First Congregational United Church of Christ
Great Falls, MT
July 9, 2017
“Who is God to You?”
The Rev. Lynne Spencer-Smith
13But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” 14God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ 15God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
35Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.
12Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.”
9I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.
11“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.
5I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.
As a kid, my understanding of God developed in the mountains of northern Utah. No, my parents did not send me to some secluded convent in the hills to shield me from the dreaded influence of society. Our family simply spent most summer weekends camping in the Uintah or Wasatch mountains. So, several years ago, I was at a conference and we were invited to draw our earliest memory of God. I drew mountains. While everyone else was sketching out old white men with beards sitting on golden thrones, I was drawing snow capped mountains with pine trees and a river running through it. It’s no wonder that some 20 years later when seminary introduced me to the 121st Psalm, I knew that would become my favorite: “I lift up my eyes to the hills. From where will my help come?” Turns out some ancient psalm writer must have spent her early years in the mountains as well.
But, like many of you, my image and understanding of God changed over time. It’s still changing. Sometimes daily. Looking at your own map of how you have seen God throughout your life, how many of you have notably different images of God in the upper left hand corner and the lower right?
As we change and our experiences move us through life, we discover that God has a variety of roles to play: creator, mother, father, best friend, protector, teacher, disciplinarian, mystery. God is either really good at shape-shifting or is really good at being present in the ways we most need throughout our lives. Sometimes we need mountains and clear blue skies because that’s where we are and the Holy Spirit finds a way to speak to us there. Sometimes we need a force that sends us out of those mountains because the world needs us somewhere else.
I don’t think all these different ways we know and understand God are simply left to chance. I think there’s something else going on here. As we move through live and live into the history that is being made in our life-time, the Holy Spirit is busy revealing God to us in different ways.
The changing ways we understand God isn’t just a matter of what’s going on with us. It’s also about what’s going on with God and God has this way of reaching out to us in ways that we’ll get. And that’s the work of the Holy Spirit. I was a kid who didn’t attend Sunday School. For God to have tried to reach out to me through Bible stories, would have been useless. Those stories, as wonderful as they are, just weren’t part of my life. But mountains were. So that’s where God showed up for me. Later it was at a church camp. Even later it was at numerous wider church events like General Synod, the UCC’s national gathering. And now, The Holy Spirit is revealing the amazing ways that God is living and moving in the lives of these two congregations. Interestingly, when I drew my own four-fold image of God, the last section once again included mountains …. And a prairie…. And a river….. And paths that come together in this place, paths of challenge and blessing and injustice and hope and abundance and love. Paths of joy and heartache. Paths of life and grief. God is the map upon which our many journeys converge for blessing and support. It’s the work of the Holy Spirit that reveals that map to us as one of the ways God is with us.
About 15 years ago, the UCC rolled out their popular add campaign having to do with a comma and the wonderful phrase by the unknown theologian, Gracie Allen, “Never place a period where God has placed a comma.” And from that came the simple catch-phrase… “God is Still Speaking.” God is still speaking…. And it’s the Holy Spirit that carries that voice to us in the ways we will hear.
God was speaking that day back on the side of a mountain when Moses was told to tell the people of Israel the name of God: “I am.” The Holy Spirit carried the still-speaking voice through Jesus when he said, “I am the bread of life.” “I am living water.” “I am the gate.” “I am the light of the world.” “I am the good shepherd.” “I am the vine…. You… you… you are the branches.” And it’s the Holy Spirit that moves in and through those words, carrying them into our souls in ways that our understanding of God expands from that which we knew by faith when we were very young to that which we trust in the later years of our lives.
But are we listening? Are we open to the possibly new ways that the Holy Spirit is trying to reveal God to us throughout our lives? Or do we hunker down in fear that we would have to give up the old comfortable images and understandings. I had to give up the old t-shirts that I wore on those many camping trips because I outgrew them. Moving into new understandings of God simply means we have outgrown what we used to wear so comfortably.
If we were to take this little exercise a bit deeper and add to our understandings of God the account of our lives, we might discover that our growing and changing understanding of God correlates with significant events and changes in our lives: Major accomplishments. Times of loss and grief. Times of challenge. Times of turmoil. Times of transition. Times of uncertainty.
Those who study such things have discovered that, as a nation, our understanding of God shifted following the terrorist attacks on 9/11. It’s when many people gave upon God all together. But it’s also when many people started to understand God, not as an entity lofted in the sky seeking sinners to convert or destroy. Many people started to understand God as a being who is as close to us as our breathing, not only knowing the pain that exists throughout creation but experiencing it as well. We’ve come to understand that incarnation, the belief that God is with us in the person of Jesus, is also revealed that God is with us in our most vulnerable, earth-shattering moments as an entity of love and compassion. Not to judge but to simply be with. In the unsettling events in life, the Holy Spirit reveals God to us in new ways—not just to help us get through those rough times but because we’re going to need a new understanding of God once we get through them. Isn’t that just like God to be giving us what we need before we need it?
Now, just in case you were thinking that the image of God that you put down for where you are now is the end of it, that you’ve gone just as far as you can in this growth thing, you’re wrong. Turn the page over. If you’re here today, it means you’re still alive and kicking and have more life ahead of you. God is still speaking and the Holy Spirit is still very active in this place. There’s more yet to be revealed about you and God and your place in this world.
So, keep your minds and hearts open because God is still speaking. God is still showing up in new ways and the Holy Spirit is still very busy revealing God to us. There are more segments of your understanding of God yet to be revealed. Thanks be to God.