God’s Comma


God’s Comma

By Philip L. Blackwell
The Chicago Temple
June 11, 2006 

This message comes via Rev. Dr. Jane Fisler Hoffman, Conference Minister of the Illinois Conference. It was preached on Trinity Sunday by Rev. Philip L. Blackwell, pastor of the downtown Chicago United Methodist Church, also known as the Chicago Temple.

God’s Comma
John 3:1-17

 I said to everyone involved with printing the bulletins, “Please put two m’s into the sermon title.  I don’t want to talk about God’s ‘coma’ and have to revive the ‘Death of God’ theology of the 1960’s and 70’s.  It’s God’s comma.”

And here it is, right here.  I am wearing a comma lapel pin that was given to me by my good friend and United Church of Christ minister, Chuck Wildman.  The comma is part of the most recent advertising campaign of the UCC.  The punch line is, “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.”  That’s a good line.  I asked Chuck who said that, which famous theologian.  And he replied, “Gracie Allen.”  Some of us remember Burns and Allen.  Gracie Allen at her theological best, “Don’t put a period where God has put a comma.”

The television ads accompanying this advertising campaign for the United Church of Christ were rejected by the major networks – CBS, NBC, ABC, FOX.  “Too controversial,” some said.  “Too religious,” others judged.  Imagine, something religious being controversial.  What the video shows is a traditional church family sitting in a traditional church.  A woman nearby struggles with a crying baby, the traditional family glares disapprovingly, and then they push an ejection button and the mother and crying child are jettisoned from the church.  And then the family ejects a poor person, a gay couple, and a Middle Eastern-looking man.  Finally, the voice over said, “God doesn’t reject people.  Neither do we.”

The networks did not want anything that provocative on television.  Imagine all that we see each day on the screen, and the message that God does not reject us is too much.
The essential truth of that spot announcement is our point for this morning: God continues to reveal new truths to us.  God continues to build new communities for us.  God continues to reach out to us so that no one is left out of the family of God.  So, let us not dare to put a period where God has put a comma.

This notion of continuing revelation makes some people uncomfortable.  After all, isn’t everything that we need to know in the Bible?  Isn’t everything already said and done?  Some of us remember the old bumper sticker (have you noticed that there are no new bumper stickers these days?), the old one dictated, “The Bible says it.  I believe it.  That settles it.” 

But, if that were true, then the disciples of Jesus would have been misled.  They believed that God was doing something new in Jesus Christ.  There would have been no new revelation in what Jesus said and did.  All that about, “You have heard it said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth,’ but I say to you, ‘Turn the other cheek,’” all of that would have had to be thrown out.  No new interpretations allowed of the scriptures.  No healings of unclean.  No challenges to the moneychangers and the legalists.  No inclusion of the outsiders.  No calling Jesus “Messiah,” “Lord,” “Savior.”  All of that would have to be considered an “activist” interpretation of the text, in this case, what we call the Hebrew Scripture, the Old Testament.  Without perceiving God’s continued revelation in Jesus the Christ, there would be no New Testament.

And there would be no Church.  We understand today that the Church is the work of the Holy Spirit.  That is what we celebrate on the Day of Pentecost.  The Holy Spirit is God’s gift of God’s self to the Church so that we may exist throughout history, around the world, with vitality and purpose. 

Do we understand what we have just said?  We have spoken in Trinitarian terms.  The doctrine of the Holy Trinity is an affirmation of the Church that God continues to reveal to us God’s truth, God’s will, God’s intention for us.  God’s communication with us is filled with commas, not periods, not full stops.  And beware any of us who try to end God’s story prematurely, saying that we now know all there is to know, and close the book on God.

The Trinity is a complex concept – God, Three in One and One in Three, in traditional language Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in functional language Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.  I attended the General Conference several years ago and overheard a conversation in the hallway in which a prominent minister on the fundamentalist side of things was saying to a newspaper reporter, “Now, we believe in three gods.  The Jews believe only in one, but we believe in three – Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.”  And I intercepted the reporter after the conversation and pleaded with him not to print that.

We do not believe in three gods.  We believe in one God who reveals the divine truth and love to us in a multitude of ways.  And the best way that the tradition has been able to characterize it, the dominant metaphor, has been to imagine God as playing three characters in a drama, three “personae.”  One is the creator who relates to us through all there is around us, another is the redeemer who relates to us personally so that we all might be made whole through him, “saved” as John the gospel writer puts it, and a third person who relates to us is the sustainer, the one who energizes us, who keeps us going.  It is not a logical construction, but it reveals a truth beyond logic.  At the heart of God is the divine urge to relate to us.  The concept of the Trinity is relational, and it is all about loving us, John 3:16, not condemning us, John 3:17.  God is writing human history with commas, not periods.

Today we have a lot going on.  Not only do we honor this as Trinity Sunday, but also as Peace with Justice Sunday.  And you see the description and envelope in the bulletin that underlines the belief that God’s love needs to be revealed continually in the real world of politics, food, and human rights.  This also, by our own declaration, is Reconciling Congregation Sunday.  Today we honor a decision this congregation made a decade ago publicly to make clear that we welcome everyone into the religious life here at the Chicago Temple.  Every week we place our welcoming statement in our printed material:

We know that some people read that and decide to stay away from this church.  We sense that many more read it and come close to see if we really mean it, if we really live by it.  Earlier this year, in the face of the divisiveness over homosexuality that rends asunder the United Methodist denomination, our Church Council reaffirmed this welcoming statement.  This is who God calls us to be here in the middle of the city.  This represents our faithful intention.  This is our expression of John 3:16 and 17, of God’s love for the whole world, “God so loved the world,” and of God’s acceptance, “not to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through (Jesus Christ).”  Our welcoming statement stands in the tradition of acknowledging that God continues to reveal divine truth to us.  It represents our comma, not a period.

Let’s put our statement into an historical context.  October 1845, two theologians, Jonathan Blanchard and Nathan Rice, debate in Cincinnati.  The issue: the Bible’s view of slavery.  For four days, eight hours a day, they contended, Blanchard appealing to the whole scope of the Bible, the principles of justice and righteousness, to the declaration of the unity of all as God’s children, Rice quoting over and over chapter and verse justifying slavery. 

Today could we imagine such a debate over slavery?  Could we imagine people invoking the legal definition of African-Americans as three-fifths of a person?  There is no debate.  There is no defense of what John Wesley called in his own time the “inexorable villainy” of American slavery.  But at one time slavery defined the American church, and the Methodists split north and south like everybody else, and it was not until 1939 that the two regional segments of Methodism were reunited.  And it was not until 1968 that full inclusion of African-Americans was completed.  Today it is a mark of shame upon us.  But then, it was an open debate.  God continues to reveal truth to us.  God continues to write the story with a comma even when we try to end it with a period.

The role of women in the church, the next big debate after slavery.  Do you know who the first woman was who was ordained by a recognized church body in America?  Antoinette Brown Blackwell in 1853, by the Congregationalists.  She was the sister-in-law of the first female doctor in America, Elizabeth Blackwell.  Over the years, I have gone out on a genealogical limb trying to connect our family with that branch of the Blackwells.  I have not found the connection yet, but what a great family tree to be part of.

This summer the United Methodists will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first woman ordained in our denomination, only a century after the Congregationalists!  But it was a tough fight.  For decades people said, “But look what it says here: ‘Woman, keep silent in the Church.’  Paul said it, so it is true forever.”  John Wesley was ahead of his time when he invited women to teach classes and read scripture in public.  But it took the institution a long time to erase the period where God had only put a comma.  Tuesday night Cerna Castro Rand will be ordained an elder in the church.  Last year Cheryl Magrini was ordained a deacon.  Is there any doubt about their gifts or call to the ministry?  None at all, but within the lifetime of some of us their ordination would not have been possible.  God’s continued revelation enriches the Church.  A comma, not a period.

Friday Sally and I accompanied our two grandchildren, Karl age 4, (that’s Karl with a “K”), and Julia, 2, and their parents, Liz and Dave, to the Field Museum and the Planetarium.  Eighty years ago, the exhibits that dazzled us would not have been possible.  At the Field Museum, it was the story of the evolution of life on our planet.  At the Planetarium it was the telling of the beginning and continued change of our universe.  In the 1920’s any scientific evolutionary theory was under attack by the Church.  There was the Scopes Trial in Tennessee, Darrow versus Bryan.  Clarence Darrow had his office in the Chicago Temple during those years.  Today we claim him; he never claimed us.

Darrow lost, and Scopes was fined for teaching non-biblical theories of science.  Today, except for the most hard-boiled of literalists, there is little debate over the role of science and the complementary, but distinct, role of faith.  The stories of creation in the Bible, and there are many of them, are the faithful witnesses of the communities who told the stories.  They are not to be read as astrophysics.  But, the Church has been so slow to erase the period it placed after the Book of Genesis that it took the Vatican 350 years to forgive Galileo for being right!  “Do not put a period where God has put a comma.”

And so, I suggest, it is with our welcoming statement.  What we say about all people, and expressly about gays and lesbians and transgendered people because that is the issue of the day, grows out of our respect for God’s continuing revelation.  As James Russell Lowell wrote, “New occasions teach new duties, Time makes ancient good uncouth.” 
Our statement grows out of the impulse to argue from the spirit of the faith rather than the letter of the law, the general rather than the particular.  And if some insist that we must argue about the particulars in scripture, chapter and verse, then let us start not with sexual identity issues, about which Jesus says nothing, but with caring for the poor, about which he says a lot.  And about hospitality for the outsider, and about tithing and the use of money, and about hypocrisy and lying, and about mean-spiritedness, and about warmongering, and about violence, and about god-forsakenness in our personal lives. 

We welcome all because God has accepted us all.  We know that because it has been revealed by God the creator, by God the redeemer, and by God the sustainer.  We know that because God, in big and small ways, continues to show us what is of most importance and what is irrelevant.
Let us pray that the Church be relevant to God as well as to society.  Let us pray that we remain open to God’s lead so that the whole world may know of God’s love, a love that does not condemn but brings new life.  God’s story continues, comma after comma after comma.  Thanks be to God!  Amen.