Monday, October 31, 2005

Why Theology Matters

In the mail today, I recieved a mailing from the Disciples Peace Fellowship, the peace and justice caucus within my denomination, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The newsletter had a quote that struck me. It said:

"No amount of theology about God and the Bible and ethics and theology is equal to the smallest amount of action taken in behalf of another human being.

I thought about that, because I'm someone that has always loved to think about the Christian faith. Does this mean theology has no place in our faith when it comes to helping our fellow man? If this means that all that we have to do is treat our neighbors right, then why bother with church or God?

I posed the question to my housemate and best friend, Erik, who is a frustrated theologian working as a help desk worker. He noted that theology is important because as Christians we have to know why we do what we do. As I thought about it, it made sense. I've been involved in several things that might be considered peace and justice. I'm the head of the state chapter of Log Cabin Republicans working for the equality of GLBT persons. I helped start a church that is welcoming to gay and lesbians. I don't do these things simply because it's the nice thing to do. I do it because in the Bible I've learned of a God who cares for the poor and needy. I read about God revealing himself in the person of Jesus Christ, who made friends with the outcast. I do what I do because I've learned it from what God has done.

Some people think theology happens in seminaries far away from the pain and suffering of the world. What good is it to think about God when there are hurting people, they think. In my view, theology and action, have to go together. Simply thinking about God and doing nothing to help your brother or sister in need is faith with no substance. In contrast, doing action with no thought about faith can lead to taking care of the physical needs without feeding the spiritual needs. Anglican blogger Barry Vaughn explains it a tad better than I can:

Isn't loving our fellow men and women the only way to love God?

There was a time when I would have said that it was redundant to say "Love God and love your neighbor", but I'm no longer sure about that.

I think that Jesus identified the "great and first commandment" as "love God" and then followed quickly with "and love your neighbor as yourself" because it is possible to love others or at least be concerned with the needs of others without taking into account the spiritual, the transcendent, dimension of human life.

There are those who are passionately concerned with the care of the hungry and the homeless who nevertheless have no awareness of the spiritual nature and spiritual needs of human beings. I honor them for their actions and fierce commitment to justice. However, I think that they are making an error which will prove very costly in the long run.

Rabbi Harold Kushner points out that "the difference between a person who relies only on himself and a person who has learned to turn to God for help... is not that one will do bad things while the other will do good things. The self-reliant atheist may be a fine, upstanding person. The difference is the atheist is like a bush growing in a desert. If he has only himself to rely on, when he exhausts his internal resources he runs the risk of running dry and withering.

"But the man or woman who turns to God is like a tree planted by a stream. What they share with the world is replenished from a source beyond themselves, so they never run dry." (Who Needs God? quoted in The Reader's Digest, Nov. '96, p. 90)

Finally, note what Jesus did not say. He did not say "serve God" or "obey God"; he said "love God".

From first to last the Bible is a love story. It is first the story of God's love for Israel and then of God's love for the church. First, God's covenant people are wooed and then they are invited into relationship.

"Love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul and mind" is less commandment and more invitation. It is an invitation to love One who has always loved us. It is, in fact, an invitation to become more human. For we were created in the image of God for one reason above all others -- that we might love God and others as God loves us.

Can one do good things and not talk about God? Yes. But for Christians who know the story of God's love for us, why would you want to?

Just a thought.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Rosa Parks: 1913-2005

Into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant, Rosa. Acknowledge, we humbly beseech you, a sheep of your own fold, a lamb of your own flock, a sinner of your own redeeming. Receive her into the arms of your mercy, into the blessed rest of everlasting peace, and into the glorious company of the saints in light. Amen.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Healer of Our Every Ill

At the end of the service last night, our guest musician (who happens to be my boyfriend) played as his postlude the music from the Hymn, "Healer of Our Every Ill" by Marty Haugen. For some reason, that hymn has spoken to me. It seems to give hope in a dark time.

I'm halfway tempted to use this is some way as an Advent theme. Here are the lyrics for the uninitiated:

Healer of Our Every Ill

Healer of our ev’ry ill,
light of each tomorrow,
give us peace beyond our fear,
and hope beyond our sorrow.

You who know our fears and sadness,
grace us with your peace and gladness,
Spirit of all comfort: fill our hearts.

In the pain and joy beholding
how your grace is still unfolding,
give us all your vision: God of love.

You who know each thought and feeling,
teach us all your way of healing,
Spirit of compassion: fill each heart.

Give us strength to love each other,
ev’ry sister, ev’ry brother,
Spirit of all kindness: be our guide.

Sunday Sermon-October 23, 2005

“Just an Old-Fashioned Love Song”
Leviticus 19:1-18; Matthew 22:34-46
October 23, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, MN

Most of those who know me know that tend to be somewhat, okay I am a curmudgeon. I tend to be cranky, short-tempered and a stick-in-the-mud. It’s no accident that one of my favorite Sesame Street characters growing up was Oscar the Grouch. I tend to be a serious guy that doesn’t have time for touchy-feely stuff.

So, it might come as a surprise to you that I love the Carpenters. Yes, curmudgeonly me loves a group that wore its heart on its sleeve. Ever since I was a small child growing up in the early 70s, I loved to hear songs like “Close to You,” which is one of my favorite songs. I also have a place in my heart for the song “Sing” which Karen Carpenter sang on a Sesame Street album.

What I love about the Carpenters is that they wrote songs about being in love and I can understand that. There was something about them that made you feel that they were writing what you were feeling. It didn’t hurt that Karen Carpenter’s alto voice was alluring and made you want to listen.

The Carpenters music is still influential all these years later. In 1994, several alternative groups like Sonic Youth, did a tribute album filled with their interpretations of Carpenter songs.

Of course, this group that brought people so much joy in 70s and onward did not live the most happy life. Richard Carpenter dealt off and on with drug addiction and Karen battled anorexia, which took her life in 1983. It is one of life’s mysteries that this brother and sister duo whose music was played at countless weddings 30 years ago, were not themselves happy.

When we think about love, we tend to think about it in the context of a relationship. We think about the giddy feelings and how we want to be with that person. We want to do nice things for our loved one because...well, we have feelings for them. We send each other flowers and cards to remind each other that we love the other.

It’s interesting because when we see the word love in the Bible, we tend to think it means loving someone in the same way we would love our parents or that special someone.

For instance, look at today’s gospel text. Jesus is asked by the Pharisees, the religious leadership of his day, what is considered the greatest commandment. Jesus said you must love God with everything that you have; your mind, your soul, your heart. Then Jesus threw in another commandment: love your neighbor as yourself.

Now, in the English language, when we think of love, we thing of the love between to people, which is all emotion. You like that person. You really like that person. So, we look at this text and think that we must become sentimental in our relationship with God and with others.

But that is not what Jesus is talking about here. You see, in Greek, the language the New Testament was written in, there are three meanings for love. You are already familiar with two of them. The first is eros, where we get the word erotic from. That is love between two people that is usually expressed sexually, of course. The second is called phileo. Part of that word is used in the name of a major American city, Philadelphia, which means, the City of Brotherly Love. This is love could be expressed as love between friends. But Jesus isn’t talking about either of these two. Both express some kind of emotion towards someone. Instead in the Greek, Jesus uses the word agape. This form of love is not as much emotional as it is behavioral. It is the love that God loves us with. It is a love that is demonstrated in action. So when Jesus says we should love God and love others, he is calling us to love God and neighbor by our actions, not our feelings.

Jesus isn’t asking for sentimentality here. Instead he is asking that we love by what we do in our daily lives.

Too often, preachers tend to misinterpret what it means that God is love or to love our neighbors and enemies. We tend to think it means love as in feeling. So we hear sermons about how we should love (feel) people who do horrible crimes. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there were many who said we need to love the terrorists meaning we need to have loving feelings toward them and toward those who sent them. However, that is next to impossible. No one can expect someone who has lost a love one to murder or war to have loving feelings towards those who committed the crime. We are human.

However, this doesn’t mean we give into our feelings. What means is that we treat others as we would want to be treated, whether or not they are deserving. What does this mean? The answer lies in our text in Leviticus. Over and over the passage calls for the people of Israel to be holy for God is holy. What the writer is saying is to follow God’s actions. Jesus is saying the same thing. God sent Jesus to bring salvation to the world not because God had sentimental feelings for us, but because God is holy. God was troubled by how humanity had turned away from God and lived lives that only pleased themselves and not others. And yet, God sent Jesus, to bring us freedom from sin.

This is what Jesus means when he calls us to love God and others. If you want to love God, do it by following God’s commands. If you want to love humanity, do it by treating others, both good and bad with respect.

In Leviticus, God is demanding that we be holy people by our actions. This seems like a tall order because you and I know that we will fail. Sometimes we will ignore the person in need. Sometimes we will not love our enemies. We are human and we fail. That is the effect of the law or commandments of God: we fall short. That is why we have grace. God knows we will fall short but loves us anyway. That gives us hope to go and love as God loves knowing that when we fail (and we will) there is still love abound for us. Poet W.H. Auden said it best:

O stand, stand at the window
As the tears scald and start;
You shall love your crooked neighbor
With your crooked heart.

We can only love our neighbors with crooked hearts. That’s all we can do.

It’s interesting that in planning for this sermon, the lectionary skips whole chunks of the Leviticus text which details they way we are to live holy lives. I think it is too easy in our day and age to make Christianity or any faith for that matter, something that is sentimental, that makes no demands on us. For those of us who come from religious backgrounds that were very strict, it seems like a reminder of the bad old days. However, to expect to be a follow of Jesus and expect that there are no expectations is to have a very cheap grace. God demands our whole lives, not just some of it. Yes, there is grace and forgiveness when we fall short, but that doesn’t mean that we do whatever we want. We can choose to ignore God’s demands, but then that makes us an ingrate, taking God’s salvific action in Jesus for granted.

Loving others isn’t easy. It means treating people who in our eyes doesn’t deserve a scintilla of respect. We have to see the bigoted person who hates gay people as a child of God. God may call us to do things we don’t like.

I think an example of what it means to love as God loves was borne out in South Africa in the late 1990s. We all remember the historic 1994 elections which brought a multiracial democracy to this African nation for the first time. The apartheid-era government which treated the majority population like second class citizens was finally over-dead and buried. However, there needed to be an accounting. Many crimes had been committed on both sides during the apartheid era and they needed to be brought into the light so that the nation could move forward. A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up that allowed those who committed human right abuses and those who were the victims of those crimes to tell their stories. For the perpetrators, there was a promise that amnesty might be considered. It was chilling to hear how the perpetrators did their works of darkness and sad to hear the victims’ sad stories. There were some relatives of those who had died under the apartheid regime who didn’t think it was right that some people should walk free for their crimes. That is understandable. I would gather that it had to be hard to sit through and hear some of these crimes. But there was a larger reason as to why this was being done. South Africa was basically a new nation after the ‘94 elections, and for this new government to survive, there had to be a dealing with the past and some chance to allow for reconciliation. The commission steered a middle path between those who wanted retribution and those who wanted to forgive and forget. A quote sums up the commission nicely, “it is necessary to both remember and judge and forgive.”

The people behind the Commission were not interested in nice, feelings. How can you ask a mother who lost her son in the middle of the night to have loving feelings for the thugs who tortured him and the killed him? They were interested in a truthful telling, responsibility and finally forgiveness. They treated all with respect, from the victims to the perpetrators. You might disagree, but I think this is what Jesus was talking about in loving our neighbors. It means remembering the victim of a crime and hearing their pain. It means forgiving (not excusing) the perpetrator of his crime. Justice is ultimately about setting things right, not about exacting vengeance.

Love God. Love neighbor. It is not an easy thing God call us to do. But that is what God is calling us to do; not by our feelings, but by our actions. Let us go out and love God as God loves us. Let us go and love our neighbors even the ones who hate us. And let us do through the grace of God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Loving All Our Neighbors

Matthew 22:34-46

Whenever I write a sermon, I spend a good part of the week thinking about the text. This week's gospel seems like a slam dunk. I mean, the sermon could supposedly write itself: love God. Love others. Let's have communion and go home.

But as I thought about the text yesterday while sitting on the dental chair getting work done, I really thought that this is a hard text. In fact, it could be downright impossible.

We pastors don't really present it that way. We love to use this passage to show the folks on the religious right that this is what religion or faith is all about. There is a certain amount of smugness as we show off this text and pat ourselves on the back. We tend to think that while they are busy trying to expel gay people from churches, we are who don't follow their exclusive ways are the good and faithful ones, fulfilling the call to love God and love others.

But it isn't that easy. Life isn't that easy. We live in a world where there is sin and evil and that can make it hard to love our neighbor, especially if he is a power mad dictator.

This week the trial of former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein began. What was interesting was the reaction of those who suffered under his harsh rule. Many were calling for his head-literally.

The whole thing left me with mixed feelings. I was bothered by the calls for death, but then I also know that if I were in their place and had either been tortured by Saddams thugs or had one my relatives killed in his prisons, I might be demanding vengance as well.

Then I thought about other acts of human rights abuses. I thought about those who suffered during the aparthied era in South Africa. I thought about how those who know the three civil rights workers who were murdered in Mississippi so long ago felt about Edgar Ray Killen, the man who was convicted for the crime. You didn't hear much love or forgiveness coming from the victims.

The truth is, it is hard to love our neighbors when they mean us harm. It's easy to talk about loving others when its in the abstract, but when they are flesh and blood and might mean to hurt you or your loved ones, it becomes a lot harder.

Pastor Dan , a Lutheran pastor in Alaska notes that loving others isn't about feeling as much as it is about action. He notes:

In the Christian sense, love is not primarily an emotion, but an act of the will. When Jesus tells us to love our neighbors, he is not telling us to love them in the sense of responding to them with a cozy emotional feeling. You can as easily produce a cozy emotional feeling on demand as you can a yawn or a sneeze. On the contrary, he is telling us to love our neighbors in the sense of being willing to work for their well-being even if it means sacrificing our own well-being to that end, even if it means sometimes just leaving them alone. Thus in Jesus’ terms, we can love our neighbors without necessarily liking hem. In fact liking them may stand in the way of loving them by making us overprotective sentimentalists instead of reasonable honest friends.

Loving others doesn't mean liking them but looking out for their well being. No one can expect to have warm, fuzzy feelings for someone who harmed a loved one. But as Christians we are to treat them with respect as a child of God.

I think back to the trial of Saddam. The judges involved seemed to have treated him with fairly, something he didn't do when he ruled the Iraq. Maybe that's a clue of what it means to love others.

There is still a lot more to mine from this sermon and well, I still have to write it. More to come....


Monday, October 10, 2005

Sunday Sermon

This was the sermon I gave at Community of Grace yesterday.

“The Welcome Mat”
Matthew 22:1-14
October 9, 2005
Community of Grace Christian Church
New Brighton, MN

Being that this is Minnesota, we have all at sometime been invited to a potluck. Now, I both love and hate these events. I love them because it’s fun to cook for others. But why I hate them weighs more heavily than why I love them. Let me tell you a story. Every year a Bible Study that I attend has a Thanksgiving meal. We all bring different parts of the meal and it’s always a good time. Well, five years ago, I decided to be creative and make bannana bread and my favorite, maccoroni and cheese. I spent a few hours making both items causing some problems with my back in the process. I took what I made to the potluck and....neither was hardly touched.

That, is why I hate potlucks. You spend time trying to make something people might like and it ends up not being eaten. After that time, I started not bringing such elaborate parts to this meal. One year I brought pop, last year cranberries, but I guess I still hold a bit of a grudge because I came home five years ago with a ton of bread and mac and cheese. I guess it still feels like a slap in the face.

Today’s sermon is about a king who feels somewhat like I did...or do. The king had prepared a banquet to celebrate the wedding of his son. You can imagine he had spent a lot of time planning things to make sure they were just right. We he finally sends his servants out to spread the good news and invite the guests, they refuse, in some cases violently. The king them asks his servants to bring in the poor and the lame and the servants do as they are told and invite them to the feast. Here is it was, people who had no business being in the king’s palace were no welcomed with open arms.....or so it seems.

The end of the parable is about one that had no wedding clothes on and was cast out into the darkness. It was a rather dark ending to what seems to be a wonderful story.

So what does this all mean? Well, first this is another one of Jesus’ parables about what the kingdom of God is like. Remember that parables are not moral tales, but instead of are insight into who God is and what God’s world is like. In this story, Jesus likens the kingdom to a king (in this case, God) who invites people who seem to know the king to a great banquet. Now, these people who were probably stand-ins for the religious leaders of Jesus’ day knew the king. They were personally invite to have dinner with the king. And yet, they refused. The king then asks his servants to bring in the poor and lame, the outcasts of that day. They come in, but one doesn’t have on wedding clothes.

Now a point of note is in order here. It was custom during Jesus’ time for guests to receive wedding clothes when they attended a wedding. The host would provide them with these clothes. So if you decided to not wear the clothes and keep wearing the clothes you wore on the street, you were not treating the host with must respect. This is why the guest was thrown out of the banquet.

This is a story about God. God invites all of us to commune with God. Some who know God refuse for whatever reason. They get busy with life and ignore the wonderous gift God has given us. Some react with hostility. Others who, are hungry for grace and for love come to God and are welcomed. Finally, there are some at the banquet who want to believe they made it there on their own with out God’s help. Of course, this is tantamount to coming to dinner party and eating food you prepared instead of the host’s meal.

So, where are we in this story? Have we become so busy with life that we have ignored God’s love? Are we trying to pretend we can get to God with no help from God? Or are we like the poor and lame who are starving for some attention and wanting to wear the clothes of grace God has given us?

This morning, I along with Eva, spoke at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Minnetonka. It was Solidarity Sunday, a day that they celebrate GLBT persons and welcome them to their congregation. What I remember from our time together is something my host, Jeffrey Hatcher said: that we need to get our welcome mat from the stoop and out into the streets.

As Christians, we have been shown the radical love of God in the person of Jesus Christ. That is what this parable reminds us. There is nothing, nothing we can do to get into God’s good graces, that has already been done. We are welcomed into the banquet, where we can wear good clothes and eat a sumptous meal.
Because we have been shown grace, we then should live a life of gratitude. And that is what was wrong with the guest who didn’t wear his wedding clothes. He was an ingrate. As ones who have been shown such grace, we should also be welcoming to the outcasts who are among us.

Community of Grace is over a year old and our central message is that we welcome all to the table to sup together. In a time when religious leaders are telling gays and lesbians that they aren’t welcomed in God’s church and bound for hell, we dare to present another message.

As Christians, we are called to go into the highways and byways to share the good news of Christ with those who are starving for it. GLBT folk are dying to be told that they belong and we need to let them know they are loved by God and welcomed to come to the banquet.

By the way, some people do like my cooking. This past year, I made a Southern Favorite, Hoppin’ John, that was gobbled up by my friends. How graceful.


Hello. I wanted to welcome you to my blog, Oscar the Pastor? First, a little about myself. My name is Dennis and I'm an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a mainline Protestant denomination. I'm the co-pastor of Community of Grace Christian Church outside of St. Paul, Minnesota. Politically, I'm a moderate Republican involved with many moderate and centrist Republican groups like Log Cabin Republicans (I happen to be the president of the state chapter.) I also run another blog called the Moderate Republican.

Theologically, I tend to lean more neo-orthodox. That is opposed to fundamentalism, just so you know. Some of my favorite theologians are people like Karl Barth and Reinhold Niebuhr.

So, why the name Oscar the Pastor? Well, because I tend to be a bit of a curmudgeon and who is the most famout curmudgeon than Oscar the Grouch?

Anyway, I hope this blog will give you something to think about. Happy reading!