Archive for October, 2006

The Old Man in the Heavens

October 19, 2006

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
23 July 2006
Texts: Psalm 46, I John 4:7-12,16b

It may be that a “Show and Tell” experience when I was in first grade foreshadowed my call into ministry. When it was my turn to speak I stood before my classmates and announced that there was no Santa Claus. My teacher, Miss Roberts, in what I’m sure was an attempt to calm down the outcries, asked through tight lips, “And what makes you say that?” I responded with cheerful confidence, “Because my dad said so, and he knows everything.” I guess it’s not terribly surprising for a five year old to attribute divine omniscience to her parent (though, come to think of it, I don’t recall my son ever attributing that to me). Developmental psychologists have noted that a child’s first concept of God is derived from his or her parental relationships—those primary persons providing care and nurture and one’s sense of place in the universe.

When I was a child, I spoke like a child. But when I became an adult, I put away childish things. And childish concepts of the Ruler of the Universe. To be replaced by….what? Today’s sermon request took me by surprise. Talk about God. How do you envision God? I know you don’t believe in the old man in the heavens, but what do you believe? I guess I was surprised because on the one hand talking about God is something I do all the time. Have you been listening?—I wanted to say to the questioner. But the more I thought about it, I realized there is a huge difference between talking about God from a theological perspective, trying to interpret God’s Word in scripture, seeking God’s will and way for our church—–and talking about God from the standpoint of personal faith. I think the church member was inviting me to share from my own heart and soul and mind who it is I talk with when I pray, and what I believe that Being does in my life and in the wider world.

Right away this poses a problem. Human language limits the illimitable. Words cannot define the Word who was before all things. When the rebellious Israelites sent Moses to ask the Divine to self-identify, this is the answer he received: I AM. Hebrew scholars love to point out that the literal translation is “I will be what I will be”—a marvelously ambiguous description of an independent deity who eludes every human attempt to capture and contain Him.

Him???! Another example of language limitations. God is no more male than female, but the God revealed in Scripture is personal, and expressed in personal terms. Pronouns denote gender, and the language we choose shapes our understanding of the reality behind it. So if I refer exclusively to God as “he,” I will (unconsciously perhaps) think of God as male. My understanding will be narrowed significantly; my God may be reduced to simply the very best human male I can imagine. God is so much more than a divine Superman. God is an eternal Mystery; the Mystery, it turns out, upon which the answers depend.

So how do we talk about God? We acknowledge the limitation of language, even while employing it. We’ll recognize that all human words ultimately fail to “name” God. We’ll seek a variety of words and biblical images to understand different aspects and attributes of God. [at 8:30, ask the congregation to name some of these] Did you know, for example, that God in Scripture is portrayed as a mother, a midwife, a Rock, the unseen wind that blows, and the breath that animates life? God in Scripture is named the Holy One, the Almighty, Ruler of Creation, the Most High, Abba, which is a familiar reference to father—not unlike “Daddy,” as well as Heavenly Father. Since my own father’s death, I find that I am comforted by images of God as a heavenly Father, protectively hovering over his children, at times questioning their judgment, pushing them to become their very best selves, and providing a strong shoulder to cry on and resources to support them when they fail. That’s one way I see God, but it’s not the only one. Anticipating this sermon, a Fairmount member told of a friend who had God explained to her as “a Big Daddy” up in the sky, someone she went to when things got bad, to climb up on his lap for comfort. The friend was repelled by this image, because she wanted an adult relationship with God—not the one of a pre-school child. [I’m indebted to Dick Schreck for sharing this story from Carol Harris-Shapiro’s book, Messianic Judaism].

We find in Scripture the richest source of knowledge about God. The ancient Israelites interpreted the history of their nation through the lens of God’s covenant relationship with them. They explained motives, drew out meaning, and made decisions based on their understanding of Yahweh, the Holy One. To our contemporary ears, the “God of the Old Testament” sometimes seems like a vengeful, bloodthirsty deity who commands the people to conquer and kill. This God may even appear to contradict the God of mercy and redeeming love revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. But Reformed biblical theology won’t allow us to make that separation. God is one, and apparent contradictions serve to remind us again that every human description of God is fallible and at best, incomplete. I’ve come to see that the diversity of voices in Scripture and in life offers a broader, infinitely richer picture of God than any one of us, or any group of us, could produce alone.

The Bible reveals a God who is both transcendent – “out there,” different from us, greater than us, a Being beyond our human comprehension—and immanent—“in here,” close at hand, nearer to us than our breath or beating heart, a Being who seeks relationship with us. The Psalm that is our first Scripture reading expresses this tension by painting a picture of a global God, exalted in all the earth, and one who is intimately present to the people as a strength and shelter.
Listen for God’s word to the church in the reading from Psalm 46. [PSALM 46]

I believe in God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. When I got confirmed we were supposed to memorize the Apostle’s Creed. Several of my confirmation classmates and I protested against this requirement (it was the sixties after all—the very, very, late sixties!), arguing that reciting it from memory didn’t make us Christians. Though I very much appreciate our church’s confirmation emphasis on assisting each student to create his or her own statement of faith, I also now see the wisdom of learning by heart how the Church down through the ages has understood God. — Not that we will necessarily agree, or accept each statement as true, but because it locates us within a tradition; we belong to a faith family that spans generations and cultures, and every time and place. Our spirituality thus becomes not an individual, private matter, to be invented or designed entirely on our own. We are not able to create in our own image a God who is worthy of worshiping or serving. We need church to help us see God, and to see the divine within each of us. My faith has been nurtured by the congregations of which I’ve been part, including this one. You have helped me understand God better, by the way you reflect God’s image in your actions– and I’m glad and grateful for it all.

It makes sense, then that perhaps no biblical text is more determinative for my personal understanding of God than one in the first letter of John which witnesses both to the nature of God and how we have come to know that love. Listen again for God’s word to you in the reading from the first letter of John, in the fourth chapter, at the seventh verse: [READ John 4:7-12, 16b]

Against the backdrop of Scripture, out of the marvelous mixture of the church’s tradition and teaching, mediated through living persons, interpreted through my experience, I offer my personal statement of faith: who I believe God is, and what God means in my life. Let me say right away that this is my understanding, my weaving of these elements in a way that helps me glimpse what remains a Mystery. You may find yourself puzzled by, or disagreeing with this construction, and that’s fine. In fact, I commend to each of you the process of writing your own statement of faith as an exercise sure to stretch your spirit. (If you need help, ask one of the young people who have been through our confirmation classes!)

One other thing: I have used the word “trust” instead of “believe” to represent my relationship with this deity. “Believe” can sometimes simply mean intellectual assent to some theological propositions, but this statement is instead a response to a God with my whole self, including my questions and doubts. So here goes:

I trust in God….who is pure light. . . .the power of the universe, the source of life. This Being of light illumines every part of creation, so we can see the truth of its goodness as well as the reality of its sickness; so we can see it whole, even in its shattered brokenness. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never overcome it. I don’t believe Gold is the author of human suffering; I don’t think God’s plan calls for the deaths of children, cancer, warfare, the violence of poverty, and a whole lot of other things that visit misery upon the earth. Some of that, of course, is evidence of human sin, and some of it seems random and cruel. I can’t explain the origin of evil, or why bad things happen to good people. What I trust is that God enters the darkness and makes it light. The Light shines forth as a beacon, showing the way, a path that leads to our heart’s true home.

I trust in God….who is joy. . . .who delights in humanity and desires abundant good for everyone. I think it was Teilhard de Chardin who described joy as “the one infallible expression of the presence of God.” Now joy is not synonymous with happiness, nor is the one dependent upon the other. Yesterday at the memorial service for Ken Horth, we sang as the final hymn “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee, God of glory, Lord of Love” as requested by his family. Though there were tears and sorrow for the loss of this compassionate, gentle man, we could sing for joy because God was there too. Death and grief do not get the last word; even at an open grave ours is a triumph song of life. In my personal experiences of lost relationships through death and divorce, I have found a more profound reality: God’s grace that transforms and redeems, and counters fear with joy.

I trust in God….who is love….who loves the world, and you and you and every one, and… me. It’s almost embarrassing to speak of the Creator and Ruler of the Universe as a Being who persists in reaching out to finite and faithless folk. It seems so…undignified—like a father who runs to welcome the prodigal home, so… elemental—like a mother who will not abandon her nursing child. But there it is. Up close and personal. It was Jesus who most clearly showed us the heart of God to be one of unmerited grace and unconditional love. Not just for the good people, the ones who acknowledge God and worship God, but for everyone. “I don’t believe in God,” says the atheist. Responds the disciple, “Oh, that’s okay. God believes in you.” And will stop at nothing to get you to see it, receive it, relish in it. And return it.

I trust in God…who is love, and whose love prompts our own.
Love calls us to love. Jesus showed us how: working for the good of others with the same devotion that we work for our own. Voila! Life takes shape and is brimming with purpose and meaning. Grace abounds. Thanks be to God!


The Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor


You Asked for It: Politics from the Pulpit

October 19, 2006

A Sermon by Louise Westfall
Fairmount Presbyterian Church
Cleveland Heights, Ohio
16 July 2006
Text: Luke 4:14-30

On the first day at work in the first church I served as pastor, a terrible truth struck me: I had to write a sermon for delivery six days later. And that would be true every Monday morning for the rest of my….career! Twenty-six years later I’m still at it, and though you develop a rhythm for these things, the weekly sermon preparation and proclamation is never far from mind. Except for these summer requests, my sermons are drawn from the lectionary, a three-year cycle of Sunday readings from the Hebrew Scriptures, Gospels, Epistles, and Psalms. I believe this discipline allows for the whole Bible to speak to our lives, rather than letting the preacher search for biblical texts that support the point she’s trying to make.

For my first sermon, I thought I would follow in the footsteps of Jesus and use the text he did for his inaugural address. We’ve got it all right there in the gospel according to Luke, immediately following Jesus’ baptism, and his time of wilderness testing. In your mind’s eye, picture the young Jewish man, a local boy—Joseph the carpenter’s son– whom everybody knew; his fresh face and bright eyes such a contrast to the lined faces and world-weary eyes of the religious leaders and teachers. See him walking to the front of the synagogue and choosing the Torah portion to read; hear his resonant voice ring out with the words of the prophet. You can easily imagine the approving nods. Then Jesus takes the “seat of teaching”—the place designated for the interpretation of the reading. The congregation listens forward, expectantly…. Listen for God’s word to the Church in the reading from the gospel according to Luke, in the fourth chapter at the 14th verse (page 61 in the chapel/pew Bibles if you wish to follow along). [READ Luke 4:14- 22]

Yes, that young teacher has success written all over him! Except….one of the most important principles of biblical interpretation is to read a text in its context. Often that means reading the verses immediately before and following it. Jesus’ sermon did not end at the point we’ve stopped reading. If only Jesus would have quit while he was ahead! But no, the text continues, [READ Luke 4:23-30]

I learned the very first week on the job that preaching holds inherent risks! And never more so than when God’s Word is applied to the social and political realms of human life. As long as Jesus stuck to the reading and proclaimed its immediate fulfillment, he was applauded and praised. But as soon as he “got political” (in this case, lifting up citizens of pagan nations as role models of faith), they were ready to kill him.

Religion and politics—the two topics famously forbidden at dinner parties and family gatherings. Yet the two are firmly joined at the hip, even in our democratic society in which church and state are, by constitutional authority, kept separate. The separation of Church and State is essential as an organizational principle, but that separation is not meant to divide Christian citizens from politics. On the contrary, Reformed theology calls the Church to bring the biblical vision of justice and peace to bear on political and social realities. There is no separating the various spheres of human life—as if we can preserve a circle over here for our family life, and one over here for job and career, and one here for our spiritual life. God rules over every part of life—the world, and all the people who live in it! Our Presbyterian Constitution includes in its list of the “Great Ends” of the Church “….the promotion of social righteousness,” including ministries to the poor, the sick, the lonely and the powerless; engagement in the struggle to free people from sin, fear, oppression, hunger and injustice; sharing with Christ in the establishment of his just, peaceable and loving rule in the world.” [Form of Government G-3.0300c.(3)] Did you note how the spiritual and material worlds are merged in that calling? Politics from the pulpit???! We can’t avoid it, without falling short of God’s good intentions for the whole creation. It is part of our sacred calling and holy purpose.

But here’s where it gets dangerous, and why I suspect this subject was the single most requested one this summer. While the political dimensions of preaching have always been a matter of debate, seldom has the dialog occurred in a more polarized atmosphere than today. The bitter partisanship of the last national election produced the red state/blue state divide, and created a battleground for claims and counter-claims based on religious values. The Fairmount members who requested various versions of this topic were especially troubled by the divisive tone of the debate, and what they view as the imposition of one particular expression of Christianity upon the government of a pluralistic nation or state. One person mentioned that her reluctance to mix religion and politics had been overcome after she received an unsolicited glossy magazine in the mail emblazoned with the provocative title, “America, Return to God.” The essays in the magazine used a literal interpretation of Scripture to promote a conservative Christian social agenda, and characterized the opposition as godless and immoral. This member describes herself as “Republican,” and she was offended by the implication that one party’s politics were exclusively Christian, and the other’s were not.

I think this is an important point to make. Politics from the pulpit means that we acknowledge the crucial role of faith in guiding our values and beliefs. Politics from the pulpit means considering how those religious values shape our perspective on government policies and practices, and yes, how they influence the way we vote. But politics from the pulpit should never be wielded as a club to impugn the integrity or faithfulness of others with whom we disagree. The word “Christian” belongs to neither political party. We see far too much evidence of Jonathan Swift’s observation that “we have just enough religion to make us hate, but not enough to make us love one another.” Seems to me a little less self-righteous arrogance, and a lot more humility on all sides would be beneficial. A bumpersticker I saw recently says it well: I’m for the separation of Church and Hate. Friends, if our religion incites us to hate, then it contradicts the one whose most fundamental commandments are to love God and to love one another.

The Reformed theological tradition in which the Presbyterian Church is steeped offers two foundational principles. One is the freedom of the pulpit; a congregation cannot restrict its preachers in how they interpret God’s Word. Obviously, there’s an extreme in which the preacher abuses that privilege and turns the pulpit into a platform for his or her personal viewpoint. But it’s worth that risk, I believe, in order to let the Word of God be heard even—especially!– when it challenges our assumptions and lifestyles.

The second principle is that God alone is Lord of the conscience. Even the strongest statements from the pulpit from the preacher who is faithfully seeking to declare God’s Word, may be rejected by the thoughtful member. There is no social or political litmus test in a Presbyterian Church. Sometimes the charge has been leveled against us that we don’t have firm convictions, that because we don’t dictate to people what to believe or what to do, we reflect a kind of religious “fuzziness” or moral ambiguity. But Presbyterians value a thinking faith, one which questions and probes and holds complex realities in dynamic tension. Neither the General Assembly, the presbytery, nor your ministers are the final authority for faith and practice. God is, as you grapple with what God is calling you to do and to become. Your church stands ready to assist you, but God alone is to be Lord of your conscience. That means you can disagree with the preacher and share your differing perspective as part of an ongoing process to discern God’s will.

Fairmount is amazingly and wonderfully diverse on social and political issues, which means on the one hand that no matter what stance the preacher takes, someone in the congregation is bound to be offended. On the other hand, perhaps we have this gift to contribute to the debate: a mutual search for the common good does not depend upon unanimity of viewpoint. The late, great prophet and preacher William Sloan Coffin, in his “Message to U.S. Churches” argues for the mixing of religion and politics but makes a distinction between their purpose: It is one thing to say with the prophet, “Let justice roll down like mighty waters,” and quite another to work out the irrigation system. The former is a religious concern, the latter a political task. [Coffin, A Passion for the Possible, Westminster/ John Knox Press, rev. ed. 2003, p. 35] We may disagree on methods and particular initiatives to address the problem of poverty, for example, while affirming on the basis of our faith the absolute necessity to do so. Then the discussion and debate around particular actions may be passionate but respectful. Openness that listens to and learns from a wide range of perspectives can yield greater understanding and new possibilities for problem-solving. We may not resolve our differences, but embrace each other as sisters and brothers, seeking together God’s will and God’s way.

Finally, friends, there is no division between the social and spiritual realms: God rules over all. Often God’s Word addressing human realities seems harsh, judgmental, uncompromising. But to muffle that Word for the sake of peace and quiet, from fear of upsetting church members or creating conflict, is wrong, and unworthy of our calling to represent God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. No stranger to either politics or pulpit, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke an unsettling truth, “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

So, by God’s grace and with God’s help, we will not be silent about things that matter. Your Session has recently approved a policy statement, giving guidance on how we can pursue social justice goals in the public arena, and do so respectfully and faithfully. Copies of the policy statement are available on information tables at chapel and sanctuary entrances. A copy will be mailed with the August Flyer as well. We owe a debt of gratitude to Elders Dick Obermanns and Tom Allen for their thoughtful work on this statement.

And we pray first, last, and always to be led in preaching and in practice by the Holy Spirit of God. Fact is, no government, no political party, no human system has exclusive claim to God’s vision and will. All human kingdoms are contingent; only God’s is eternal. May God give us grace and courage to live in this world, reflecting the love and justice and peace of that other one.


Rev. Louise F. Westfall, D.Min., Pastor