Sunday, September 17, 2006

Sermon from September 17, 2006



David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation



Sermon Series Fall 2006


Name That Sermon!

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September 17, 2006 Sermon #2

A History of God





    When I was in graduate school, a most important theological work that fed perfectly into the growing emphasis on narrative in several aspects of study in the country’s universities as well as the divinity schools was published; it carried the title, God Has a Story Too (Fortress Press, 1979). Its author, Professor James Saunders, presented an overview chapter followed by several sermons to challenge the notion of a “static God.”



  • Some would say, of course, that God is, in fact, static–the same yesterday, today, and forever–and that the only changes have been the efforts of human beings to grasp the Reality called God. This is one understanding of so-called “progressive revelation.”
  • Another take on progressive revelation says that while God may indeed be static, it has not been human efforts to understand God that have helped mortals gain clearer perceptions of God, but rather God’s intentionally gradual self-revelation of Godself to humanity.
  • Still others would say that there never has been and never will be anything “static” about God. In this group are the proponents of process theology. Process theologians believe, among many core tenets, that God has always been changing because God is impacted by and affected by human responses to God. God does not change God’s essential purpose or God’s essence, but it is still incorrect to assume that God is unchangeable. It is a humbling thought, is it not, to imagine that the Life-force, Life-source some of us call God can be affected by our human behaviors? But it certainly seems to me that if God has a story–even a history–that the potential changeability of the Deity is highly probable. In what way that might occur, I couldn’t begin to describe any more than I could tell you what, precisely, about God our linguistic metaphors most correctly capture.


    The sermon topic for today, “A History of God,” technically and formally only takes us back as far as the beginning of monotheism since, before anyone ever used a singular noun or pronoun to refer to ONE deity as the ONLY ONE, there obviously were multiple deities in all known ancient cultures. I say this knowing full well that there are some Hindus, for example, who say that what seems to outsiders like multiple deities are and always have been ways of describing and understanding the many aspects of a singular deity; similarly, there are Indigenous Americans and scholars of Indigenous American spirituality who would say that what may have seemed like multiple deities to outsiders were in fact various expressions of the one Great Spirit. I certainly cannot speak for modern Hindus or American Indians, but in ancient times I believe that they, like all known ancient cultures prior to the ancient Hebrews, were polytheistic in outlook.

    Before Abram/Abraham–that historical or legendary or fictional character in Hebrew tradition who was the first human being to affirm monotheism–all cultures about which we know anything were polytheistic. Go to any ancient culture you want, and you will find veneration of the people to various god-objects whether they are items found in the natural world, invisible spirits of all sorts, or the souls of dearly departed loved ones that never die. And in plenty of those ancient cultures, you will also find human beings who make themselves or are made by their devotees to be gods-in-flesh worthy of the worship of their subjects.

    Not all cultures, much less individuals within those cultures, moved from polytheism in a monotheistically-direction. Some would become convinced that there were no deities at all; others would be perfectly content with their polytheism with no reason whatsoever to give it up. Others, and these were in the distinct minority early on, would move into the direction of believing in one God/god or Goddess/goddess alone.

    Among those cultures that did move from polytheism to monotheism in outlook–the Hebrews, again, being the first–the arrival in the realm of monotheism wasn’t either sudden or instantaneous. There was a long and persistent passage through a perspective known as HENOTHEISM. “Henotheism” refers to a belief in the supremacy of one god/goddess without the denial of the existence of other deities.

    This shift is evident in the Hebrew scripture collection as we have it passed on to us today. Even though the collection of books we have in the so-called “Old Testament” is not in chronological order–not at all!–Jewish and Christian scholars can give approximate dates to the various books and strands within various books (as many of them were compilations of the work of several writers) giving us a sense what came first in time. And such information will help us see in a very broad way what was going on in some Hebrew thought progressively. Polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism are all clearly represented in these books that are the foundational spiritual writings of the first monotheistic movement in human history. No, there isn’t a steady and consistent progress in thought, but there is an overall indication of an unmistakable, discernable change of theological position from polytheism to henotheism to monotheism. We can presume that generally other cultures who came to embrace monotheism moved through similar thought-processes.

    Plenty of scholars believe editors of the oral traditions that finally came to be written down made a conscious effort, in retrospect, to edit out references to polytheism, but they weren’t completely successful. For example, when Moses was atop Mt. Sinai getting the words from God that would later be called “the ten commandments,” the people waiting for him at the base of the Mount, even at that moment of presumed high spirituality, crafted an idol to a god other than the one Moses was talking to, and they worshiped that idol. It is also worth noting in this context that one of the many Hebrew description-words for God (I contend that the God of the Hebrews, Christians, and Muslims never gave anyone God’s name) was “Elohim.” Though translators have rendered it as a singular form, the truth is that it is a plural word in Hebrew.

    As far as henotheism is concerned, it’s all over the place. One of the most-impossible-to-overlook references is within the ten commandments themselves where the people are told by Moses that God insisted, “You will have no other gods besides me.” Now, God does NOT say that there are no other gods; that affirmation indeed will come, but it is not affirmable as of the time of the ten commandments.

    The clearest avowal of monotheism is in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone” (NRSV). It’s a beautiful affirmation, and many of us concur with it today; but what I want you to remember is: it took a long, long time for any human group to get to this point!







    Having made the gradual shift to monotheism–beginning in the Hebrew culture and moving out from there–the one God of early monotheism had a fascinating personality–depending, of course, on who said what about God. Not surprisingly, I suppose, the God of early monotheism had a conglomerate personality essentially made up of all the many personalities of the families and pantheons of gods and goddesses who had preceded the newly-recognized one and only God. Not making light, in any way, of those who suffer from the complicated and painful emotional/mental illnesses known as “dissociative disorders,” the God of early monotheism had multiple personality syndrome! You had no idea what to expect from this god: “Love you in the mornin’; hate you in the evenin’; kill you at super time!”

    This god created the planet, the cosmos even, and all human, animal, and plant life. Yet, this same god wanted people who desired to please the deity constantly to kill off a portion of what had been so lovingly created and given; this deity wanted sacrifice. This deity loved the smell of burning things, which is where the use of incense in worship came from: animal sacrifice, plant sacrifice, and there were whispers here there about human sacrifice.

    In the one of the remaining stories of blatant human sacrifice, the one God of ancient Israel asks Abraham–the founder of the faith, no less–to sacrifice the son from his primary wife for whom he’d waited so long that he almost died before the son, Isaac, was born. Then the same deity who created human life and called it good, the same deity who gave Sarah and Abraham a child together after a literal lifetime of waiting, the same deity who ordered Abraham to kill his beloved son, this same deity stopped Abraham’s arm in midair to prevent his knife from slitting Isaac’s throat.

    This tale, I think it is fair to say, confounded the Christian philosopher/theologian, Soren Kierkegaard, all of his life. There are no heroes in this tale–unless, perhaps, it is the young boy, Isaac, who evidently braces bravely and obediently for complete submission to his father’s will. The God of this story is no god we want to know or serve, and Patriarch Abraham is no person of faith whose blind devotion we should emulate. A parent today who kills off her or his child or children, saying that God commanded her or him to do it, belongs in some kind of custody–or out having and working with other children in the event of an insanity defense.

    We would have wished that because of progressive revelation Jesus, for Christians at the very least, would have clarified God’s true loving nature–even though we must recognize that plenty of writers and thinkers in Hebrew scripture knew about God’s love, and this is precisely where Jesus himself first learned of it. It’s actually a fact that the God of the Old Testament is both judgmental as well as loving, and the God of the New Testament is both loving as well as judgmental. However, it seems–maybe because there’s so much more of it–that, on balance, the God of the ancient Hebrews was much more angry and bloody than the God of the New Testament. In any case, it has often seemed–and to a significant number of people, including very smart people–that there is such a profound and tragic discrepancy between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament that a choice must be made about which one to honor, which one to affirm, which one to believe in.

    One of the most famous advocates for choosing one over the other–and it happens that he chose to affirm the God of PARTS of the New Testament–was a gent named Marcion. Marcion was a major second century Christian theologian who was compelled by reason and conscience to seek the “true gospel” of Jesus. Well, when he started whittling away at what he had to work with, he tossed the whole of what he knew as “Hebrew scripture,” and we have to point out that part of what motivated him, beyond his belief that God couldn’t have been nearly so angry and judgmental as the Deity portrayed there, was his anti-Semitism. He didn’t stop there! He also tossed all the Gospels except a “heavily edited version of” Luke, and he hung onto ten of Paul’s letters. That was it. We can’t be certain what he had available to him, since the Christian canon was set until the late 300's, but presumably he knew or knew about most of the documents that would later make the canonical cut.

    Not surprisingly, he was officially declared a heretic. A heretic can always be accused and convicted based on a majority vote of any group who wants to get together and vote on who is and who is not a heretic. There have been some great heretics in the history of the Church. Marcion was one of them. Arius was another. Brent Grant and TRU-DEE Burrell must be included in the list as well.

    As far as I know, no group has ever officially voted to declare me a heretic–as hard as I’ve worked to upset institutionally theological apple carts wherein theology is always determined by majority vote; that’s a really dumb way to either establish or clarify theology. I would be highly honored, however, if that affirmation could be awarded to me some day before I retire at the age of 80 or 85. This time-frame gives some person or group plenty of opportunity to get the plaque appropriately engraved!

    Some Southern Baptists once declared my dear mentor and friend, Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, to be a heretic. Glenn preached a wonderfully sermonic retort entitled, “Am I a Heretic?” Well, that all depends on who says so, right? A heretic might very well be the only person in a religious movement or an era brave enough to challenge prevailing views of God, which are out of step with reason and/or good sense.


  • Several of his fellow Jews, certainly not all, declared Jesus a heretic. Good heretic.
  • The Roman Catholic Church declared its own faithful priest, Martin Luther, a heretic because he dared to base his views of God on scripture rather than upon the voted-in theology of the Roman Catholic Church and all its Councils. Was Herr Doktor Luther a heretic? I would have to say yes. And I say this not because he wanted to appeal to scripture to shape his understanding of the one great God, but because despite what he knew about scripture as a professor of Bible at the University of Wittenberg, he followed Marcion in a hatred of the Jews. Bad heretic.


    If an acceptable view of God is to be determined by the majority vote of a group–any group at any time or place in history–where does that leave the God who evidently communes and perhaps communicates uniquely with sincere and serious seekers? And ultimately, because God is spirit and has chosen to remain hidden from humanity in any physical sense, ultimately we’re all left to speculation, at least to some degree. Even those who think the written and voted-in canon of Hebrew and Christian scripture has the last word on who God is, are in a bind since there are constant contradictions in how the key figures in ancient Israel and the key figures in the early Christian movement thought of God.

    You and I can be heretics if we want to be, and our lives will never officially be in danger (which is not to say that liberals, if that is what you are, have forever been unthreatened by fundamentalists in all monotheistic traditions!). Well, I guess I shouldn’t say “never.” Our freedom to think about God as we wish and act upon our views as we are so led isn’t a permanent guarantee. There are plenty of people in our country today who would have no qualms whatsoever with having theology fully legislated and using it to condemn heretics, those who didn’t believe things the way they legislated them, to imprisonment or death. Never sell short those who think that they know all about God there is to know and, in addition, have a special relationship with God making them privy to God’s absolute word and will!








    Now, let me be QUICK to point out that progressive, liberal theology hasn’t solved all the problems of God-thinking or God-talk. Even many of us don’t want to let God be the Mystery that God must, in the end, always be to human beings. There have been, and there are, two major responses to this reality of God as Mystery.

    One, in determination not to be satisfied with God as merely Mystery, we humans have so anthropomorphized God that our god is little more than one of us–maybe kicked up a notch. The anthropomorphized god has a voice, has hands, walks in Gardens, makes mountaintop appearances, and, while never allowing anyone to see the fullness of the divine image physically, does float by Moses once upon a time in such a way that Moses alone saw the divine “hindquarters,” as the ancient Hebrew story teller put it.

    That’s not the half of it! The bodily images of the deity ancients and moderns have constructed are relatively harmless, really. But the emotions we humans project onto our anthropomorphized god, in effect, destroy “god”–make God anything but God. The emotions we project onto our human-made god, if you’ve noticed, make the resulting god the worst that humanity can envision; every now and again our human-made god looks pretty good, but rarely for the welfare of anyone other than the person or group who feels benefitted at the moment.

    In eras and cultures of polytheism, henotheism, and monotheism–as if humans hadn’t made any progress at all in understanding God–god has been credited with hatred, rage, frustration, confusion, pettiness, jealousy, anxiety, vindictiveness, and an out and out sociopathic attitude about wiping out women, children, and men who don’t suit at the moment. The emotions that have been projected upon God make the god of our projections a terrorist, an unpredictable tyrant, and an entity to be feared in every way. This has made worship, prayer, and almost everything else we do–including our deeds supposedly on behalf of others–efforts at appeasement because we have a profound fear of the god we have collectively created over the centuries. And we should!

    That god is to be feared–just as were many of the gods and goddesses in the most ancient of times. An arbitrary god. A capricious God. I’m talking no progress whatsoever, my dear friends. I’m talking an end-result-god who is nothing more than a repository of the misunderstandings and bad theology from all of human history. And that’s not the worst. The worst is that people are still willing to kill others who don’t understand their god as they do and to die in defense of the god of their own misunderstanding.

    The alternative response to the frustrating reality of God as Mystery is to make a god who is so innocuous that, for all practical purposes, god doesn’t exist. A god who won’t show the divine self and keep our investments and our relationships healthy is of no consequence. Besides, we don’t have time for games so if this god wants us, let’s see a dramatic visitation of some sort!

    In God’s history, God has done a lot of moving around–at least in the thinking of those who thought they knew God best. It depends on which myth you wish to embrace, but the God of the Hebrews anyway started out in the skies or heavens, just above the clouds you can see and the firmament you can’t see. Then God began to have personal visits with people where they were–in a Garden or in the desert or on a mountain, on a boat or in a God-denigrating “foreign” country, in places of power for God’s people and in places of enslavement for God’s people. “Even if I make my bed in Sheol–the abode of all the dead,” said Job, “God is there with me.”

    The presence of God came to be associated with certain holy objects or places. The ark of the covenant, the holy of holies in the great Temple, and, honestly, any place anyone claimed to have had a personal visitation from God. Unlike lightening, God COULD visit the same place twice.

    That was way too limiting of God just as making the one God the private possession of one cult or community or country has been. At this moment in the history of understanding God–and remember that the history of God is separate from the history of understanding God–most people in the world today who affirm monotheism believe that the one God is either their private possession or, at the very least, that the one God likes them better than any others in the world.

    The god believed to be alive and at work in the world today is either doing the same old evil, destructive, capricious, warlike things as always, OR has become such an intensely private possession that this god has become the best buddy of anyone who will just give this god a little attention. “My buddy, my buddy, nobody quite so true.”

    Those of us who have tossed an ancient cosmology and as many anthropomorphisms of God as we can, those of us who understand that God is Mystery, we have not solved the problem of understanding God either. Even if we recognize that God is within us, we can’t make a mysterious inner force operative in every human who allows it to be all of God there is. If God is only our best thoughts and no more, if God is only what our individual minds can ponder and our individual hearts feel, then we have only created a new kind of idol. Of course, I like this kind of idol better than the old kind. This one is free; there are no costs for construction materials, and this God hates the smell of burning flesh and incense. But if I allow myself to imagine for one minute that the great God of Creation and Life can never be anything more than I can envision, feel, and/or articulate, then all I’ve done is buy into a neo-polytheism. You have your god, and I have mine.

    God is within us. I believe that. But I also have to believe that God is beyond us. Most of all, I believe that the Mystery we call God has never been and can never be the prisoner of human thoughts.

    The history of God doesn’t stop here. Not with this era in history. Not with the progressive Christian movement. Not EVEN with this sermon. The history of God goes on and on, into infinity, certainly transcending our finest thoughts as well as this present realm limited by what we call time. The greatest gift we can give to our generation and especially to those who come after us is the freedom and the challenge to continue to seeking the Mystery, the Reality that is God. Amen.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Sermon for September 10, 2006



David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation



Sermon Series Fall 2006


Name That Sermon!

The Congregation Gives the Pastor His Sermon Subjects


September 10, 2006 Sermon #1

The Complexities of Forgiveness





    Let me be clear about the kinds of forgiveness I feel that I am competent to discuss sermonicly–the kinds commented on in our Judeo-Christian scriptures. We will focus our attention today on forgiveness in response to careless and callous treatment of us by those to whom we relate in personal, professional, and political contexts; generally, we should be able to forgive those who hurt us in ways that don’t maim or incapacitate us physically and/or emotionally. We still have to make peace with those encounters that do, in fact, leave us permanently scarred, but I don’t think “forgiveness” is the right word or response.

    Let me give you an example. While I was a pastor in Baltimore, I was in DC one afternoon for a conference, and I met a young man from Richmond, Virginia, who was considering a call to ministry and in attendance at the same conference I was attending. Like many or most people entering the ministry these days, he was in his 30's and already in his first career–contemplating a change. We had been seated together at a dinner, and we connected well conversationally. We stayed in touch after the conference ended, and he visited my sons and me in Baltimore on a few occasions.

    As I got to know him, he began to share the dark story about events in his early years that had nearly crippled him emotionally for life. His father had sexually abused him from the time he was about four or five years old until he was an early teen and could physically force his father to stop the molestation. His mother knew what was going on but never uttered a word or, in any sense, came to his rescue.

    He had found a psychiatrist in Richmond who specialized in helping adult victims of incestuous child abuse. The psychiatrist got him into a residential treatment program on the west coast known to have tremendous success in helping people who had suffered this kind of unspeakable abuse find wholeness again. The requirements of the treatment program were extreme, but–obviously–necessary. His therapists and advisors in the program had required him to cut off all ties with his parents–presumably, for life. They told him his parents had not acted, by any means, like parents and that he shouldn’t and couldn’t treat them as such. They had kept him around for abuse, not for love. There was no advice or expectation from program leaders that he should forgive them and start afresh. By the time I knew this young man, he was several years into living his life as someone who had never had parents.    

    Now, you may or may not agree with this principle, but I’m using it to say that making peace with a horrible event like a rape or murder of a significant other is necessary for moving on healthily. Forgiving the perpetrator isn’t typically the proper healthy emotional response.

    This is not to say that the kinds of offenses we can and should forgive are piddley and inconsequential and that we should treat them like water down a duck’s back. I’m absolutely not saying that we should practice forgiveness only when it’s easy for us. Forgiving those who intentionally hurt us and our loved ones emotionally and practically can take every bit of energy and resolve we have. Yet, if we don’t find a way to forgive, then what we’re left to deal with eats us up. So, in addition to being a Jesus-like thing to do, forgiving prevents ongoing, unresolved anger and grudges from stealing life from us. If we can practice forgiveness, then the person who hurt us doesn’t have power over us to keep on making us angry or fearful or embarrassed or whatever it was we initially felt when we were hurt.

    In what has been termed “the Lord’s Prayer” and/or “the Model Prayer,” which was supposedly a demo-prayer Jesus prayed in the presence of some of his disciples who had asked him, “Sir, how do we pray?”, we hear–and many of us have prayed: “...forgive us our debts or trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

    As those of you who have the energy to try to keep up with my theology know, I have many problems with this prayer as it has been typically translated and used. One of my issues is precisely with how this segment of the prayer is understood by most people, it seems, who hear an English translation or who pray the prayer themselves. The usual take on what Jesus meant here is that God is refusing to forgive us UNTIL or UNLESS we forgive others; said another way, God holds our offenses against us unless or until we forgive all of those who have offended us in any kind of way.

    What I think Jesus meant here–or was it the early church who may have put these words in his mouth?–is not that God is as petty as to play such a silly game with struggling, conflicted human beings. Instead, it’s a very practical reminder that until we break down the inner barriers called grudges we have built, not only will we close ourselves off emotionally from a means to let go of the residual negativity, but also that same barrier blocks us from basking in God’s love; this is not because of anything that God does or withholds–no not at all! This happens because when we build those kinds of barriers, they block not just one thing, but several things. We simply aren’t made up emotionally in such a way that we can keep on hating another human being and, at the same time, feel the uninterrupted flow of God’s love.

    What I’m about to say would certainly be tossed as misguided or just flat wrong by some who would hear it, but I will say it anyway. Forgiving someone who has wronged us isn’t just a matter of doing something morally commendable or civilized; forgiving someone who has wronged us is something we do also because we love ourselves and know that proper emotional care requires us to let go of all the negative energy we possibly can. In other words, no one who cares about her or his own emotional health is willing to carry around the unresolved anger and frustration and resentment–or whatever it is we hold onto when we have been wronged. Therefore, it is legitimate to think in terms of forgiving that someone, at least in part, for our well-being.

    To further our pragmatism in this regard, take just a minute to reflect on how pointless it is NOT to forgive someone who said something hurtful to or about us, who offended us, who lied to us, who left us standing in the lurch, etc. etc. Why pointless? Well, they’re going right along with their lives–maybe just as they were all along. If we don’t forgive them, many times they won’t care. But if we don’t take the high road, we leave ourselves saddled with what bogs us down and prevents us from enjoying life the way we deserve to!







    The passage from Paul, from his letter to the Ephesians, that you heard read earlier in the service was written for a congregation of people who claimed to be followers of Jesus. Paul’s advice was not written to the secular society of his day, but exclusively and expressly for the Christian community at Ephesus and other nearby church groups who would read Paul’s letter in a pass-around manner after it had been read aloud at the church in Ephesus–probably, a worship service! Keep that in mind as I re-read for you the opening words and the closing words of the passage:


So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another. Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil....Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you (Eph 4:25-26,31-32 NRSV).


Paul had a way of dealing with multiple subjects at once–not always, but often. And one of the fascinating things about reading Paul for me is to notice what he’s stringing together in what often are collections of his pet peeves.

    In this case, I find it ironic, on the one hand, but all too painfully true on the other, that he starts off by reminding the fine Christians of Ephesus that they needed to stop lying to each other. Another thing that’s very important to remember when reading and interpreting Paul is that he wrote to real life situations, problems, and concerns. He would not have just pulled this out of the hat as a random point for discussion or consideration.

    What an intro to a column on religious advice! From there, Paul moves to the subject of anger, and he’s very pastorally insightful here, as he generally seems to have been. His suggestion is, “Be angry, but do not sin.” That is to say, it is possible to be angry–and, in fact, it’s very healthy to be angry without crossing the line. We have no idea what he thought “the line” was, but this much we can read and understand clearly–that Paul affirmed the notion that pious people can be healthily and ethically angry.

    The truth is, almost everyone is angry at some point, in some kind of way. The thing is that having realized and admitted we are angry, we’re supposed to handle our anger in an appropriate way. I’d say often that means being honest with the person who made us angry, but doing so in a way and perhaps at a time not to further complicate relational or practical tensions.

    Sometimes, I think it’s good to let someone know right on the spot that she or he has made us angry. At other times, it’s better to wait, calm down, think a bit, and then tell the truth in love. Anger and conflict management are absolutely necessary to healthy personal relationships–marriages, partnerships, friendships. The same is true in community too. In church (but don’t let this get out to the general public!!!), fine Christian folk get angry at other fine Christian folk just as spouses and partners get angry with each other and just as parents and their children get any with one another. That’s no surprise. That’s life. That’s being a human being.

    The question is, will we handle our anger healthily and responsibly in our homes and at church? All too many people will have to answer that question, “No.” Pride, pettiness, immaturity, lack of interpersonal skills–did I mention stubbornness?–keep us from handling productively something as natural as anger. And I have to be quick to say that not everyone with whom we are angry cares that we are angry or why we were angry and, thus, isn’t receptive to our admission of anger and our offer to forgive and clear the air and work things out.

    A fellow driver tried to run me off 141 the other morning. That made me very angry, and I tried as best I could under the circumstances, using the available means of communication, to let her know that I was angry. I yelled through closed glass and used all kinds of hand movements to let go of the anger she caused me, and, yet, I want you to know that she didn’t care that she made me angry; at least, that’s the conclusion I drew if I read her lips and her fingers correctly. I was appalled! I was trying to be angry without sinning, and she didn’t care!

    I was trying to be healthy and take Paul’s further advice–namely, not to let the sun go down on my anger. Of course, I’m kidding. You and I both know that there was nothing noble about my efforts to correct the young woman whose reckless driving style was more important to her than the safety of me and numerous other drivers trying to get to where our mornings were taking us. But I’m not kidding about this, and you know it’s absolutely true: unresolved anger can do all kinds of awful things to our insides and to our behavior patterns.

    Now, if you think I’m chasing rabbits here, blame Paul. He’s the one who has tried to tie all I’ve said so far in with forgiveness. Before he officially gets there, he throws in a little more ground work.

    Put away, he told the Ephesian Christians and their Christian neighbors, bitterness, wrath, anger...oops! Didn’t he JUST tell his readers to go ahead and be angry, but not to let it get out of hand? Yes, so this anger reference must be to the kind that got out of hand; the kind that began to eat up someone’s insides and have her or him acting out in destructive and crazy ways. Get rid of that nonsense, Paul insists!

    There’s more from Paul to that warm, Christian fellowship about what to put away that surprises us because none of us has ever been in a church situation in which people became angry with one another and behaved badly toward each other! Thank goodness, we’ve all been delivered from that. But the people at Ephesus didn’t have a record the way we do! Paul had to tell them to stop lying to each other and to get rid of wrangling, slander, and malice. Paul had to tell these people who had pledged to live like Jesus to be kind to each other. Should church folk need to be reminded to be nice to each other?

    Paul said we church folk should also be tender-hearted with each other. Remember that this Pauline advice isn’t about how Christians should act beyond the church–although we might hope the same principles apply! Let’s be tender-hearted with each other in the fellowship. Kind and caring.

    One of the scandals at Carson-Newman College during my years there, other than the streaking incident that landed us a spot a national morning news show, was a philosophy professor who wore a badge on his jacket that read: “Give a Damn!” Wow! On a campus that didn’t allow dancing since Southern Baptists knew any true Christian wouldn’t commit the sin of dancing, Dr. Patteson’s badge was something to be noticed and discussed.

    Paul was telling the congregations at Ephesus and nearby to care about each other, to give a damn. Is this something followers of Jesus should need to be reminded to do?

    Finally, he said, be forgiving of one another. Evidently, even people of faith in their faith communities have to be reminded to be forgiving of one another. The absence of forgiveness among people in a faith community can create so much negative energy that healthy and sane people will sense it when they visit and run as far away, as fast as they can. One of the major reasons some congregations don’t grow is because the infighting and absence of forgiveness are so strong and so evident there that emotionally stable people will have nothing to do with such a group.







    Pope John Paul II amazed me and inspired me when he went to Mehmet Ali Agca, the man who attempted to assassinate him, and forgave him for trying to take his life. That would not be an act I would encourage those who sought my pastoral counsel to forgive; I’d put it in the category of “be angry without crossing the line” and then move on.

    Another scene that stirs me is the one described by those nearest the cross of Jesus as he was dying, breath by breath, at the hands of Roman executioners. Someone or someones reported that Jesus, near the end of his earthly life, prayed this little prayer, saying, “God, forgive my executioners since they don’t understand what they’re doing.” I certainly don’t think Jesus was saying that violence and unjust punishment of innocent citizens of any nation were OK, but I’m guessing he recognized that the executioners were just doing a day’s work. They were only doing what they did every day with those sentenced to death in Roman courts. There were people who DID understand why Jesus was there and who were responsible for it; they were Romans by the way! But there was no need to hate the executioners. Even so, that’s magnanimous beyond my capacity to understand. I can describe to you how the story goes, but I can’t tell how Jesus could have maintained such an attitude as he suffered physically beyond words. That prayer might have been something added to a more bare bones account of Jesus’ crucifixion in order for a Gospel writer to portray for all to remember what kind of man Jesus had been.

    We now come, in any case, to some other famous words attributed to Jesus. These words come in response to a question Peter asks him.

    I was perplexed when I began to ponder this story and several translations of the story from Greek into English. The NRSV didn’t seem quite right to me. The Inclusive Version that I normally like a great deal didn’t seem quite right to me so decided to go the Greek text myself to see what was going on, and I’m glad I did! Several modern translations, and I have no idea why, didn’t pick up the true sense of what Peter asked Jesus.

    What Matthew tells his readers is that Peter comes/is coming up to Jesus (and Matthew is using present tense here giving the sense that something is in process) and asking Jesus this odd question. “Sir [a translation I prefer over the typically chosen “Lord”], how many times can my brother [or sister] sin against me and I forgive [her or] him? As many as seven times?”

    Peter is absolutely NOT asking a generic question here. The word “brother” that he has intentionally chosen (I added sister to my translation for inclusive language) meant just that. He was referring to his blood brother or to someone who was close to him in the Jesus movement. This is NOT a “some one” kind of word. Peter is asking Jesus how many times he has to forgive someone close to him, by blood or by community affiliation, who keeps on offending him.

    I don’t think the “seven times” framework was a random thing either. We do know that in some strands of Jewish thought, the number “seven” symbolized completeness. Perhaps, Peter thought if he managed to be forgiving seven times he would have tried to be as forgiving as any human being could have been.

    My take on the question is that Peter was asking a real-life question and a real-life concern he had. Someone close to him was offending him repeatedly. He wanted to be a good guy, and he wanted to please his mentor, Jesus, with how he behaved; but he knew himself well enough to know that he wasn’t going to keep on giving his brother all these opportunities to stop offending him!

    Jesus’ response is literally unforgettable. My translation of this brief segment from the Gospel of Matthew: “Jesus is saying to him, `I am telling you, “Not as many as seven times, but as many as seventy times seven!”’”

    Seventy times seven! In other words, stop counting! This is your brother; this is your sister. Sit down and work it out or strengthen and lengthen your patience, Peter, but stop counting up the wrongs of someone you’re supposed to love–your own flesh and blood or your brother or sister in our faith community. Peter was kind of thick-skulled, though, you know?

    Now, we don’t have the benefit of knowing what offense or offenses got Peter so stirred up. And Jesus certainly wasn’t telling Peter that he had to keep putting up with nonsense or taking abuse right on and on. Jesus himself let more than a few people know that how they were behaving was getting on his last nerve! Surely, Peter should have been free to do the same.

    Thus, I think we have to say that Jesus’ seventy-times seven directive here isn’t literal. It means, we shouldn’t keep count of the wrongs of those we love. Paul would say something similar to the contentious Corinthians when he wrote to them about the meaning of love.

    Another part of what I’m guessing Jesus had in mind was a challenge to Peter to try to work things out with his brother or sister. If the person kept intentionally trying to offend Peter, he certainly had the right to call foul and say, “This needs to stop.” But he did have the responsibility to do his very best to let the bad feelings go, to stop keeping track of all the ways someone he supposedly loved offended him, and to do all he could to restore that relationship to health.

    Not everyone will permit a relationship to heal. So you may try and be rebuffed. But we never have to give up, in any case, you know?

    One last thing about how hatred, resentment, grudges, and the like keep us from practicing forgiveness and, thus, stay self-blocked from the love of God. Sometimes, I’ve seen people hate themselves to such a degree that they can’t forgive themselves for something they did, in their recent or distant past, that they now regard as morally unacceptable. Not being able to forgive themselves makes it nearly impossible, or maybe out and out impossible, to even entertain the notion of forgiving others.

    This is really tragic. They can’t forgive themselves for what they regard as some moral offence, some ethical misjudgement, or a really bad choice. That is very painful! It can be tragic.

    Think about this. If the fundamentalist religious movements of the world–Christianity included, and maybe at the top of the list–continue to present to religious seekers a god who is hateful, reluctant to forgive those who stray from that god’s strict pathway for humans, and who ultimately forgives only a few humans who benefit from their own or someone else’s act of pure appeasement, then we’re a part of a vicious cycle demonstrating to the world–and more significantly to the communities right around us–the rarity of forgiveness rather than the abundance of God’s love for all human begins regardless of how or how often we may fail others and ourselves.

    As for God, God is ever and always the loving parent whose beloved child became a prodigal–insulted his parent and acted as if his father were dead to him. Far, far away from home and the parental, familial love he had taken for granted, he imaged that should he ever try to return, his father wouldn’t receive him, would say, “I was dead to you. Remember? You took your share of the family income and wasted every coin. You made your mat; now lie in it!”

    In desperation, when he had no choice at all but to return to his father’s home and ask for a minimum wage job as a servant, his father saw him coming home, saw him from afar, and his father ran to him, wouldn’t let him bow down, wouldn’t let him ask for forgiveness. In fact, his loving, forgiving father didn’t ask for explanations at all; he embraced his son, he welcomed him home, and he threw the party of a lifetime.

    May we let that kind of God, the God about whom Jesus taught us, shape how we live, love, and forgive. Amen.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Sermon from September 3, 2006


David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation


©Copyright September 2006, Silverside Church


    A Pastor Ponders Pertinent Progressive Perspectives

September 3, 2006





    The question often comes up about what our church “believes” when persons not currently a part of our group of members and friends want to know about us. Well, the first answer to that question is always that our membership believes lots of different things! Our appreciation of diversity is a trait that sets us apart from many other religious groups though.

    Today’s sermon is about what the pastor believes about certain key theological points. It is a kind of a theological ABC, to borrow part of one of Frederick Buechner’s book titles.


















Denominations and Dogma




Here, Hereafter, Heaven, and Hell


Jesus the Jew

Koinonia (κοινονια)


Mary Magdalene











Xenia (χενια)


Zoe (ζωη)


















A: Abraham is said to be the first person in the history of the world to suspect that there was a problem with a polytheistic perspective. Abraham may have been a fictitious character credited in folklore with monotheistic tendencies, or he may have been a real person living anywhere from 1300 to 2500 years before Jesus was born. In either case, he is the “founder”–as it were–of monotheism and, as such, is the birth-parent of Judaism and the grandparent of both Christianity and Islam.

    Abraham served the one God who was perfectly comfortable making heavy demands on humans and allowing miraculous events to happen. In Abraham’s case, God called him to head out in search of a certain land, but God wouldn’t tell him what it was until he was there. God showed him only one segment of his journey at a time. Tough! This same God made it possible for Abraham and his wife, Sarah, to have sex that led to pregnancy when he was about 100 and she was about 90 years of age.


B: It turns out that Abraham’s God loves beauty, and in the eyes of the one and only God there is, there is much more beauty in the world than most human beings take the time to see. God finds the whole spectrum of humanity beautiful–all colors and classes of people. God has brought an unspeakably beautiful world into existence. “For the beauty of the Earth, for the glory of the skies”–God’s handiwork.

    Partly in thankful response to the beauty with which God has gifted us and partly because we may take some cues from God, we create beauty. We create beautiful sanctuaries dedicated to honoring God. We create beautiful songs to be played and sung in celebration of God. We write words of beauty; we try to describe God and God’s wonders with them. And we create beautiful works of visual art–on canvas and in collage, out of stone and metals from our habitat. Shapes and colors from nature inspire our creations.


C: The Church at its best has been focused on celebrating and proclaiming God’s beautiful works and ways; it has had the opportunity to proclaim the potential beauty of all people. But it has often fallen short of this privileged task by its preoccupation with power and institutional self-preservation.

    Ironically, the Church was founded to further the mission of Jesus, but Jesus didn’t found it. “Church” is from a Koine Greek word, ekklesia (εκκλησια), a preposition (ek) meaning “out of” and a verb form (kaleo) meaning “called.” The Church was to have been “called out ones.” As the nation of Israel was a group of God’s “chosen people,” chosen to share the truths of God with the world, so the Church was envisioned as a group of people who came together, having been called out of the world, to honor God by caring for people in the same ways Jesus did–sharing in every possible, appropriate way and as widely as opportunities allow the truth about God’s love for all people to be told.



D: Sadly, the Church has often and typically fallen short of its calling and its ideal. It has become in practically all ages throughout its history a collection of competing factions–each one claiming to know what everyone is supposed to believe. These beliefs that are supposedly necessary affirmations for all people who want to know and serve God become “dogma,” and dogma has become one of several of the Church’s tools to use in whipping people into shape by its insistence that those who don’t believe in just this way dishonor God and disqualify themselves from any kind of meaningful relationship with God.

    Dogma has led to the development of so-called denominations–dogma-based entities of Christians, emphasizing some aspect of dogma in particular. Baptists, for example, came into being because of an emphasis on the importance of baptism–both in terms of the subject and the mode of the baptism. So-called “doctrinal purity” becomes their reason for being.


E: Monotheistic religions, with their foundations in Judaism, should always be very Earth-oriented religions–in terms of how we treat the beautiful Earth and in terms of the focus of living out our religious commitments. This is to say that we should care for our habitat–one of God’s many gifts to us, and we should be vitally interested in what happens on Earth.

    God has made very little about the future known to God’s people–even though many believe they know every detail about what the future holds, right down to how the Earth will come to its end and human history, naturally, right along with it. A focus on the next realm of existence for the human essence has led to a complete lack of regard for the beauty of this realm and the requisite care for it that is incumbent upon those of us who inhabit it and who have been appointed stewards of the Earth itself as well as the humans and animals who live on it. Every generation has the responsibility to try to leave the Earth healthier than they found it.


F: Faith is a wildly and widely misunderstood concept. Faith in God is supposed to be the basis of a right relationship with God; denominational groups have twisted it all around to have people believing in all sorts of things as parts or proofs of faith in God. But faith is the proper response to God alone.

    In the language of the Christian scriptures, “faith” as a noun translates the word, pistis (πιστις). The sense is “belief,” but it’s whole meaning is much more than that. It has to do with confidence in God Godself; it has nothing at all to do with believing what anyone has said or written about God, including what has been preserved in any of the traditions or scriptures in any religion. The verb form of this word comes into English to “to believe,” but that just doesn’t capture the meaning. “To faith” is an action term in the understanding of those who wrote the spiritually-based literature of the Jesus movement; it’s a matter of letting oneself go completely into the reality that is God.


G: “God” is a name some of the adherents of God-centered religions use for the Deity; others say that the word “God,” like all other designations for the only Deity there is, is at best a description of the loving life-source, life-source for all things living–human beings included. God is credited and/or blamed for all sorts of things; it is not possible for God to have done all that those who believe in a “god” claim God has done.

    Monotheists, going back to Abraham, have insisted that God is one, that there is but one God–not a multiplicity of gods and goddesses. Because God is spirit and not material in any way or in any expression, God is forever unseen, but each of us as human beings have been created by God, the life-source. We continue to live by the power of God, the life-force.


H: To speak of the so-called Holy Spirit has often been a way of trying to make God into a two-some, but God is one. The Spirit of God is simply a way of referring to the one and only God there is.

    God is eternal–not limited by time or space, not limited to human history and not limited spatially to the realm in which we now live. Just as an Earth-focus is important, so also is a present-tense focus for people created by God and living lives honoring of our Creator. Here and now is the place/time we have to be God’s people.

    Many persons of faith do not believe in any life for humans after life on Earth. Others do, and their impressions of what is to come for human beings vary tremendously. Those who believe in a next realm, a “hereafter,” can’t agree on where heaven or hell are and what goes on there for whom. I think a fiery, burning “hell” concept, a place of agony for people who don’t act “right” or believe “correctly,” violates all we know about God’s love. “Heaven,” on the other hand, is a way of referring to the next realm where the spirits of human beings may continue to live in the embrace of God who, again, is eternal.







I: Inspiration is an enlivening, exalting emotion; everyone feels it differently, and not all people are inspired by what lifts others. Generally persons who are God-centered have been inspired by some or several aspects of God as they understand God–for example, by God’s creative capabilities and/or by the reality that God is love. Followers of Jesus typically are inspired by Jesus’ devotion to God and to others, and their inspiration compels them to share God’s love with others, as Jesus did.

    Some people are inspired by nature; others by artistic expression; some by writings of those who have struggled to understand God. This is what scriptural and other devotional literature is all about. There are persons who are inspired by those who lead their lives in service to the sick, the outcast, the overlooked. Some of us are inspired by talk about where God fits into the picture of life; this is what preaching should be.


J: Jesus the Jew is a “J” word only in English; his parents named him Yeshua. He was an itinerant bivocational carpenter/preacher born about 6 BCE and who died about CE 27. He is the center of the Christian religion, but he did not set out to form a second branch of monotheism; he lived his whole life as a Jew, and had the Romans not put him to death on the nonsense charge of insurrection he would have lived out his days a Jew.

    Jesus was a human being like you and me. He was not any more divine than you or I. The thing that set him apart from the rest of us mortals was his complete devotion to God. He lost his life because he proclaimed the supremacy of God’s Empire of Love, which ultimately threatened the mighty Roman Empire under whose domination he lived his entire life.

    Jesus believed that ancient religious scripture and tradition had to be reinterpreted for each new day in order for the religion it reflected to live and matter. A few fellow Jews hated him for that.


K: We have to say, in fairness to Jesus, that Jesus wasn’t concerned with “church,” but he was concerned with
(κοινονια); this is the Greek word for “community.” It is not an English word, but its transliteration into English the English “K” is used to represent the Greek letter, “kappa.”

    Jesus created a community of women and men who cared deeply about the reality of God, as he did, and about serving the strugglers of the world–often the most hopeless of all, the religiously outcast and the socially excluded. Jesus taught that true community is not made up only of the “haves” but also of the “have nots”; not just the powerful, but also the powerless.

    True koinonia as a matter of fact isn’t self-serving in any sense. There is respect for all; the dignity of all people is affirmed both in terms of what we say to and about them and in regard to how we see that any needs they have are met to the best of our ability.


L: Love is the key in community. Love is the key to life. Love is God’s essence. Jesus recognized that and gave his life in sharing and living out that reality; this is why some people during his lifetime and afterwards, based on what they heard, said he was like God.

    The one English word, “love,” can mean so many different things. There are so many kinds of love.

    The developers of the common or Koine Greek language recognized this, and in their language there were a few words to describe kinds of love: phileo (φιλεω)
for sisterly/brotherly love (ever hear of Philadelphia?); eros (ερος) for erotic love; and agape for God’s kind of love. Human beings are capable of loving in a way that parallels how God loves; agape (αγαπη) is a selfless, truly unconditional love. It has nothing to do with whether or not we like a person; it means that whether we like her or him or not, we are willing to act for that person’s best interest.


M: Mary Magdalene was one of Jesus’ closest friends, confidants, followers; she was also one of his benefactors. Mary was not a prostitute though her enemies called her that to discredit her; she was a leader in the early Jesus movement.

    The closest male disciples to Jesus were called by the Gospel writers “the twelve.” The closest female disciples to Jesus were called “the women.” Peter and Judas were dominant in the male group. Mary was dominant in the female group. One of the early Gospels was based on stories about Mary with Jesus told about her and maybe by her.

    She did not run away from Jesus like all the male disciples did with the possible exception of one. She walked with him to his cross and stood as near him as the Roman executioners would allow. She buried his body, and in resurrection stories she was the first to see and announce that God had raised Jesus from his Roman-ordered death.


N: The first ecumenical (presumably worldwide) council of all the bishops of the Christian Church took place in Nicea in CE 325. It was called by Emperor Constantine, who also, more or less, presided over the debate, which centered in whether or not Jesus was divine and, if so, to what degree. A majority of bishops voting agreed with Alexander of Alexandria who said that God and Jesus were essentially of the same substance; Arius’ opposing position was voted down but still had sizeable number of supporters. I, of course, would have voted with Arius at that council.

    The council of Nicea became a reminder that in institutional Christianity theology can be legislated when there isn’t a clear separation of church and state. Even in our country where there’s supposed to be a clear separation of church and state, there are those in politics and religion who realize how powerful the two are together, and so they ignore the dangers of allowing individuals to think for themselves without state interference.

    A hierarchy within Christendom large enough to support an ecumenical council was a far cry from the reformed Judaism Jesus had in mind for his followers. Jesus wanted to make religion accessible so that through it God could be seen as more accessible.


O: Most of Jesus’ followers were quite ordinary people. Not many of the rich and powerful had any interest in Jesus or in his teachings. The core group that surrounded Jesus and who took up leadership of the group after his execution had, before they met Jesus, been made to feel like low-class outsiders. He healed them, encouraged them, assured them of God’s love and helped them claim their dignity.

    Jesus insisted that God loved ordinary people as much as God loved any of the rich and powerful of the world. Jesus directed his message to ordinary people, and the lasting images from his sermons and parables were devised to catch the attention and the imagination of ordinary women and men.


P: I have said that Jesus was not the founder of Christianity; that “honor” goes to Paul. Paul was the first great Christian missionary–ironically, after having been one of the most ardent opponents to the Jesus movement. He took the message of Jesus beyond the Jews and encouraged non-Jews to accept the truth about the one God, the God of love, of whom Jesus had taught and preached. When they accepted Paul’s challenge he grouped them into small communities–usually meeting for worship in someone’s home. Most all of these earliest churches were house churches.

    As the churches grew, Paul developed an internal and external hierarchy to support this growth and to continue the ministry of sharing. Paul’s written communication with the churches he and his colleagues founded became the bulk of Christian scripture. Modern readers of Paul tend to forget that what he wrote was usually tied to a specific problem he was trying to help solve in one locale.


Q: One of the reasons dogma should be out of line in the Christian religion and all other religions is that faith is more a journey than a destination. If there’s an official “arrival point,” it’s not in this realm.

    In this world, we should always be learning and growing, and–thus–changing for the better. Also, in any matters of seeking religious truth, since there are few if any tangibles, there should routinely be more questions than answers. Questions are not by any means signs of weak faith.

    Questions reveal that we are serious about our faith journeys. Questions show that we are honest about the absence of proofs and certainties. Questions lead to greater understanding and/or more questions! We shouldn’t be uncomfortable with them any more than we should be uneasy with the fact that others in- and outside our faith group express their faith understandings much differently than we do.


R: Rather than dogma, real religion as Jesus envisioned it was about relationships–a healthy connection to God and healthy connections to fellow faith travelers as well as with those who aren’t sure they have much or any faith at all. At the end of a day, or at the end of a life, having mastered religious rules, regulations, and rituals will not matter. What will matter to us and to those around us will be how much we have cared, how much we have embraced, how much we have reached out, how much we have loved. Have we treated those in our lives well?

    A meaningful association with God will never be established if one’s model is based on keeping rules and/or otherwise trying to earn God’s attention or approval. If we want to find God, we have to understand God’s nearness as Jesus did and be willing to relate to God relationally. For Jesus that meant thinking of God as his parent; that’s not an image that works for all of us, but it helps us see the basis for opening ourselves to the divine presence.



S: Spirituality is, first, a recognition that we humans have a spiritual dimension; that can mean a number of things, and one of those things is that there is more to us than what we or others can see of us. That dimension of us, the spiritual dimension, needs to be nourished and exercised just like the other dimensions of who we are. It will not grow and develop if we simply sit back passively hoping it’ll “kick in” on its own in some kind of way!

    There is no set formula for spiritual health or spiritual growth. Most of us are more likely to tend properly to our spiritual selves if we put ourselves with others who have the same goal. Naturally, in the end, whatever it is we decide to do in that department we must do ourselves. No one can have faith for us; no one other than ourselves individually can keep our connection to God healthy; but in a group of thoughtful people with the same basic goal our chances for a healthy spirituality are much greater.


T: The writer of the Fourth Gospel credits Jesus with having said something like, “The truth will make you free.” I believe that. People who tell lies, including religious ones, and people who live lies are not free people. Neither are people who believe lies, free people–though they may have been led to believe that they are. We Americans are officially some of the freest people in the world at this time, but we are constantly being lied to by politicians and preachers, by newspapers and news readers, and on and on the list goes. Some of these don’t know they’re lying; they’re only passing on what they’ve been told as true.    Others know it and love lying!

    This reality requires us to seek truth for ourselves. When it comes to what is true or not, it’s never “enough” simply to take someone else’s word for it. Failing to test potential truths for ourselves is gullible on our parts and ultimately, potentially dangerous.


U: Even the ancient Hebrew creation myths recognized that God created only one human family. All means to “classify” and “group” and “separate” humans into separate entities are human-made. If we look at our communities and our world and see various groups of people, some of which we value and others of which we de-value, then we absolutely do not share the perspective of the one Creator of the one human family. God created lovely variety, but saw us as a unified whole. Yet, has unity ever prevailed?    

    In our religious institutions, supposedly existing to honor God, there is anything but unity; yet, we more than any other human institutions should be modeling unity for a desperately fractured and torn human family. No religious movement does well. More often than not, as a matter of fact, we contribute to strife and separationism by not being able to master unity within our own ranks.


V: A local faith community and the worldwide family of God should be unified, but that doesn’t mean homogenized! In the larger group, of course, but even in our smaller groups of people supposedly living to honor God and care for all who need help we should appreciate variety in our ranks. Variety is not only the spice of life, but also the spice of human groups.

    In our faith groups and political groups and national groups today, it seems that variety is feared. There are increasing efforts to make (literally, make!) others look like the power group and believe what the leaders of the power group say is truth. Variety is eschewed and, in some cases, outlawed!

    Faith groups should flourish as a result of variety; remember scripture-writer Paul’s fascinating comparison of a faith group to a human body on which every part is vitally important and necessary for the full functioning of that body. If everyone in a church group thinks, acts, and looks alike, something is terribly wrong!


W: “Writ” is a word sometimes used with the word “holy” to refer to the sacred scriptures of a religious group. Writ for the Christian community has been the scriptures of the Jewish religion with the so-called “New Testament” writings added. The Christian Church decided through tradition which of numerous books and letters would be included and which ones would be tossed. The process of determining the “canon” or collection we have today was often haphazard and arbitrary. Undoubtedly, some writings that were left out should have been included, and some of the ones included should have been left out! Martin Luther, the unintentional founder of Protestantism, hated the book of James and openly recommended its removal!

    Generally not written to be read in a modern western literal manner, the teachings of scripture become silly if not dangerous when literalized. The same thing happens when they are read out of historic and literary context.


X: Xenia (χενια) is a Greek word meaning “hospitality.” In the pages of Hebrew and Christian scripture, and in the real-life cultures that produced them over thousands of years, hospitality was absolutely first on the list of social expectations. Extending a courteous, helping hand to a neighbor, a stranger, or even a foreigner was an expectation that almost no one would dare challenge, must less break.

    We don’t live in a society that permits us to open our doors to anyone unless we know her or him to be trustworthy and non-violent. Even so, the foundation is there, and Jesus himself lived it out. Caring about the comforts of our fellow human beings along with working to see that their basic needs are met is part of being a responsible member of any community. That, essentially, is what hospitality is about. Preparing a meal and serving a meal at Emmanuel Dining Room is an act of hospitality. So is getting a homeless person shelter.


Y: “Yes” is a wonderful word to include in our theological foundations and formulations because religion based in the God of love is always religion of possibilities; that leads to hope–legitimate hope, not wishful thinking! God is always saying, “Yes,” to life and gently luring us, individually and as a human community, to greater wholeness. God does not plan for us or force God’s ways upon us. The only way we can benefit from God’s loving ways is for us to say, “Yes,” in response to God’s own “Yes”!

    Having said this, we must be sure we understand that God is not a “Yes God” in the sense that God exists to give us all that we ask or demand. Unfortunately, prayer–which is communion with God–has been horribly misunderstood as a means for pleading with God or pressing God to gift us with whatever we ask of God, from renewed health for a loved one to the cessation of war to a set of successful botox injections.


Z: Zoe ( ζωη) is the Koine Greek word for “life.” It refers literally to life as in “life-force” (brain waves, heart beats, respiration, and all of that); it also refers to life in its spiritual sense–richness, fullness, all that the Creator God intended for humanity. A religion truly centered in God has to be a religion of life.

    This means that we value physical life–for ourselves and others. We cannot abide, we cannot tolerate violence that maims and murders. There is no room in God’s world for drunk and other dangerous driving, for example. There is no room in God’s world for war.

    Celebration of life also means an affirmation of the miracles of science. Science and scientists are not enemies of God or of God’s people. Science at it best leads to what is utterly life-enhancing and life-affirming. Science seeks truth about life in a very real sense. Our loving God is the God of life. Amen.