The words we use are limited, because there are no words that can adequately describe faith and God. Yet, as limited as these words might be, we, like the blind men in the story, need to share them so that a truer picture of God might emerge for ourselves and for others.
Sermon by Rev. Jenny Carter
June 18, 2017
Based on 1 John 4:7-12
I love words. I collect them, actually. I don’t know why I do this, I just know it is something I have always done. Perhaps it is the writer in me. That tortured part of my soul where I love words, but know that they are limited. No one word can convey the truth of any one situation, so I am always looking for the exact “right” word. Could be that. Or it could be that I’m just strange. Either way, one of my favorite words, probably because it is the longest word I know is, “polyfocalconspectus”. Which, very loosely defined, is “to understand a thing, you must be able to see it from many viewpoints.”
We all know that ancient story about the six blind men who had an elephant wander in to their village – and since none of them had ever “seen” an elephant they decided to go out and touch the elephant so that they would know what it was. One of them touched a leg, and said, “Oh, the elephant is like a mighty pillar.” To which the one holding the elephant’s tail said, “Oh friend, you are wrong, an elephant is like a rope.” To which the one holding the elephant’s trunk said, “No, you’re wrong. An elephant is like a thick branch of a tree.” The one touching the elephant’s ear said, “No, an elephant is like a big fan.” “No” another one said, totally convinced he was the only right one “an elephant is like a huge wall” since he was touching the elephant’s belly. To which the final blind man, who was holding the tusk, replied, “You’re all wrong, an elephant is like a solid pipe.”
The six men began to argue. A passerby heard the argument and intervened and said “Friends, stop arguing. You’re all right. The reason you are describing it differently is because each of you is touching a different part of the elephant. The elephant has all of those features.”
This is a perfect story to explain what polyfocalconspectus is. Our beliefs about something depends on our perspective – our vantage point – and how we’ve experienced a thing. The same is true of God. Each one of us here has faith – a deep seated response to God. That place where God touches us, and we touch God. Then, as humans, we search for the right words to convey this deep experience of the holy. The words we use are limited, because there are no words that can adequately describe faith and God. Yet, as limited as these words might be, we, like the blind men in the story, need to share them so that a truer picture of God might emerge for ourselves and for others.
As I mentioned last Sunday, we who gather in this place on a Sunday have a wide variety of perspectives. Each one of us have attempted to find the best words to describe our experience of how God has touched out hearts – to describe the faith that is as close to us as our very breath. And the words we find are true. True for us. And that is good. In fact, it is better than good.
And now it is time for us to share our words about God, to engage in a little polyfocalconspectus, so that we not only get a better understanding of the faith others have, but we understand our own faith perspective better as well. You see, when we share our faith perspective, we find where our edges are – the lines we cannot bring ourselves to cross – and sometimes we find common ground and a new understanding – of who God is, how God works, and what it means to follow. It’s like the difference between a piece of glass and a diamond. Glass has one dimension, one facet, but a diamond is multifaceted – and that is what makes it so brilliant and so precious.
As a quick reminder, there are five main streams of theological thought in this room this morning: evangelical, ecclesial, missional, ecumenical and spiritual. Each stream holding a truth. Each stream trying to find the words to describe God’s agency, how God works, what that work looks like, and what our role is in that holy work. The words we come up with shapes our identity, brings us life, and helps us to be gifts to the world. To be clear, we all will identify with more than one stream – some of us maybe even swim a bit in them all – but at our core, we all identify with one a little bit more than another. It is important to remember that each stream brings us both gifts as well as shadows – but ultimately, they bring us a deeper faith experience when we dare to explore them.
As I mentioned earlier, today we have dived in to the evangelical stream. Remembering that the words we use to describe anything fall short, but that they are also the only things we have to convey the deepest parts of us – the best word to describe the gift of this stream is intimacy. If you’ve ever felt a deep intimacy with God, you may very well be a little bit evangelical. That deep sense that God is love – and when you enter fully into your relationship with God – you become more like this love. You literally become a beacon of that One Love.
Every theological stream has a mechanism for being brought in to deep relationship with God. All of them biblical and all of them profound. For those of us identifying as evangelical, the death of Jesus on the cross – that sense that God loved humanity and creation so much that God would be willing to die for us, so that we might live – and live abundantly – is transformative. In that act, we have been shown what love is. We have been shown that love sometimes requires sacrifice. We have been shown, through Jesus’ death and resurrection, that new life is possible for those who believe – for those who tend their relationship with God.
The power of new life, fresh beginnings and another chance to become a better, more love filled person – is at the heart of this stream. Feeling the intimate connection to God, who is love, means that one regularly examines their life – takes a look at all of the ways they have fallen short of the call to love, and be love (which is the best definition of sin, in my opinion) – and when they find those times they have fallen short – they repent or turn away from those actions. They make amends, to God and to others. There is grace in that. There is life in that too.
This is what being saved looks like. It doesn’t look like perfection. It looks like people striving to become truly loving, truly Christ like. I’ve seen this one thing change lives. Imagine if you’ve never known real love – or have never thought yourself worthy of a second thought or a second chance – and then God touches your heart and you now know beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are loved and are worthy – how that might impact your life? I do not think it is too big of a stretch to say that you would feel like you have been saved. And then, having had this profound experience, how could you possibly keep this life-giving message to yourself? You would feel compelled to share the joy and the happiness that you’ve found with others. You would want them to have this experience as well.
Yet, like all streams, the evangelical one also has a shadow side. While the stream is life giving, the shadow side is life denying. In this stream, the shadow side is tribalism. That destructive thing that happens when a group turns in on themselves – and believes that they are the only ones with the right way and the right truth and the right words– and instead of seeing that God can work in a million different ways – they begin to sort people into those who are “in” the tribe and those who are not. And once this happens, it is a short trip to those who “are not in the tribe” to be seen as less than or even seen as the enemy, and the hurt that comes from being found to be lacking by people who share your faith can be devastating. This is a good warning to us all, no matter what stream we are most at home in. We who seek to be love, cannot begin to sort people into groups of “those who are worthy of concern” and “those who are not.”
The gift of intimacy with God that our evangelical brothers and sisters have – is a gift for the church. It reminds us all that like any relationship – our relationship with God needs to be tended. We need to actively seek and then witness to how God is making a difference in our lives. The other big gift of this stream is that evangelicals have an overwhelming desire to share the good news of Jesus by taking that love of neighbour thing to heart, is so they tend to work really hard in terms of mission work. That to be love, means you get out of your pew and go and help people who are struggling and hurting and feeling lost. There is purpose and grace in that. Next week we will be worshipping in the style of the ecclesial stream – and exploring the gifts and shadows of it as well. But until then, a little polyfocalconspectus homework. Who is God for you? What is the gift the evangelical stream has given you, and how might it deepen your faith? You see we aren’t making this tour through the streams to point out who is right and who is wrong – on the contrary – we are making this tour to deepen our faith by letting different perspectives share their insights into the Holy presence that surrounds and infuses us all. That’s the point. And that’s who we are.
May it be so in your life and in mine.