Summary: A sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany, Series A.
2nd Sunday after Epiphany, January 20, 2008 “Series A”
Grace be unto you and peace, from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Heavenly Father, you have revealed yourself to us through your Word, recorded in the Scriptures, spoken by the prophets, but most clearly through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, your Word become flesh. Through the power of your Holy Spirit, open our hearts and minds to your Word, that we might in this present hour, that we might perceive your presence among us, embrace your truth for our lives, and gain the courage to witness to others of your redeeming grace. This we ask in Christ’s holy name. Amen.
This past week, as I read through the various commentaries that I have, in preparation for this sermon, I was struck by the comparison that William H. Willimon made of two books. One of those books, entitled The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James, was required reading for a course I took in seminary. The other book, The Heart of Christianity: Discovering a Life of Faith by Marcus Borg, I have not read.
In all honesty, I was rather troubled by Dr. Willimon’s summation of the concluding themes of these two books, which, if it is accurate, should trouble us all. So let me begin by paraphrasing Dr. Willimon’s comments.
“Toward the end of his book, William James contrasts a God who does ‘wholesale business’ with a God who does ‘retail business.’ Borg picks up on this imagery, contrasting a ‘wholesale God’ with a ‘retail God.’ The ‘wholesale God,’ according to these authors, is a God abstracted from the language of any particular religious tradition. This is the God of modern philosophical theology, says Willimon, and then he adds, the God of a lot of popular American Christianity. For example, the Theologian Paul Tillich does not refer to God in his Systematic Theology as ‘Father,’ but rather as ‘Ultimate Reality.’ William James once referred to God as ‘The More.’
This wholesale God is what many modern day persons refer to when they talk about the concept of ‘God.’ The wholesale God is God in the abstract understanding of a Supreme Being, some vague concept of a force or energy that was behind the creation of the universe. As Hollywood put it in the Star Wars movies, ‘The force be with you.’
On the other hand, these authors admit that there is a ‘retail God.’ This is the way that most religions talk about God. This is the God of the church and synagogue, which are the retail outlets and local distributors of the concept of God in our communities. The ‘retail God’ tends to be personified, have personal characteristics such as a proper name and distinctive attributes, like a person.
But Borg goes on to say that problems arise when we take these personal attributes of God literally. For example, the phrase ‘The right hand of God’ might be taken to mean that God really has hands. Or, as happened a couple of years ago, when a group of Baptists separated themselves from the Texas Baptist Convention on the grounds that they believe that God is a gendered being, specifically that God is a male being. Of course, Borg says, that is silly.
Dr. Willimon then concluded, I hate to be sarcastic about this, but I will just say that I can sure understand why many people in our time want to hear about the ‘wholesale God. The more vague and impersonal we can make God, the better for us. I have noted over the past few years how many Christians seem to talk little about Jesus and talk a great deal about God. ‘We have our differences,’ they say, ‘but we all believe in God.’ In order to get unity we sacrifice God as a distinct, particular, personal being.” End of my paraphrase quote. [Pulpit Resource, Logos Productions Inc., 2008]
Now, I am not one who takes the Scriptures literally. I do not believe that if Josie and I are walking down the beach on a warm summer day, and we happen to notice the physique of an attractive young man or woman, that we need to pluck out our eyes. Much of Scripture uses hyperbole and other literary styles that were appropriate for their day, in order to convey the truth of God’s Word to us. And as I pointed out in several of my classes, there is a progression of thought through the years over which the Scriptures were written, that adds to the depth of our understanding of God.
But as I read the Scriptures, God is never portrayed as some abstract being or cosmic force. On the contrary, God is pictured as revealing his own, non-gendered self to us, through specific individuals, in specific ways, in specific circumstances, which were expressed through the specific words and stories of a paternalistic society. Now, I realize that that was a mouthful. But the point that I am trying to make, is that God doesn’t reveal himself to us in the abstract, or in the philosophical musings of our human attempts to make sense of life.