smells.

"You shall love your neighbor as yourself."That’s what Jesus said is the great commandment, what James calls the Royal Law. Love your neighbor as yourself.

No matter who he is, no matter what she looks like, no matter what color his skin is, no matter how she smells.
Mercy triumphs over judgment.
Love your neighbor as yourself.
That’s what a disciple would do.
That’s what I wish I had done.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

What You Are Speaks So Loudly...

A sermon on James 1: 17-27 preached September 2. 2012, at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
(c) Christina Berry

James 1: 17-27
Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

The book of James is an interesting little book, one that has drawn some strong reactions and supported some pretty vehement arguments. There are pages and pages of argument about who wrote it, and when, whether James is a composite, as most scholars have concluded,  or actually the brother of Jesus, as tradition suggests. Martin Luther thought this book should be removed from the Bible, because of the emphasis on what Christians do, rather than on what Christ has done for us – on works rather than grace. I’m glad that Martin Luther lost the argument, because there is some great stuff here. But sometimes, it would be easier if he had won.

This Sunday we are beginning a new series, on Discipleship. We’re going to be following the lectionary in James and then the gospel of Mark, looking at what scripture tells us about how to be Jesus’ disciples. James 1 is a good place to start, because it is clear that James is preaching to the choir – that is, he is addressing himself to baptized Christians, and not seeking to make converts. His little epistle is not about how to BECOME a Christian, but about how to BE a Christian.

Our reading today can best be divided into three parts, with a final summation about true religion; so while it isn’t my normal practice to preach a “three points and a poem” sermon, that’s what we have today!

The first section covers verses 17-21, and it is about the characteristics of God. You may recognize some of the text that made its way into the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” – there is no shadow of turning with thee. God is creator, steadfast in love, boundless in goodness, and the source of all generosity. Not just the source of some good stuff, but the source of ALL generosity and righteousness.

Given this, the second section addresses us – and instructs us in living a life of faith. The very first point the writer makes, and it is the basis for the rest of his instruction, is that we must be quick to listen, and slow to speak. I recently read an interview about Christians with two very thoughtful atheists. The interviewer was asking the atheists how Christians can best talk with unbelievers. One of the two said that very bad impressions are made by Christians who come to the table with “everything to say and nothing to learn.” It struck me that James might be talking about just that: we have plenty to say and little to learn. That’s a tough critique, especially for those of us who make a living talking! But it’s also a crucial bit of wisdom, especially in these contentious times, for every Christian in every context. If we are indeed the first fruits, offered up to God in gratitude, we need to be ready to receive God’s word, implanted in us, so that we may grow.

It gets even more challenging in the next section, in which we are told that after we get done listening, and hearing, we aren’t finished. We must also be doers of the word. There’s a tricky balance here for most of us – balancing action and belief. We believe in salvation by grace through faith, but there’s that additional challenge that Jesus gave – for us to be fruitful, to demonstrate our faith through our works. But we are also to be those who see ourselves clearly. Imagine looking in the mirror and seeing that your hair is a mess, but then forgetting to comb it, or seeing that you have lipstick on your teeth, but failing to do anything about it.

Frequently, we see our own failings only fleetingly, and as soon as we can divert ourselves, we forget that image in the mirror, and rationalize our behavior. But others see us, and they notice that what we do is not in keeping with what we say, and they conclude that Christians are hypocrites. For example, according to a report by University of Notre Dame sociologists, about a fourth of those who responded to a national study on generosity reported that they tithed 10 percent of their income to charity. But when their donations were checked against income figures, only 3 percent of the group gave more than 5 percent to charity. Here’s the kicker: The people most likely to misreport high levels of giving were those who said faith was very important to them and those who attend services more than once a week.[1]

Too often, what we hear and what we say are at odds with what we do. And it is our actions that speak most loudly to those who observe us. It was the Scottish poet Robert Burns who said,
“And would some Power the small gift give us
To see ourselves as others see us!”

At the other end of the spectrum, many of us look in the mirror and see only our failings, rather than the blessings given to us by God, that make us beautiful, beloved, precious. Then we underestimate our potential, and fail to live up to our own gifts. Here we are, standing in front of a mirror.  James asks, "Do you see who you are?" Do you see yourself?
Do you think yourself
thin or overweight,
blemished or beautiful,
dishy or disheveled,
stylish or wrinkled,
stunning or scarred?

Physical appearance is not what James is getting at. He has told us who we are – the first fruits of God’s creation. So here we stand, in front of this mirror that James is holding up to us, and he says to us, “Take a good long look, and remember who you are.” Because when you forget who you are, your life changes course. When you forget who you are, you start to think you are on your own, and it is all about you, and what you want, or think, or do or say.

When you remember who you are, and whose you are, the choices become easier. Remembering how much we have been given makes it easy for us to be generous. When we have been given everything, we have no more need to join the great race to accumulate the most stuff. When we look at ourselves and see a new life, we look at our lives and see a new self -- a self that belongs to God, a self that is built by God’s word and called to good works, a self that is shaped by love, that speaks love, that lives through acts of love and kindness.

And all this, then, leads to the final section of this text, the discussion of the definition of true religion. James has called us to pay attention, to look at our intention determine our conviction, and decide upon our action.

Now, he says, get real:
If you think you are religious and can only talk without listening, if you think you are religious but you lie to yourself if you think you are religious and you do not act, that religion is not worth a thing. Because what matters to God is that your religion matters to you, and because it matters to you, it matters what you do.

And the definition of true, pure religion?
Is it belief? No.
Is it the Apostles’ Creed? No.
Is it the right denomination – being Presbyterian? No.

It is caring for the widows and orphans, caring for those who are in distress, caring for those who are in need, not just a feeling or a thought or a belief, but an action. That’s what keeps your image clear.

So, I promised three points and a poem, and even though we had Robbie Burns in there, the poem that comes to mind was made popular by singer Michael Jackson:

“I'm starting with the man in the mirror
I'm asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change.”

That change can begin here and now, as you come to this table, come as one of God’s first fruits, ready to be given entirely to God’s good will, to be an instrument of God’s generosity, to be not merely a hearer, but a doer. At this table, God sees you as you truly are, a person made in God’s image, made perfect by love. You are welcome here, for no matter how you may see yourself, God sees you through the lens of Christ, and through the eyes of grace, and you remember who you are: holy and beloved, a child of God.



Holy Place

A sermon on 1 Kings 8: 1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43, preached August 26, 2012 at First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL

(C) Christina Berry

1 Kings 8:1,6,10-11, 22-30, 41-43
8:1 Then Solomon assembled the elders of Israel and all the heads of the tribes, the leaders of the ancestral houses of the Israelites, before King Solomon in Jerusalem, to bring up the ark of the covenant of the LORD out of the city of David, which is Zion.
8:6 Then the priests brought the ark of the covenant of the LORD to its place, in the inner sanctuary of the house, in the most holy place, underneath the wings of the cherubim.
8:10 And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD,
8:11 so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.
8:22 Then Solomon stood before the altar of the LORD in the presence of all the assembly of Israel, and spread out his hands to heaven.
8:23 He said, "O LORD, God of Israel, there is no God like you in heaven above or on earth beneath, keeping covenant and steadfast love for your servants who walk before you with all their heart,
8:24 the covenant that you kept for your servant my father David as you declared to him; you promised with your mouth and have this day fulfilled with your hand.
8:25 Therefore, O LORD, God of Israel, keep for your servant my father David that which you promised him, saying, 'There shall never fail you a successor before me to sit on the throne of Israel, if only your children look to their way, to walk before me as you have walked before me.'
8:26 Therefore, O God of Israel, let your word be confirmed, which you promised to your servant my father David.
8:27 "But will God indeed dwell on the earth? Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!
8:28 Regard your servant's prayer and his plea, O LORD my God, heeding the cry and the prayer that your servant prays to you today;
8:29 that your eyes may be open night and day toward this house, the place of which you said, 'My name shall be there,' that you may heed the prayer that your servant prays toward this place.
8:30 Hear the plea of your servant and of your people Israel when they pray toward this place; O hear in heaven your dwelling place; heed and forgive.
8:41 "Likewise when a foreigner, who is not of your people Israel, comes from a distant land because of your name
8:42 --for they shall hear of your great name, your mighty hand, and your outstretched arm--when a foreigner comes and prays toward this house,
8:43 then hear in heaven your dwelling place, and do according to all that the foreigner calls to you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your people Israel, and so that they may know that your name has been invoked on this house that I have built.

When I was thirteen years old, I was given a wonderful opportunity by friends of our family. They were going to Chicago, for the Associated Milk Producers Convention. Would I like to go along? Oh my goodness! Would I ever! We were going to fly on an airplane from Wichita. We were going to be in downtown Chicago, and while I had seen cities from the back window of the station wagon while on various family vacations, I had never visited a big city. We would be staying in a luxury hotel, just down the street from the John Hancock building, which was still new then, and still the tallest building in the world. I think I spent that entire weekend in a state of awe.

We saw Lake Michigan, and we went to Old Town. It was a convention, so of course there was a banquet and a keynote address. The speaker that night was none other than Richard Nixon. I will never forget the moment that Nixon came into the hall where we were gathered. The crowd rose as one, and there was thunderous applause as we stood, and all the wonder of that trip was concentrated in that amazing moment, when the President of the United States of America entered the room. I was completely, breathlessly overwhelmed. And though it seems funny to me now, I was on the verge of tears, so wondrous was that moment.

It was not because I had any great devotion, at the age of thirteen, to President Nixon or to the Republican Party. It was not because I was overcome with a love for the man who, as it turns out, had cut a shady deal with milk producers to drive up the price of milk in return for a 2 million dollar campaign contribution. My awe and wonder, however, were genuine. And I confess that now, more than forty years later, when I read scripture like the one we’ve just heard, this description of the dedication of Solomon’s temple, I recall those feelings vividly.

Perhaps you too recognize that feeling, whether you experienced it seeing a celebrity, or in a forest or a cathedral, or at the birth of a child, or in a moment of prayer and worship. It is the feeling of awe and wonder, and it is the feeling we have when we experience holiness. It is the way you would feel had you been there, when “the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.”

We’ve come to the last sermon in our summer series on the life of David, when David’s son and successor, Solomon, dedicates the great temple in Jerusalem. It had been David’s dream to build a temple, but Solomon was the one given the blessing of doing so. It is impossible, I think, with our modern sensibilities, to convey the amazement of this moment. Solomon had spent years building the temple, and had waited nearly a year for this dedication. In spite of his father David’s many failings, Solomon knew that the unified kingdom of Israel,
with Jerusalem as its capitol, was entirely due to God’s favor for King David, a man after God’s own heart.

The temple was an amazing sight to behold – it takes the book of Second Kings two chapters to describe it in vivid detail. For example: “The interior of the inner sanctuary was twenty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, and twenty cubits high; he overlaid it with pure gold. He also overlaid the altar with cedar. Solomon overlaid the inside of the house with pure gold, then he drew chains of gold across, in front of the inner sanctuary, and overlaid it with gold. Next he overlaid the whole house with gold, …he made two cherubim of olivewood, each ten cubits high. Five cubits was the length of one wing of the cherub, and five cubits the length of the other wing of the cherub; it was ten cubits from the tip of one wing to the tip of the other. … He put the cherubim in the innermost part of the house; …He also overlaid the cherubim with gold, …” You get the idea.

The innermost part of the house, the center of the temple, was the holy of holies, a windowless sanctuary which would house the Ark of the Covenant, in which resided the stone tablets given to Moses, and which was accompanied by the tremendous and mysterious presence of God. That ten-foot square gilded room was so sacred that only the high priest could enter it, and then only on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. In that inner sanctum, that room lined with gold and decorated with golden cherubim, the high priest encountered God Almighty. Just to be in that room was so powerful, and so dangerous that when the priest did enter the Holy of Holies, they tied a rope around his leg, so that if he died in there, his body could be dragged out. Sometime, when you have a half hour or so, read the sixth, seventh and eighth chapters of First Kings, and see if you can imagine that temple, that amazing structure which Solomon built as a dwelling place for God.

As is appropriate for the dedication of such a splendid place of worship, Solomon stood to offer prayer, seven beautiful petitions:
When someone sins against a neighbor, hear, O God, and forgive.
When Israel turns away from you, hear, O God, and forgive.
When there is drought and the people pray, hear, O God, and forgive.
When there is famine, and the people pray, hear, O God, and forgive.
When the people sin against you, hear, O God, and forgive.
When the people go out to war, hear them, O God, in your dwelling place.
When a foreigner offers prayers to you, hear them, O God in heaven.

Solomon began his prayer standing, with his arms outstretched, but by the time he finished, he was on his knees. When Solomon concluded the prayer he said: “Let these words of mine, with which I pleaded before the Lord, be near to the Lord our God day and night, and may he maintain the cause of his servant and the cause of his people Israel, as each day requires; so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other.” (1 Kings 8: 54-61)

I don’t think there can be any doubt that Solomon had had an encounter with the living God of Israel, and if you had been there that day, you would have, too. Now, we Presbyterians are people of the book, people who love God with our minds, and we get a little nervous when we start talking about worship and prayer that is so overwhelming, so sensory and so mysterious. We’re used to the preacher getting up front and giving an inspiring talk about something sweet that Jesus said, or an engaging, well-researched account of a historic event of the church. We have some coffee and we go home, and we have not been overwhelmed, we have not been speechless, or at the point of tears, or had chills go up and down our spine for the entire 65 or 70 minutes we have spent in worship. Though often our musicians have offered up music that can move us, and every now and then the Holy Spirit helps me with a sermon that really captivates people, for the most part we leave worship ready to get on with our lives, after a pleasant interval singing and praying and opening God’s word.

We rarely think of ourselves as “stewards of the mysteries of God.” And it is probably better that way, better that we do not have to endure such awe for the entire service, better that we do not remember that to approach God is to risk one’s life, better that we do not think to remove our shoes and stand in terror as we say the call to worship, better that we are not quaking with dread as we are ushered into God’s presence. Probably, we are better off this way.

But what if we are not?
What if we are missing something that is right here in front of us, the immanent presence of our transcendent God, powerful enough to annihilate the universe with one breath, yet as close to as our own breath? What if we are like Jacob, who woke from his dream and said, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it”? I think Annie Dillard is right when she says,  “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, making up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews.”

Of course we all know that Sunday morning worship is not the only place where we encounter holiness and the presence of God. But what if we arrived every week expecting that to happen? What if, when we offered up our prayers, we anticipated God’s presence, with a mixture of breathless anticipation and terror? Of course, our prayers are not a leash we yank, to drag God into the room with us, not a magic spell to charm God into obeying our wishes. Our worship is not meant to be terrifying. Our experiences are fleeting, and as my story of Nixon illustrates, not all of our moments of awe are brought about by divine presence.

But those experiences, those overwhelming feelings, perhaps might not be so rare if we recalled that every time we worship, we are invoking the presence of our awesome God, in the original meaning of that word – not “totally awesome” like a meal or a movie, but awesome as in extraordinary, amazing, and inspiring. It is not our experience or our emotions or even our resolutions which transform us, after all, but the presence of God among us. It is this for which Solomon prayed, at the dedication of the temple. It is this for which we might well all pray, as we enter into worship, whether here or in the silence of our own hearts. It is this transforming presence that comes only from God, the source and ground of all being.

And the way we encounter God’s holiness and splendor without crash helmets, without a rope tied around one leg, is through the incarnation of God in Christ. It is because of the person and work of Jesus Christ that we may come within reach of God. In Jesus Christ, we may approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that even in our great wonder, we may trust in God’s great benevolence. In the early part of the seventeenth century, a Puritan preacher delivered a sermon titled "The Incomparable Excellency and Holiness of God" which, by my reckoning, must have lasted about an hour.

That preacher said: “study the mystery of the gospel. Make use of Christ that the glory of God's holiness may not be to your terror but to your comfort.” I would amend his words slightly, to say, “be open to the mystery of the gospel.” When you worship, when you pray, as you may do at any time, and any place, whether it be Sunday morning in church or on any otherwise ordinary day, in any ordinary place, open your heart and your mind to welcome and receive the transforming power of the presence of God.

That preacher also said: Has the luster of the infinite holiness of God ever shone upon your heart and drawn your heart to Him? And has your heart ever leaped at the sight of the brightness of His holiness? Is this why you love Him? If so, you know God correctly and your heart has been correctly drawn to Him.”

May our most Holy God grant that it be so for each one of us.