Harrowing Of Hell
January 28, 2024

Umbutu: God Understood in a New Way

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

To watch the sermon click here.

I have been walking most of my life. You saw me do it earlier. I’m getting pretty good at it. Even though I’ve been walking for most of my life, recently my walking has transformed from the thing I do because it’s the thing you do to get from one place to another; to a thing that I do because it is good for my body, and evening walks with my wife enhances our friendship. My perspective on walking has changed. Walking hasn’t changed, I just understand it in a new way.

Now I have been eating my whole life. It’s something I’ve always done. Maybe you have as well. And yet, in my 40s, food changed for me. Turns out eating a Big Mac and then a milkshake and then ice-cream and a beer, made me groggy. Turns out what I ate impacted how I felt; and my perspective on food changed. Food didn’t change, I just understood it in a new way.

I’ve been around cars my whole life, having been shuttled from one place to another, but when I turned 16… you know what I’m going to say; Cars didn’t change, I just understood them in a new way.

We find this to be the case for the Jewish people we meet in the Gospel today. Jesus showed up in the synagogue. They gave him the Bible to read, he began to preach, and WOW, same old story, same old scripture, brand new. Everything changed. Suddenly they had a new perspective on God. A teaching, with authority, revealed new insight into the God that had always been there. Suddenly they understood God in a new way.

I had a professor at seminary, Bishop Mark Dyer, I’ve preached about him before, and particularly about his son Matthew, who was born without a brain, and yet, had a special soul to soul friendship with Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Anyway, Bishop Mark wrote:“That the only way we can currently understand what is happening in 21st century American Christianity is to first understand that about every 500 years the Church feels compelled to hold a giant rummage sale.”

Now what Bishop Mark is saying here is that within a 500-year span of time the empowered structures of institutional religion, whatever they are at that time, become stagnant and tired. They become encrusted, if you will, like a boat weighed down with barnacles. So, every 500 years the hull needs to be scraped and repainted, and this effort always comes with great spiritual renewal and growth, as well as, tumult and anxiety.  Scripture highlights these times.

4,000 years ago a wandering Aramean named Abraham heard the voice of God, and broke free from the fetters of his landlocked gods, from the god’s of rivers and rocks and things that went bump in the night. He left a city of Ur and headed for the promised land. And the God that had always been there was understood in a new way.

500 years later, Moses, the son of Egyptian royalty heard a similar call from God, and was compelled to free the Hebrew people and write a new law. And the God that had always been there was understood in a new way.

500 years after that King David united the twelve tribes of Israel and built a house for God as a Temple in Jerusalem. And the God that had always been there was understood in a new way.

500 year later Judaism was shattered, and the Hebrew people were hauled off to exile in Babylon, and God was understood in a new way.

Once every 500 years the casing around the religious story that a culture tells itself is broken open. And what bursts forth is a new, deep longing for God, and a new way of being with God that is spiritually refreshing for the human soul.                         

Every 500 years or so there is a convergence between this desire for spiritual renewal and a society that is becoming less and less certain about who it is, and how it works, and how it should behave. This convergence mixes into a mighty storm that sends a lightening bolt down upon institutional religions smashing them open; and demanding they own their public role of assessing and addressing the state of the culture’s soul. This is the church’s job – to care for souls, and it always has been.

Every 500 years the institution shatters for the glory of God, and religion is renewed.                                                                  

Scripture tells the story: 500 years from Abraham to Moses, 500 years from Moses to David, 500 years from David to Babylon, then 500 years from Babylon to Jesus, as he walks into the synagogue in Capernaum and suddenly a radically new perspective on God is revealed. A new teaching, with authority,  and the God that had always been there was now understood in a new way.

500 years after Jesus, an intellectual named Benedict build a monastery on the ashes of Rome, and the church was renewed. In 1048 the Holy Roman Empire split between Rome and Constantinople, in a great schism that rejuvenated the church.

500 years after that, in 1517, Martin Luther showed up in Wittenberg and nailed his 95 theses to a church door. A new teaching, with authority, and the God that had always been there, was understood in a new way.

Which, if you do the math, brings us to January 28, 2024, to a little neighborhood church perched on the shores of the Salish sea. A little neighborhood church that is hoping to inspire conversation about deep and important things, that transcend the limited perspective of sports and politics, of schools and jobs, of the weather and even science, into mystical pools of transformation and revelation exposing the nuances of eternity, and maybe even God.

It happens around a table, eating. It is such a human thing to do. Nothing new here… except the premise, a premise that has always been there, a simple theology, that if you are, if you were born, if you have enough breath in your lungs to be alive then you are here because of God. God has purposely set you in the world for a reason. And because you’re here, and because you have a soul, and because you are purposeful, then you have something to say about God.

I’d go so far as saying that there is no other topic that we are ALL qualified to talk about other than God. I don’t want to know your opinion on arthritis. I don’t want to hear your thoughts on airplane doors. Some of you may know something about airplanes, some of you may know something about arthritis, but just because you are, just because you have breath, just because you were born, does not qualify you in any way to be an authority on any of these topics… the only topic we are ALL qualified to talk about is God.

And what happens in those conversations is that we learn something about ourselves, and something about our neighbors, and maybe even something about God, the God that exists in the spaces in between…in between the words, and the feelings, and the pauses, and the laughter, and maybe even in the tears.

What is revealed is God as binding agent. Gone are the days of Descartes: “I think therefore I am.” We are now in the days of Desmond Tutu, who wrote: “I am human because you are human. My humanity is caught up in your humanity.” His insight is drawn from an ancient Bantu word, Umbutu, which means we are inextricably linked to each other, and to the cosmos itself. Or as the Apostle Paul writes in his 1st Letter to the Corinthians: “There is one God through whom all things are and exist.”

What we have learned through the great scientific observations of the 21st-century is that everything is connected: from the smallest lepton to the largest black hole. Which is why my humanity is intimately tied up with your humanity. Which is why if it’s not good for everybody, it’s not good for anybody.

It should come as no surprise to any of us, that this soul equality theology finds expression in the ancient articulation of the Holy Trinity; God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, a relational God, but more than that, a God that exists in between the things; in between the electrons and protons, in between you and me.

And when we connect over a meal, in conversation, we stand a chance of revealing this God, or at least the nature of this God, which in Greek is agape, and English is love.

This God has always been here, yet is now understood in a new way, which liberates us from the barnacle-laden boat of a religion that has bound us to a God of intellectual affirmation; a God who is a noun; stagnant and still, whose definition must be memorized if we are to be loved and accepted by this God. Those days are done.

Ours is a God of liberation. Ours is a God that connects and moves, and yet, who is also fully immersed and present in the soul of each and every human being. Freedom acknowledges and celebrates our connectedness. Gone are the days when freedom was thought to be self-sufficiency and autonomy.

Our Triune God gives us a more fulsome perspective. Freedom is understanding that we are interconnected, and then obligating ourselves to this reality; doing so in a most human way, gathering to share a meal and entering into conversation about things that are deep and mysterious and relevant and beautiful, revealing along the way the binding agent that connects all things. In Greek it is agape. In English it is love.

Here at Epiphany, we have given this spiritual exercise of communal theology a name: Relata, which means things that are connected to one another. Relata is designed to reveal the love that lives between all people soul to soul to soul.

If you are, then you have a soul, given by God, which qualifies you to talk about God. Abraham had it. Moses had it. David had it, and Paul had it. Benedict had it. Martin Luther had it, and you have it as well.

The barnacles are being sloughed off here at Epiphany, and we are called, maybe even urgently called, to step into this new way of understanding the God that has always been there; the God of love who exists in that space between each one of us, connecting us, and compelling us to experience the world soul to soul to soul.

That’s our calling at Epiphany parish, that is our providence, and it ours to pursue.