“God’s Change of Address”
14Then Jesus, filled with the power of the Spirit, returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country. 15He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone. 16When he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, 19to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
(Luke 4:14-21, NRSV)
Where is God? Perhaps we have asked this question at various points in our spiritual journey. My seven-year-old Charlotte asks me this question on a fairly regular basis. “Mom, where is God?” Following every horrific world and national tragedy that leaves us speechless, we ask in the depths of our soul, “Where is God?” At this time in our history, this reemerging age old question keeps us awake at night. This question is the catalyst for thought-provoking online dialogue and discussion among religious communities. It is the question that we ask as we navigate our spiritual lives amidst the backdrop of our world today.
For generations our understanding of God has been linked to an actual location. Up. In heaven. Above us, watching and observing us from a distance. Our theology has been shaped by this notion of a cosmic, ruler God who reigns above and ushers down to us grace and mercy. The hymn writers of old certainly subscribed to God’s upward locale as evidenced in the words of our beloved sacred songs. Sing praise to God who reigns above, the God of all creation, the God of power, the God of love, the God of our salvation. Love divine all loves excelling, joy of heaven to earth come down. Father all glorious, over all victorious, come and reign over us, ancient of days. High king of heaven, my victory won, may I reach heaven’s joy’s O bright heaven’s sun. Visions of rapture now burst on my sight; angels descending bring from above; echoes of mercy, whispers of love. The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend, even so it is well with my soul. I love to tell the story of unseen things above, of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love. Or if, on joyful wing cleaving the sky, sun, moon and stars forgot, upward I fly, still all my song shall be, nearer, my God, nearer my God to Thee.
Author and modern day theologian Dr. Diana Butler Bass recently released her latest book entitled “Grounded: Finding God in the World, A Spiritual Revolution.” Her words and stories for me are profound, insightful and indeed timely. A review from Publishers Weekly accurately describes her book in this way. “In her excellent treatise, Bass declares the current state of religion as not dying but transforming.” I could not agree more. With the grim outlook of religious institutions, her words call us to witness a spiritual revolution happening in the lives of people today.
Bass defines our existing understanding of God and challenges us to new possibility. She writes, “The conventional God existed outside space and time, a being beyond imagining, who lived in Heaven, unaffected by the boundaries of human life. Thus Western religion developed a language of what theologians call the omnis. God was omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient: all – powerful, in all places, and all – knowing. But the grounded God is a God of relationship with space and time as the love that connects and creates all things, known in and with the world. The omnis fail to describe this. Instead, we might think of God as inter, the spiritual thread between space and time; intra, within space and time; and infra, that which holds space and time. This God is not above or beyond, but integral to the whole of creation, entwined with the sacred ecology of the universe.” … “This revolution rests upon a simple insight: God is the ground, the grounding, that which grounds us. We experience this when we understand that soil is holy, water gives life, the sky opens the imagination, our roots matter, home is a divine place, and our lives are linked with our neighbors’ and with those around the globe. This world, not heaven, is the sacred state of our times.”
Bass shares a story in the book about a visit with a pastor in rural Kentucky. While in the small town for a speaking event, she is led around by a pastor friend. On a drive through the small community, her friend pulls over to point out one of the tallest churches in the town. He says to her, “The church building is one of those intimidating ones – it goes straight up. The first time I saw it, I got a neck strain, he laughed. The walls are high, with towering white pillars, and it has a very tall steeple. And it sits on one of the highest hills in the county.” He paused for a moment, thinking before he went on. “Everything is about the vertical; the building, the theology. It orients people away from the earth; it’s about ‘me and God’ and being with Jesus after death. The architecture points to heaven. Their faith is vertical too, he tells her.”
In today’s scripture lesson, we are reminded that God is a God of the horizontal. God is a God of the interconnected. Eugene Peterson’s version of today’s text reads, 14-15 Jesus returned to Galilee powerful in the Spirit. News that he was back spread through the countryside. He taught in their meeting places to everyone’s acclaim and pleasure.16-21 He came to Nazareth where he had been reared. As he always did on the Sabbath, he went to the meeting place. When he stood up to read, he was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. Unrolling the scroll, he found the place where it was written, God’s Spirit is on me; he’s chosen me to preach the Message of good news to the poor; Sent me to announce pardon to prisoners and recovery of sight to the blind, To set the burdened and battered free, to announce, “This is God’s year to act!” He rolled up the scroll, handed it back to the assistant, and sat down. Every eye in the place was on him, intent. Then he started in, “You’ve just heard Scripture make history. It came true just now in this place.”
Jesus calls us to take root in the here and in the now. Jesus calls us into the lives of people in our midst – to offer a better way of living – to offer a more fulfilled existence, now. We are reminded that Jesus came to us to show us that lives here on earth matter. That we are a part of a diverse tapestry of humanity seeking wholeness.
In Grounded, author Barbara Brown Taylor is quoted as she writes, “There is another way to conceive of our life in God, but it requires a different worldview – not a clockwork universe in which individuals function as discrete springs and gears, but one that looks more like a luminous web, in which the whole is far more than the parts. In this universe, there is no such thing as an individual apart from his or her relationships. Every interaction – between people and people, between people and things, between things and things – changes the face of history. Life on earth cannot be reduced to four surefire rules. It is an ever-unfolding mystery that defies precise prediction. Meanwhile, in this universe, there is no such thing as “parts”. The whole is the fundamental unity of reality.”
With social media and easy access to information, our world is more linked than ever. We are increasingly aware of the status of other people’s lives; even in the furthermost places of the globe. We are ever more aware that our actions in Manhasset, New York on some level may affect a person living somewhere else in the world. The world has become smaller in a sense and we begin to see the impact of our actions on the lives of others. Perhaps one of the challenges in this time of spiritual revolution is the notion that we are responsible for each other and that we are called to work for the good of everyone’s wellbeing in this life.
In the days following 9/11, when the world needed a reminder that goodness still existed in the universe, the Dalai Lama asked the world to embrace the “Golden Rule” as a way of healing. During this tragic moment in our modern history he spoke these words, “A central teaching in most spiritual traditions is: What you wish to experience, provide for another. Look to see, now, what it is that you wish to experience in your own life, and in the world…If you wish to experience peace, provide peace for another. If you wish to know that you are safe, cause another to know that they are safe. If you wish to better understand seemingly incomprehensible things, help another to better understand. If you wish to heal your own sadness and anger, seek to heal the sadness or anger of another. Others are waiting for you now…they are looking to you for love.”
Our theology shapes how we view the world. Our placement of God shapes our perspective on our daily living. Our theology dictates our treatment of people and the earth. In the evangelical circles in parts of my religious upbringing, God is far up – a distant God somewhere in heaven waiting to grant us our heavenly reward. Life is not so much about feeding our neighbors as it is about converting their souls so that they spend eternity with God. In fundamentalists’ circles, the belief is that the afterlife is where all will finally be right. The Earth is disposable because our true home is the one with Golden streets and mansions galore. In college my campus minister would often say to us, “Don’t be so heavenly-minded that you’re no earthly good.” When our views of God are vertical, we move further away from one another. We move further away from the earth and perhaps even our groundedness in our shared human existence.
While Bass challenges us to relocate God to the interworking’s of human activity, she also calls us to not forgo the mystery of God. She writes, “Some people might worry about losing a sense of the mysterious and transcendent aspects of God by making the divine presence too immanent, overly identified with the world around us…. To say that God is the air we breathe or in the sky that surrounds us does not negate the mystery of God. There is another location where earth and sky touch: at the horizon. The horizon is strange; it is the line where heaven and ground touch, but it moves when you approach it. Physicists talk about a “cosmic horizon”, the edge of the universe past what we see. Horizons retain an aspect of mystery, even a sort of transcendence. They are never quite where they once were; they always shift. To speak of God and sky is to speak of intimacy, but it also hints at a different sort of distance as well – not like God sitting far above the world, but perhaps more like God at the horizon. Just beyond what we can see, there is more. Not God above, but God at the edge, the edge of the visible world, the horizon of mystery.”
How might our lives change by giving God a new locale among us? How might we hold in tension a God just beyond what we can see and a God working with us each moment for justice and healing? How might our world begin to shift as we recognize our connectedness in the human story for wellbeing and wholeness? Our theology matters. How we sense and experience God structures our choices – and just might change the course of history.
In her concluding thoughts, Bass gives practical ways for us to become a part of this new spiritual vision. She invites us to engage as she writes, “This spiritual revolution challenges [us]. It challenges the vision of a distant God that has been the basis for much of religious life for generations. The good news is that God is closer than ever before, and many are making new connections with the spirit of love and life to heal the broken places of our world. It is surprisingly easy to join in: feel your feet on the ground, take a walk or a hike, plant a garden, clean up a watershed, act on behalf of the earth, find your roots, honor your family and home, love your neighbor as yourself, and live the Golden Rule as you engage the world. Pay attention. Play. Sing new songs, recite poetry, write new prayers and liturgies, learn sacred texts, make friends with those of other faiths, celebrate the cycle of seasons, and embrace ancient wisdom. Weep with those who mourn. Listen for the whisper of God everywhere. Work for justice. Know that your life is in communion with all life.”
The next time the inquiring mind of my seven-year- old asks, “Mom, where is God?” Perhaps I will say, “Honey, God is the One within space and time. God is with us as we tend to those who have been battered and set free those who have been broken. God is within our intuition and insights as we discover ways to take care of the poor and lift people from the valleys of despair. God is here, dwelling in our midst, working alongside us as we work for justice and wellbeing for all people. God is a part of the earth and continually calls out to us to preserve and protect its infinite beauty. God is at the edge of the visible world, just a bit further than what we can see – on the horizon of mystery. God is in the inspiration we feel when we hear a song that moves us to tears or when we hear someone’s story that moves us to action. God is here dwelling among us in all of human activity.
Our closing hymn today is from modern day hymn writer Carolyn Winfrey Gillete. Carolyn, inspired by Bass’ book “Grounded” wrote lyrics based on her new awareness of God and set them to a well-known tune. May the words of our closing song inspire us beyond our knowing. May we go now, as people of God and people within God, grounded in love. AMEN.
God of revelation and epiphany—
Through the words of the prophets
You have shown us the world
of your dreaming and longing:
A world built on justice,
overflowing with plenty,
and crowned with joy.
And through the coming of Emmanuel—
his living and loving,
his words and actions—
you have shown us
how such a world might be fashioned.
Help us to take, hold and grow into these understandings;
and, like Jesus,
may we always be ready
to live generously,
and act courageously,
that the Kingdom of your dreaming,
with its justice, abundance and joy,
may become the present reality
of all the peoples of this world.
We pray for the many needs today of people. Where there is violence, we pray for a peaceful solution. Where there is hurt, we pray that we would find ways to mend. Where there is hunger and thirst, we pray that we would find ways to quench and to satisfy. We pray for those who are separated from loved ones this day. We ask that you would comfort and sustain us as we seek homecomings and reunions.
We pray for those in our family of faith this morning.
Draw us closer to You and to one another in this new year. Through the name of Christ our sustainer we pray, Amen.
~ posted on the Monthly Prayers page of the Christian Aid website. http://www.christianaid.org.uk/resources/churches/prayer/church-seasons.aspx
 Bass, Dr. Diana Butler; “Grounded: Finding God in the World: A Spiritual Revolution”, 2017