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In many ways, last Sunday’s sermon was my final message to you.  I toyed with stopping at this point and simply reading some of those quotes on the insert sheet in your program that have served guiding lights for my life. I decided instead to try to offer you a summation—but I wasn’t bold enough to call it that—and instead decided on the musical term, a “coda”—a completion of a work,  a piece that circles back to the beginning and that wraps up whole composition.

Let me start with a story:   A man in Topeka, Kansas decided to write a book about churches around the country. He started by flying to San Francisco and started working east from there.

Going to a very large church, he began taking photographs and making notes.  He spotted a golden telephone on the vestibule wall and was intrigued with a sign, which read:         “Calls: $10,000 a minute.” Seeking out the pastor he asked about the phone and the sign.  The pastor answered that this golden phone is, in fact, a direct line to heaven and if he pays the price he can talk directly to GOD.

The man thanked the pastor and continued on his way. As he continued to visit churches in Seattle, Dallas, St. Louis, Chicago, Milwaukee, and many cities and towns all around the United States, he found more phones, with the same sign, and the same answer from each pastor.

Finally, he arrived in Kentucky. Upon entering a church in the beautiful Bluegrass, behold! he saw the usual golden telephone. But THIS time, the sign read: “Calls: 35 cents”

Fascinated, he asked to talk to the pastor, “Reverend, I have been in cities all across the country and in each church I have found this golden telephone and have been told it is a direct line to Heaven and that I could talk to GOD, but in all the other churches the cost was $10,000 a minute.

Your sign reads only 35 cents a call. Why?”    The pastor, smiling broadly, replied:  “Son, you’re in Kentucky now … You’re in God’s Country. It’s a local call.”

Now relative to this congregation, you may have noticed that we don’t even have a phone in our building, other than the ones you all have in your pockets.  That’s because all you have to do is whisper, or breathe deeply, or just look around and I think the Ineffable Holy One—that mystery we call God—just might be here in our very midst. No special pipelines to the holy are needed.  The whole notion that one has to call upon a God who resides in heaven with special language or special tools or only when your soul is in a certain condition are  fundamentally false ideas, to my way of thinking, and I think yours as well.

This church doesn’t belong to you, you are but its temporary stewards and trustees.  The church, every church , belongs to the one we call God, or it is only a tourist site or an entertainment center.  It exists for the twofold purpose to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.  It is a servant community, as I suggested last week, with a vocation to help people experience the holy, to discover in bits and pieces the meaning and purposes of their lives, and to expand their capacity to love, to hope, and to be healers of brokenness.  Churches at their best mend what is torn in people’s hearts and souls, aim to fix what is broken in lives and in communities, and to create sustaining communities of caring that will reach out to transform a broken world.

The God whom we worship in this place, and elsewhere, is not a Supreme Being, a deity, out there, or up there.  God has many names and many ways of being known and experienced.  As my own world expanded with knowledge of other cultures and religions, I have come to see that Christianity is not the only way through which God is discovered, experienced, and known to be at work. Truth can be found in many religions, and articulated through many stories.

All we can say about God is that God is ineffable, a mystery that we cannot box in, define or limit.   Rather, God is the sacred mystery that all peoples in all cultures intuitively feel exists eternally—from the beginning of time to its infinity.  God is a mystery that seems to be both beyond time and space and yet at the very heart of time and space.  Only metaphors and story seem to give us language to talk about this ineffable power that we know most fully as transcendent love.

Our story has been the one of the people of Israel, the children of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebecca, of Esau and Jacob, and Jacob and Rachel, Moses, David… and onward through the history of this small tribe of ancient people whose wisdom led some among them to write down their experiences with the great I AM, Yahweh, their god.  Finally that very human story with all kinds of heroes, heroines, broken people, and outsiders, foreigners who nonetheless are key to the way in which the Hebrew people experienced God, we arrive at a crucial time when a carpenter’s son is born in backwater Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth who becomes one of the greatest Jewish prophets and reformers of human history.  We call him Jesus, and have given him titles he never claimed for himself:  Son of God, when he called himself only Mortal, or Son of Man; Messiah, the long expected savior of Israel; and Christus, Christ, the Greek word for Messiah.   The one who would bring the world of evil and suffering to an end.  Only, I note with much sadness, evil and suffering seem yet to abound, yet my faith endures.

From my perspective, too much of Christian theology has focused on Jesus as the one who sacrificed himself—as somehow the pure Lamb of God’s own choosing to be the primitive blood sacrifice—to atone before God the ancient sins of humankind, as if the death of one purely innocent person could make the payment necessary to an Absolute God of Judgment for all the evil that humans have done to one another and to the planet,  and that all people had to do was let this pure sacrificial Jesus into their hearts and then they would be in right relationship with this God.

For me, this is a perversion of the Gospel he taught, making too many Christians passive recipients of whom nothing else is required than to take Jesus into their hearts.  They then think they have the right to judge how others believe and to condemn others for aspects of their being that reflect, in truth, the diversity of this marvelous creation.  Somehow they think that God is in the protection business, offering protection from illness or accident or evil, until, of course, evil or illness falls upon them and they are left bereft of any solid ground on which to stand.  The mysterious Holiness which we call God is in the relationship business, standing alongside us in good times and in terrible sorrow, and the love that emanates from that source of all being will enable us to stand on our feet again, to be resurrected, with hope and trust in the joy of a new tomorrow.

Thankfully, there are other stories about this Jesus:  how he began a ministry that invited everyday people to live a life full of joy and love and kindness, that reached out to include and touch those who were seen as the deplorables of their time, lepers, sinners, tax collectors.  He asked his followers not to believe in him but to follow him, to live like him, to think like him.  He taught them that God’s kingdom was not a faraway heaven where we go when we died—or to some other place of eternal torment if we hadn’t gotten our lives straightened out—but that God’s Kingdom was really a kin_dom, drawn near in his preaching and his way of living, and that it was within our reach, now.  It is a relationship to all that is holy and sacred in life, seeing in its beauty and diversity the very essence of meaning, truth, love, and hope. Jesus even told his followers that the Kin_dom of God is within us, and that we could do greater deeds than he had done if we would only have faith the size of a mustard seed, a simple trust in that power of the ineffable God within us.

The life and ministry of Jesus was such a threat to the religious and political powers of that time that they decided to put him to death as a political insurrectionist alongside common criminals.  He died.  But as he promised, that ineffable power of God within him enabled powerful love to demonstrate him as risen from the dead to his followers and community.   His death overcame the abyss of loveless power.  That same resurrection power gradually transformed the lives of a small band of 11 men and a group of women who changed the history of the world through their preaching and their acts.  Their work continues today and has been seen here and there, across the ages in the lives of saints and martyrs, and recently, in the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr., Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, and now perhaps the Rev. William Barber and the Dalai Lama.   And even here among the quiet saints who work for a different world, who reach out to care for the abandoned, the lost, the ill, the so-called deplorables of our time.

The Apostle Paul, in defending his ministry before those who said he didn’t meet the norms to be an apostle, wrote to the Corinthians, and I end with his words from I Corinthians 4:1 & 7:  “Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. …But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us.” Thanks to you, my friends,  and praise be to God, the ineffable, the mystery of love and hope.  Amen.