A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, November 16, 2014
Job 42:1-6 CEB
This past Friday night, we had the opportunity to attend the Annual Salon and Gallery Walk of the Camera Club of Oak Ridge, held at the New Hope Center. Truly there are some wonderful and very talented photographers in Oak Ridge, including our own Yvonne Dalschen. Yvonne again this year took several first-place blue ribbons. And she claimed Best of Show in both the colored and black and white print categories. As one strolls past the hundreds of photographic entries, it can almost be overwhelming. Such exquisite artwork. Such creativity and diversity. Such interesting subject matter. Such a gallery truly is a feast for both eyes and soul.
Then yesterday, we attended the Pilot Club’s craft fair held at the Oak Ridge Civic Center. There is always at least one photographer there as well selling his photographs. Of course, my primary interest is nature photography, especially landscapes, trees, flowers and black bears.
But I must confess that as an amateur photographer myself, I sometimes get frustrated when taking my own pictures, especially landscapes. I find that it often is impossible to capture with a camera what one sees in the world of nature. I have often stood in awe as I looked across a forest or mountain landscape, and so wanted to capture on film the image my eyes were seeing. But I have also often been disappointed with the image my camera captured. A case in point is a recent photograph I took of the Great Smoky Mountains. As we drove across the Smokies through Newfound Gap, we saw some gorgeous landscapes on the North Carolina side. And I shot several photographs, trying to capture the natural beauty we beheld. But then when we later viewed my pictures, the images we saw nowhere near compared to what we had actually seen with our eyes. Such is often the case. Sometimes there is no way to capture the majesty, vastness, and wonders of the natural world. Another good case in point is the Grand Canyon. How would you capture on film the majesty and awesomeness of the Grand Canyon? Or Niagara Falls? Some things in life—such as mountain landscapes or the Grand Canyon or massive waterfalls—can be experienced, but they are beyond capturing on film, beyond description, beyond explanation, beyond adequately sharing with another. There is no way I would adequately describe the majesty of the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls. In the words of Job, such are “wonders beyond comprehension” (Job 42:3 CEB).
And so it is when I think about God—the Divine, the Sacred, the Holy One. Or when I think about the Great Mysteries of the universe. God, or the Sacred, or the Great Mystery may be experienced, but when you get right down to it, God is beyond description, beyond explanation, beyond adequately sharing with another. Such happens to be one of the primary messages of the book of Job. As the ancient story goes, Job and his friends had conversed long and hard about God and the ways of God, and Job’s friends seem to have felt like they had God and the ways of God all packaged up in a neat little box. But one of the conclusions of the book is that knowledge of God and the ways of God are beyond understanding and description. One may experience God or the Sacred, but one can never hope to adequately understand or offer an accurate description or explanation of God.
But you wouldn’t know this by listening to some religious television or religious radio, where many popular preachers seem to fully understand God, speak for God, and sometimes even say “God told me such and such.” As I have grown older and wiser, I am more and more suspect of anyone who claims to have an intimate knowledge of God and says God told me such and such.
Several years ago, I knew a minister who was known for leading mission trips to various places—building simple houses for impoverished peoples and such. And the work that was done by this minister and his mission groups was good work. There is no disputing that. But this particular minister had an uncanny way of getting others onboard to support whatever project he was working on. This minister had the habit of going up to someone and saying something like, “God told me that he wants you to go on such and such mission trip.” Or “God told me that he wants you to become a member of the church board.” Or some other such declaration. I don’t know about you, but that approach troubles me greatly. The “God told me” mentally can, and often does, become an excuse to promote one’s own agenda, and the end can, and often does, justify the means to get there, even if it means resorting to persecution and violence.
The original point was that God and God’s ways are beyond description and explanation, and it is scary whenever religious groups and religious leaders claim to be receiving direct communications from God. I recall the words of John Shelby Spong, in his book, Jesus for the Non-Religious: “God for me is a reality that can be experienced, but when I try to speak of this experience, I discover that God always transcends the grasp of my explanations” (11).1 On his blog, Spong responds to a question by saying, “I believe I can experience God, but I can no longer define God in theistic terms.”
But we seem to have this need or desire to understand and analyze everything and dissolve away all mystery. There is a need among many to clearly define the concept of God, and maybe even bring God down to our level, so that God becomes a good buddy or Santa Claus-type figure. Perhaps the thinking is if I can completely understand God, then I will know how to please God and I will also know how to get what I want from God.
But earliest attempts at religion were born in the womb of mystery. And could it be that when we seek to dispense with all religious mystery, we lose some of what makes religion meaningful for us? True, there are parts of religious expression that involve the moral aspect, relational aspect, kindness and compassion aspects, and justice aspect. But there are other parts of religion that involve the Great Unknown, the Other-Worldly, the Mystery.
All of which brings me back to my original thesis that there are just some things in life that can be experienced, but not captured. From my vantage point, I don’t ever hope or expect to be able to comprehend, understand, or adequately describe to another the Sacred, the Divine, that which we call “God.” I may at times talk about, and maybe even try to explain what I mean by the Sacred, the Divine, or God, just as I will keep trying to capture with my camera those magnificent landscapes of Nature of which I stand in awe. But I realize that sometimes I will just have to be content knowing I cannot adequately capture or describe that which is majestic, awe-inspiring, “beyond my comprehension” (to use Job’s terminology). Sometimes I will have to just be content with the experience itself. But isn’t that in part what religion is all about? Amen.
1John Shelby Spong, Jesus for the Non-Religious. New York: HarperOne, 2008.