a sermon based upon Isaiah 6:1-8
Like many of you who are finding meaningful things to do around the house during these past seven long weeks of “sheltering in place” (due to the mandated precautions against the spread of coronavirus), my “to do” list has gotten into those places that we usually don’t do.
Patty & I have gone through our boxes of family slides from our childhood, for example. We’ve cleaned the gunk out of our backyard goldfish pond. She is even thinking of painting the white picket fence that runs behind the flowering cherry tree…that nobody sees for most of the year. (!) We’ve been sorting through our clothes that have been in boxes in our attic, wondering if we’ll ever be that size again… or whether that fashion will ever come back into style… or not. (Not!)
In the process of going through those boxes in the basement, I came across my Certificate of Ordination, which took place in this sanctuary – First Congregational Church UCC of Alpena – dated September 25, 1983. Avery Post was the President of the United Church of Christ at that time… 37 years ago!
Tucked inside the folder was a hand-written four-and-a-half page sermon entitled “Why Go to Church?” One little page, torn from a stenographer’s tablet, was printed in red ink and black ink; the other two pages are printed in pencil on lined notebook paper. (I guess I wanted to be able to erase any mistakes.) I notice that I wrote right up to the margin, and on both sides of the page. In my family, paper was kind-of precious, so you used both sides of every page.
At the top of the page I wrote: 1970 – 11th Grade… and below that “Isaiah 6” & “Glimpses of God”. I wrote this sermon exactly 50 years ago, and preached it in this pulpit during a Pilgrim Fellowship “Youth Sunday”. Back then, our “PF” youth group had 25-30 high school kids in it. (!) We had officers, including Faith, Action, and Fellowship Commissions. PF put on dinners as fund-raisers, had talent shows on the stage, and went to youth rallies with other UCC “Cheboygan Association” churches. Most of them are gone now, having left the denomination or simply closed as the years passed.
As a junior in high school (back then, 50 years ago), I already knew that I wanted to be a “preacher” when I grew up, so it was natural that I would be elected as “Faith Commissioner” for Pilgrim Fellowship. In addition to organizing the opening “devotional” every Sunday in the Youth Chapel (which was re-named “Barksdale Chapel” when the Rev. Robert Barksdale & “Mrs. B” retired in 1972), our PF group was invited to put on a “Youth Sunday” worship service here in the sanctuary two or three times a year.
This manuscript was the sermon I preached on one of those occasions. I was curious, first, to see what I had said back then… and even more curious to see whether or not my thinking had matured over the intervening 50 years of life experience! So I read it.
Lo and behold, it begins with me having a bit of an argument with my Mom, Dodi Lance (of blessed memory). And as I read further, I realized that this might be something relevant in a “Mother’s Day” sermon. It was at the end of a lovely Mother’s Day back in 2017 (three years ago) that my Mom had her heart attack and died. It is in her memory that I wear this dark stole that she made for me. It was because of her that I chose for today’s service the old 1927 hymn: “Our Father, We Thank Thee for Mother… No treasure on earth can compare with her guidance and care, her love and her prayer. Our Father, we thank Thee for mother.” (lyrics by Grant Colfax Tullar)
I realize now that the half-page of tablet paper (written in two ink colors) was actually read by another one of our PF group as a means to “set up” my sermon. Here’s what I wrote in 1970 (unedited) with all the idealism and chutzpah of a teenager:
I woke up this morning and looked at the clock. What a relief! It was not even eight. I remembered the tone in my mother’s voice. Just before I went to bed she made it clear – I was going to church this morning. If I were to try to get out of it, there’d be a hassle and Dad would back up Mother. Hardly worth the fight – chances are I’d have lost anyway.
I remember last night’s argument. “But, why?” I kept asking. My mother’s answers weren’t any answers to me. “Because it’s the thing to do” – “Where would the world be if there were no churches?” – finally, “Because I say so!” I was full of arguments myself, last night. Sensible reasons why going to church isn’t sensible. But I didn’t get much chance to give them!
I guess I’ll give those arguments now.
What’s wrong with the church? For one thing, isn’t it usually dull? (!) You sit through a service, listening to inferior singers singing unexciting anthems and old hymns. The minister gives the same old prayers in a voice reserved for prayers. And the sermon – duller yet. Rambling on about people who lived long ago, or filled with words like “redemption” and “atonement” that I’ve heard but don’t really know. Nothing in the sermon seems to make contact with me where I really am. Really… what does the church offer that isn’t offered better (and less boring) from my HiFi or YMCA?
Another thing, the church is hypocritical – supporting the Status Quo. People usher Sunday morning and go back to normal the next day – out to get ahead without much thought about the talk of loving the neighbor. The church seems to give nothing but lip service to its ideals.
So, why should I go to church? It has never tackled anything big, like defining Truth or making Peace. It’s dull. It’s hypocritical. It’s ineffective. It has a set of beliefs that runs against reason and common sense. Maybe someday someone will answer these questions with something more than just “Because I say so.” (end)
No one can pretend the question of going to church is an easy one, so we can’t feed you any easy answers. But we can search for something beyond “just because”.
For the time being, let’s strip away the double talk and minor reasons. Isn’t it obvious that the main reason for going to church is that we believe God exists. (?) If God does exist, and if He is the kind of God that Christians have always believed He is, He is an intensely personal God – interested in you and me. If such a God is real, it is the most natural thing in the world for people to meet together at regular times, to worship Him together, to seek guidance from Him, and strengthen their individual faith by pooling whatever spiritual insight they have.
But we can’t just assume that God exists. Suppose He doesn’t?
So the basic question is: Does God exist? Does God really exist, not just as a “symbol” or figure of speech, but as a fact – a fact so real that the reality of books, and bricks -- and you and me -- is somehow a second kind of reality by comparison?
Reading the Bible, we find the existence of God is simply taken for granted. There is little discussion of “atheism” or religious “doubt”. Whether the biblical writers were looking at a lifeless desert, at the millions upon millions of stars in a dark sky, or at the teeming forms of life in a fertile valley, it seemed obvious to them that it was the work of a God who had always existed.
From the viewpoint of the Bible, God is the ultimate reality that sometimes confronts us along a lonely road or in the midst of our busy day. God does not reveal Himself in order to debate His existence. He comes to issue commands… or ask for a volunteer for some especially dangerous and demanding task.
For example, let’s take the sixth chapter of Isaiah, when he was confronted in the Temple by God. If you try to imagine what happened literally, it will seem like something from a Walt Disney cartoon. Isaiah became aware of the presence of God not as a subject for debate, but as a challenge to everything he was. He felt his own littleness and unworthiness. God took care of that and said, “I’ve got a job for someone to do.” Isaiah said, “I’ll take it on.” This is typical of the way the Bible looks at things. God is not a subject for bull sessions but rather Someone you may encounter while walking between physics and second-year German. And if you encounter Him, the chances are that He has a job for you to do.
After this type of experience, you would no longer be interested in arguments about the reality of God. You would know. Your parents might worry about your mental balance, but you wouldn’t bother to argue – you would know. You would be as certain as Saint Paul was after the experience on the road to Damascus when he had a vision of the Risen Christ and became an Apostle.
But there is a catch. Even in Biblical times, these dramatic experiences were rare. Only a few people had them. They came out of the blue; there was no way to have one just by wanting it.
There is another catch. Such an experience is so private that the person who has it cannot really convey it to another. An Isaiah, or a Saint Paul, is like a young man trying to explain the special charms of a girl you have never seen. Such a girl may actually exist, and she may be all he says she is. But seeing is believing and you haven’t seen her.
Our service this morning is really not for people who have had an experience like Isaiah’s vision or like Paul’s. They don’t need it. For most of us, however, we experience God in quiet ways. It may be a steady tug at the conscience – the sort of thing young Albert Schweitzer felt which gave him no rest until he set up a hospital in the African jungle. It may be a sudden surge of unexpected strength and a strange sense of peace when things seem most hopeless. It may even happen in church… when, for the only time in dozens of Sundays, something happens, and a Presence makes itself felt during one of the hymns or prayers or in the midst of a sermon.
All of these experiences are glimpses of God.
If you wait for the flaming vision, like Isaiah, you might wait all your life. Our questions about the existence of God won’t be answered that way. To some extent, we have to rely on the exper-ience of others. This is an unpopular thing to say, but it’s true: we need each other’s stories to help us see the invisible things of God.
Let me put it like this: When you first go to a museum of abstract art, every canvas may look like the crazy daubing of a child. You can dismiss this art with a superior snort is you wish. If you’re smart, though, you will talk to some artists and art critics. Their language may puzzle you, and still more the strange gleam in their eyes as they talk. But you will become convinced that they see all kinds of things that you don’t. If you are open-minded, you will think about what they have said and come back to the museum often to take another look. Maybe their insights can help you train your eyes so that, in time, you will begin to see something of what they see. The coward’s way out is to stay away from the museum.
One thing we must acknowledge, if we are fair, is that the ideals of the church are well known. Core beliefs such as: that God is the Creator of the Universe, for example, and we are made in the image of God in order to care for the world and each other…
… that human beings bear a deep spiritual connection both to nature and to other people whoever they are… that our love of God is shown best by our love of one another in practical ways – such as the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have them do unto you, and the social values of honesty, hard work, peace-making, forgiveness, and generosity – these ideals are so interwoven into our culture that they have provided much of our motives and sense of direction as a society, whether people go to church or not. The church has been useful to us all… for many generations. We are inheritors of their faith, and we should be thankful.
What I have just said about the usefulness of the church is not the main point I want to make right now. The main point is this: What are you going to do about men like Isaiah, St. Paul, and Schweitzer? Are you going to dismiss them as a bunch of self-deceivers and neurotics? That’s a cheap way out. Men like these have so great a sanity that most of us seem shallow by comparison. All in all, there seems at least enough possibility that God does exist to justify some further exploration on your part (before you conform to the group and write Him off).
Maybe God is real; maybe He’s Santa Claus. All right. Nothing you learn in algebra class or physics or social studies is going to make you certain either that God exists or that He doesn’t. The only way you can start to find out for yourself is to put yourself in a situation where you will have as good a chance as possible of somehow sensing the reality of God if there is one. There is where the church comes into the picture.
Everyone, unless they’re a complete clod, wants to find as many answers as they can, wants some kind of guide, cries out for meaning in life. Some useless custom may be cleared away, but you can’t build a whole life on “what I don’t believe”.
But perhaps (since you have doubts) you feel like a hypocrite.
You aren’t sure you really belong. Do you or don’t you believe what everybody else seems to believe? Do you have any right to be there unless you’re dead certain? Yes. You may not know it yet, but you have plenty of company in the church.
There are others thinking the same thoughts – and they aren’t all in their teens. They “half believe” or believe in “surges”. They aren’t phonies, but men and women who want to be honest with them-selves. If you are honest with yourself, there is no hypocrisy. You come as an honest doubter, an honest seeker.
And the church says that you are welcome here. You belong with us to God, through Jesus Christ, and His church.
Thank you for listening.