Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor
11024 S. Bell Avenue
Chicago, IL 60643
Reflection August 30, 2020
"And Finally: God"- by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
(This sermon from August 23 began with the reading of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 & Matthew 5:13-16)
How does one sum up 46 years of preaching? Thousands of sermons? The simple answer: one doesn’t! We’ve come to the end of my pastoral ministry, the end of my preaching. Does this mean I’ll never preach again? I don’t know. Any possible answer lies in the hands of the One in whose name I was ordained so long ago.
And Finally: God. How else could I end? Everything begins and ends in God. Let me quote from my 2nd book, Fashioning a Healthier Religion (1992). This sums up my mission in life. “I am often embarrassed for God. Such godly embarrassment impels me to defend God from what is said and done in God’s name. I realize God is probably able to do a better job than I am capable of but God doesn’t seem to offer much defense. What if God is like the sweetheart whose honor must be defended? Perhaps part of my desire to ‘defend’ God is actually my desire for God.” (slightly edited)
We have walked the rocky road of faith together for more than 12 years. I have been the longest serving pastor in the history of our beloved church. We have endured much together, including a surfeit of loss. I’ve grown weary of loss. I suspect a goodly number of us have done so as well. Yet the story is always a never-ending story.
Last Monday evening I was bringing the Advance to the church office just as the pastoral search committee was getting ready to meet. I asked them if this was where I could apply for a job. Kidding, of course! Who wants a semi-decrepit 72, almost 73, year-old pastor? You can do better!
Now back to God! If I were to ask: How big is your God? How might you answer? If someone asked me how big is my God? What might my answer be? There’s really only one possible answer: Not big enough!
We go astray when we try to imagine or envision God. As I’ve preached before, God looks nothing like Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel rendition, even if many want God to look like that.
I recently read this in a book about the medieval German mystic, Meister Eckhart: “Imaging God with any human attributes inevitably causes confusion and harm to our vision of who God is (and how God works within us and among us.).”
Often we think we can “make a deal” with God. “Okay, God, I’ll give you this if you give me that.” But God is surely not some celestial version of Monty Hall! We can’t bargain with God. Trust me on this! I’ve tried to make a deal on more than one occasion. God is not a salesman. God is not in the business of selling anything, not even salvation.
Salvation is a gift, a grace. All we have to do is open our arms, open our heart, and accept the gift. It’s not hard! God is like that!
My two brothers, Jim and Jack, have been very, very generous to me over the years. I’m so grateful to have such generous brothers. But as generous as they are, they are overshadowed by God’s generosity. God is an over-flowing fountain of extravagant generosity.
According to Jesus (who should know), God is as insanely generous as a vineyard owner who pays every worker equally even those who work a very short time. According to Jesus (who should know), God is as insanely generous as the father of a prodigal son who goes through the family savings with reckless abandon.
God is more generous than we can imagine. Why do we limit God’s generosity to those who believe like we do? Why do we keep trying to put limits on a God who has no limits, a God who is infinitely beyond our human limitations and human thought?
As I’ve preached again and again: Who speaks for God? No one but God speaks for God. Mistrust anyone who claims to speak for God. They are either lying or they are plain crazy.
I pray that in my many years as your pastor, I have in some small way challenged each of us to break down the walls we erect around the enormity of God. It is my hope that in my many years in this beloved congregation, I have challenged us to relinquish faulty views of God.
God does not see the world as we do. We need to let go of all man-made images of God and acknowledge that our words will always fail us when it comes to God. Everything we can say about God is paltry compared to the reality of God. In the presence of God, everything fails us. All that remains is adoration and simple silence, all that remains is a radical expectancy.
I’ve found that when I open my hands to the Almighty, literally and figuratively, my hands become filled with the mystery of God’s grace, the mystery of God’s love.
The world is never as we think it should be. We pit one ideology against another ideology. In such battles, there is little space for God’s presence, little space for God’s goodness, little space for God’s indiscriminant mercy.
We are so solemn when it comes to religion. God keep us safe from all leaders, especially religious leaders, who lack a sense of humor. I use Voltaire’s famous remark: “God is a comedian playing to an audience that is too afraid to laugh.” There is much truth to be found in this quip.
Religion without humor is deadly. Politics without humor is deadly. I pray that I have, on occasion, helped us to at least smile even if we were too afraid to laugh. After all, it was G.K. Chesterton who famously remarked: “The reason angels can fly is that they take themselves so lightly.”
Humor helps us achieve a necessary detachment in life. My favorite philosopher, Jacob Needle-man, writes: “The greatest saints and sages of the world have exhibited a breath-taking contradiction: (They show) an extra-ordinary involvement in the whole life of we, humans, together with a luminous detachment as well.” I pray in my years here I’ve exhibited a touch of this important trait.
Let me confess as my professional life comes to a conclusion: I possess, by nature, a shy soul. My style of ministry and pastoral service is relatively muted.
I’m not like my twin brother, Jack, who is very gregarious and socially adept. Everyone likes Jack! Me, not so much! I’m less sociable. I pray my personal style did not interfere too much with my attempts to speak boldly about the God I love and worship.
It is the foremost task of a pastor to fall in love with the people he or she serves. But here’s the difficulty: In my 12 years as your pastor, I’ve not always felt a deep-love for each and every congregant because I am flawed. No surprise there! But here’s the other truth: Not everyone was always lovable. We are all flawed. However, bottom line, I leave here with a deep and abiding affection for each and every member of this beloved community.
My own life is a mystery to me. Each life is, at core, a mystery. I pray I’ve been able to help some of us plunge into the Mystery which enfolds us, the Mystery which surrounds us, the Mystery which sustains us.
Years ago, I’d teach the friars preparing for ordained ministry that a pastor is meant to be more than a conscientious social worker or a plant manager. A pastor is called to lead people on pilgrimage. I hope I have done such!
In a few days, I’ll move away from the comfort and consolation of this beloved community. But I do not leave you. I will carry each of you in my heart. And not only you, but also those who have gone before us into the Eternal Enormity of God. Let me assure you, if I get to God before you, I will boast to God of the goodness of each member of this mighty faith-community.
I wish we could have had a proper farewell but such is not possible in these days. I wish I could end my time here with the sharing of food and the sharing of laughter but such is not to be. So I must head off like the proverbial thief in the night!
As you know, I love searching for truths to bring to us so let me add the following two truths. The first is from the theologian Catherine Mowry LaCugna and her masterful book, God For Us: “The saints are those who have been converted by the gospels, who live in conformity with the truth of their own personhood, whose exercise of sexuality is a blessing, who are detached from wealth, whose words build up and not denigrate others, who devote themselves to the service of others.” This is a good guide to a holy life, a good guide to becoming what we all seek to become: a saint of God.
Here’s a favorite quote from the writer, Morris West’s A View from the Ridge: “The act of faith is not a leap from darkness into light. It is an affirmation that lights exists beyond darkness, that the chaos and cruelties of existence do, in the end, make sense, and that the primal act of creation, with all that issued from it, was an act of love.” And so it was. And so it is.
I have great hope that you’ll continue on as you have done these many years. I know that many here understand deeply Dr. King’s words: “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
I end with words from a letter sent to our church not long ago from a woman of a different congregation: “Dear Rev. Aldworth: Morgan Park Baptist Church is a light for our community and I am grateful for this beacon of hope...I pray that Morgan Park Baptist Church will continue to be a light to our community.” This is my prayer as well.
Jesus gets the last word: “You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled underfoot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lamp stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others…” (Matthew 5:13-16) Amen and Amen!