How do you know God is real?

Psalm 19/Acts 4:32-37                 How do you know God is real?                              8.21.16

Different generations ask different questions about the way we connect to God.  Some of you remember the decades when the question was: “So where do you go to church?”, with church attendance being the way to God and assuming that church attendance was the norm.  Then the question became:  “Do you have a church family?”, no longer making an automatic assumption, but still expressing the belief that belonging to a church is the way to God.  The generations under 35 or so are asking a question which requires more reflection.  It has nothing to do with church attendance, but it gets at the core of our faith.  “How do you know God is real?”    If you don’t know God is real, what sense are the songs, the prayers, the sermons, the church building, the church programs?

How do you know God is real?  I can’t tell you how to answer that question.  You must answer it for yourself.  I can point you to several different ways humans have identified God as real, found in the two passages we read this morning.  The psalmist points to the created world around us as evidence that God is real.  It is the sky and the earth, the daily course of the sun which never falters, which point to the Creator God who has to be real.  You will find multiple psalms extolling God as the creator.  A real God on a cosmic level.

The psalmist also points to the written word of God, the laws, decrees, precepts, ordinances, and commandments which come from the mouth of God to the people of God.  The psalmist sees the written word of God–for him it is the Old Testament code of law, but for us it is also the New Testament law of love in Jesus Christ– as the guide for how we must live, as the rule by which we are measured, as an external code giving us internal standards.  A real God active in history.

Another way to know that God is real is to see the actions of God-inspired people.  Look at the description of the life of the early church in the book of Acts.  Why would First Christian Church of Jerusalem have created their community of faith based on pooled resources, including housing?  They created a community where poverty and income disparity were erased.  The apostles shared their own personal testimony about God as real in the form of Jesus being  raised from the dead and that God’s grace filled them all.  Their actions tell me that God was real to them.  On a community level.

How do you know God is real?  I want to invite Janice Sabb, a member of our Sunday morning language class, to share a testimony about her perspective on how God is real.

I want to share a couple of recent “God is real” incidents in my own life.  One was four years ago, when I “happened” to meet a Presbyterian pastor from Myanmar at the multicultural conference.  When he learned I was from Baltimore, he shared that a Falam-speaking congregation of recent immigrants was looking for a place to worship, as they had outgrown meeting in an apartment.  We met with several session members and leaders of the Falam congregation, and made a decision to share space here in this building, and to share educational opportunities for children, to worship, work and fellowship together at times.  The rest is history.

The other was just this past week.  We took a whirlwind trip back to Hickory, NC (we were there about 20 hours on the way home from our family vacation at the beach), to visit a few friends and to see our old house and the church we left behind when we moved to Baltimore.  I did not make a lot of appointments, but trusted that a facebook post and word of mouth would get the message out to people who might be interested in having lunch at a particular restaurant.  An amazing cross section of people came who we knew in a variety of capacities.  A fellow pastor, who is also moving out of NC, just happened to be in the area last week, finishing her ministry there.  Members of the Latino congregation which I helped to found.  Church members who are still active in the congregation and some who had moved to other churches in the last 5 years.  But the best “God is real” incident was the opportunity to say good bye to a saint of the church who is dying of cancer in her home, surrounded by her adult children and grandchildren.  We talked, prayed and sang with her.  A friend of mine calls these “the little miracles” that happen in our lives– surprise connections, being in the right place at the right time, something working out that you did not expect to work out.  To me, these “little miracles” are evidence that God is real.  On a personal level.

I know God is real on multiple levels:  in the creation I am a part of , in the history of my people of faith, in the daily life of a community of believers, and in my own personal experiences.  I know God is real in my head and in my heart.  As a good Presbyterian, I believe we need both.

How about you?  I encourage you to reflect on your own answers to this question.  When you can tell others how you know God is real, you are answering a question that eats at many people today who are really not sure God is real at all.  You become a witness, an evangelist, a bringer of good news.  Amen.


Why does the Gospel matter?

I want to thank you for giving me the time at the end of July to spend away in a setting like Massanetta Springs.  When I am away, I am not available for visits or meetings or planning church activities.  And I have noticed that when I am away, life at HRPC goes along just fine!  That is the sign of a healthy church.  I am grateful because just being in the Shenandoah valley is refreshing for me.  Being there with thought provoking preachers and teachers is energizing.  Being there with friends from my past is fulfilling.  And being there with Hunting Ridge folks is exciting.  I love to share a special place with others!

Our conference theme was “Celebrate the Church”.  More than one speaker from the pulpit or lectern reminded us that church life as we once knew it is over.  John Vest, an evangelism professor at my alma mater, Union Presbyterian Seminary, even suggested that we are entering a post-congregational time.  That is a time when congregations gathered in a church building for weekly worship and education are no longer relevant for the world in which we find ourselves.  No one sitting in a church building wants to hear that.  It is unsettling.  We think, what about our traditions?  What about our history?  What about our programs?  What is there to celebrate if we don’t focus on our congregation?

Vest reminded us that we have long been focused on the what and the how of doing church.  It is a natural, tried and true way of running an institution.  You create a structure, build leadership, call a pastor, plan, implement, evaluate programs and events, and then plan again.  We look for the next greatest curriculum that will attract adults.  We work hard to create learning opportunities for children and youth at times that work for our families.  We spend hours planning for and talking about our music, our worship, our education, our building, our mission near and far.  We count on disciples to give of their time and their gifts, and to give of their money to keep the institution going forward.

But WHY?  Why are we doing all of these things?  When do we stop and take some time to ask ourselves, why?  Why do you affiliate with this church family?  Why are you here today, or any Sunday?  Gone are the days when people came to worship out of habit, or peer pressure, or to look good in front of the boss.  You come to worship in 2016 because you choose to come.  But why? I hope that at least a part of your answer has to do with the gospel of Jesus Christ and your relationship to it.  We claim to be believers in Jesus Christ, people entrusted with job of sharing the gospel message.  So let’s go a little deeper.  Why does the gospel matter?  Why does it matter to you personally?  Why should it matter to people on the periphery of the church?  To people very, very much on the outside of the church?

This is our question to ponder this morning.  In order to tackle it, we first need to reflect on what the gospel is in the first place.  I am going to invite some conversation aloud about several questions this morning.  First we have to be clear in our own minds:  “What is the gospel?”  What do you think?

Is it John 3:16?  This one verse is quoted everywhere as the gospel in a nutshell.  “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.”  Is the gospel what happened in the past?  God sending his son to die on our behalf?  Then the good news is that God loves us.  That is true.  Or is the gospel what is promised for the future?  Life eternal with God in heaven?  Then the good news is that there is life beyond this one.  That is also true.

John Vest pushes the envelope here.  He challenged us to see the gospel not only as the past deed of God in Christ nor only as the future promise of God to be with Christ, but also as the present goal of God through Christ for the world.  The gospel is not just about me and what happens when I leave this physical body behind.  The gospel is about what happens in a world which is clearly not operating the way God intended.  The gospel is about changing the ways of the world into the ways of God.  Today.  Right here.  Through you and through me.

Why does the gospel matter to you personally?

Why does the gospel matter for those who do not know it?

The beginning of the gospel of Mark (the good news about Jesus Christ) describes the beginning of Jesus’ adult ministry, being baptized by John, publicly identified as the son of God, and then tempted in the wilderness.  The first words out of his mouth are these:  “Now is the time!  Here comes God’s kingdom!  Change your hearts and lives, and trust this good news!”  You will note that instead of the traditional “repent and believe the gospel”, the Common English Bible translation focuses on the root meaning of the Greek word for repent as a change of heart and a change of behavior.  This is not someone preaching about Jesus.  This is Jesus preaching:  God’s kingdom is going to be different from the worldly kingdoms we are used to.  You can’t keep polluting the earth and water and sky, you can’t keep polluting minds and hearts, you can’t continue to walk in the ways of injustice, violence, abusiveness, and so on.   You can’t remain silent about things that truly matter.  Jesus’ good news is about change.  Changed hearts, changed lives, a changed world.  His good news is that we must be transformed so that we can transform the world in which we live.  Loving God and loving neighbor do matter.  And that is the gospel.

I encourage you to spend some time reflecting on why.  It is a whole lot more important than the what or how questions.  Why are you a part of this congregation?  Why are you here today?  Why does the gospel matter?  Chew on that for awhile.  Continue the conversation with one another.  I look forward to continuing the conversation as well.  Amen.