God as Verb

Passage: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13
Date: June 11, 2017
Preacher: Rev. Beth Neel
Guest Preacher:

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This morning I’d like to think and imagine with you a little, and explore the idea of God being a verb more than a noun, and what that might mean for us as we walk through our lives in faith.

Talking about God is a tricky thing – and listening to a preacher talk about God may or may not be all that invigorating. But let me first say that all language about God is metaphor – God is like an old man with a long white beard, or God is like a burning bush, or God is like a mother who will not abandon her nursing child. I’m not sure human language can adequately capture or define the divine, that which is not-human, or beyond-human.

But today is Trinity Sunday, which is always the Sunday after Pentecost, and it’s a good opportunity for us to ponder what God is or who God is. I promise you this will not be a sermon about the doctrine of the Trinity, and whether or not the Holy Spirit descends from the Father or from the Father and Son, a point theologians debated for a long time thousands of years ago. I will not offer a sermon on divinity math, where three is one and one is three. I will simply say, about the Trinity, what I think I have said before: that the doctrine of the Trinity is not about two men and a bird.

But I think this idea of a triune God, this mystery of God that is sometimes expressed as God being three persons, a Father, a Son, and Holy Ghost or Spirit, to use the traditional formula, is a pretty good metaphor. I say that because I think this weird divinity math gets to the same thing that saying God is a verb gets to: that God is dynamic, moving, not static, not operating in a vacuum.

Are you still with me? If not, we have lovely doodle scratch pads at your disposal. I just need about ten more minutes.

I did not originate the idea of God as a verb, so I’d like to give credit where credit is due. One could say the idea goes back to Exodus, when Moses encounters a bush that continually burns and discovers the presence of God. When Moses asks what this God’s name is, the answer is given: “I am who I am.” In the first letter of John, the writer declares that God is love, and as we all know, love is a verb.

There were some great 13th century mystics and theologians who offered the idea. Thomas Aquinas said that God is “pure act.” St. Bonaventure said that God is “self-diffusive love” which a contemporary theologian paraphrased, saying God is “love hitting the cosmic fan.” The mystic Mechtild of Magdeburg described God as “an overflow which never stands still and always flows effortlessly and without ceasing.”

In the 20th century, poet Buckminster Fuller wrote a piece entitled “God is a verb” and later in the century, author William P. Young said the same thing in his novel The Shack.

And here you are, on the eleventh day of June in 2017, and your pastor stands before you to add her voice to this chorus: God is a verb.

You would have to ask those other people what they meant by that, but I’ll explain what I mean. We can ponder and study God all that we want, and make God an idea, or a statue. There are days when for me, saying God is a person is like saying Kim Kardashian is a person. I see her picture in magazines, and if I watched a certain kind of TV, I’d see her on the screen. But I don’t know her because we have no interactions with each other.

Let me clarify quite quickly that I am not equating Kim Kardashian with God.

We know God by actions that we attribute to God, and by our interactions with God. Someone gets well, and we say, “Thank God,” implying that the healing was an act of God. We know God by what God does, and I would suggest today that we know God in particular in three verbs: God is “to love.” God is “to heal.” God is “to empower.”

First: God is “to love.”

I would hope that all of us here know what it is to be loved. In Gail Godwin’s novel Father Melancholy’s Daughter, the protagonist says this: “Is there something in the feeling – however fleeting, or ultimately mistaken, or soon to be disappointed – of having found the one you love and believing your love might be returned that may be all we know (or remember) of a better state of being?” (p. 334)

Do you remember that moment when you realized you loved someone, and you believed they loved you back? And can you imagine, or do you know, or have you had an experience of that kind of love with God? Maybe we know God because we know love.

Second: God is “to heal.”

I believe too that our best healing is of God, that God is “to heal.” You and I have known people who have made it through cancer, whose marriage didn’t tear into tiny shreds, who reached points of impasse only to have reconciliation and resolution. Here in church we offer those moments as our joys, and we say in one voice, “thanks be to you, O God.”

I carry this image that God is constantly mending, mending the cells the break down and mending the rift between nations. That’s a little dangerous, because you might start to picture God as duct tape, or needle and thread, or a welding torch, or penicillin. But you get my meaning.

If you don’t get my meaning, start doodling. I’ve got less than five minutes to go.

And third: if God is a verb, that verb might be “to empower.” We heard that last week in Caroline Kurtz’s sermon, about the power that grew in Maji, Ethiopia, over sixty years when a church burst into full flower and is now bringing light to the people.

The weird thing about divine empowering is that it doesn’t look like much. It doesn’t look like tectonic plates crashing and causing earthquakes, or all the kids at a Shriners Hospital scampering and racing with full ability and full heads of hair. It looks more like a mother reading patiently by a bed; it looks like a long meeting that people stick with until they work things out. It looks like the least likely person in the world speaking up, and a different person keeping their mouth shut. It looks like the slow weaving on a loom of a fabric that will eventually cover the world.

If we start thinking about God as a verb, maybe we’ll start thinking of ourselves that way, too. We are not photographs, one thing set in time. We are not that sweet toddler having a meltdown leaving the park. We are not that embarrassing photo from college. We are not our wedding picture. We are not our church directory photo. We aren’t static, and we are not known by an image others have of us.

We are known by what we do. That fact that we breathe and drink water and birth babies makes us human. We read to children. We carry signs at a march. We treasure our family. We invest in making our country both strong and humane. We dance. We sing. We read and think. We advocate. We pray. We hope. We grieve. We love. We heal. We empower.

Bishop John Shelby Spong has lived longer with this idea of God than I, and his words serve as a good conclusion. “God is not a noun that demands to be defined, God is a verb that invites us to live, to love, and to be.”