Who is God? We like to take on the easy questions…. How much time have we got? A caveat as we get started: I will address a tiny sliver of the possible answers to this enormous question.
Let us pray.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
We’re going hiking. We drive north to Burlington and then hang a right into the North Cascades. We pass Marblemount and park at a trailhead for Cascade Pass and Sahale Arm. The trailhead parking lot is in this beautiful valley surrounded by mountains. Already, before I even get my hiking boots on, I’m standing there with my mouth open saying, “Wow.” The valley comes to a V ahead of us. The forest gives way at higher elevations to craggy granite. Above the far ridge is brilliant blue sky and a few puffy clouds drifting by. And as I stand there, a rock on the far side breaks loose from the face that has held it for thousands of years, and it bounces and tumbles down to its new home at a lower elevation. It was waiting all this time for us to be there to witness its descent.
We start up the trail through the woods, sunlight filtering through the Douglas firs and cedars. We cross small creeks, zigzagging up the many switchbacks, and at every turn the view keeps expanding. Wow and more wow. Eventually we can see another ridge poking up behind the one we’ve been looking at. Finally we reach Cascade Pass, the saddle right on the ridge, and now we can see not only the valley we’ve been crisscrossing but a whole other valley to the east toward Lake Chelan. There are multiple ridges, layer upon layer of mountains stretching out to the horizon. We can see glaciers on the north face off to our right, mountain meadows full of huckleberry and Indian paintbrush to our left. We sit there for a while and soak it all in. As we continue up toward Sahale Arm, a tarn appears below us. Marmots whistle to each other from their burrow entrances, and the sound echoes through the air. Higher still and we reach talus, finally a field of snow, and then the peak of Sahale Arm. From there we can see 360 degrees, mountains in all directions. We are sitting on top of the world.
And from this vantage point we feel how fleeting is this moment in the scale of time that has shaped these mountains. They have been here for thousands of years. We are just a blip. How humbling. How awe-inspiring. We soak in the view of the rocks, the snow, the tarn, the cool air and drifting clouds. Surely God is in this place. It is holy and beautiful beyond our ability to capture it.
We descend to a level spot for camping and set up our tents. After dinner, we watch the sun set over the ridge at our backs. A sliver of a moon rises before us. And the stars! They are their own symphony. We can see the Milky Way, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Cygnus the Swan, and so much more. We feel the awe of the psalmist of Psalm 8, some of which we read as part of our opening prayer today:
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4)
Anne Lamott writes of awe in her own faith journey: “I didn’t need to understand the hypostatic unity of the Trinity; I just needed to turn my life over to whoever came up with redwood trees.” (Anne Lamott, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith.) Yes!
So part of our conviction that God even exists may come from our experience of awe in the presence of God’s magnificent creation.
But we want to know more about this mystery, this creator who is too big, too vast, too endlessly creative, too omnipresent for us to grasp. One way to try and wrap our heads around the mystery of the Divine is to give it a name. Moses had this same urge. You may recall in Exodus Moses is out in God’s mountain wilderness tending his father-in-law’s sheep when he encounters a burning bush that is not burned up. Curious, he turns aside to find out more. God’s voice says, “Take off your shoes, Moses. You are standing on holy ground.” Moses ends up having this life-changing conversation with God. And as God is telling Moses to go back to Egypt and free the Israelites from slavery, Moses has a few questions. Moses lives in the midst of civilizations that worship many gods, who have names and specific superpowers: Baal, Astarte, Asherah. They all have names. Moses knows he will be asked for the name of this god he has met in the burning bush.
We like names. They help us sort and label and identify things. They tell us that God is a noun, a being, a thing. But God refuses to have a simple name. God can’t just have a name like “Joe.” God say, “I AM WHO I AM.” Notice how much this name lives in the verb, the being. God’s response could be seen as dismissive—I am who I am, and you don’t need to know my actual name. Or this name could be seen as so all-encompassing that it is beyond names.
What if God is a verb? To God. That feels to me like a good way to describe Spirit. Spirit is moving in us and through us and among us. God as a noun can be stationary, sitting quietly in a box. And that box might be shaped like a church, or a temple, or a mosque. God as a verb is busting out, not coloring inside the lines, moving and shaking, whispering, calling, shouting in the streets, forgiving, redeeming, living, challenging, speaking truth to power, marching for justice, healing, comforting, accompanying.
When we encounter God on a mountaintop or in a pillar of cloud or a rainbow or a burning bush, we experience God as everywhere and in everything. Theologian Sallie McFague suggests that creation is God’s body, but that there is more to God than this. Jesus tells us that when we do something to the least of these, we do it to him. We are to see Christ in every person. God is not only in every person but in all of creation—or rather, all of creation is in God. No wonder the writer of Psalm 139 says,
Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.
If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you.
For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well. (Psalm 139:7-14)
When Paul visits Athens, he sees the statues of or altars to gods all over the city, and we know many of these gods’ names. For example, the city is named for the goddess Athena, and Paul is led to speak at the Areopagus, which is a speaker’s hill named for the god Ares. So many gods, and just to be sure they haven’t left any out, the Athenians have made an altar to an unknown god. That is the god that Paul proclaims. And Paul describes God as the one “in whom we live and move and have our being.” We can’t flee to the farthest shore to escape God. God created that farthest shore. God is in it, just as God is in us. Or rather, we and that farthest shore are in God. It is all God. It is all mystery.
When I wrote my ordination paper, I had to discuss the Trinity: God the Creator, Christ the Redeemer, and Holy Spirit. These are three ways to think about the Divine, and they correspond to three ways of understanding that divine presence in our midst. So those are three useful ways of thinking about God: Creator, Redeemer, and Holy Spirit.
In the hymn that we will sing after this sermon there are many more names for God: Way, Truth, Life, Light, Feast, Strength, Joy, Love, Heart. These are ways of thinking about the Divine, too. In the prayer I often say at the beginning of a sermon, I adapt the closing words of Psalm 19, “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer” (Psalm 19:14). God is our rock, our firm foundation. And God redeems us, through love and grace, from all the false steps that we make.
God is emerging and also not yet. People throughout history have understood that there is more to creation—and more to life—than we are able to perceive with our senses or know with our brains. There is mystery, and in that mystery there is something holy, something divine. We catch glimpses of it from time to time—on a mountaintop, looking at the stars, sitting alone or together in prayer, serving those in need, listening to really moving music, watching a baby be born or a loved one die. We don’t understand it, but we feel it strongly and undeniably. We dwell in the awe and the mystery. We perceive this emerging and not-yet God like we’re standing on the ridge at Cascade Pass, having seen the one valley, the emerging God, but now looking toward another valley and toward the countless layers of mountains stretching to the horizon, the promise of all that is yet to be.
Who is God? We can only begin to answer that question. But we know that God is, and also that God desires to be in relationship with us. We glimpse God in rare and shining moments. May we continue to be open to God’s presence in and all around us throughout our lives and beyond. Amen.