My sister told me of a child of a friend who was describing a book he’d seen recently.  The child said that he’d come across a book that was “like a GPS but in book form.”  After a while my sister and her friend figured out that the child was describing a road atlas.  A veritable antique.

About This Sermon
Part 5 of the series “9 Lies You Hear in Church
Rev. Mark Schaefer
Kay Spiritual Life Center, American University
October 7, 2012
Psalm 37:1-6; Luke 17:1-5

People don’t use road atlases to find their way any more.  They stopped doing that when MapQuest appeared on the scene.  And then people stopped using MapQuest when Google Maps showed up.  And then there were the GPS devices that went from standalone objects that were often stolen out of your car to built in devices that came factory standard.  And then there were the smartphones with map applications—Google Maps usually—built right in.  And then of course there was Apple Maps which had the virtue of making people long for road atlases again.

But the fact of the matter is that we have tried many different ways to figure out how to get somewhere.

And it’s no different with God.  We long to know how to get to God.  And in so doing, have tried a lot of different ways.  And there have been a lot of people trying to cash in on the desire that so many have to find God.  So much so, that the idea was satirized by Don Imus’ character The Rev. Dr. Billy Sol Hargis (“God’s Other Son”) a televangelist preacher who once when sermonizing on the “road to heaven” took the opportunity to sell you a “Road Map to Heaven” for only $19.95.


There is a famous evangelical tract that talks about how people are able to get to salvation and God.  It starts off by describing the chasm that exists between God and humanity because of original sin.  God is holy and other and is divided from us by the gulf that is created by our rebelliousness and sin.  The tract then talks about the various ways that we have tried to bridge that gap and how all those efforts have failed.

A.   Works

We tried pious deeds.  What might be called “works” of faith. This is the first option that people usually go to.  And it is our oldest one.  Ancient religion was full of this kind of bargaining and bartering when it came to religion.  Sacrifices were offered, prayers were intoned, all manner of proscribed behaviors engaged in in order to satisfy the gods. In order to ensure a bountiful harvest or to procure success in business, the appropriate offerings were made and rituals enacted to garner the attention of the appropriate deity.

person stands on one side of a chasm reaching out to a large hand coming from the other side of the chasm. Illustration for the sermon "Faith Gets Us to God"
Illustration by Rachel Ternes

In the Israelite tradition, sacrifices and religious ritual continued and were an important part of Israelite piety and practice.

Christianity did away with sacrificing animals, but reenacts the sacrifice of Christ at every eucharist.  In addition, there are ritualized prayers, formal liturgies, and regular worship services that serve the same function in much personal piety.

John Wesley, himself, went through a long period of trying to figure out how he could be acceptable to God.  He was up very early every morning for Bible study and prayer.  He journaled.  He partook regularly of the Lord’s Supper.  He engaged in charitable works and ministries of justice.  He was a really busy person.  And yet, he never felt as if he had accomplished what he had set out to do: to become acceptable in God’s sight.

In the end, works fail to satisfy because one gets the sense that you can never do enough of them.  Martin Luther had the same observation; he could never be holy enough to merit God’s attention or favor.  All of the things he tried to do could not accomplish that.  He had been a monk and lived a contemplative, reflective life and that wasn’t enough.  He had been a priest, and engaged in the sacramental life of faith, and that wasn’t enough.  Eventually, he tried his hand at being a scholar.

B.    Philosophy

Scholarship and philosophy are often tools that people use to try to bridge the gap between us and God.  Luther was not alone in this.  Many have looked to philosophy as a way of understanding the mind of God and therefore coming to encounter God directly. The great medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas spent his entire career composing a massive philosophical work known as the Summa Theologica, a masterpiece of Aristotelian philosophy as a way of understanding faith.  He would use various proofs to demonstrate the existence of God.  But even Aquinas recognized that philosophy could not prove the Christian God, but only demonstrate that something was there.  Toward the end of his life, Aquinas had a mystical experience in which he came to conclude that all his work had been “straw” and meaningless.  Fortunately for western civilization, we kept his work anyway.

C.   Mysticism

But there have been many who tried philosophy as a way of coming to God and came up wanting.  Aquinas’ mystical experience was also found in the mystical writings of Hildegard of Bingen, Julian of Norwich, Catherine of Siena, and Bernard of Clairveaux.  Many of these mystics felt that God could not be encountered through the application of reason, but rather through mystical experience in which one communed directly with the divine.  It was a realization encountered by teachers in other religions: by the Kabbalists of Judaism and Islamic Sufi mystics like al-Ghazali, who believed that the traditional practices and the philosophical reflections of their faiths came up wanting.


But it was the aforementioned Luther who concluded after his own attemts to get to God through piety, sacrament, and philosophy that the way to salvation and to God was by grace through faith.  That was the germ of the Protestant Reformation and soon its rallying cry.  The idea of salvation by grace through faith is at the heart of Protestant theology and has been for a long time.  It would inform John Calvin’s reformed theology and later would be at the heart of Wesley’s own realization that his religious works were insufficient and his focus on God’s grace and a response in faith would be the engine that drove the Methodist movement.

And so, faith has become the central piece to our Christian faith, especially in the protestant traditions.  Faith is what it’s all about.  The Psalm we read earlier talks about having that trust in God as essential and even encourages us to “farm faithfulness”. And the story from the Gospel ends with the disciples asking Jesus: “Increase our faith!”

All the time we are instructed to have more faith and the quality of our faith is one of the main ways that we gauge our encounter with God.  In fact, the solution to every spiritual problem is often to have more faith.  I even mentioned an example in last week’s sermon where a grieving mother had been told that she wouldn’t be so sad if she had more faith.

So, at long last, we have answered the problem.  The Chasm of Sin is breached not by our works, not by our reason, not by mystical encounter, but by faith in Jesus and his sacrificial act for us. Sola Fide, faith alone is the only thing that bridges that divide and gets us to God.

But what about those who struggle with faith?  What about those who doubt?  Or who are in a wilderness place?  Are they really cut off from God?  Is it impossible for those who struggle with their faith to encounter God?  If we tell people that our faith gets us to God, do we not tell people who are struggling that they cannot really get to God?


Some years ago, Doug Pagitt, a Christian writer and pastor came to AU with a traveling “Church Basement Roadshow” of fellow writers.  They were on a book tour selling their books but they had styled it as an old time revival, and were frequently hocking their healing oil which could be used in anointings and religious ritual, but which also made a “fine vinaigrette”.  Each of them took some time out of character to talk about their book and Pagitt told an interesting story.

He talked about how a friend of his had invited him to come see a play about the life of Jesus and how he had gone out of curiosity.  He said that he was completely won over by Jesus well before the crucifixion and that he was cought completely off guard by the resurrection, finding it to be an amazing conclusion to this fantastic story. He writes:1Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-Filled, Open-Armed, Alive-and-Well Faith for the Left Out, Left Behind, and Let Down in Us All, p. 16.

This was what I had longed for, what I’d needed to be true.  There was God alongside the tortured and beaten Jesus. There was God on the side of the people, bringing about goodness even in the midst of horror, betrayal, and struggle. There was God inviting people to join in the redemption of it all.

Doug Pagitt, A Christianity Worth Believing

Following the play, the organizers invited people to come back stage and participate in a discussion about the it.  So he and his friend went backstage.  And there, they were handed the same tracts with the same chasm that I described to you earlier.

Now, he was a brand new Christian.  Only a few hours deep into his journey but something didn’t quite sit right.  He said that it was kind of sad that God was all by Godself on the other side of this chasm.  He writes:

From the first page I knew something wasn’t right.  I found it hard to accept that the wondrous story of God, the one I had just seen and been changed by, could be boiled down to bullet points and placed in a booklet.  I wondered what had happened to the version I’d just witnessed.2Ibid., 22.

But also began to wonder whether the organizers of the event had actually watched the play they’d just put on.

Because what he’d seen was that far from a God trapped all by God’s lonesome on some far cliff, he’d seen a God in the person of Jesus who was in and among the people right where they lived.  A Jesus who wasn’t separated from the world by a chasm of sin, but who was in the midst of it, getting his hands dirty, and reaching out to people where they were in their lives as he found them. A Jesus working for justice, a Jesus working to give a voice to the marginalized.  A Jesus who was present.

And that is the heart of the matter.  See, purveyors of paths to God are often sincere people who really want people to find God for their lives.  And there are some who are more interested in preserving their own status as the keeper of the path; those who seek to perpetuate the institution of the church or the standards of orthodoxy or whatever. But all of them, sincere or cynical, miss the point: The Gospel does not tell us how we get to God.  It tells us that God comes to us.

In the second chapter of Genesis, God takes the dust of the earth and forms humanity out of it.  God breathes life into the clay and it becomes a living being.  God does this hands-on.  In the third chapter of Genesis, God takes an afternoon stroll through the Garden of Eden before the discovery of Adam and Eve’s disobedience.  In the eighteenth chapter of Genesis, God visits Abraham outside his tents at the Oaks of Mamre.  In the third chapter in Exodus, God comes to Moses in the form of the Burning Bush while he is tending sheep. The text doesn’t say as The Prince of Egypt does that Moses went off in pursuit of a stray lamb and found the bush.  The bush was in his path.

Throughout the scriptures, God comes to us.  Where we are.  And in the culmination of the pattern, God comes to us as one of us.  Born of a woman, in humble circumstances, in the backwater province of an ancient empire.  God comes to us. And in the grand poem that is the Book of Revelation, describing the end of all things, we read:

“I heard a loud voice from the throne say, “Look! God’s dwelling is here with humankind. He will dwell with them, and they will be his peoples. God himself will be with them as their God.”

Revelation 21:3–4 CEB

The entire narrative is one of God coming to us.  It does not seem that the holiness of God creates any separation that God is not able to bridge.  In fact, it is precisely in the midst of the profane that the holy God seems to be found most often.

V.   END

We have often looked for ways to get to God.  We have tried piety, religious rite, philosophy, and mysticism.  We even speak of religions as “paths” to God and then argue over which one gets there or whether they all make their way up the mountain.

But once again, we run the risk of spiritual harm when we conclude that we get to God through our faith.  For so many who doubt, who wonder, and who struggle with faith, this seems to leave them forever cut off.

And yet, ours is a faith that does not speak of how we get to God, but reminds us that it is God who comes to us.  In Creation, in Incarnation, in Sacrament, in so many ways, it is God who bridges that gap.  God is not removed from us on a separate island or behind an impenetrable screen.  God is in and among us. God is with us even now, meeting us where we are, in our brokenness, in our doubt, in our fear and anxiety, in our ignorance and our faithlessness, God is in the midst of it.

We need no road map, no GPS, no compass; for it turns out the author of all life has found us.

The Texts

Psalms 37:1–6 • Don’t get upset over evildoers; don’t be jealous of those who do wrong, because they will fade fast, like grass; they will wither like green vegetables. Trust the LORD and do good; live in the land, and farm faithfulness. Enjoy the LORD, and he will give what your heart asks. Commit your way to the LORD! Trust him! He will act and will make your righteousness shine like the dawn, your justice like high noon.

Luke 17:1–5 • Jesus said to his disciples, “Things that cause people to trip and fall into sin must happen, but how terrible it is for the person through whom they happen. It would be better for them to be thrown into a lake with a large stone hung around their neck than to cause one of these little ones to trip and fall into sin. Watch yourselves! If your brother or sister sins, warn them to stop. If they change their hearts and lives, forgive them. Even if someone sins against you seven times in one day and returns to you seven times and says, ‘I am changing my ways,’ you must forgive that person.”  The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!”

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