Beyond Theology to Experience
Sixth Sunday After Pentecost • July 16, 2017
Reading: Job 38:1-11, 42:1-5
Pastor Jeff Wells
We have a longing within us for understanding the order of the universe and our place and purpose within it. We also have a longing for connection and relationship. And a major expression of our longing is a deep desire for God. It is beyond our biological drives and impulses – it is an impulse, a strong inclination, a built-in capacity within our humanity and our consciousness. It is a longing of our souls. Our desire to connect with the Divine keeps us seeking for something to fill that longing, which often gets sidetracked into behaviors and substances that fail in that pursuit. As the 4th century theologian, Augustine of Hippo, put it: “You have made us for yourself, O God, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.”
Today, we embark on a new worship series that addresses the overall theme of “Exploring God.” I am very excited about this new series and to pleased to introduce it to you. Today and over the next six Sundays, we will reflect on the mystery of God, the God of justice, and God as creator. We will discuss understandings of God in other religions, think about the Holy One as a God of love and grace, and consider the ramifications of the truth that God as a trinity of three persons is a community within God’s self. We will hear the voices and perspectives of a wonderful group of preachers including Harriett Olson, the Chief Executive Officer of the United Methodist Women, Alisha Gordon, the executive for spiritual development for the UMW, COTV’s Associate Pastor Elyse Ambrose, Katie Reimer, chair of our Worship Committee, and Jorge Lockward, our Minister of Worship Arts.
Today, I want to reflect with you not on our beliefs about God, but on our experience of God. We can study all the theology in the world, but unless we have the actual experience of God in our lives, our faith and spirituality are likely to feel hollow – like something is missing. I certainly do not mean to denigrate theological reflection and study. I love theology and I spend a lot of time reading it, thinking about it, contemplating the character of God and God’s relationship with human beings and the whole of creation. Yet, separated from experience – both personal and communal – theology can be a hollow substitute for a connection with the Living God. In fact, I think theology and experience complement one another – they are in a mutual and dialectical relationship and we need both.
Enter the character of Job. The Book of Job is a short story with deep theological intent. In the very first lines, Job is presented as a man of strong convictions and devotion to God. Here is what it says: “There was once a man in the land of Uz whose name was Job. That man was blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.” Yes, Job was a devout religious man. We can imagine he abided by the Torah laws, performed all of the required rituals, offered his sacrifice at the temple in Jerusalem once a year, gave away ten percent of his annual income, and aided the poor, widows, and orphans in his region. But, as the story presents it, Job had never had a serious personal encounter with God before. He knew what he had been taught about God, but he did not know God – until a series of calamities that took away all he held dear and challenged his comfortably distant and superficial religious devotion. The passage Emily read for us gives you a hint of the terrible devastation and loss Job suffered. On top of that, he has to put up with his so-called friends, who come not to provide comfort or assistance, but to assert that Job surely must have committed some terrible sin to be punished so by God.
The Book of Job has a couple of huge theological problems – first, it presents God as condoning Job’s suffering to test his faith and at the end, it seems to assert that mere human beings should never question God’s actions or seeming inaction. Neither of these fit with a progressive Christian view of the character of God’s love and grace. But setting these aside, the story contains a very rich exposition of some theological arguments about the character of God. We don’t have time to address these today, but I encourage you to read the whole story and reflect on its wisdom. And feel free to email me or speak with me about your questions and insights from the story or from today’s sermon.
Let me focus your attention on the last paragraph Emily read in which Job responds to God. Here is what he says:
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’ I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you.”
It seems that when he was wealthy, respected, and surrounded by family and servants, Job was content with a shallow religious life. He says that previously he had heard about God – and he had a formal relationship with God – but now, he could see God and know God.
If you come here for worship regularly, you probably believe in God – but what is your experience of God? I don’t mean that to sound like a judgment or accusation, but to spark your own reflection. The truth is we don’t all have the same experience of God. We don’t experience one another in exactly the same ways, so why should we think it would be different in our relationship with God? And think about this from God’s perspective – God experiences us, too, and God does not experience all of us the same way. God experiences each of us as a uniquely gifted and beloved individual.
Occasionally, we are privileged to receive a personal mini-revelation – a very direct connection in which we sense God addressing us. I had such an experience when I felt God calling me to become a preacher. But much more often – daily, in fact – our experience of God comes through a sense of God’s presence with us as individuals or in relationship or community with others.
We can experience God through prayer and other spiritual practices. We can feel the presence of God in worship, through song, and sermon, and scripture, and passing the peace of Christ, and forming a circle and joining hands at the end. We can experience God on a walk in the woods or a stroll in the park or at the beach. We can experience God in our relationships in church, at work and school, in our neighborhoods and our families. Perhaps you experience God in some kind of service to others or when you are participating in advocacy of a justice cause. That happens for me every Tuesday at the HNN food pantry. It certainly happened for me at the Pride March this year, especially when we celebrated street communion as we waited to march. I usually experience God when I am praying with someone. I often have a very distinct and vivid experience of God inspiring or suggesting something to me when I am writing – especially sermons or spiritual essays, but also sometimes when I write fiction. So what is your experience of God? I encourage you to think about that this coming week.
Some might ask, “If your belief is based only on your personal experience, then is it valid?” First of all, the question itself is misleading. Our belief is rarely solely personal, is it? Instead, it is simultaneously personal and communal. We don’t come to believe on our own, but in community with others where we can learn, hear testimony, can be in relationship, and share our experiences. If we go only on our own personal experience, we leave ourselves open to being deluded, but less so when we are confirmed by similar experiences of others.
Second, I think it is not an accident and, in fact, is one of the important contributions of Wesleyan Methodist theology that in our practice of discernment and understanding, we include experience as a critical lens along with scripture, reason, and tradition. And we continue to fight over how much weight to give experience. So, believe your experience. God is experiencing us all the time and communicating with us all the time. I am sure many of you could list off a lot of ways you experience God. If you are not in the habit of it yet, try to be attentive to your intuition, your conscience, a certain nudge you feel when you are being prompted to turn one way or another, to make one choice or another, even to move from one place to another.
The character Job came to actually experience God when his comfortable life and formal religious practice were challenged by tragedy and trauma. We have the opportunity to experience God all the time – moment to moment – because God is continually experiencing us and seeking to love, inspire, guide, and affirm us. Open yourself to the experience of God every day. Listen closely and carefully for God’s inspiration, influence, guidance, love. Let God love you, celebrate you, heal you, and empower you.