“Faith: Faithfully Uncovering Our True Selves”
Hebrews 12: 18-29 ~ Northwood United Church – Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook – August 25, 2019
Does God have a split-personality? Is God akin to being like ‘Jekyll and Hyde’? Many will be familiar with the late 1800’s gothic novella “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” written by Robert Louis Stevenson. As the story progresses, we follow a lawyer’s investigation into the strange occurrences between his old friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll and the evil Edward Hyde. Over one century later, when we consider one’s unpredictable nature, we commonly use the term of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’. Yet, it is not just a fascinating gothic tale. This story has continued to be a part of our popular vernacular. I wonder if this is because it resonates with our understanding of people and, sometimes, God? Do you ever wonder if God has a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ personality? I have had many conversations with people trying to process their faith as they ask this question in their faith…if God has an evolving personality…or if God is beyond our comprehension? As people of faith, we read of a God who has characteristics of forgiveness, love and kindness. Yet, people point out that we also read about elements that may be perceived as anger, punishment and the infliction of pain. How do these, seemingly polar-opposite characteristics meld together? Would the real God please stand up, we ask with our deep faith! And so, this morning we continue our investigation into the process of growing a mature faith in our lives.
I know that summer provides an opportunity for travel and houseguests, so we do not see people as regularly on Sunday mornings as we might through the year. You may wish to pick up the full reflection notes from the past two weeks on the website or in the Gathering Area; however, the main areas of focus over the previous weeks have been two-fold. Firstly, we commenced by looking at an operating definition of what faith is. Secondly, we began exploring how faith is transmitted. This week, we begin looking at the wide breadth of an evolving faith in God. We look at how faith is not a static thing, but rather how a deep mature faith is one that is necessarily growing and evolving. As we live and grow through our journey in life, we continue to have a deeper and richer faith; a deeper and richer understanding into the nature of God in our lives.
As we first unpack the text before us, it appears on the surface to simply be one of compare and contrast between the past and the future. There is a comparison between the earthly realm and that of the heavenly; a comparison between the ways of old: Mt. Sinai and the promised ways to come: Mt. Zion. Mt. Sinai, of course, is that holy place from which Moses received the 10 commandments. It was encountered amidst the journey on the way towards the Promised Land. And the writer pairs the memories of this place with dark tangible struggles, suffering, and fear. We read of powerful images: a blazing fire, darkness and gloom, and the sound of a trumpet. By way of contrast, a more esoteric mountain is the one promised in the future by faith. It is the one that does not come with tangible assurances or visible rewards. Mount Zion, however, is a promise that comes through their journey of faith. Mount Zion did not come out of the blue. Mt. Zion was a part of their full journey and the same God had been with them all the way.
One of the deeply troubling ways that this text has been used historically has been in referring to a God of the past and a God of the future. Theologian Frederich Borsch examines how truly different those two images are. On the one hand, we see the God of Mount Sinai, of whom it’s said that people’s attempt to approach God would result in their being stoned. On the other, we see the God of Mount Zion, a God who welcomes all people and nations into fellowship and feasting, a God fully revealed to us in the love and mercy of God’s Son, a God who invites us to approach with boldness and confidence. How do we make sense of these two drastically different images of God: one of law and violence, the other of mercy and love; one of uncompromising holiness showing little sympathy to sinners, and the other, like a loving father, who because of his righteousness, stands ready and willing to forgive His children? What Borsch suggests is that to worship either of these two images, separately, at the expense of the other—to worship God as either the just judge demanding righteousness and punishing sinners, or to worship the God who is revealed to us through the love, forgiveness, and mercy of Christ—is to worship a God created after our own likes and dislikes. What Borsch points out is that neither one without the other points us to the God of our WHOLE faith story. It is a deep faith that allows us to see the unfolding of God in both Mt. Sinai as well as in Mt. Zion. God is revealed through Christ’s love. God’s children are welcomed with open arms to feast and experience fellowship with the divine; yet still, there is a sense in which the heavens shake when individuals abandon their faith, instead living ways of greed and selfishness. God is revealed in the pain and in the suffering; God is revealed in the joy and the pain. A deep faith allows us to see the whole richness of God in Sinai and Zion.
As you can see, this is where the metaphor of ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ starts to fall off because we realize that there are elements of Mt. Sinai as well as Mt. Zion to be embraced in our faith if our faith is to truly experience the full nature of God. The text concludes with naming God as being “a consuming fire”. In the past, a place of fire was considered to be that of torture, suffering and pain. Fires are interesting things to consider. As terrifying as they are, there is a lot going on with a fire. Scientists generally agree that wildfires serve the purpose of benefitting ecosystems. In some cases, they play an important part in the cycle of nature by destroying decayed matter and returning nutrients to the ground. They work like a natural sterilizer, eliminating plants, bacteria, insects and creatures hosting diseases and other potentially harmful things. Fires burn through thick brush canopies and overgrown areas, allowing sunlight to reach the ground, creating fertile ground for the next generation of seeds. In these instances, as terrifying as wildfires are, also have a beneficial component. They consume what’s overgrown, they cleanse from what’s harmful, and they refine by clearing room for the sun to shine down. A fire has elements of fear and destruction – like Mt. Sinai. Yet it also brings elements of hope – like Mt. Zion. I wonder if a more accurate description of a fire is that of cleansing and allowing new growth to occur.
Another use of fire is in metallurgy. Fire is used here as the smelter melts the raw materials and pours the dross, the waste, off. Each time she pours the dross off, they say her face is reflected more clearly in the increasingly pure gold that she is creating. Could this refining fire be a good metaphor for God as She refines Her creation into a closer and closer image of what we were created to be? I wonder if having a deep faith affords us that perspective that allows us to see God in the experiences of Sinai and Zion…in refining struggle and promised hope…in being called out for our brokenness and being welcomed home to begin again.
Theologian Richard Rohr, in his wonderful book “Immortal Diamond” puts forth the image of our life’s work as being that of allowing the internal spiritual diamond, that each of us hold in the depth of our beings, to be refined and one day emerge. In the book, he distinguishes between our two different selves: our false self and our true self. The False Self, Rohr argues, is our launching pad: it is our body image, job, education, clothes, money, car, sexual identity, success, and so on. The False self is essentially the trappings of our ego. There is nothing wrong with the false self, per se, yet we are much more than that false self. The True Self, however, is like the butterfly waiting to emerge from its cocoon. In a sense, it is our soul. Yet it is larger than just our soul as it includes Spirit. It is God’s image poured into our being. We will always have elements of our false self in our being, yet a deep faith allows us to move past that and realize the rich part of God’s creation that we truly are ~ in Rohr’s term, an ‘Immortal Diamond’.
I wonder if a deep faith allows us to further understand the depth of God alive in our world today. I wonder if this kind of a faith might allow us to see God at work in the challenging moments of time, creating space for the tomorrows that are yet to be birthed. A God of love and forgiveness on its own is insufficient; a God of anger and destruction is equally inadequate. Yet, a faith that allows us to see God in the Sinai and Zion moments of life reveals a God who is truly alive in all dimensions of life. In the past…in the present…and into our tomorrows.
Theologian Annie Dillard challenges any simplistic approaches to faith writing: “Does anyone have the foggiest idea of the power we so blithely invoke? It is madness to wear ladies’ straw and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should strap us to our pews” (see “Expeditions and Encounters”). And so, as we continue through the journeys of life, may we find a deep, rich faith that allows us to see God’s presence in the Sinai’s and the Zion’s of our journey.