Our Inaugural Sermon
4 July 1996
Old Testament Message
The wise among the people shall give understanding to many; for some days however, they shall receive a little help, and many shall join them insincerely. Some of the wise shall fall, so that they may be refined, purified, and cleansed, until the time of the end, for there is still an interval until the time appointed. — Daniel 11:33-35
New Testament Message
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumsised -- only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. Even the circumsised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumsised so that you may boast about your flesh. May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumsiscion is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule -- peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. — Galatians 6:11-16
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying "Lord, save us! We are perishing!" And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm. — Matthew 8:23-27
Long ago, in an America of big cars and divisive wars, there lived a band called Chicago, who asked, Does anybody really know what time it is?
Then, as now, it was and is sometime in the interval until the time appointed, the eyeblink of Eternity between the Resurrection and the Apocalypse. But since that eyeblink has already outlasted many lives, we need more than eschatology to make it through our daily lives — we need a practical, working faith.
Faith is a state of being, a way of living with a God who leaves us in a state of absolute freedom from God, our actions constrained only by physical reality. A working faith thus comes from taking seriously the facts of everyday life, the secular domain, so to speak. Only then can we have a faith that is relevant to the real world, or even to ourselves. Only then can we begin to see that the secular is a convenient fiction — that everything is sacred to its Creator.
And so, at VCBC we view the physical Universe and everything in it as a sacred text, which we must consult in order prevent our understanding of the Scriptures from being clouded by our own self-will, wishful thinking, cowardice, or mental laziness. Since reality includes the personal and historical experiences of all peoples, we also use the sacred and secular writings of other cultures to broaden our awareness, to help us look at our old Bible with new eyes. It is revealing, for example, to acknowledge that, in the form of fossils, the stones cry out that the superficial interpretation of the Biblical Creation story as history is a smokescreen that we have invented to cover up what Genesis really says about us. It is surprising, for another example, to see how the Hindus' Bhagavad Gita shows up the smallness of the popular Western concept of God.
And so, while we rely on the Bible as a light unto our path, we make the effort to view that light with an understanding shaped by the conditions of life in which we are set, rather than by our own self-will.
We count this as a paltry kind of wisdom, on a low level of morality similar to the golfer's rule to "play the ball where it lies." We think of it as a beginning that few other churches make, and hope that we can give a little "understanding to many."
Part of the understanding we want to give is that while religion implies morality (a'la Pope John Paul II's "absolute morality based upon absolute Truth"), morality is not religion. That is to say, morality is a good and necessary start, but being good is not good enough. You can obey all the commandments, and still be estranged from your own innermost self, from everyone around you, from the natural world, and from God. These four basic estrangements are what we take to be the downside of the Human Condition, i.e., Original Sin.
To become that "new creation" as St. Paul puts it, you're going to have to get cozy with God, which means that you're going to have to get to know yourself, because it is your own preconceptions and desires that stand in the way. This getting to know oneself is confession, which St. Paul appears to think is more important than a slavish obedience to rules. This is because obedience to the rules can be used as smokescreen to avoid knowing ourselves — we can measure our imagined goodness by counting up our acts of submission to the Law, without ever having to look into our own souls. In other words, in order to be good one has first to be honest.
And so, with awe and honesty, which necessarily implies a sense of humor about ourselves, we set out here to stumble along the path lighted for us by the God who is alluded to by the fact of existence itself, who is immanent in all aspects of existence, and yet who transcends existence as we now know it. We seek to understand something of what it all means in light of the God who can rebuke the wind and the sea, and who came to us as one of us, because God wants us to come with God.