Where Do We Find God?

October 16, 2016 — Rev. Dr. Edward Dougherty


Where do we find God? Or to use the phrase I prefer, where do we find the Divine Presence? Do we find that Presence in our Sunday worship service, in the hearts of other people, in the awesome beauty of our natural surroundings, or in the still small voice of silence that comes between crashing waves on the beach? Perhaps in all those places. But one thing is certain, the search goes on throughout our life no matter how old or young we may be or how many times we may have found that presence, the search goes on.

As many of you know, Barbey and I moved to Biddeford Pool full time last October. Although I was born and raised an Episcopalian and am an ordained Episcopal Priest, we decided to go to the Union Church, given the fact the nearby Episcopal Church, St. Martin’s in the Field, is only open in July and August.  As a non-denominational church, using a congregational style of worship, The Union Church is quite different from the more formal liturgy found in the Episcopal Church.  Barbey grew up and we were married in a church that alternated Episcopal and Congregational styles of worship.  I chose to go to a non-denominational divinity school and worked in a United Church of Christ for 2 years while I was in seminary, so moving to the Union Church was not too much of an adjustment for us, but it did take some time getting used to the change and it got me to thinking about how these two traditions are similar yet different.

When I refer to congregational styles of worship, it is with a small “c” and applies to the Free Church tradition coming out of the Protestant Reformation. When I refer to the liturgical churches I include the Episcopal, Lutheran, Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

Let me talk for a moment about some of the differences. First, Episcopalians get a lot more exercise. We are constantly standing up and sitting down and even kneeling on occasion, while the congregational tradition spends much more time sitting. You may stand up to sing a hymn or the doxology, but that’s about it.

Second, the music is very different at the Union Church and includes a lot of popular music using a variety of instruments, much of which dates back to the 70’s and 80’s. You also sing familiar hymns but change the words ever so slightly in a disconcerting way for an Episcopalian.

Third, those using a congregational liturgy leave a lot of stuff out of the service that Episcopalians take for granted. For example, in this church there is no Gloria, no Creed, no Confession, and no set Eucharistic prayer. I will come back to talk about some of these forms in a moment.  On the other hand, the sermons are at least twice as long as a typical Episcopal sermon and a lot of time is spent talking and praying about the needs of specific people in the congregation and issues of social justice. You also laugh a lot and have a real sense of fellowship and concern for each other.

After several months attending the Union Church I came to realize that the search for the Divine Presence is different in this congregational tradition than the more liturgical churches. In its simplest form, the Congregationalists search for God is focused on fellowship; in finding the Divine Presence in other people, while the liturgical churches place more of an emphasis in finding God in the liturgy with an emphasis on awesome majesty of the Divine Presence that is portrayed as being at some distance from human kind. The liturgical churches tend separate the Divine Presence from humans who are seen in need of God’s forgiveness and mercy, while the congregational churches emphasize the closeness of that Divine Presence. There are certainly elements of both majesty and fellowship in both traditions, and I would argue that unless both elements are present, we miss the most important thing that Jesus has to tell us about the nature of the divine mystery we call God.

We see these two elements side by side in the gospel lesson (Matt. 22:34-40) we read for this morning.  In this lesson, a Pharisee comes to Jesus and asks him, “Which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus’ answer is not really new. He responds by quoting back passages from Deuteronomy and Leviticus in the Hebrew Bible, saying, the two great commandments are to “Love the Lord your God with all our heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and to Love your neighbor as yourself.  Of all the 600+ laws of Judaism that are important especially to the Pharisees, Jesus says, there are two – to Love God and to Love your neighbor. And Jesus goes on to say in Luke that the definition of neighbor is all inclusive, using the parable of the Good Samaritan to reinforce that principle.

This summary of the law brings us back the difference between liturgical and congregational traditions. The liturgical churches tend to emphasize the first principle; the love of God, and the Congregationalists emphasize the second; the love of neighbor. But, as I said previously, unless we do both, we are missing the point of Jesus’ message.

Let me illustrate these differences by referring to one of the prayers in the Episcopal Prayer Book. For those of you who may not be familiar with this form of worship, I should point out that every Episcopal Church in the country uses this prayer book and a large majority of those churches use one of several options for a communion service every Sunday and all of those options include some form of a confession of our sins that includes words like:

Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word and deed, by what we have done and by what we have left undone….For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ, have mercy on us and forgive us; that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways….

This prayer highlights the distance between the Divine Presence and human beings who have sinned by separating themselves from the Divine and can only throw themselves on the mercy of God and ask for forgiveness. Jesus is seen as the agent who redeems us from our sin by sacrificing himself on the cross. The ultimate goal of human kind is to be united with the Divine Presence though the mediation of Christ.

In the congregational tradition, by contrast, the Divine Presence is within and among us, and we humans are blessed and united with that Presence. Jesus is seen not so much as a redeemer than as an example of how we should treat others. And the ultimate goal of human kind is to increase the love shared among us and to work for justice is the world.

Now what I found myself asking after attending services here is what is the use of all this talk about sin and forgiveness in the Episcopal Church?  Isn’t it much more productive and certain more pleasant to focus on sisterly and brotherly love and to work to improve the human condition?  The focus on the love of neighbor and finding the Divine within us certainly make more sense most of the time.

Except for this: How do we respond when that Divine Presence seems to be absent in another person, in someone who commits outrageous harm to others, or to society as a whole? Or how do we respond when serious harm has been done to us or to one we love? Or even more personally, how do we respond when we realize that we ourselves have done serious harm to another, either intentionally or unintentionally?  My response to those situations is that we can only ask for forgiveness and throw ourselves on God’s mercy.  The lesson we read from Paul’s Epistle to the Romans captures the sense of despair one can feel when one is overcome by their sense of guilt and sinfulness.

So what might Congregationalist learn from Episcopalians? I think the most important thing Episcopalians have to offer is the sense of comfort that comes with the knowledge that God is a loving and forgiving Presence.  This comfort is especially important when we feel deeply hurt by others or when we become aware that we have caused deep hurt and pain to others. Human beings are not perfect and are prone to let each other down, often at the precise moment when we need them the most, or when they most need us. When that happens we can only ask for forgiveness and mercy, and grant forgiveness and love to those who have hurt us.  Now don’t think that liturgical churches are all about sin and forgiveness. There is plenty of joy in the music and celebration throughout the year. There is a great sense of fellowship and concern for one another and social justice, but there is also a respect for the awe and majesty of the Divine Presence.

And what can Episcopalians learn from the Congregationalists about the search for the Divine Presence?  I think what Episcopalians can learn is that God can be found among us in fellowship and loving concern for our neighbor.  And, second, you can remind us that we do not have to dwell on sinfulness and forgiveness all the time.  Life is too short to focus simply on the negative aspects of life. There is joy and divine Presence all around us: in each other, in nature, in music, dance and in worship. And there is also a recognition of the awe and majesty of the divine and recognitions that when others do let us down or we let others down that God is merciful and forgiving.

In conclusion, let me return to the original question, where do we find the Divine Presence? Richard Rohr sums it up nicely by referring to the Trinitarian description of God. He says that the Divine Presence is found in the dance of the three persons of the Trinity: in the Divine creator, we see that presence in all of creation in all its majesty and awe, in The Holy Spirit we see the Divine Presence in that spark of divinity that resides in each us, and in Jesus Christ we see the Divine Presence come to earth to serve as an example for each of us and as a redeemer who forgives our sins and accepts us just as we are, warts and all. And the fourth partner in that dance is you and me and those who find the Divine Presence in relationship to each of three manifestations of God.  So let us continue the dance each and every day in the knowledge that the Divine Presence is always there waiting for us on the dance floor.