Foundry United Methodist Church

Rev. Dean Snyder, Senior Minister




“How God Get's Things Done”

Sunday, December 26, 2010




Rev. Dean Snyder

God Uses the Holy

Jesus began a new religion. We do not know whether this was his intention or not. Jesus himself was Jewish. He attended synagogue, and he taught as a rabbi in synagogues, although he seemed to do most of his teaching in field meetings and on the street. We know he was very critical of the religious leaders of his time and place but that doesn't mean he wasn't an active and faithful Jew, or that he intended to replace Judaism with another religion.

Christianity began as a movement within Judaism. It was a movement originally simply called the Way. It was a way or a path within Judaism.

The split of Christianity from Judaism took place in different ways in different places. Some synagogues banned Jews who believed Jesus was the messiah from worshipping there. When Gentiles were accepted into membership in some Christian communities without being required to be circumcised and become Jews, which created tension because Gentiles could not be members of the synagogue without becoming Jewish.    

On the other hand John Chrysostom, who preached in Antioch and later Constantinople in the 4th century, has a series of sermon in which he scolds the Christians in his congregation because so many of them are worshipping on Friday night or Saturday in the synagogue as well as in church on Sunday. He says: "You must stop going to the Synagogue, you must not think that the Synagogue is a holier place than our churches are."

Because Christianity began as a movement rather than as a religion, there has always been an anti-religious sentiment within Christianity…people who are negative toward religion and who insist that Christianity is not a religion. One of the most prolific modern theologians who argued this was the theologian Karl Barth. Barth said that all religion is the search for God, the effort to find God, or to figure God out; while the Christian Gospel is God's search for humanity, God coming to us, God revealing God’s self to us.

Barth and others argues that religion is human beings' attempt to save ourselves, which is futile. Christianity, he said, is God coming to save us.

When I was younger and used to spend a day a week reading Barth, I preached this myself sometimes, but it does not hold up under the weight of the evidence from either the study of the Gospels or the study of comparative religion. Whatever the Jesus movement began as, it quickly became a religion with all the trappings of religion – holy days and seasons, holy places, and holy practices.

During the Advent/Christmas season we've been asking the question of how God works in the world. How God acts. How God gets things done.

I've been reading Stephen Hawkings' book The Grand Design in which he argues that the universe does not need the idea of there being a God to explain its existence.

Blaise Pascal said this 300 years ago. God is hidden. Therefore the hand of God is hidden. There is nothing that happens in the universe that you can not explain from within the universe. Any God who you can see is an idol. Any God who is not incomprehensible is an idol. It is almost impossible to be a person of faith within turning something into an idol.

The hand of God is hidden, but we believe the hand of God is at work in the world to push and pull us toward God's dream of justice, inclusion, peace, joy, and love.

One of the ways God acts in the world is through religion. I want to say a good word for religion. I want to suggest that there are times, places, and activities that are inherently holy and that bring us close to God's presence and bring God close to us. These have universal aspects, although they have particular expressions in different cultures and religions. I want to suggest that there are religious icons that God uses to act in the world, to change the world, and to move the world towards God's dream for the world.

When Jesus was 8 days old he was circumcised and named according to the practices of his religion. If you read on after this, Mary and Joseph took baby Jesus up to Jerusalem, a holy city, to the Temple, a holy place, for the rite of purification, a holy practice, which happened 40 days after a baby's birth, a holy time.

If you read even farther in Luke, every year of his childhood Joseph and Mary took Jesus to Jerusalem, the holy city, for Passover, a holy season. When he was 12, Jesus got separated from his family because he was listening to the rabbis teach and asking them questions during Passover.

Jesus was not anti-religious. He was anti the abusive uses of religion that condemned people, or judged people, or excluded people. But he was not anti-religion.

Religion is one of the things God uses in the world to get done what God wants to get done.

I want to mention three things today that are part of God's active presence in our world: holy times, holy places and holy activities.

Holy times: There are times in our lives that are inherently holy. Just about every religion recognizes them. They are birth; the age of responsibility (usually around 12, the time of bar mitzvahs, bat mitzvahs and confirmations, when we officially begin adulthood); the age of call when we decide on our vocation; marriage; parenthood; the time of our parents' deaths; and the time of preparing for our own death.

These are particularly holy times in our lives when we can expect God to move in our lives in significant ways because we are particularly open to big questions and new possibilities. Not that it can't happen at other times, but these are inherently holy times.

We sometimes call these life passages. We have religious rituals for many of these times of life passage because they are holy spaces in our lives.

On top of this we have weekly Sabbaths. We all need a day of the week when we are open to our own spirits, to beauty, to others, and to God.

Then we have holy seasons – Christmas, Easter, Pentecost, Advent, Lent, Passover, and Ramadan.  

Every religion has holy days and holy times of the year and holy times of life when we believe God is particularly available to us, whether we believe it is part of God's cycles of life, or whether we believe it is part of the human cycle of availability to God.

Sometimes some of us develop our own holy times, times in our own lives when God seems especially important to us.  

Holy places: Dee and I did a sermon series a couple of years ago on the concept of thin places. “Thin places” is a concept out of Celtic Christianity.  Thin places are places where the veil between earth and heaven is thin and you can almost see eternity from within time.

Churches can be thin places because either they were built on thin places or else because the prayers that have happened there have worn the veil thin. Nature can be a thin place. It is for lots of people because it seems closer to creation.

But lots of places can be thin places. Starbucks can be a thin place. Somebody told me Macy's was their thin place, but I doubt it. A thin place is wherever you have a glimpse of transcendence.

God played a joke on me, I was raised very Protestant. We were so Protestant that we were almost Jewish. We were very worried about statues, pomp and circumstance, and the Pope. Stained glass windows made us nervous. It turns out that churches with statues and even Rome and the Vatican are a thin place for me.

We need to spend time in our thin places because they open us to the awareness of the divine and let God get at us.

In most of the churches I've served in it has taken me a while, but I have eventually figured out where the angel of the church lives. You know that when John of Patmos wrote to the churches of Asia Minor in the book of Revelations, he did not write to the pastor or to the congregation. He wrote to the angel of the church. So his letter was addressed to the angel of the church in Ephesus, and to the angel of the church in Smyrna, and so forth.

Churches have corporate identities, characters, and beings that last from generation to generation. John of Patmos called them angels. I once served a church that had been the merger of two very different congregations and I realized during the second year of my ministry there that the church's angel was schizophrenic. We had to get therapy for the angel.

I was confused for a long time as to where Foundry's angel lived. At first, I thought it was the columbarium. We have a columbarium where the remains of members of this congregation and of homeless people who have no other place to be buried are placed. I got a sense that the Foundry angel resided there.

Then I got a strong sense that the angel resided by the angel window in Fellowship Hall.

So I was confused until one day I notice that on the other side of the angel window in Fellowship Hall is the columbarium. Our build is sort of strange, the way the various additions over the years fit together. It took me a long time to realize that the angel window opens into the columbarium.  

When I am having trouble with the Foundry congregation, you all I guess, I now go and talk to the angel by the angel window in Fellowship Hall or the columbarium. Because there are things sometimes I need the Foundry angel to understand or that the Foundry angel needs to get me to understand.

I like to visit non-Christian holy places.

There are holy places where we need to spend time to let God get close to us.

Holy activities: Singing is often holy. Reading in unison is a holy experience. I am not in favor of prayer and Bible reading in schools but I am in favor of reading things in unison in schools. Do schools still recite or read things in unison? Reading in unison is an experience of community.

There are holy postures. Some time ago I invited you to experiment with sitting for a few minutes a day with your hands on top on your knees, palms open to the heavens. It is a posture of vulnerability. We spent so much of our day defending ourselves in adversarial situations, protecting ourselves against people who are trying to persuade us to buy something or do something, that sitting a few minutes a day in a posture of openness can be a powerful form of prayer.

I've been attending yoga classes these past couple of months and our teacher teaches us to open our heart. So sometimes now when I am in stressful situations I practice opening my heart. Postures can be important.

I've asked Dee and Stanley if we can begin a new tradition at Foundry. I'd like the first hymn we sing the first Sunday of every New Year to be "Great is Thy Faithfulness." It is a very religious hymn. It reminds us that the cycles of life are evidence of God's steadfastness. God is present in birth and death, in the passages of life, generation after generation.

The Gospel calls us to repent, to make disciples, and to establish justice to the ends of the earth. The Gospel calls us to activism and activity. This is important and good and salvific. We love the Gospel.

Religion reminds us of the presence of the divine in times of rest and in the ordinary things of life on earth. This is important, good, and salvific as well. We love religion, too.