Rev. Joseph Connolly
“For I am certain, I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, neither things present nor things future, neither heights nor depths— neither powers nor anything else in all creation— will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ, Jesus, our Savior.” — Romans 8:38-39.
My congregation, the United Church of Christ, First Congregational, and perhaps a even a good number of people of the First Baptist congregation have heard me say this numerous times. I have a background in professional theater.
But I was not an actor, a performer, which is what most people think when you say you worked in theater. I worked behind the scenes.
To be clear, I primarily worked as a writer. Writing is both my talent and my passion. But I did hold down jobs in other lines of theatrical employment.
Besides writing among the many jobs with which I was involved was being a stage manager for an off-off-Broadway show, a business manager for a children’s theater, being a director, designing and building sets, consulting on lighting and sound design and working for the theatrical charity The Actors’ Fund of America.
Now, I just denied that I worked as a performer, as an actor. This is true. But there is one thing concerning performance, acting, I need to mention. For a couple of semesters I attended one of the best acting schools in New York City, the American Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Why? As a writer, I thought it was a good idea to learn what actors do and how actors do what they do. My premise was, if I knew something about the craft of acting, what I wrote for actors would be more polished. I think my assessment proved to be largely true.
Which brings me to a question: what is the job of an actor, really? (Slight pause.) Actors try to convince you, me, us, the audience to suspend our disbelief. Now there’s a $64 term: suspend our disbelief. What does it mean? (Slight pause.)
Suspension of disbelief is defined as a willingness to set aside one’s own critical faculties in order to believe. Put another way, when we see things on stage or on screen we know what is real— we know what is real— and what is not real. For instance (the pastor reaches under the pulpit and pulls out the puppet being used in Vacation Bible School), a red panda puppet does not really talk. But we suspend our disbelief. We allow for that. 
Equally, in films we know cars are not driving a hundred plus miles an hour and super-heros do not fly. But we suspend our disbelief. We allow for that.
When it comes to the stage, we know people do not suddenly burst into song to express themselves. We know the actor playing Hamlet does not really kill anyone. But we suspend our disbelief. We allow for that.
So, what do actors really do? The work of an actor is to invite us to suspend our disbelief.
Actors invite us to see cars traveling at high speed, super-heros who fly, people who suddenly burst into song to express themselves, murder being committed on stage. But none of that is real. None of that actually happens.
And we know none of that really happens. So, the work of an actor is to invite us, an audience, to participate in their art.
Hence and paradoxically, in order for an actor to be successful we need to participate in what the actor presents, collaborate with the actor in the art of acting. How? We need to suspend our disbelief. Thereby movies, theater, even story telling in novels requires our input, our participation.
Now, there is one more very important point to consider about suspending disbelief. The reason one might want to suspend disbelief is not to try to fool ourselves into thinking what is not real is real. We know what is real. The reason we might want to suspend disbelief is so we can explore a large truth, a deep truth, in a story. (Slight pause.)
The Thought for Meditation in the bulletin today is penned by G. K. Chesterton, a Christian writer and apologist often referred to as the “prince of paradox.” This is the quote: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children dragons can be conquered.”
This points to a large truth, a deep truth. Why do children know dragons exist? Because children do not— do not— take dragons literally. They understand dragons represent a larger truth, a deeper truth than any dragons conjured up by skilled actors.
What is that deep truth? The world is not always a stable, reasonable, logical, friendly place. The world can have sharp edges. It does not take long for children to figure that out.
Equally— and this is the large truth, the deep truth children learn from dragon stories— the world needs to be engaged. All the things in life, in the world, which are unstable, unreasonable, illogical, unfriendly need to be dealt with, need to be faced head on. (Slight pause.)
When I was in Seminary, the very first class— the very first class— I attended was a survey course in New Testament. As sometimes happened in these classes, the professor invited us to introduce ourselves one at a time.
That having been tended to, that professor made a statement which has stuck with me all these years. (Quote:) “The New Testament is about confrontation. In saying that, I am not equating confrontation with fighting or violence.”
“In saying the New Testament is about confrontation,” he went on, “I am saying the New Testament is about confronting the world around us with love and in love and confronting one another with love and in love.” Let me repeat that: The New Testament is about confronting the world around us with love and in love and confronting one another with love and in love. (Slight pause.)
Before the passage from Romans was read it was said this reading asks two pivotal questions: is God good? Does God love? These are central, large, deep questions.
So when Paul insists with certainty that nothing will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ the Apostle is addressing a central truth, a large truth, a deep truth in response to those questions. The answer of Paul is and, indeed, our answer needs to be an unequivocal ‘yes.’ God is good. God loves.
But I want to grapple with Paul’s premise and, indeed, our ways of belief a little more. Hence, I need to point out three things about Paul. First, you can search the writings of the Apostle up, down and sideways and you will find no details about the life of Christ, no details about the story of Jesus.
Second and hence, Paul spends no time with story, no time dealing with suspension of disbelief. For Paul, God is real. It is a given. No suspended disbelief is necessary.
Last, we need to be aware Paul makes a significant proclamation. In the Messiah, in Jesus, in the Christ, Paul knows God more fully than Paul has ever known God.
Therefore, Paul draws an obvious conclusion. A) if God is real, the love God offers is real.
Put another way, Paul says the love God offers is not acknowledged because of suspended disbelief. The love of God is so real the suspended disbelief is unnecessary. And, since Paul knows God in Jesus more fully than Paul has ever know God before, Paul insist that in the Messiah, in Jesus, in the Christ, the love of God is tangible. (Slight pause.)
All that brings us back to the proclamation of Paul in Romans (quote:) “For I am certain, I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor rulers, neither things present nor things future, neither heights nor depths— neither powers nor anything else in all creation— will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ, Jesus, our Savior.”
This is a really simple message. The love of God as expressed in Christ, the Messiah, exists, is real, is tangible. And what we are called on to do is participate in the love of God which is real, is tangible.
And so indeed, children know dragons exist. And children also know the love of God exists, the love of God is real. So we do not have to pretend or suspend our disbelief. We simply need to participate. The love of God is real. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational.
VBS Sunday ~ A Union Service with the First Baptist Church
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “When someone says ‘the love of God is real’ that, of course, begs the question: what is real? We live in a society that likes to measure things. We live in a society which says if you cannot measure something it is not real. Well, I invite you to measure hope, freedom, wisdom, peace, joy, love. Good luck with that.”
BENEDICTION: This is the blessing used by natives of the islands in the South Pacific: O Jesus, please be the canoe that holds me up in the sea of life. Please be the rudder that keeps me on a straight path. Be the outrigger that supports me in times of stress. Let Your Spirit be the sail that carries me though each day. Keep me safe, so that I can paddle on steady in the voyage called life. God of all, bless us so we may have calm seas, a warm sun and clear nights with star filled skies. Amen.
 This being the kick-off Sunday for Vacation Bible School and a red panda puppet being the character in the Vacation Bible School this year, there was a skit at the Children’s Time in which said puppet participated.