The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
A reasonable facsimile of what was preached on Sunday: always a reflection on the Word, but never the final word.
The Rev. John Taliaferro Thomas
Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood, Virginia
Second Sunday of Epiphany
January 17, 2021
As a high school Theology teacher, one of my favorite lessons was when I announced that I was going to argue, forcefully, for the existence of God. Given that these were thoroughgoing adolescents, that brought on a big eye roll. Any authority figure was suspicious, and they were pretty convinced that they know everything already. Announcing that I would argue anything forcefully was like ringing the bell for a wrestling match.
I started with big words. That always bolsters one’s point. The Cosmological, Ontological, and Teleological arguments for the existence of God are the old chestnuts of apologetics. Really, they are simple mind games. The first argument is that everything has a cause. Nothing comes into being from nothing, therefore, God is the first and prime cause of all. Of course, they asked “Well, Rev., then what caused God?” Time for the next argument. This one is based on the concept of being. Nothing we can imagine, fashion, or create does not come from something else. So far as we know, matter is finite. Thus, if we can conceive of God, God must exist. That one makes your hear hurt. Finally, there is the argument of intelligent design. This one proposes that everything from atoms, to molecules, to systems and life is so complex, so functional, and so intricate, that there everything must come from a Master Designer. “Well Rev,” they would say, if you put an infinite number of monkeys in an infinite number of rooms and give all of them a typewriter, eventually one of them will write the complete works of Shakespeare.” They argued that we are just the product of billions of years of evolution. Even when the odds are millions and millions to one, somebody wins the lottery.
The problem with all of these arguments is that they are not sufficient as proof. We cannot get to God playing intellectual and philosophical ping pong. The best way I knew to break that log jam was to ask a simple question. Does your mother love you? Even the most argumentative say “yes.” Then I challenged them: prove it. There followed lots and lots of stories of love in action and specific experiences. As the students shared story after story, they became more and more intimate and really touching. They talked until the bell rang. As they left, I handed them a slip of paper that said “Like proving somebody loves you, we cannot prove God’s love either. All we can do is tell stories.”
I ripped that off from the poet, W.H Auden. I did not think that lesson up because I am wise or smart. I just wanted to clear the air that I was not in the proving business and theology cannot prove a damned thing… or a blessed one either. The Theology lesson was inspired by a legendary school chaplain’s memoir I once read, and it stuck to me. His story impacted my story. I used some of this thoughts and added a few of mine. Wisdom is inherited more than it is the stuff of creative originality.
Listening for wisdom is one of the chief reasons we come to church. In church, we tell stories. The lessons, the sermon, and, even, the Eucharist are all stories. God’s story is the root of our songs and prayers too. When brothers, John and Charles Wesley began their outreach ministry among illiterate coal miners in England, they wrote hymns that told stories – hundreds of them. They knew folks could remember song lyrics and they leveraged that fact to give God voice in people’s lives. My daughter texted me this week that she remembered a corny old song we used to sing, and that earworm has been with me ever since. Hymns can do that too. When the great theologian, Paul Tillich, was asked to explain why one should believe in God, he sang the words: “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
When Phillip met Jesus of Nazareth, he had an experience of meeting God face to face. He could not prove it, but he told his story to his friend, Nathaniel. Nathaniel played the recalcitrant teenager, and asked what good could come of Nazareth. Nazareth was, after, a one donkey town, a long way from the big city of Jerusalem with its Temple and learned religious folks. Phillip simply said “Come and see.” Nathaniel did, and saw what Phillip saw. He went from sitting under a fig tree to following Jesus for the rest of his life. He saw and experienced greater things, for sure. And though some folks came along later and wrote the story down, he and his friends were the ones told it, over and over, to anyone that would listen. We have the gospels because of folks like Nathaniel. We have a church because of folks like Nathaniel. They were not intellectuals. They were not all that wise. They missed the meaning of things with comic regularity. But they knew what they experienced and they invited folks to come and see what they saw.
One of my preaching mentors once said that the Church is always one generation away from extinction. He said that to tell me that preaching is not about proving faith, it is about showing faith and telling of faith. On the pulpit from which he preached for many years, he affixed a bronze plaque that says “So what.” We remember stories like we remember song lyrics.
John, the gospeler is a particular kind of story teller. He drops in images and connections form one story to another. That whole bit about angels ascending and descending upon the Son of Man is ripped straight out of the story of God coming to Jacob in a dream. Jacob was a complete ne’er do well, but the whole nation of Israel grew out of him, his telling of his dream story, and his determination to do what God asked him to do. There are lots of songs about that too. John is not so much trying to prove something in his gospel as he is about connecting God’s story to our story. We can identify with Nathaniel. He is not credentialed. He is not powerful or wealthy by the world’s accounting. He never wrote anything so far as we know. Most likely, he could not even read. And yet, the power of his story and where it leads has urged us on ever since. This is where we get the phrase “Faith is caught, not taught.”
While there are enough books of theology to fill a thousand libraries, that is not how we come to practice our faith. The most valuable, most compelling, and most impactful aspect of believing is experience. The plot of every story goes like this: everything was going on a normal, and then, something happened. Our whole mission as Church is that Jesus happened, and that has made all the difference. We are not destined to live for self alone, we are loved beyond measure, and we are welcomed into community live in that story, over and over, so we might believe it.
Today, we celebrate Frances Young’s 100th birthday. We have a drive through birthday party at 10 am today. Come if you are able and give her a honk and wave. She was baptized right here at Emmanuel in 1921, and she has lived her faith, telling Jesus’ story in Sunday School here, and as far away as Japan, among people who had never heard of Jesus. Even so, she calls Emmanuel her spiritual home. She came here as an infant, and as she grew up, she saw Jesus through this loving community. Just ask her, she will tell you all about it. What a life. What a witness. She has a great story, and so do we. Amen
The Rev. John Thomas is Rector of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Greenwood